Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Newsflash: It's O.K. to Take Candy from Strangers

More evidence that Americans increasingly live in a climate of fear of their own making.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children's candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren't prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.

--From pp. 13-14 of Chip Heath & Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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Usha said...

Very interesting. I was a kid at the time when these scares were picking up steam (along with stories of devil worshipping cow-tippers). I never quite believed any of it but, frankly, I was glad for the reprieve from Halloween that it facilitated in my little hometown. No more dressing up in ill-fitting costumes of characters I could not relate to; no more traipsing about in total darkness, on icy streets; no more freezing, suffering, and humilliation for cheap candy.

But I still do appreciate your point about Americans and fear.

Benjamin Chambers said...

Usha - Sounds to me like you've got a Halloween essay in you ... I know what you mean about its discomfort and gimcrack thrills - it seems to me to have only gotten worse in that regard. At least my costumes were generally home-made (though I was sometimes ashamed of this at the time). But there was one thing I liked about Halloween, once I got to, oh, age 10 or so: we were allowed to run around with our friends after dark, without adult supervision. And the adults, most of them, conspired in this: the front doors of house after house would open to our knock, spilling warm light onto the front step, and after a perfunctory request, they'd give us something I was usually forbidden: candy.