Halloween and the Irrational Fear of Stranger Danger

From the Wall Street Journal:

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection.


Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either—kids could trip! Fall! Die!

Treating parents like idiots who couldn’t possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.

Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they’re willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child’s vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, “dangerous.”

I remember one year when I filled a few Pixie Stix with garlic powder. But that was a long time ago.

EDITED TO ADD (11/2): Interesting essay:

The precise methods of the imaginary Halloween sadist are especially interesting. Apples and home goods occasionally appear in the stories, but the most common culprit is regular candy. This crazed person would purchase candy, open the wrapper, and DO SOMETHING to it, something that would be designed to hurt the unsuspecting child. But also something that would be sufficiently obvious and clumsy that the vigilant parent could spot it (hence the primacy of candy inspection).

The idea that someone, even a greedy child, might consume candies hiding razor blades and needles without noticing seems to strain credulity. And how, exactly, a person might go about coating a jelly bean with arsenic or lacing a molasses chew with Drano has never been clear to me. Yet it is an undisputed fact of Halloween hygiene: Unwrapped candy is the number-one suspect. If Halloween candy is missing a wrapper, or if the wrapper seems loose or flimsy, the candy goes straight into the trash.

Here is where I think we can discover some deeper meanings in the myth of the Halloween sadist. It’s all about the wrappers.

Wrappers are like candy condoms: Safe candy is candy that is covered and sealed. And not just any wrapper will do. Loose, casual, cheap wrappers, the kind of wrappers one might find on locally produced candies or non-brand-name candies, are also liable to send candy to Halloween purgatory. The close, tight factory wrapper says “sealed for your protection.” And the recognized brand name on the wrapper also lends a reassuring aura of corporate responsibility and accountability. It’s a basic axiom of consumer faith: The bigger the brand, the safer the candy.

Ironic, since we know that the most serious food dangers are those that originate from just the kind of large-scale industrial food processing environments that also bring us name-brand, mass-market candies. Salmonella, E. coli, and their bacterial buddies lurking in bagged salads and pre-formed hamburger patties are real food dangers; home-made cookies laced with ground glass are not.

EDITED TO ADD (11/11): Wondermark comments.

Posted on October 31, 2010 at 10:02 AM70 Comments


noble_serf October 31, 2010 10:17 AM

I figure nothing is more American than having to buy candy, buy costumes, buy decorations and freak out over mostly non-existent threats while collecting concentrated sugar and fat to gorge on! Oh and around here, parents drive around with their kids rather than walk. Even better.

Rob October 31, 2010 10:52 AM

The new one for me this year is “Trunk or Treat”, where everyone (at a church in this story…) gathers their cars in the parking lot, and the kids don’t even have to get out on the dangerous streets at all, in a car or otherwise. They just go from car to car.

So now they can’t even get as much exercise as walking from house to house (or the car to the house), while they load up on the concentrated sugar and fat.

Tristram Brelstaff October 31, 2010 11:15 AM

Only vaguely relevant, but still:

The Gorbals Vampire

Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis is an eerie place at the best of times but when two local policemen answered a call there in September 1954 they encountered a bizarre sight. Hundreds of local children, ranging in ages from 4 to 14, were crammed inside, roaming between the crypts. They were armed with sharpened sticks, knives stolen from home and stakes. They said they were hunting down “A Vampire with Iron Teeth” that had kidnapped and eaten two local boys. The policemen dispersed the crowd, but they came back at sundown the next night and the next. The local press got hold of the story and it soon went national. There were no missing boys in Glasgow at that time, and press and politicians cast around for an explanation. They soon found one in the wave of American Horror comics with names like “Astounding Stories” and “Tales from the Crypt” which had recently flooded into the West of Scotland. Academics pointed out that none of the comics featured a vampire with iron teeth, though there was a monster with iron teeth in the bible (Daniel 7.7) and in a poem taught in local schools. Their voices were drowned out in a full-blown moral panic about the effect that terrifying comics were having on children. Soon the case of the “Gorbals Vampire” was international news. The British Press raged against the “terrifying, corrupt,” comics and after a heated debate in the House of Commons where the case of Gorbals Vampire was cited, Britain passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 which, for the first time, specifically banned the sale of magazines and comics portraying “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors. Writer Louise Welsh explores how the Gorbals Vampire helped bring the censorship of comic books onto the statute books.
( http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rmt00/The_Gorbals_Vampire/ )

Jimbo October 31, 2010 11:55 AM

I watched an old family video last night, taken 30 years ago. In it, you could see glaring differences in how children are treated. We kept commenting, “Your sister would never allow that with your nephew.” There’s so much fear permeating our actions nowadays that I doubt the next generation of Americans will have what it takes for entrepreneurship. To “strike out on your own” as they say requires analysis and risk-taking, both of which have been diminished by fear.

