(Again: I usually post fiction here. But I don’t really use my old blogging platform anymore, and I thought I’d tell this story to a largely-new audience.
And yes. At the time of this posting, it’s nowhere-near Halloween. But that’s fitting; who wants to be an October killjoy?)
Today, I’ve pulled out an old textbook of mine, “Curses! Broiled Again!” by Jan Harold Brunvand. It’s from an American studies class; I appear to have a 1990 edition. So this is some institutionalized knowledge here; it precedes the Web, and we didn’t have ‘Snopes’. to debunk ideas. The timing was sort-of perfect; we had enough information to collect strange stories, not enough resources to deflate them.
My fascination is with Halloween Candy, but first, I’m going to venture towards one of the other myths in the book. Circa 1990: “Fear of Frying”. This article details people who refuse to buckle their seat belts because they’d “heard” authoritatively that millions of people died every year because when something went wrong with their cars, they got trapped and, then burnt up in horrible auto crashes.
The National Transportation Safety Board, and a few related sources, were quite clear: “there are some very few instances in which people who were wearing safety belts suffered injury or death in unusual kinds of accidents.” In fact, their fairly thorough studies showed that safety belts led to vastly more powerful outcomes. Didn’t matter; the myth persisted.
And that leads me to the the myth of poisoned Halloween candy. Because it’s pervasive, and it changed an entire culture. Trick-or-treating has gone from a communal activity, widely practiced all over the US, to a deprecated activity, mostly happening in tiny little enclaves, usually a few neighbors rounding up sweets from other neighbors and then going home — out of dread of Poisoned, Tampered Candy. We’ve done more; schools and communities have organized entire Halloween Night Out programs to keep kids away from the Horrifying, Monstrous Psychopaths Who Would Poison The Children Of Our Beloved Town.
This was not an isolated belief even in the 90s; it was certainly taught to me every year of both middle school and high school as Halloween time came around. We were given quite specific instruction. Never eat unwrapped candy (could have been rolled in arsenic!), always inspect candy for little holes which might be needle marks (heroin!) and never brownies or baked goods (LSD! Or something far worse!).
I knew people who had been poisoned by Halloween candy. My teachers knew people who’d been poisoned. Newspapers wrote cautionary articles about poisoning of candy stating authoritatively that people in faraway states had been damaged or harmed. Everybody knew that people were turning sweets into nightmares; it just seemed obvious. If you were some random monster, what better opportunity than to poison or put razor blades into, or otherwise sabotage a few pieces of candy carried around by unsuspecting kids? They would never know it was you.
(In retrospect, this seems quite ridiculous. What if, as often happened, the kids ate your candy in the driveway? What if you were a recognizable neighbor? Kids used to literally gather ‘round to discuss which houses gave what. How would you get away with any of this? But none of it mattered — The Great Halloween Candy Poisoning Was On, and we had to watch out.)
The idea doesn’t hold up, any more than the urban legends that people were being baked to death in tanning salons, fed pets in sushi bars (a fairly gross, but pervasive, slur in a world that was just getting used to raw fish as a culinary staple), or (look this one up, it’s real!) the idea that poisonous snakes infested certain fun park rides and leaped out to bite you while you were halfway through. None of these things made sense; and we had defenses against all of them (board of health inspections, park inspectors, the sheer fact that any business which did these things would be up to its neck in lawsuits….)
Yet here’s a life-and-death myth, one which is generally considered partly responsible for the shrinkage and near-death of the Trick Or Treating tradition and —
Again, look it up.
It’s the creation of entire set of unreality-based fears, implanted in children — more specifically, implanted in teachers, educators, and parents first, and then implanted in children.
It’s a myth. And it’s a widely believed myth, one taken as fact, even today.
It’s not quite the Satanic Panic (possibly more accurately called the “Satanic Moral Panic”), in that the Halloween one is a little more “victimless” — kids got denied candy here; nobody got arrested, jailed, shunned, or separated from their families the way they did in the 80s Satanic Ritual Abuse craze.
But it’s a sobering lesson.
Society can, has, and will create, and mass-believe, something incredibly hideous — with no basis in fact.
Be aware of that, as you make choices in what to believe, going forward.
The fact that everyone believes something to be true might, in fact, be your first warning sign that it is totally false.
And people believe it. They really believe it. Remember I said that I knew people who’d been poisoned? I was wrong. Turns out, they knew someone who knew someone who said it had happened, and they couldn’t actually name anyone, or point to anywhere this had gone on.. But that’s not how stories like this spread. Everyone wants to be an authority. Everyone says, “Oh, it happened to me.”
Moral panics are incredibly powerful. We now know — have theoretically known for centuries — that the Salem Witch Hunts were false, that they persecuted lots of people, but that the people of Salem were not actually Demons, Devils, Warlocks, or Supernatural Monsters — just humans. But that didn’t stop their accusers from utterly believing their own allegations — right up to bodily contortions which seemed impossible, or being pricked by pins and not being cut, and all manner of things which are generally impossible unless people are in profoundly altered mental states.
Your Halloween candy is not poisoned.
Your neighbors are not Secret Monsters.
The danger we face lies in our willingness to believe that there are hidden monsters everywhere. Because that’s exactly how communities go mad.
Enjoy your Halloween candy! Enjoy your Halloween!
And let’s remember: If a story you hear, even one you hear from dozens or hundreds of sources, seems like something crazy, something out of a horror story, something completely unreal…
…it probably is.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.