Harry Potter and the Deathly Candy: the truth behind dangerous candy
About a year ago I made a joke about razor-filled candy items. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made such a joke as it only helps spread the intensely prevalent, but ultimately false, notion that trick-or-treating on Halloween is dangerous–or rather the candy is.
Original — October 27, 2011
About a year ago I made a joke about razor-filled candy* items. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made such a joke as it only helps spread the intensely prevalent, but ultimately false, notion that trick-or-treating on Halloween is dangerous–or rather the candy is. I’m sure someone out there is still snatching your people up. But as far as the candy is concerned, let’s start with a quick fact:
Apart from one incident–actually an act of premeditated murder by a trick-or-treater’s father–there have been no recorded incidents of deliberately poisoned candy during Halloween or any similar occasion.
It’s true! While there have been many claims and reports made about toxic candy, there has been only a couple legitimate situations and neither involved the mass distribution of bad goodies. Despite that, I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t aware of the apparent danger of Halloween candy being tainted with poison, drugs, or nefarious hardware such as needles and razors. It’s a widespread myth/urban legend that started decades ago with a societal moral panic, and for some reason is still going strong some 40 years later.
“Moral panic?” you ask? Well, that’s when a population of people freak out about something–in many cases about misinformation and falsehoods that have no basis in reality. It’s the kind of thing that got many people burned at the stake or drowned for being witches in the 16th century. It’s what allowed interracial marriage to be illegal in this very state until 1967.
So, how did this killer candy myth get started? As with most bad data that gets disseminated about, it stems from people’s penchant for believing (and subsequent fear of) anything they hear from peers or a source of authority such as the media or a community leader. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that people are willing–and practically eager–to take in and digest bad news and false information that aligns with their already-skewed preconceptions.
Between the old lady who handed out inedible items to kids she deemed too old to be trick-or-treating, the aforementioned premeditated murder of a boy at the hands of his father and some cyanide-laced Pixy Stix, and the litany of fear-inducing newspaper articles and late-night news stories full of hearsay, the public at large didn’t have much of a chance not to be terrified.
Adding to our susceptibility is the fact that people are also unlikely to hear, take in, or remember information that contradicts their currently-held beliefs. If you’ve heard an innocent child got sick from tainted Halloween candy, you’re much more likely to take that to heart and fear for your own child’s safety than to notice the correction printed in the newspaper a week later altering their initial reports.
Such is the case of the five-year-old boy who died in 1970 of a heroin overdose a few days after Halloween. Some of the narcotic was found sprinkled on his stash of candy and, quite naturally, the media had something of a field day reporting on this very obvious case of Halloween terrorism. Ultimately, this incident was shown to be false, but the damage had already been done.
This case was widely reported as a real-life example of Halloween sadism. Not nearly so widely circulated were the results of the police investigation, which concluded the boy had accidentally got into his uncle’s heroin stash and poisoned himself, and that the family had sprinkled heroin on the kid’s candy after the fact to protect the uncle.
The Halloween candy scare is, then, something of a perfect storm of sociology. It plays right into our greatest fears of hurting or losing a child. These types of stories take advantage of our foibles and get spread like wildfire with the help of media that love to be the first to break the (often incorrect) news. It matters not that the information is wrong: we simultaneously love and hate these sorts of stories, and as such their legacy perpetuates.
*I’m surprised Peeps can still qualify as candy. It seems they’d be more useful as tools of punishment for unruly children given their knack for indestructibility.
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