There ought to be a condition, drug, and TV commercial for that.

Mark Atwood October 31, 2010 12:00 PM

I call it “parents’ disease”. Entirely too many previously sane and rational people have ofspring, and then suddently they LOSE THEIR FREAKING MINDS. And have th gall to expect the rest of us to suffer for their insanity, “for the sake of the children”.

Clive Robinson October 31, 2010 12:37 PM

@ Bruce,

I’ve just woken from a much needed sleep (or I think I have 😉 to read this post about “Oh my God think of what might happen to our children”

And I’m thinking in my befuddled state why do people do it to themselves and I get to the bit that say’s,

“Oh yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.”

Then I get to the bottom and read,

“I remember one year when I filled a few Pixie Stix with garlic powder. But that was a long time ago”

And strangly the first thought that occurs to me is the old ‘And Sir is there anything else you would like to add to your confession?’

The thing that makes me think I’m awake and not just dreaming this all is the question in my mind,

‘What on God’s little green apple is a Pixie Stix?’

noble_serf October 31, 2010 1:07 PM

@Clive Robinson above

A pixie (pixy) stick is a hollow paper tube filled with sugar that is flavored and colored.

I think that it was once intended to be a drink mix but we just ate it.

If you want to know why the internet is both awesome and horrible at the same time, here’s a link on how to eat them http://www.ehow.com/how_2222581_eat-pixy-stick.html


chrisj October 31, 2010 2:04 PM

I bought Mrs Skenazy’s book for my girlfriend. It really is a good read. I’ve read about 1/4 of it, going to get my own copy.

BF Skinner October 31, 2010 2:17 PM

All the children testified that Miss Macbeth
wore a fishbone slide in her cobweb tresses
Her eyes were black like first foot coal,
clutched as white as chalk-dust
Her fingers sweated india-ink and
poison-pen letters
There is a hungry hanging tree,
just below your bedroom window
You can hear her take a broom to beat out a tattoo on the ceiling
Her bloodless face ran red inside but was she
really evil, was she only pantomime

Now the chalk on the wall says that somebody
saves, that somebody’s face has just been
washed off the pavement
Into a puzzle where petrol will be poisoned by rain
Miss Macbeth saw her reflection
As confetti bled it’s colours down the drain

Well we all should have known when the children paraded
They portrayed her in their fairytales, sprinkling Deadly Nightshade
And as they tormented her she rose to the bait
Even a scapegoat must have someone to hate

Miss Macbeth has a gollywog she chucks under
the chin and she whispers to it tenderly
Then sticks it on a pin
And It might be coincidence, but a boy down
the lane, that she said “went white as he could
do,” then doubled over in pain

We used to tell stories about people on the block putting needles and razors into apples and candy. We were careful to inspect the wrapping for tampering.

Stranger danger is at the least very old. It might be even older, down there with mamalian engrams and imprints, biological circuit set up during preconciousness about spiders and snakes or the god that dies so we may eat his flesh and live. It may make sense when living in small nomadic bands the only people you see are your family and enemies. In dessicated Klatch there is a tribe called the D’regs. Thier word for “stranger” is the same as their word for “target”. Dre’g isn’t their own name for themselves it’s what others called them. D’reg is the D’reg for ‘enemy’. So in a world where everyone (including other lineages and bands) are the enemy it makes sense to fear the stranger.

Hansel and Gretel found a house of sweets that contained an evil witch who wanted to eat them. Baba Yaga another cannibal witch that eats children is used by families to dispose of unwanted members.

Perhaps it’s the concept of innocence and it’s relation to evil. The innocent is dim. Babes in the woods. Dim people can’t take care of themselves and need strong guards, knights to act as their defender against evil. The righteous violent, the Jack Bauers. @Mark Atwood is right. I had someone explain that when his first child was born he had a revelation and fundamental change in his thinking and this was noble. That the love of a parent for their child was a biological imperetive and therefore morally good. From the way he described I said it sounded like biochemical brainwashing played by the body on the person.

This is likly the defender giving themselves a bigger roll then they deserve. Hansel and Gretal’s father put them in the shite by abadoning them in the woods and picked them upout of it again but only after it was over. It was they themselves that defeated the witch (lousy kids pushing old ladies into an oven I mean really what ill-mannered uncouth delinquents) and saved themselves from jeopardy. Were they no longer innocent? Never innocent?

