Trick-or-treating nightmares are urban legends

Tales of poisoned children reflect paranoia about safety and our anxiety about candy itself

Published October 29, 2013 10:59PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "Candy"

Sweet Treats

By the late 1940s, trick or treat was firmly established as an American custom. It was recognized and discussed in national publications like Jack and Jill (1947) and American Home (1947), and featured in Halloween radio broadcasts including "The Jack Benny Show" (1948) and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (1948). Halloween vandalism was on the decline, and in 1950 a reporter in Hartford, Connecticut, ventured that it was the “quietest of Halloweens.”

As Halloween was becoming less unruly, the emphasis in trick-or-treating was clearly shifting: fewer tricks, more treats. Kids ringing a stranger’s doorbell in the early days of trick or treat received all sorts of tribute: coins, nuts, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys were as likely as candy. In a scene in Frank Capra’s "Arsenic and Old Lace" (filmed in 1941, released in 1944), there’s a glimpse of a very early version of trick or treat. About twenty-four minutes into the film, the murderous but adorable aunties retire to the kitchen. Dashing Cary Grant follows, and we see some very strange action around the back door. A swarm of masked children are hollering and shouting and holding out their arms, and the aunties are passing them goodies: two big pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns and one pie.

Treats were mostly homespun in the 1940s, but by the 1950s food manufacturers and retailers were figuring out ways to cash in with commercial foods. Local retail stores were the first to emphasize Halloween uses for candy in their weekly newspaper advertising. Kresge’s Market in New London, Connecticut, ran an ad in 1951 featuring “Hallowe’en Candy for Parties and ‘Trick or Treat’ Callers.” Among the proposed “Trick or Treat Favors” were M&M’s (by the half-pound bag), small Baby Ruth and Butterfinger bars at two cents apiece, and assorted penny candies and gum. The sketch accompanying the ad depicts an elegant 1950s housewife holding a plate of dainties for a tiny clown and a cat. The ad reminds readers that handing out candy is a way to “be ready to make friends with your little neighbors” and is evidence of how tame trick or treat had become. The boisterous and mischievous gangsters have become three-foot-tall “callers,” and the candy is not so much extorted as offered freely in a gesture of hospitality and friendliness.

Only a few candy manufacturers were big enough to afford national advertising campaigns. In the October 26, 1953, issue of Life magazine, Fleer Dubble Bubble ran an ad encouraging mothers to “Treat the Kids this Halloween with Dubble Bubble.” The accompanying drawing features a trim brunette with a little black cat at her feet, handing gum to a pack of costumed kids. Mars, Inc. was also among the first manufacturers promoting candy for trick or treat. The October 25, 1954, issue of Life features an ad for Milky Way bars promoting the “Haunting Flavor” of its “three layer treat,” with an image of a ghost eating a Milky Way. Fleer Dubble Bubble ran an ad in the same issue with a masked trick-or-treater ringing a doorbell, a clever visual reference to the early “gangster” origins of trick or treat.

But candy advertised around Halloween might not even make a reference to the holiday. In the October 25, 1954, issue of Life, Brach’s ran an ad for chocolate peanuts that made no mention of the season or the holiday; likewise, an ad for the Mars bar in the October 29, 1956, issue. Other products also took up the trick-or-treat theme in their advertising, no matter how far-fetched. The October 25, 1954, issue of Life included a Kellogg’s ad for cereal Snack-Paks that reads, “Sweet treats for little kids!” and shows a woman handing a box of Frosted Flakes to the trick-or-treaters. In 1959, an October issue featured trick-or-treat-themed ads for Hawaiian Punch (“treats for thirsty tricksters”), Kool-Aid (“loot for the trick or treaters”), and my own favorite for weird Halloween tie-in, Dutch Masters Cigars (costumed kids hold a cigar box out to dad: “No trick . . . all treat”).

