It’s as reliable a sign of Halloween as plastic skeletons, the dancing pumpkin man and pop-up costume stores: Someone, somewhere, alerts parents that bad people intend to harm trick-or-treaters with nefarious goodies. There’s always a boogeyman just down the block.
In recent years, with more states legalizing cannabis, the main supposed threat is THC-infused versions of popular candies like SweetTarts and Sour Patch Kids. Police departments love to sound the alarm about this, and local news stations thoughtlessly repeat their warnings for gullible viewers to share on Facebook, only to have the rest of the internet point out that 1) there are pot leaves all over the packaging, and 2) no one is giving away $40 worth of high-grade drugs to every kid who shows up at their door dressed like an astronaut from Among Us.
Before we were scared of evil stoners, various urban legends posited that your child’s innocent-looking chocolate bar may have been tampered with by the psychopath next door: needles, broken glass, razor blades, heroin and cyanide have all reportedly turned up in holiday candy. But the practice of “Halloween sadism,” as it’s called, is basically nonexistent, and our fear of it has no foundation in reality. As decades of research by Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has shown, stories of deaths attributed to foreign objects, drugs or poison in treats received from unknown adults all turn out to be false, and the medical literature is without an example of such an incident. Best sums up his findings with a hilariously apropos author photo:
While similar jokes have made the rounds on social media each October, it seems that in 2021, after months of mass anxiety over almost everything but tainted candy, we’ve reached our breaking point with this baseless trope. And they’re claiming discoveries far more absurd than an entire sociology professor lurking inside a Hershey’s bar. Because seeing is believing, one can simply place a dangerous item inside or near the sweet that allegedly concealed it, and voila, you’ve got evidence of a shocking crime that will fool your average cop or TV reporter.
If you don’t have the offending matter on hand, you can always do some light photo editing to stuff it in there. When broken in half, candy bars like Snickers, Three Musketeers and Milky Way offer a suitable rectangular window for dragging and dropping any image you find online. The more esoteric, the better. Remember, nothing is as scary as something you don’t understand.
Arguably, we in the U.S. are more cognizant of misinformation than ever before, and perhaps that has contributed to our exhaustion with the Halloween sadism narrative. It was one thing to buy this nonsense back in the 1980s, amid a Satanic panic and the “stranger danger” narrative, when the most depraved rumors of random malice could go unchecked. Today it’s beyond easy to find and read the debunkers like Joel Best — yet a few institutions keep pushing for vigilance that shades into ridiculous paranoia. Of course mom or dad is well-advised to check out what their children brought home from the neighborhood trawl. Taking it to be X-rayed at a hospital? Get a grip, you maniac. Since the myths persist, it appears that rational people have no choice but to drown them out with misleading memes too exaggerated to really believe.
Now can we finally chill out and enjoy the spooky season as it was intended? There’s plenty to be afraid of in this world — no sense terrorizing families with tales of thumb tacks hidden in Tootsie Rolls. Parents, have the dignity to admit the actual reason you sift through the kids’ haul on Halloween: You’re picking out choice candies for yourself. Nothing wrong with that! Own your blatant thievery. And if you’re going to throw out anything “suspicious,” a humble suggestion: