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Halloween Scare Feeds False Fears

Ben Radford

October 25, 2005

While children follow the Halloween ritual of getting dressed up as scary creatures and trick-or-treating, each year parents, police, and medical centers across the country follow another ritual: X-raying candy to check for razors, needles, or other objects that might have been placed there by evil people to hurt or kill innocent children.

Yet year after year, few if any sinister foreign objects are found. This scary tale is essentially an urban legend. Despite e-mail warnings, rumors, and Ann Landers columns to the contrary, there have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years—and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. With the exceptions noted above, no child has been killed or seriously harmed by contaminated Halloween candy.

There are several problems with X-raying Halloween items to find harmful objects. For one thing, it would be obvious to even the most sugar-addled child or teen if a razor blade or pins were stuck in an apple or candy bar. Second, X-raying provides a false sense of security, since the process would reveal metal, and possibly glass, but would not detect poison. Third, and most obviously, it’s unnecessary: if in doubt, throw it out! Like any other food—including last week’s questionable leftovers lingering in the fridge—if you have even the slightest good reason to suspect that a piece of candy has been tampered with, it’s easiest to simply toss it. There’s no need to waste medical facility or police time making sure that a small free candy bar is safe to eat. Parents and children need to worry about flammable costumes and unsafe motorists on dark streets, not contaminated candy.

X-raying candy helps parents feel like they are protecting their children, but in fact parents are simply wasting resources and feeding children’s fears unnecessarily.

This is perhaps the saddest part about this myth: children are given the message that their neighbors might try to poison or hurt them. In fact, a child is in far more danger of being injured or killed by his or her own parents than by a stranger. Halloween should be scary fun, but there’s no need to make it scarier than it is with myths and misinformation.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.