Anything could be a Halloween treat in theory, but it was during the 1950s that candy began to make decisive inroads in dominating Halloween. The rise of trick-or-treating made the holiday the perfect occasion for marketing a product associated with children and fun. The push from candy sellers was met with equally enthusiastic demand. Candy was easy to buy and easy to distribute, making it a convenient choice for Halloween hosts. And as the numbers of trick-or-treaters swelled, it was also economical. Small, inexpensive candies became popular, and major manufacturers began making smaller candy bars or treat-sized bags of candy corn and other small candies.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, candy jostled with other goods and treats for place in the trick-or-treat sack. It wasn’t until the 1970s that candy came to be seen as the only legitimate treat. The candy industry certainly reaped the benefits, and much of the credit for elbowing out all other possible goodies surely is due to the substantial marketing budgets of confectionery giants like Hershey and Mars. But along with the positive encouragement of advertising, there was a more malevolent and fearsome force at work, which drove terrified parents to reject the old-fashioned goodness of homemade cookies and popcorn balls, and rush to embrace the new era of factory-sealed and factory-made candy treats.

Halloween Killers

In 1959, California dentist Dr. William Shyne (another of those “grumpy citizens”) decided to treat the local children with a trick of his own. Shyne distributed over 450 candy-coated laxative tablets to the neighborhood children on Halloween; thirty ate the “candy” and became violently ill. Shyne was charged with “outrage of public decency” and “unlawful dispensing of drugs.” Fortunately, the children’s injuries were fleeting. Not so fleeting was the image of the “Halloween sadist” that emerged out of Shyne’s malicious act.

In the following years, stories began surfacing of children victimized by poisoned candy handed out as a Halloween treat. A few days before Halloween 1970, The New York Times published an article alerting readers to the alarming fact that incidents involving poisoning of treats had been growing rapidly over the past five years and specifying some of the potential dangers: “That plump red apple . . . may have a razor blade hidden inside . . . the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.” Newspapers and magazines began routinely warning parents to be on the lookout for deadly dangers lurking in the Halloween booty. In an effort to stem the apparent epidemic, cities passed laws criminalizing candy tampering, schools began training students in candy inspection, and some communities even tried to ban trick-or-treating. Parents started clamping down to shield their children from abusive strangers and questionable treats. By the early 1980s, it was widely accepted as a fact of life that at Halloween, random crazy strangers would attempt to poison little children with razor-blade-studded apples and tainted candy.

When the sociologist Joel Best decided in 1984 to try to quantify just how bad the poison Halloween candy threat actually was, he discovered something surprising: it was all rumor and fabulation. Best investigated seventy-six press accounts of what he called “Halloween sadism” published between 1958 and 1983. He concluded that “there was simply no basis for Newsweek’s claim that ‘several children have died.’” Not a single case that Best could discover fit the pattern of an anonymous maniac arbitrarily attacking children by tampering with Halloween treats.

There were two candy-related deaths that Best was able to verify. These cases were examples not of random stranger danger, however, but of calculated manipulation and cover-up. In 1970, five-year-old Kevin Toston went into a coma and died; the initial reports claimed he had eaten candy sticks sprinkled with heroin. Only later did it come out that Kevin had actually swallowed a capsule of the drug. A subsequent investigation led police to believe someone had doctored the candy after Kevin ate the heroin, possibly to deflect suspicion.

The other Halloween death by poisoning was worse: premeditated murder. Eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan died in 1974 after eating a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix. Investigators discovered that none of the houses Timothy visited for trick-or-treating that year had handed out Pixy Stix candy. According to the prosecution, it was his father who had put the toxic treat in Timothy’s sack, on the expectation of a generous life insurance settlement on his son. Ronald O’Bryan was convicted in 1975 and executed in 1984.

And what of the rest of it, the broken wrappers and needles in candy bars and rat-poison-coated jelly beans? Joel Best concluded that “the vast majority were fabrications.” Where an actual morsel of dangerous candy was produced, it invariably turned out that the kids themselves were the perpetrators. In an interview, Best explained that “kids—after years of hearing similar stories—[inserted] needles or razor blades into fruit, not realizing (or maybe realizing) how much they frightened their whole town.” He recounted how one kid brought a half-eaten candy bar to his parents complaining it was covered in ant poison; it was, but only on the end he hadn’t bitten. In another story, a boy claimed to have found a pin in his Tootsie Roll. His parents blamed a neighbor, and relations were frosty for years. Twenty years later, the boy (now grown) confessed that he had planted the pin himself.

