The Meaning of Halloween-Candy Psychopath Stories

Arsenic-laced jelly beans and razor-studded caramels aren't real. Faith in processed, sanitary foods certainly is.

Editor's note: This is the third piece in a pre-Halloween series about candy. To read the first post, on the origins of trick-or-treating, click here. To read the second, about Candy Day (the original October candy holiday), click here.

The whole point of Halloween for kids these days is taking candy from strangers. Of course, that's just what we are never supposed to do. To protect children from the dangers of strangers' candies, parents everywhere are on high alert for the menace sometimes known as the "Halloween sadist." You know the one—that psychopath who uses the occasion of trick-or-treat as an opportunity to poison the neighborhood kiddies with strychnine-laced Pixie Stix and razor blade-studded caramels. Every piece of candy is guilty until proven innocent by thorough examination.

And how many children have been harmed by randomly poisoned trick-or-treat candy? Approximately zero. It turns out that the Halloween sadist is about 1 percent fact and 99 percent myth. One California dentist in 1959 did pass out candy-coated laxatives, and some kids got bad stomachaches. But instances over the past 40 years where children were allegedly harmed by tainted candy have invariably fallen apart under scrutiny. In some cases, there was evidence that someone (a family member) was attempting to harm a particular child under cover of Halloween. In other cases, poisoning which had another cause was misattributed to candy. Not surprisingly, the myth created its own reality: As the stories of Halloween tampering spread, some kids got the idea of faking tampering as a sort of prank. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the myth persists.

The precise methods of the imaginary Halloween sadist are especially interesting. Apples and home goods occasionally appear in the stories, but the most common culprit is regular candy. This crazed person would purchase candy, open the wrapper, and DO SOMETHING to it, something that would be designed to hurt the unsuspecting child. But also something that would be sufficiently obvious and clumsy that the vigilant parent could spot it (hence the primacy of candy inspection).

The idea that someone, even a greedy child, might consume candies hiding razor blades and needles without noticing seems to strain credulity. And how, exactly, a person might go about coating a jelly bean with arsenic or lacing a molasses chew with Drano has never been clear to me. Yet it is an undisputed fact of Halloween hygiene: Unwrapped candy is the number-one suspect. If Halloween candy is missing a wrapper, or if the wrapper seems loose or flimsy, the candy goes straight into the trash.

Here is where I think we can discover some deeper meanings in the myth of the Halloween sadist. It's all about the wrappers.

Wrappers are like candy condoms: Safe candy is candy that is covered and sealed. And not just any wrapper will do. Loose, casual, cheap wrappers, the kind of wrappers one might find on locally produced candies or non-brand-name candies, are also liable to send candy to Halloween purgatory. The close, tight factory wrapper says "sealed for your protection." And the recognized brand name on the wrapper also lends a reassuring aura of corporate responsibility and accountability. It's a basic axiom of consumer faith: The bigger the brand, the safer the candy.

Ironic, since we know that the most serious food dangers are those that originate from just the kind of large-scale industrial food processing environments that also bring us name-brand, mass-market candies. Salmonella, E. coli, and their bacterial buddies lurking in bagged salads and pre-formed hamburger patties are real food dangers; home-made cookies laced with ground glass are not.


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Corby Kummer: The All-Candy Diet

Marion Nestle: How to Define 'Candy'

Even sadder that the banishing of jelly beans and weird hard candies to the trash can is the disappearance of the cookies and popcorn balls that used to be trick-or-treat staples. Can we even imagine a time when offering homemade treats to children at the door, even children you didn't know, would have been considered acceptable, desirable even? Yet this was common practice well into the 1950s. The Halloween sadist legends are part of a larger movement in American culture away from our sense that we can do it ourselves. The factory does it better, tastier, safer. In the anonymous Halloween exchange, when we don't personally know that person dropping candy bars in little Petal's bag, it is as though the brand name is the only thing we can really trust. Which is also ironic, since in fact those brand names are not humans, but faceless corporate machines.

It is only in the last few years, with the do-it-yourself and Slow Food movements, that we've seen some real challenges to this market-driven value and a return to the local and handmade. But does this mean we'll see a resurgence of homemade cookies this Halloween? I doubt it—at least not for those anonymous exchanges that are the essence of trick-or-treat. Now that we've eaten the apple of fear and distrust, it doesn't seem likely that we'll change our suspicions anytime soon. Americans today seem quite eager to put their faith in brand names and global conglomerates and to shun old-guard civic institutions like governments, schools, and neighborhood communities. And when it's about the safety of our children, reason easily gives way to hysteria. My scholarly, historical, rational self tells me that psychopaths don't go to the trouble to bake cookies or soak loose lemon drops in LSD. My hovering, nervous, worried mother self doesn't care. Unwrapped jelly beans, into the trash you go.