Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 30, 2020.
Each October, stories circulate of children eating poisoned Halloween treats, but research shows that tainted candy is not the Halloween-night danger parents should worry about, Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot."
Do people really give out tainted candy on Halloween?
In an episode that "made national news" in 1964, a woman named Helen Pfeil gave trick-or-treaters insect traps marked as poisonous, steel-wool pads, and dog biscuits. "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," Carroll writes. "[N]o children were harmed," but Pfeil "was arrested and committed to a state hospital for observation."
According to Carroll, stories such as Pfeil's have made parents so afraid that their children would be victims of dangerous Halloween pranks that some health centers even offer free X-rays of Halloween candy to see if they've been tampered with—scans that are not only unsupported by research, but also likely unnecessary. In fact, almost all reported cases of potentially fatal Halloween candy have been found to be "pranks, hoaxes, and fairytales," he writes.
Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, co-authored a 1985 study that analyzed cases of "Halloween sadism" like Pfeil's that were reported in U.S. newspapers. "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," Carroll writes, noting that Best's ongoing project currently spans through 2012.
Best found that most cases were either jokes or unsubstantiated rumors. And out of all the cases, he found no evidence that any of the hoaxes resulted in a child being seriously injured or killed.
"Of course, just because he couldn't find a case doesn't mean it never happened," Carroll writes.
Why do we still hear about these hoaxes?
Given how so many of these cases are unsubstantiated, why do they so often gain such national attention? According to Carroll, in a lot of cases, the Halloween hoaxes are reported on before they were proven to be false.
For instance, in 1970, newspapers reported that Kevin Totson died after eating heroin-tainted Halloween candy. "Later, it was determined that the heroin hadn't come from the candy, but from his uncle's stash," according to Carroll. And years later, after newspapers reported Timothy O'Bryan died after eating a cyanide-laced pixie stick, it was found out that O'Bryan's father murdered him to collect the life insurance policy that his father had just taken out on him.
Nowadays, a lot of parents are concerned about edible marijuana candy, although Carroll notes that—as with previous worries about tainted Halloween candy—there is little evidence that it is a valid concern.
"Yes, some children have ingested marijuana they should not have, and that's a concern for parents," Carroll writes. But in most of these cases, "the danger came—as a Halloween-themed movie might demand it—from inside the house: from relatives, not strangers," according to Carroll.
Trick-or-treaters should still have their guards up
But this doesn't mean children are completely safe on Halloween.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics this year revealed that "American children are more likely to be hit by cars on Halloween than on any other night of the year," Carroll writes.
According to the data, on average, there are four additional pedestrian deaths on Halloween than on other nights of the year—and for four- to eight-year-olds, the pedestrian fatality rate is 10 times higher on Halloween nights compared with other nights of the year.
While those accidents rarely make national headlines, they're also not very surprising. "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," Carroll writes.
And while he notes that the "absolute number of children harmed on Halloween … is small. … [I]f 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" (Carroll, "The Upshot," New York Times, 10/28).