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.