The Halloween Scare That Won’t Go Away

For 40 years, Joel Best has tried to debunk the unfounded fear that bad actors might tamper with children’s trick-or-treat stashes.

Photo of children trick-or-treating
Joe Sohm / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Every October, Joel Best starts getting calls from journalists, and he knows exactly what they want to talk about: candy. Specifically, they want to discuss the stubborn fear that bad actors might tamper with children’s trick-or-treat stashes by lacing candy with razors or fentanyl. Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has researched this recurring plot for decades and has never found any evidence that a child has been killed or seriously injured via Halloween-candy tampering. (The only death-by-Halloween haul he is aware of is an incident where a parent intentionally murdered their child with a poisoned batch—“but I don’t count that,” he told me.)

Best has spent 40 years trying to debunk this belief, and this year has been a particularly busy one, given the panic around rainbow-colored fentanyl (to which Fox News has been giving no shortage of airtime).

I talked to Best about what sets 2022 apart—and what our annual Halloween anxiety over candy tampering says about American culture.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: How did you become the Halloween-candy-scare researcher?

Joel Best: As far as I know, I’m the only person who’s ever done any actual research on this. When I was in graduate school, I was going to study deviant behavior. I was reading autobiographies of thieves and drug addicts. And I realized that, when you read these things, they all have reasons. They may not be what you think of as good reasons, but they can all explain why they’re stealing or using drugs.

This was right around the time—late ’60s, early ’70s—when there was a lot of talk about Halloween tampering. And I thought to myself, I cannot imagine what the reason for doing this would be. I started to say to people, “I don’t think this is real.”

And they would get very incensed. “Of course it’s real; everybody knows it’s real.”

I finally realized that you could test this by looking at press coverage. So I went back 25 years, and I looked at The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, the biggest-circulation papers in the three biggest metropolitan areas. I reviewed the reports of Halloween tampering. I realized that, first of all, there weren’t very many reports. But the second thing was I couldn’t find any evidence that any child had ever been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.

Nyce: How long have you been following this?

Best: I did the original research in 1983, and I’ve updated it every year since, so I have more than 60 years of data.

Nyce: And is it still true today that no child that we know of has been killed or seriously injured by Halloween-candy tampering?

Best: Yep. There’s the famous case of the guy who murdered his son. But I don’t count that.

Nyce: Why do you think this myth is so persistent in our culture?

Best: Well, folklorists would call this a contemporary legend. They think of myths as like gods and goddesses, creating the world.

Halloween is supposed to be scary. And most of us have stopped believing in ghosts and goblins. But we believe in criminals. And so we tell scary stories about criminals.

Nyce: So you think it’s linked to our crime fears?

Best: Yeah, it is a way of taking the idea that we’re supposed to tell scary stories. What’s a scary story for people in 2022? Well, it’s criminals.

Nyce: What do you make of this year’s rainbow-fentanyl panic?

Best: It’s ridiculous. The Drug Enforcement Administration put out a press release at the end of August saying, We’re seeing fentanyl pills in different colors, and maybe this is a way of making the pills more attractive to younger users. Now, they’re not talking about children. They’re talking about young users of opioids, which would be young adults or maybe [people in] late adolescence.

The connection to Halloween came in a Fox TV interview with Ronna McDaniel, who is the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. She was the one who said, There’s all this rainbow fentanyl. And mothers across America are going to be worried about whether this is going to appear in their children’s Halloween treats.

Then it got picked up by various personalities on Fox News. There was a public-service announcement with several Republican senators, and Chuck Schumer felt moved to say that the Democrats were also opposed to putting rainbow fentanyl in Halloween treats. (Laughs.)

Nyce: A political issue of our time.

Best: This is the first time since I’ve been doing this—going on 40 years now—that you’ve had semi-visible people—U.S. senators and people like that—promoting a specific concern.

It isn’t like every year we have something special we worry about. Some years we do. In 1982, after the Tylenol poisonings, people got excited about the idea that there could be contaminated treats. In 2001, there were various stories about terrorists passing out contaminated treats. And there’ve been a couple of years where people speculated that children might get THC-infused candy.

Nyce: Who is usually spreading this folklore?

Best: You. Everybody. We’ve all heard about this. We can talk about it and say, “Oh, you’ve got to watch out.” We can exchange messages—warnings on social media or stuff like that.

It isn’t the media’s fault. The media doesn’t report terrible cases, because there aren’t any terrible cases to report. If there were terrible cases, the media would, of course, be all over this.

What tends to happen is groups like the National Safety Council will put out lists of Halloween-safety tips. Halloween is a very dangerous holiday because, if you think about it, we’re sending millions of kids out into the dark that night, and they get hurt. They get hit by cars, and they get tangled up in their costumes and fall down and injure themselves. They aren’t getting poisoned.

Safety tips will say, “Don’t have your kid wear an all-black costume, because drivers have trouble seeing them. Make sure they aren’t going to get tangled up in their costume. Make sure they can see out of the holes in the mask. Don’t let them carry an open flame. And be sure and check their treats.” That’s as much as the media does to promote this.

Nyce: Should parents be checking their kids’ Halloween treats?

Best: I didn’t. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. If you want to check your child’s treats, it’s fine by me. Do I think it’s necessary? No.

Nyce: Do you worry that the more prominent voices participating in the conversation this year will give this a new life of its own?

Best: I don’t think it’s going to make anybody pass out rainbow fentanyl. If you think about it, that’s nuts, because what’s the business plan? Drug dealers aren’t going to give away their drugs. And if they are going to give them away to try and attract business, they aren’t going to give them away to elementary-school students. What are they gonna do, get their milk money?

Nyce: Famously not a well-funded demographic.

Best: This lives on. There’s a sense in which this has taught me a great deal of humility. I’ve been on visible media. I’ve been in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and on The Today Show. I was on Bill O’Reilly once before Bill O’Reilly was really Bill O’Reilly. I’ve been spreading this word for almost 40 years.

And usually, in a typical year, October 15 will roll around, and I won’t have gotten any calls. And sometimes I start thinking, Oh, maybe this is the year this is all going to go away. And then the calls start up. What’s peculiar about this year is, this may be the 30th interview I’ve given this year. There is intensified interest in the topic. But I imagine that next year, rainbow fentanyl will be forgotten.

Nyce: Does it just feel like a Sisyphean task, trying to combat American folklore?

Best: (Laughs.) I’ve found ways to enjoy it. I’ve learned a lot about how the media works. What happens is some poor reporter gets assigned to do a Halloween-safety story. They don’t know anything about it, so they go look up what other people have written about it. And I tend to be quoted in those stories. So they call me up, and I do the same interview.

Nyce: (Laughs.) I don’t know what you’re accusing me of here, Joel.

Best: I’m not frustrated about it. I certainly don’t have an inflated sense of my own importance, having had next to no impact on the conversation. I’m interested, because the lesson here, which any folklorist could’ve told me, is that a contemporary legend is harder to kill than a vampire. It just lives on.