Clive Robinson October 31, 2010 2:25 PM

@ Ben Hyde,

Thanks for the link, the brief story it conveys is a salutory leason on the real dangers to children of unconstrained candy munching.

However as if this day could not get any more surreal I took a look at that home page of the author,


And his photo immediatly reminded me of Josh Kirby’s drawings of a “young Rincewind” Terry Pratchet’s unfortunate anti-hero “wizzard”.

Clive Robinson October 31, 2010 2:40 PM

@ noble_surf,

The “Pixie Stix Punch” on the eHowto page sounds like instant type II diabetes and terminal toothrot combined in one easy to follow recipe.

A question however springs into my fatigue befuddled brain,

Does Pixie Stix poured into cola or other carbonated drink have the same fountain effect as mentos?

Aaron October 31, 2010 2:43 PM

“Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.”

Crap! They’re on to me.

Elaine October 31, 2010 3:23 PM

These days, parents are safety nazis! It is a disease. How did we live to be adults back in the day? Without car seats, in child-strangling cribs, without rides to everywhere, without 100% adult supervision, without, gasp, purell! And so on. I guess we were just lucky to have escaped all the lurking dangers without scars.

Laurie Mann October 31, 2010 4:16 PM

I live in a small town and parents wait with their kids at the bus stop. Silly.
And they’ll go out with their kids tonight, too. Especially on Halloween, you really didn’t want to be around your parents too much!

JJ October 31, 2010 5:15 PM

Just got back from errands… the majority of kids trick or treating were with their parents… in the afternoon!

In 25 years, kids will be raised at gunpoint.

Dr. T October 31, 2010 5:29 PM

@Mark Atwood

Not all of us suffer from parent’s disease. Some of us believe that kids cannot (and should not) grow up free of risks.

Ten years ago my seven-year-old daughter climbed a tall pine and fell 25 feet when a branch bent. She had numerous injuries and was comatose for six days (but eventually made a full recovery). When asked if we would ever let her climb a tree again, my wife and I both said “Yes.” She did climb trees again, though not the tall pines that resemble telephone poles with 1″-diameter branches!

Today’s parents suffer from the combination of nanny state government officials, sensationalist reporters, and childcare pseudo-experts who exaggerate dangers and espouse the false belief that no child should be at risk for anything bad (including too little self-esteem). Children now grow up frightened of everything, mollycoddled, and parentally-directed in every outside activity. They never play, bike, hike, or camp without continuous adult supervision. In states such as New York, leaving a child under age 13 home alone for any period of time is considered child endangerment. We’re a society of wusses.

Nick P October 31, 2010 5:41 PM

@ Bruce Schneier

“poisoned candy is not happening”

That’s actually blatantly wrong. Most of what’s heard are urban legends, but I see rigged candy in my area every few years. Last year, a store was giving out free apples to kids. Somebody sabotaged a portion of the apples by putting small nails in them in such a way where it just looked like a normal tiny hole in an apple. Customers returned at least a dozen of them.

I can’t remember if the kids got injured but I would say this easily disproves WSJ’s claim. This was just a small town of a few thousand. I wonder how many other cases went unreported in this country. I don’t think it’s a non-issue: I think it’s just underreported or there is too much noise from scaremongers. It’s definitely happening.

Thomas October 31, 2010 6:11 PM

@Nick P
“… putting small nails in them …”

Were the nails made of cyanide?

There’s no argument that this was a stupid and dangerous prank, but it wasn’t the ‘poisoned apple’ of alarmist news reports and other fairy tales.

PJ October 31, 2010 6:56 PM

@Dr T
“We’re a society of wusses”.

But we are the greatest Wuss’es in the World. Now to my time out for saying that.

Nick P October 31, 2010 7:28 PM

@ Thomas

Sure it’s not poisoned apples and I’m totally against the alarmist stuff the story talks about. However, these guys talk like nobody ever gets hurt period or strangers never cause significant harm to kids. While the alarmist need to temper their claims, the people on the other side of the spectrum shouldn’t act like nothing ever happens. It is reasonable to say that the consequences are rarely or never deadly, but there exists a low risk of serious harm.

mcb October 31, 2010 7:30 PM

@ Nick P

“I see rigged candy in my area every few years.”

I’ll see your urban legend and raise you a visit to Snopes. With the exception of the pixie stick murder I have yet to hear of a single Halloween candy tampering incident that was not later shown to be a hoax perpetrated by the alleged victim or their parents.

Well, my Halloween festivities are over. At last light I put out a bowl of self serve candy for the trick or treaters. It lasted a few minutes more than last year, but was eventually set upon by a gang of neighborhoodlums. Here’s hoping they enjoy their ill-gotten sugar high.

