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
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
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
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,
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.