In Depth

Halloween trick-or-treat poisoning: a real risk or urban legend?

Experts say the phenomenon is mostly myth - but not entirely

Spooky Halloween trends come and go but one fear has haunted parents for generations - poisoned sweets.

This week a mother claimed that her children, aged two and five, had been given a bag of ecstasy pills while trick-or-treating in Shiremoor, North Tyneside.

Rumours of tampered sweets being handed out at Halloween appear to have first emerged in the US in the 1970s. By the following decade, parental anxiety was so great that American hospitals and police stations began offering to x-ray candy bags, a security measure that is now commonplace, according to The Washington Post

However, Joe Best, a professor of sociology at California State University who has researched the alleged risk, told Vox: “I can’t find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously hurt by any candy picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.” 

According to myth-busting website Snopes, for an incident to qualify as a Halloween poisoning, “poisoned candy has to be handed out on random basis to children as part of the trick-or-treating ritual inherent to Halloween. The act cannot be targeted to any one specific child.”

After examining famous cases of alleged Halloween poisonings, researchers have concluded that most of the incidents do not qualify for that classification.

One of the most notorious cases is the murder of eight-year-old Timothy Marc O’Bryan in Houston, Texas. O’Bryan died on 31 October 1974, after eating cyanide-laced sherbet. However, the poisoner turned out to be his own father, who had taken out a large life insurance policy on the boy.

“Though cold-blooded and horrible to contemplate, this crime does not qualify as a genuine Halloween poisoning because there was nothing random about Timothy O’Bryan’s death,” says Snopes.

Other stories that have fuelled Halloween poisoning fears include the 1970 death of a five-year-old boy said to have consumed heroin-laced sweets. A police investigation ultimately concluded that the child’s family had staged a cover-up after he discovered his uncle’s heroin stash.   

Neverthless, the legalisation of marijuana in a number of US states and countries across the globe is creating concerns about pot-laced edibles being handed out at Halloween.

In 2014, USA Today reported that “foods like chocolates, mints and gummy bears infused with marijuana quickly became best-sellers” following the legalisation of the drug in Colorado, but that “once unwrapped, the candies are hard to tell apart from their non-infused counterparts”. As the newspaper noted: “That has some people worried.” 

Police in Denver even released a video advising parents how to detect marijuana-laced sweets.

But Best assured Vox that so far, those fears have proved unfounded. 

As to why such scare stories persist, Best said: “We live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios...and we are constantly imagining that this could all fall apart in a nanosecond...so we translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children.”

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