Dept. of Halloween-land Security October 31, 2010 8:54 PM

Intelligence indicates that Al Qaida is planning on using female terrorists to infiltrate covens and fly broomsticks into buildings.

Bob Smith October 31, 2010 9:15 PM

No parent would allow their kids to eat apples (or any fruit) handed out during Halloween. The irony is that candy is far more toxic than fresh fruit. Just think of the high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and artificial flavoring used in all that candy.

Lollardfish October 31, 2010 9:19 PM

There was a very odd man tonight when we went out with the kids. He gave us some toffee-candy in black and orange wrappers. I’m all for teaching my kids to talk to strangers, but I’m throwing that candy away.

Grande Mocha October 31, 2010 10:02 PM

@Laurie: “I live in a small town and parents wait with their kids at the bus stop. Silly.”

I’m glad you posted that! I DON’T wait with my kid at the bus stop, but I’ve noticed that most of the other parents do. I often wonder if they think I’m a bad parent because I let my kid walk 100 feet from the porch to the bus stop unescorted.

When I was a kid, I walked half a mile through the woods with my bother to get to my elementary school. I remember many lazy afternoons just playing in the woods with no adults in sight, and no one checking up on us. Today that would earn a parent a court visit.

An Irrational Parent October 31, 2010 11:28 PM

It’s all very cute to highlight “stranger danger” in the context of Halloween as an example of irrational parental fear, but I don’t think you’ll find many loving parents that can or would constrain their protective nature to levels that match the aggregate statistical threats to their children. So yes, we have irrational fears as parents, all year long. I was a teenager during the time Clifford Robert Olson was raping and murdering children and teenagers in our area. Did parents in our community take precautions beyond what the statistical threat warranted? You bet. Silly parents. Did such irrational behaviour save the life of a statistically insignificant child or two in our community? We don’t know. Should the parents of the murdered children console themselves with the statistical insignificance of their loss?

Now I am a parent and I recognize in myself the irrational fears for my children and I sometimes berate myself for being too protective. But I know I will never reduce my protectiveness to the rational level dictated by my childrens’ statistical significance on this planet. My children really are more important to me than anyone else’s and my unreasoning love for them means I will continue to struggle not with fearing irrationally but in finding an acceptable balance between level of irrational fear and a healthy and practical upbringing. That may reduce my childrens’ risks very little, but I’ll feel better and just maybe they’ll escape the next Clifford Robert Olson because of it.

elegie October 31, 2010 11:42 PM

One could ask the question, “How is trick-or-treating any different from accepting candy from strangers under different circumstances?” Could it be because the circumstances for accepting candy on Halloween are more traditional? Or is it acceptable for a kid to approach a stranger who is offering candy to the general public, as opposed to a stranger approaching someone and offering candy specifically to them?

According to Snopes.com, there have been instances of sharp items found in Halloween candy, though it is said that “these incidents are few and far between, and our fear of them is greatly out of proportion with the likelihood of them occurring.” (In particular, there was a number of reports of Halloween tampering in 1982 after the Tylenol poisonings.) For details, please see the following articles:

snopes.com: Poisoned Halloween Candy
snopes.com: Pins and Needles in Halloween Candy

(Note also that x-raying candy would probably not detect poisoning or chemical contamination.)

In Schneier’s writing “In Praise of Security Theater” ( http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/01/in_praise_of_se.html ), it is mentioned that the real benefit of tamper-evident medication packaging is the lowering of the perception of risk. Could the same apply, at least to a certain extent, to the act of parents examining Halloween candy that their kids have collected?

Another Halloween fear that may have increased is the idea of trick-or-treating in darkness. If one looks, one can find recommendations that involve trick-or-treating during daylight hours (no kidding):

(For that matter, there is the question of whether Halloween issues have influenced changes in the timing of Daylight Saving Time.
See http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/an-extra-hour-of-daylight-thank-the-candy-lobby/?hp for instance.)

A notable passage in the WSJ article is as follows:
“Why is it so safe? Because despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media, it is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community.”
Makes one think.

AC2 November 1, 2010 1:31 AM

As a semi-irrational parent of 2, I agree with the article but I’m bloody well not going to send out the kids at night on their own door-to-door…

Not because of the people behind the doors but because of people out on the streets/ roads, especially those behind the wheel of a car…

Jonathan Wilson November 1, 2010 2:33 AM

When I was a kid, most Saturday mornings I would go tearing out of the house, running up the street a little bit, through the car park of the location recreation center, over the local oval and through to the local deli, running at maximum speed probably shouting who knows what at the top of my lungs. I would then proceed to spend my $2 pocket money on racing cars, frogs, mint leaves, chocolate buttons and whatever other candy, half of which would be gone by the time I got home.