In 1982, the NCA made a deliberate effort to defuse some of the negative publicity with a report on candy tampering. The report revealed that “more than 95 percent of the 270 potential Halloween 1982 candy adulterations analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration have shown no tampering, which has led one FDA official to characterize the period as one of ‘psychosomatic mass hysteria.’” Best’s own conclusion was that the candy-tampering stories were urban legends that, although superficially false, expressed real felt “fears about the safety of children, the danger of crime, and other sources of social strain.”

No doubt there is much truth in the idea that the legends of Halloween poisoning reflected broader social ills. The late 1960s and 1970s were a time of social upheaval and transformation. Long-simmering racial conflicts were erupting in the streets. Young people were clashing with cops in antiwar protests. Women were fleeing suburban housewifery and declaring sexual emancipation. Rapid change and visible social conflicts created anxiety and confusion about who could be trusted, who was a benevolent neighbor, and who was a dangerous stranger.

Fears of murderous Halloween maniacs also fit in with a broader sense that children were becoming especially weak and vulnerable to danger. Historians of childhood have documented a general shift in the postwar period toward securing, protecting, and controlling children. As Howard Chudacoff has noted, children’s play became increasingly confined and controlled after the 1950s as parents worked to keep their children safe from all manner of harm, both real and imaginary. The rapid transformation of trick or treat exemplifies this trend. After 1960, parents moved quickly to protect children from Halloween dangers, severely curtailing their after-dark movements, imposing supervision where children previously would have been left alone, and claiming the prerogative to examine and confiscate any “suspect” treats or candies. Through the 1970s and 1980s, no Halloween was complete without dire warnings of what might befall a child who enjoyed Halloween without the proper adult protection.

The Halloween sadist legends are not only about children and strangers, though. They’re also about candy. It is not accidental that the warnings about poisons hiding in innocent candies at Halloween in the 1970s and 1980s sound a lot like the warnings about poison and adulteration in the 1890s and 1900s. The persistence of poison candy stories in the era of the “pure food” reform movement reflected a larger context of rapid changes in the way food was being manufactured and sold. Industrial candy was the most visible form of a new kind of manufactured, artificial food that might or might not be safe. When children suffered harm, candy was an easy scapegoat.

Some of the Halloween candy–poisoning cases from the 1980s and 1990s seem to repeat point for point the NCA’s investigations from a century before. For example, in 1991 a thirty-one-year-old man died after sampling some of his kid’s candy loot. Neighborhood parents rushed to dump all their childrens’ candy. It turned out he had died of an ordinary heart attack. In another case, a three-year-old Connecticut boy arrived at the hospital suffering from cocaine poisoning. Halloween candy took the fall, although a subsequent analysis of the leftover candy revealed no traces of the drug. As in the earlier period, no matter the complexity of circumstances, candy was presumed guilty from the start.

Stories of tampered-with treats bolstered the value and desirability of name-brand packaged candies in the 1970s and afterward. Loose, casual, cheap wrappers, the kind of wrappers one might find on locally produced candies or non-brand-name candies, were frequently interpreted as evidence that the candy was somehow suspicious. The close, tight factory wrapper promised protection from tampering strangers. And the recognized brand name on the wrapper lent a reassuring aura of corporate responsibility and accountability. The homemade cookies and popcorn balls that were standard in the 1950s came to seem in later decades to be inherently inferior to the factory product, and also inherently dangerous.

The broader food context probably also played a part in the persistence and popularity of the Halloween sadist legends. By the 1970s, the rise of convenience foods and fast foods that had begun after the Second World War was having a dramatic impact on what, when, and how people were eating. More and more food came in convenient packages, just like candy. And more and more food was being designed and promoted to be enjoyed like candy, as fun and pleasurable. Just as poison candy stories in the 1900s had reflected an underlying worry about the wholesomeness of manufactured food, so the resurgence of poison candy stories in the 1970s coincided with a rising worry about just what it was that people—including children—were eating. Was it food? Or was it junk?

Excerpted from "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure" by Samira Kawash, published in October 2013 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by SamiraKawash. All rights reserved.

By Samira Kawash

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Candy Crime Halloween Poison Sociology