It’s Halloween. Beware Urban Legends (and Cars).

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2019, The New York Times Company)


American children are more likely to be hit by cars on Halloween than on any other night of the year.

But many of the concerns expressed each October — in the news media and among family and friends — are instead about the danger from candy poisoning by strangers.

Almost all such cases have been found to be hoaxes or scares that lack substantiation. Some health centers even offer to X-ray treats to see if they’ve been tampered with. Studies have failed to show this does any good. If anything, the tests may provide a false sense of security.

(Consider that our health system makes scans very expensive for patients who actually need them for serious illnesses or injuries, while offering this needless service free.)

Pranks, hoaxes and folk tales — although perhaps in keeping with the Halloween spirit — can also spread misinformation, and the news media shares some culpability.

In 1964, a woman named Helen Pfeil gave children packages of insect traps (clearly marked as poison), steel-wool pads and dog biscuits wrapped in aluminum foil. She said she had done so as a joke, because she felt many of the children trick-or-treating at her house were too old to participate. Though no children were harmed, she was arrested and committed to a state hospital for observation. The episode made national news.

Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who literally wrote the book on this, was a co-author of a study in 1985 that examined cases of “Halloween sadism”: episodes like Mrs. Pfeil’s, as reported in major newspapers across the country. First, he tabulated the number of reported cases each year from 1958 through 1984, then investigated each one further, with calls to police stations and hospitals.

He found that they were all pretty much jokes gone awry or unverifiable rumors. In all the data, he found no evidence that any child had been seriously injured, let alone killed, by strangers tampering with candy.

Of course, just because he couldn’t find a case doesn’t mean it never happened. He has continued his work, updating his findings online. Through 2012, he has found no proven cases of injury attributed to strangers tampering with candy.

But certain cases are still cited. In 1970, Kevin Totson was reported to have been killed by heroin sprinkled over Halloween candy. Later, it was determined that the heroin hadn’t come from the candy, but from his uncle’s stash. Years later, Timothy O’Bryan died from a cyanide-laced pixie stick on Halloween. It turned out his father had killed him after taking out a life insurance policy on him.

In both these cases, the danger came — as a Halloween-themed movie might demand it — from inside the house: from relatives, not strangers.

There have been other cases in which candy was initially faulted. News reports in 1990 blamed candy tampering for the death of Ariel Katz in Santa Monica, Calif., but hospital tests failed to confirm poisoning. Something similar happened with Patrick Wiederhold in 1978 in Flint, Mich.

The panic du jour seems to be marijuana candy, which authorities have already been warning parents about; opponents of marijuana legalization have sounded the same alarms for years, with little evidence. (It has never made much sense that people would give out their expensive edibles to children.)

Yes, some children have ingested marijuana they should not have, and that’s a concern for parents. But in most cases, as it was with poisoning, the pot came from people the children knew well or were related to, almost certainly accidentally, not during trick-or-treating.

That doesn’t mean children are safe on Halloween. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics this year reviewed the data on all American pedestrian fatalities on Halloween. The average Halloween, compared with other nights, resulted in four additional pedestrian deaths.

Looking specifically at 4-to-8-year-olds, the pedestrian fatality rate was 10 times higher on that night compared with non-Halloween nights. Many more were surely injured.

This danger gets comparatively less news coverage. Parents let children run rampant across streets as the sun sets. They let them go out in dark costumes that make it hard for drivers to see them. They let them wear masks that restrict their ability to see cars.

The absolute number of children harmed on Halloween, of course, is small. Parents can weigh the risks for themselves, against the benefits in terms of their children’s delight and lifetime memories.

But if people are going to worry about keeping children as safe as possible on Halloween, it seems they should focus on the dangers that are real: cars, not poison.


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