No way would this be allowed today (certainly not in the US) Any parent that let their kid go out on their own like that would be locked up for “child endangerment” or some other BS.

We need to “think of the children” and LET KIDS BE KIDS. Let kids ride their bike/scooter/skateboard/skates (as long as they wear a helmet that is).
Let kids play Soccer, Aussie Rules, British Bulldog, Tag, Hide and Seek. Marbles, Hopscotch etc (if the kids get hurt, just apply some band-aids and they will be fine)
Let kids play in the park or on the playground or go swimming.
Let kids (once they reach the appropriate age) work delivering papers from their bike or work in McDonalds/KFC/etc.

War At Home November 1, 2010 5:24 AM

I think the right question is: who gains from these particular myth-fears?
Someone did gain in the situation, and it certainly didn’t require a conspiracy.

As a child I did get both home made treats and store-bought candy.

Is it a stretch to imagine one candy salesman or marketer asking themselves “how could I gain market share over the competition for my manufactured candy?” I mean, it is their job to ask that question.

If you have been a salesman or marketer, or have known someone with that job, there is not a further stretch involved to imagine someone motivated by those goals letting drop to another parent at some school function that they heard a ‘report’ about ‘some psycho’ putting dangerous things in non-manufactured candy.

And if it was marketing, it was very good marketing, because the change appeared to be the result of the target market’s own choices and spreads without any advertising costs.

Hugh Jorgen November 1, 2010 9:17 AM

In general, the American public is no longer capable of making rational decisions. The majority of them believe in flying saucers, benign megacorporations, the judgement of politicians, pseudoscientific claptrap, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

If some idiot in a necktie came on the television and told them that driving over a cliff was the best way to get their children to school safely, large numbers of them would hop into their minivans and roar blissfully away.

I just wish I could be there to see the looks on the faces of future archaeologists when they unearth a traffic sign that reads “Bridge Out — Slow to 60”.

calandale November 1, 2010 9:33 AM

I’ve never understood the recent parental attitude toward safety of their children. Didn’t they grow up with some (mild) danger? Why are they overprotecting and dominating their children?

It’s not like you can’t just make more.

BF Skinner November 1, 2010 11:07 AM

@calandale “Why are they overprotecting and dominating their children?”

Because they are being informed with high impact, low probability anecdotal stories that are repeated often enough that brain makes a short cut judgement that yes the threat to my child is certain.

Who wouldn’t pull their child from in front of a stampeding herd of horses? Problem is these threats aren’t real in the same sense as gravity. They are stories, a media enhance fantasy, that mind makes real.

“It’s not like you can’t just make more.”
snarky but I’ll go you one better. I don’t like the ones I have now why would I want more?

Petréa Mitchell November 1, 2010 12:18 PM

For those who like movie-plot threats, check this out:


Clearly we need to be more vigilant about poisoned candy, because Al-Qaeda may start introducing vile substances into it to try to take down our troops!

(Actually, I’ve started wondering if the stories about poisoned candy are being pushed by people who think kids shouldn’t be eating evil tooth-destroying capitalist-produced sugar anyway.)

John November 1, 2010 12:36 PM

It’s Halloween for the parents, too. Who doesn’t want to sit back and entertain irrational fears on halloween? I for one enjoyed a good zombie flick.

Grande Mocha November 1, 2010 12:59 PM

@Those who keep asking Nick P. for a citation:

Not everything is on the internet, especially things that happened in small towns decades ago. Just because something isn’t cited doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because snopes.com can’t find a citation doesn’t prove the event in question never happened.

mcb November 1, 2010 1:13 PM

@ Grande Mocha

“Not everything is on the internet, especially things that happened in small towns decades ago.”

Absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence, but it’s usually pretty close.

Nick P said the incident occurred last year. Anyone with direct knowledge of such an incident ought to be able to provide the city and state, the investigating law enforcement agency, and the title of the local newspaper.

PaulJ November 1, 2010 1:50 PM

I think a significant force is the notion that doing something (no matter how ludicrous or useless) is better than doing nothing. It’s certainly worked for the politicians since 9/11….

How horrid you’d feel as a parent if you hadn’t exerted some control, provided some protection to your child, that one time the freak accident lead to serious injury or death. Surely you would be responsible based on your lack of action? As others have noted, it’s hard to hand your child over to ‘statistical significance’ or an likelihood-of-occurrence calculation.

