Hail Satan Day Halloween is nearly upon us and Dan Lewis reminds us that the famed Halloween poisoned candy scare is a total media mythology.
What about poison, which, being invisible and generally hard to detect, is the more nefarious way to taint candy? You have little reason to be concerned there either. Landers stated, “many reports” of such terrible acts have occurred, however, they are almost entirely the stuff of myth.
For nearly 30 years, University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best has been investigating allegations of strangers poisoning kids’ Halloween candy. As of this writing, he hasn’t identified a single confirmed example of a stranger murdering a child in this fashion.
He found other examples of people accidentally passing out tainted candy or, in one case, passing out ant poison as a gag gift to teenagers (no one was hurt), but the bogeyman of terrible people making trick-or-treating unsafe is a canard. One example of a person trying, explicitly, to poison children via Halloween candy was confirmed. However, the child who died wasn’t a stranger—it was the man’s son.
On Halloween, 1974, an 8-year-old boy named Timothy O’Bryan died. His candy had, indeed, been poisoned. A few days prior, his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, took out a $40,000 life insurance policy on Timothy and Timothy’s sister, Elizabeth (then age 5), as an unimaginable way to get out of debt. The only way to collect required that at least one of his children die, so the elder O’Bryan laced some Pixy Stix with cyanide and cajoled his son into eating one before bed.
Pretty nice father there. In any case, while the overall point is fair enough, I do have to push back against the framing of Lewis’ article. He blames the scare on “the media.” But I’m not sure that citing Dear Abby and Ann Landers (Hell, that could just be some old family scare there) exactly equates “the media” here. Now I do remember lots of stories growing up about fears of this and local news reports on where to take your candy to get it scanned (my parents never bothered. And really, if I were their son, I probably wouldn’t have either). So the media scare did exist.
But the 1970s and 1980s were full of this kind of paranoia about the cities, bad people, kidnappings, and other horrible things. Don’t talk to strangers. Some of this is still with us, but in fact it is far safer for children today than 30 years ago. From bicycle helmets to Amber Alerts, we took our mostly misplaced paranoia and created a structure of real safety for our children.* But let’s also be clear, this was misplaced paranoia. When I was a kid, there was a famous case of a mother killing her children in my hometown. She blamed it on a shaggy haired stranger flagging her down and massacring her children (and shooting her in the arm). The police were inundated with calls from citizens saying they saw the same person trying to do the same thing to him. Of course he didn’t exist. The woman killed her kids and shot herself in the arm as an excuse.
What was with these fears? I figure it was probably a combination of backlash to civil rights and urban riots, the Manson murders and counterculture more broadly, the economic instability of the time leading to cultural fears, and other broader sociocultural factors that would lead parents to fear irrationally that their neighbors wanted to poison their children through Halloween candy. But while the media certainly fed these fears, it didn’t create them out of whole cloth. People aren’t passive receivers of narratives.
* Not that bicycle helmets aren’t a good thing