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Stupid White Men The Culture of Fear It's A Free Country What A Wonderful World

 

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Culture of Fear BookUnhappy Halloween

Workplace violence was not the first false crime crisis used by journalists as a roundabout way to talk about other matters they found difficult to address directly. Even the New York Times has been known to engage in the practice.

"Those Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend on their rounds of ‘trick or treating’ may bring them more horror than happiness," began a story in the Times in October 1970 that launched a long-running crime panic. "Take, for example," the reporter continued, "that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block. It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate ‘candy’ bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills."

Similar articles followed in the nation’s news media every autumn for years to come. In 1975 Newsweek reported in its edition that hit newsstands at the end of October, "If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home with something more than an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults."

In her columns of the mid- and late 1980s even "Dear Abby" was reminding parents around trick-or-treat time that "somebody’s child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade." An ABC News/Washington Post poll in 1985 showed that 60 percent of parents feared their kids could become victims.

This time no journalist stepped forward to correct the media’s and public’s collective fantasy, even though, as Jan Harold Brunvand, the folklorist and author observed, "it’s hard to imagine how someone could shove a blade into a fruit without injuring himself. And wouldn’t the damage done to the apple by such a process make it obvious that something was wrong with it?"

The myth of Halloween bogeymen and bogeywomen might never have been exposed had not a sociologist named Joel Best become sufficiently leery that he undertook an examination of every reported incident since 1958. Best, currently a professor at the University of Southern Illinois, established in a scholarly article in 1985 that there has not been a single death or serious injury. He uncovered a few incidents where children received minor cuts from sharp objects in their candy bags, but the vast majority of reports turned out to be old-fashioned hoaxes, sometimes enacted by young pranksters, other times by parents hoping to make money in lawsuits or insurance scams.

Ironically, in the only two known cases where children apparently did die from poisoned Halloween candy, the myth of the anonymous, sadistic stranger was used to cover up the real crime. In the first incident family members sprinkled heroin on a five-year-old’s Halloween candy in hopes of fooling the police about the cause of the child’s death. Actually, the boy had found and eaten heroin in his uncle’s home. In the second incident a boy died after eating cyanide-poisoned candy on Halloween, but police determined that his father had spiked the candy to collect insurance money. Bill Ellis, a professor of English at Penn State University, has commented that both of these incidents, reported in the press at first as stranger murders, "reinforced the moral of having parents examine treats-ironically, because in both cases family members were responsible for the children’s deaths!"

Yet if anonymous Halloween sadists were fictitious creatures, they were useful diversions from some truly frightening realities, such as the fact that far more children are seriously injured and killed by family members than by strangers. Halloween sadists also served in news stories as evidence that particular social trends were having ill effects on the populace. A psychiatrist quoted in the New York Times article held that Halloween sadism was a by-product of "the permissiveness in today’s society." The candy poisoner him- or herself was not directly to blame, the doctor suggested. The real villains were elsewhere. "The people who give harmful treats to children see criminals and students in campus riots getting away with things," the Times quoted him, "so they think they can get away with it, too."

In many of these articles the choice of hero also suggests that other social issues are surreptitiously being discussed. At a time when divorce rates were high and rising, and women were leaving home in great numbers to take jobs, news stories heralded women who represented the antithesis of those trends-full-time housewives and employed moms who returned early from work to throw safe trick-or-treat parties for their children and their children’s friends in their homes or churches, or simply to escort their kids on their rounds and inspect the treats.



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