My spouse, who HATES amusement park rides, insisted on riding everything at our Six Flags location. She provided able additional restraint for the kids (holding a hand after the overhead-padded-restraint-bar and seat-belt were in place), solely to alleviate HER fears of a full system failure. The action wasn’t done for the kids; it was for her peace of mind. Even though, at the end of the day, she felt ill and didn’t enjoy much of the visit.

RH November 1, 2010 2:03 PM

Bruce, I hate you with all of my heart, and all of my soul. guards his Pixie sticks with a passion!

Tangerine Blue November 1, 2010 2:34 PM

Just because something isn’t cited doesn’t mean it didn’t happen

True. And just because some story is told on some blog comment doesn’t mean that story is true.

So what’s a body to do with an unsupported claim that contradicts all available evidence?

Ross November 1, 2010 3:22 PM

Speaking of parents waiting with kids at the bus stop … in my neighborhood we’ll have about six cars parked at the stop. It’s a T intersection and 3-way stop, with a rounded curve at the top of the T for the bus to turn around. Of course there’s at least one car parked at each of the stop signs, blocking traffic, two more parked directly in the bus turnaround lane that’s clearly marked for no parking, and usually one car’s somewhere else, drifting around the intersection, moving just unpredictably enough that passing traffic can’t figure out who’s going where.

It would be immeasurably safer if it was just a bunch of kids standing off the side of the road, with no interfering cars and a clear line of sight.

I used to walk close to a mile to school every day. That included taking a pathway past a house with a terrifying overly large dog behind an overly small fence. It was scary, but I came out just fine.

JimFive November 1, 2010 3:44 PM

Re: Waiting at bus stops.
Where my sister lives, if your child is under a certain age it is required that someone wait at the stop with them. Yes, it’s stupid.

Re: Child endangerment.

While I highly doubt that a parent would get in trouble for allowing there kids to roam, it is a possibility that the parents have to consider.


Robert in San Diego November 1, 2010 5:34 PM

If you’re not going out trick-or-treating with your kids, you’re missing out on a great chance to spend some time with them. No teachable moments stuff, not “quality time,” just walking with them from house to house, listening to them discuss their loot, wonder over other children’s costumes, etc.

Oh, and younger children will be excited, so it’s prudent to have a more mature person on hand to remind them about looking ways before crossing the street. There were a couple of streets on my ride home last night where I had to dodge some short, costumed jaywalkers.

Davi Ottenheimer November 1, 2010 6:53 PM

This could have been a brilliant WSJ piece on the risk to children from high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors — the industrial stranger danger. Do you really know what goes into that chemical coctail in the shiny wrapper?

Instead it argues that candy is legit because there is no individual risk.

I know it’s called the Wall Street Journal but does it really have to sound like it is telling children not to fear consumption of industrialized products? Yawn

John G November 1, 2010 7:03 PM

I think parents of kids too young to be careful of traffic should be out with them – as Robert in SD said, it’s fun. More and more parents are going out in costume (maybe there’s an after-party somewhere!)

So far no one has attributed some of the ‘stranger danger’ mania to lawyers, but I think they (we) have a lot to answer for. Lots of ‘safety’ measures are imposed because the lawyers have advised their clients (schools, public authorities) that it is safer for them (forget the kids) to have done everything they can to keep the kids safe, whether it is statistically significant or not.

Acting on that kind of ultra-prudent legal advice, the City of Toronto took out all its school playground equipment a few years ago, slowly replacing the perfectly good stuff with ‘safe’ uninteresting and usually not very complete things that one could not fall from, installed on expensive bounce-off ground cover.

And Canada doesn’t have the absurdly abusive jury awards that must make US lawyers even more cautious. Get an American jury aroused to punish a public authority with a perceived deep pocket, and even the sky isn’t the limit. Why would not the public authorities be cautious in such circumstances?

But yes, it’s a damn shame.

An Irrational Parent November 1, 2010 8:55 PM

@mcb: When you grow up, mcb, you’ll hopefully come to realize that human history is not defined solely by what you can find on the Internet. You don’t want what Nick P asserts to be true, so you imply he is lying. Even if Nick is speaking from first hand knowledge, you would not believe him unless it is written on the sacred Internet tablets. I am only in my late 40’s and yet I have experienced many things of significance that I cannot find documented on the Internet and thus cannot “prove” for the likes of you. Oddly enough, some of these things could be found in police and government records and both they and sworn verbal testimony would be considered admissible evidence by a judge in a court of law. mcb, pray you never wind up in court depending solely on “evidence” that can be found on the Internet – your chances of winning your case would be very poor indeed.

I am not sure why it is so critically important to some folks to ensure that every possible instance of Halloween candy tampering is disproved. Making a case for today’s parents being excessively protective regarding their children enjoying Halloween does not rest on there being zero instances. That there are few enough is sufficient. I should also point out that it defies reason that such tampering has never happened even once. The criminal element in society has not, to my knowledge, universally treated any aspect of the human experience as sacred, so it defies belief that no tampering has ever occurred.

Harry Johnston November 1, 2010 10:42 PM

What puzzles me about the American tradition of Halloween is that nobody seems to worry about the ethics involved. Basically, trick or treating is the art of demanding money with menaces – well, OK, demanding candy with menaces, but the principle seems much the same.

Then again, from my perspective, trick or treating doesn’t seem half as dangerous as the custom of tipping, i.e., making it socially acceptable to expect to receive bribes for doing your job.

However, tipping is common throughout most of the world, not just North America. So I suspect my perspective doesn’t make a lot of sense to most folk. 🙂

(To provide some moderately irrelevant context, New Zealand has the second-lowest level of corruption in the world, and doesn’t traditionally have either tipping or trick or treating. That’s probably just a coincidence, but it makes me wonder.)

mcb November 1, 2010 11:07 PM

@ An Irrational Parent

I didn’t ask Nick P for evidence from the internet. I asked for “…the city and state, the investigating law enforcement agency, and the title of the local newspaper.” If Nick P read about this crime in his local paper, saw it on his local television news, or heard it on a local radio news broadcast then he can provide the details that would lead a person to documentation of the incident. If Nick P lacks that modest level of information then perhaps he heard about it from someone who knows a guy whose cousin was there, or he received a chain email earnestly detailing the incident. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might have made it up from whole cloth.

You “point out that it defies reason that such tampering has never happened even once” and that “it defies belief that no tampering has ever occurred.” Unlike you, I can imagine a world in which our neighbors are not trying to maim or murder our children by tampering with Halloween candy. One of the reasons I can imagine this is that I’ve yet to encounter a documented case of candy tampering that was not perpetrated by the victim or his parents.

BTW, I’m even older than you and have spent my entire adult life working in the physical security sector. Over the years I’ve collected and presented evidence for criminal prosecution, civil litigation, and employment actions. I’m even old enough to remember when urban legends – including the one about double-edged razor blades in Halloween apples – were spread person to person by word of mouth. And yes, I walked with my young children as they collected their Halloween candy, not because I imagined they might be poisoned by some deranged member of our assocuation or kidnapped to serve as the centerpiece of some satanic ritual, but because they asked me.

Jean-Marc Valin November 2, 2010 12:24 AM

“Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating”

Actually, this one is a good idea, though not for the reason mentioned in the article. A big meal means they’ll eat less candy, which is good for their health.

Nick P November 2, 2010 2:18 AM

@ mcb and Tangerine Blue

The store in question was Hickory Center Market, a BP on Highway 64 between Memphis and Oakland Tennessee. The person who told me was J. Hopper and her boss was Jim Ring. I’m not sure if he still owns the company, but he still lives in the county. The date may have been inaccurate by a year or two because Hopper was prone to misremembering timing but not entire incidents. A lack of police involvement wouldn’t be surprising because police in that county are incompetent. They might have called them and maybe not. There might be records and might not. I remember going to a bonfire party that got a police visit, but nothing but the time and location is on record. There was surprisingly no mention of underage drunks and lack of water hoses to put out potential bonfire disasters. Unsurprisingly. 😉

And as for the Snopes bet, elegie posted a Snopes leak proving people have put sharp objects in candy before. They weren’t nails, but I doubt those people are as sadistic as certain rednecks in that county. mcb, you shouldn’t have raised me a Snopes visit. Now you owe me a drink or something… 😛

Nick P November 2, 2010 2:28 AM

@ mcb

“It hadn’t occurred to me that he might have made it up from whole cloth.”

Reading the preceding paragraph, I take this at face value rather than as sarcasm. I appreciate you didn’t immediately accuse fraud or disinformation. If you get down to the strongest sources, it was the one source I mentioned who worked there, reported it, and is generally honest about most things. That person was a very popular and respected member of the community while there, in part due to good character, which is why I default to saying the claim was probably true. Maybe it wasn’t, but I doubt the person was lying.

Remember, though, that even though I’m claiming that attacks on kids via candy have happened I still say they are exceedingly rare and people shouldn’t freak out over the possibility. I’m just opposing the common view among skeptics that they “never” happen and are “always” urban legends. Even one case (see Snopes) proves otherwise. Then there’s the apple/nail case. I just hate seeing them say there’s “no risk” when the truth is “very low risk.” That’s disinformation because they know better. Just a pet peeve, I guess.

