Is Halloween Candy Tampering a Myth?

Has a Child Ever Been Injured or Killed from Tainted Halloween Candy?

John Block / Getty Images

Is the fear of Halloween candy tampering based on a myth?

By and large, yes, according to the best available research. Despite a very few well-publicized cases of alleged tampering during the past few decades — nearly all of which were discovered on further investigation to be unfounded or unverifiable — no child has ever been seriously injured or killed as a result of ingesting adulterated candy, apples or other treats collected door-to-door on Halloween.

What investigators found

In one of those cases, it turned out that a child who died after supposedly eating Halloween candy laced with heroin had actually happened upon a stash of the drug in his uncle's home.

In other cases, children who were initially thought to have died as a result of poisoned Halloween candy were found by pathologists to have succumbed to natural causes.

In one of the very few incidents in which Halloween treats were actually implicated in the death of a child, investigators discovered that the fatal sweets had been poisoned by the child's own father, who had recently taken out a life insurance policy on his son.

"Tainted Halloween candy is a contemporary legend, spread by word of mouth, with little to support it," Best concluded. Like most contemporary ("urban") legends, this one has more to reveal about our collective psyche than it does about real-world events. "Contemporary legends are ways we express anxiety," Best explains.

This legend shows just how anxious we can be.

How a myth changed Halloween

What sociologists term "the myth of the Halloween sadist" became so firmly entrenched in the American psyche from the 1970s on, in fact, that aspects of the holiday underwent a fundamental change. Most crucially, it became every mother and father's urgent priority to protect young trick-or-treaters from the malicious acts of strangers.

Parents were warned by law enforcement officials to thoroughly inspect Halloween treats for tampering before allowing children to consume them. Hospitals began offering the free use of x-ray facilities to detect foreign objects such as razor blades, pins, and needles. And though the moral panic that gave rise to these measures showed signs of subsiding by the 1990s, parental accompaniment and supervision had become a widely adopted and apparently permanent addition to the trick-or-treat ritual.

None of which is to say that parents needn't watch out for their children's safety on Halloween — they should — or that monitoring Halloween treats is never warranted — it is. The point to be gleaned is that these dangers were considerably overblown when they first came to light and created an atmosphere of fear and paranoia which, for a time, tainted everyone's enjoyment of the holiday. More recently we've seen a slight easing of this regime and a welcome change of emphasis in the direction of reasonable concern and due caution.

Dose of reality

To put all this in perspective, there's a much more pressing threat to children's safety on Halloween, and that's automobile accidents. Millions of children go trick-or-treating on October 31, and research shows they're four times more likely to be struck by a car on that date than any other day of the year, a statistic worth bearing in mind.

Further Reading
Halloween Sadism: The Evidence (2013) by Joel Best
Halloween Treats Unlikely to Harbor Tricks - UDaily.com (Univ. of Delaware)
Adulterated Halloween Candy: "Razor Blades in the Apples" Hoax - Religious Tolerance
Halloween Hand-Wringing - Salon.com