Sunday, October 28, 2007

Happy Halloween!

With Halloween just around the corner, I have been reading up on some urban legends associated with the holiday. If you don't already know, the best place to read up on urban legends is Snopes. There is even a section dedicated to Halloween stories. I though I would take a moment to recap some of my favorite myths.

Random Poisoning of Halloween Candy:

From as early as the mid-1950's there have been reports of evil strangers giving out arsenic, cyanide, heroine, cocaine, or marijuana-laced candy to unsuspecting children. Amazingly, there has not been a single documented case of a stranger intentionally poisoning hordes of trick-or-treaters. Sadly, there have been many cases of children poisoned by immediate family members or more distant relatives who then try to blame their crime on randomly poisoned candy. Here are a few of the most notable cases:
  • Houston, Texas 1974: Ronald Clark O'Bryan poisoned his 8 year old son with cyanide-laced Pixie Stix.
  • Detroit, Michigan 1970: A 5 year old boy died after getting into his uncle's heroine stash. The family sprinkled heroine on the candy and blamed random candy poisoning in order to protect the uncle.
Dr. Joel Best at the University of Delaware has been researching stories of Halloween candy poisonings for over twenty years and has been quoted in the UDaily stating that Halloween candy is

“Very safe—no child has ever died or been seriously injured by contaminated Halloween treats,” according to Joel Best, chairperson of sociology at the University of Delaware, who has made a study of the subject.

“Since 1983, I have followed stories about contaminated Halloween treats in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune going back to 1958, and every time a case has been reported, the cause of death or injury has turned out to be something other than Halloween candy.”

For example, Best cited one case where a child got into his uncle’s supply of heroin and another where a father took a life insurance policy out on his son, poisoned him and attempted to blame his death on Halloween candy. Other stories, like the pin in the candy bar or razor blade in the apple are hoaxes, many done by children themselves. The candy industry supported a study in the 1980s that showed the same results, he said.

Razorblades and needles in Halloween Candy

Unlike the cases of poisoned candy, there have been many documented cases of sharp object placed in candy. It turns out, however, that most of these cases are again, not random. Either children or parents are the perpetrators, and as a result, are the main source of fuel for this myth. Popular Culture professor Dr. Jack Santino, in his paper Halloween Sadism: The Evidence, went though decades of news reports and medical literature to determine that the risk of ingesting pins and needles is rare. He states
A recent medical overview argues that Halloween sadism is “quite rare and the risk may be exaggerated” (Weir 2000: 1046). I know of only two reports of foreign bodies having been ingested and the injury attributed to Halloween sadism; in one of these cases, a pin was swallowed nearly a week before Halloween; in the other, a 55-year-old man ingested a needle thought to have been in a carmel-covered apple. In other words, it seems unlikely that either incident was directly related to trick-or-treating (Conforti et al. 1987; Bajwa 2003). In a third case, an adolescent entered a hospital on Halloween suffering from abdominal pain. He attributed this to a commercially wrapped cupcake that he had purchased at a gas station; however, he later acknowledged that he had overdosed on prescription medication (White et al. 2002). In other words, the medical literature does not offer any reports of children poisoned by treats they received while trick-or-treating.
These two sets of legends are just scratching the surface of Halloween lore. There are stories from accidental hangings at hayrides (true) to stories of haunted houses so scary that no one has ever finished them (false), not to mention the thousands of local myths associated with cemeteries and old houses which seem to resurface every October.

One a funnier note, last year I stumbled across an article that looks at the physics behind ghosts, vampires, and zombies. The article can be found here and here. I highly recommend checking it out.

Have a terrifying Halloween!