Jonathan Wilson November 2, 2010 3:58 AM

Another reason why having halloween candy inspected prior to eating it might be because of allergies.

Picture some kid going trick-or-treating, getting candy with nuts in it, eating some and then going into shock because of a (known or unknown) nut allergy.

elegie November 2, 2010 7:45 AM

Of course, when it comes to food items that are popular, there have been cases of tampering with fast food:

http://www.wgrz.com/ (search for “Burger King tampering”)

From what one remembers at Snopes.com, there have been no cases where poisoned Halloween candy was consumed by a recipient who received it at random from a stranger who had deliberate intent. At the same time, there have been cases of Halloween tampering involving sharp items (indeed, it was said that concerns about such things were around in the late 1960s), but such happenings are not frequent and fear of them may be overblown. (Tampering that involves sharp items is likely to cause alarm and fear for someone who encounters such adulterants, but it is far less likely to be dangerous than tampering that involves poison or drugs or chemicals. This issue was also mentioned on Snopes.com.)

When one thinks about the value of tamper-evident packaging (and Schneier has talked about this-see http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/01/in_praise_of_se.html ), one might image buying a plastic container of, say, vitamin tablets. If the seal under the cap was broken, one would almost instinctively return or discard the product. At the same time, how often does one turn such a container upside-down to see if it was tampered with in a less-evident manner, i.e. a small hole in the bottom? Probably not often, if at all.

BF Skinner November 2, 2010 9:39 AM

@Tangerine Blue “True. And just because some story is told on some blog comment doesn’t mean that story is true.
So what’s a body to do with an unsupported claim that contradicts all available evidence?”

Just because something never happened doesn’t mean it’s not true. 🙂
Why, without people saying stuff angrying up the blood you’d never get a good mob for a stoning.

I’d prefer a survey of hospitals and police reports.

Douglas Knight November 2, 2010 10:52 AM

While Snopes mentions dozens of cases of sharp objects in halloween candy, it only mentions one verified case of someone handing them out to trick-or-treaters. In all the other cases where it was determined what happens, the object was passed to a single known child or was a hoax by the “victim.” There may have been cases that were never figured out, though.

Rookie November 2, 2010 11:05 AM

Agreeing with @John G, Dr. T, JimFive, etc.

As someone who grew up in a rural setting with my share of bumps and bruises, and now as a parent to 3 younger children, I often argue with others against the likelihood of unlikely terrible events happening to my children, preferring them to grow up with a few risks so they can learn things themselves.

One problem we have in the US, however, is there are too many laws enforcing the hyper-concern. I have no problem taking the risk of the evil babynapper lurking while leaving my 5-year old in the car while I pay for gas for 2 mins. I will not take the much more likely risk, however, of having some over-vigilant busybody at the next pump phoning the police to report me and me running the risk of fines, child services questioning my ability to parent, and public embarrassment.

mcb November 2, 2010 12:09 PM

@ Nick P

“The store in question was Hickory Center Market, a BP on Highway 64 between Memphis and Oakland Tennessee. The person who told me was J. Hopper…”

Close enough for me. Thanks Nick P.

@ An Irrational Parent

There, now I’ve heard of a case of Halloween apple tampering that seems to have actually happened.

Of course I read about it on the internet…

Nick P November 2, 2010 4:13 PM

@ David Conrad

That’s it. They must have renovated since I’ve been out there: the pumps used to look like crap. Store looks the same. I remember that we stopped there because it was the only store in the area with a full service kitchen. They cooked all kinds of things. Staff were pretty cool, too. Owner was an asshole, though. Only bad thing…

Major Variola (ret) November 3, 2010 4:36 PM

My favorite was the recent (Prop 19 related?) concern about cannabis confections being given to kids.

Like I’m going to waste $20 on some random kid who’s just going to go to sleep early.

(Same, historically, with lsd blotter art misinterpreted as being intentionally attractive to children.)

Major Variola (ret) November 3, 2010 4:38 PM

I should mention that last year or so a disturbed young female was caught leaving razor blades and nails at the end of a slide, and in the sand, at childrens’ parks. Irvine, Ca.

Nothing to do with halloween. Psychos exist, deal with them, welcome to the city.

Cars kill more kids than disease, age 5-15.

Phillip November 5, 2010 3:30 PM

“Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing!”

I did see a adolescent girl while I was handing out candy this past weekend. My fiancee` pointed out her costume was the “naughty nurse” outfit you can buy at any adult “novelty” shop. I would think the risk of this tight outfit would be more likely sexual assault than suffocation.

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