Trick-or-treating is a time-honored, once-a-year tradition when, for just one night, children ask for, and receive, candy from strangers. Reliance on the kindness of strangers only goes so far. Every Halloween, parents QC their their children's bounty like the strictest of Oompa Loompas, throwing out fresh-baked goodies, suspiciously wrapped candy and unmarked treats in case they contain poison or sharp needles. It's a tactic that straddles the line between “never trust strangers” and “always accept free food.” From innocuous stories about valuable Tootsie Roll wrappers to sadistic ones about candy laced with rat poison, we explore five urban legends to see which are grounded in reality and which are figments of our collective imagination.
5. The Legend of the Tootsie Roll Wrapper: This is the only one we actually wish were true. We remember spending hours hunting through our Tootsie Rolls, looking for a rare drawing of an Indian with a bow and arrow printed on the wrapper because, we were told, anyone who found such a wrapper received Tootsie Rolls for life, or a bag of Tootsie Rolls, or a shiny new bicycle (the prize seemed to change depending on the year and the economy). Nonetheless, Snopes confirms that the rumor was never true, though some shop owners may have chosen to honor the myth.
4. The Legend of Pop Rocks and Coke: If you are going to dress up in 1980s garb for Halloween, you need at least one package of Pop Rocks to complement those leg warmers and neon sweat bands. Because this is Halloween, combine the fizzy candy with a can of Coke to really scare the Generation X'ers. The myth that someone — maybe Mikey from the Life cereal commercial or your cousin's best friend's sister's or your classmate's step-brother — exploded after chugging a Coke with Pop Rocks is just a myth. As the manufacturers of Pop Rocks assure us, Mikey did not, in fact, explode. Rather, he's living a decidedly less explosive life as a corporate attorney somewhere in New York.
3. The Legend of the Halloween Drug Pusher: In what might be the most expensive urban legend on this list, a more nefarious version of Weeds' Nancy Botwin bakes pot and other drugs into bars, cookies and other treats to give your kids a sugar high, and then some. In reality, Nancy's doppelganger lives mostly in the world of urban legends. There have been very few incidents of strangers knowingly handing out marijuana-laced candy to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters, and most official warnings focus on inadvertent drug distributions. Case in point: A postal employee took home an unsent box of what appeared to be Snickers bars and handed them out before watchful parents found half an ounce of marijuana worth $250 stuffed in each of the bars. A trick and a treat, all rolled into one.
2. The Legend of the Razor Blade Runner: After every Halloween, we hear variations of this story: Some poor kid was the victim of a sadistic prankster who put a razor, pin, glass shard or other sharp object in an apple or a candy bar. Until 2000, this was largely an urban legend; most of the reported cases were attributed to innocent pranks and hoaxes. At the turn of this century, however, James Joseph Smith gave the myth the credibility it lacked. He stuck needles in Snickers bars and gave them to trick-or-treaters. An unfortunate teenage boy bit into the bar; luckily, he was not seriously harmed. Smith was charged with adulterating a substance with the intent to cause harm.
1. The Legend of the Poisoned Candy: By far, the most popular Halloween candy urban legend spins the tale of a stranger who laces candy with poison and distributes the goods to innocent children dressed up as cowboys and princesses. The actual reported number of strangers doing such a thing on Halloween is virtually nil. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, only two children have died as result of Halloween candy poisoning — but the perpetrators were relatives not strangers. In the most famous story, a father, motivated by a $20,000 life insurance policy, laced his son's Pixie Sticks with a lethal dose of cyanide. “In other words,” the authors conclude, “The best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.”
Why this myth persists despite ample evidence to the contrary is perhaps more fascinating than the myth itself. The Heaths believe that, like any other “sticky idea,” the myth stays in the popular psyche because it is simple and unexpected, with concrete, vivid details that can be spun into infinite variations on a theme.
Samira Kawash, writing in The Atlantic, chalks it up to our stubbornly blind trust in large corporations: “The Halloween sadist legends are part of a larger movement in American culture away from our sense that we can do it ourselves. The factory does it better, tastier, safer.” The squeaky clean large-scale factory is an urban legend of its own. Given the rate of food recalls, we probably ought to fear Mars, Inc. more than Boo Radley.
Nonetheless, considering that the potential harm is so great and the cost of prevention so small, it probably doesn't matter that this myth is a product of our collective imagination. As Kawash sheepishly acknowledges after thoroughly deconstructing the myth, “My scholarly, historical, rational self tells me that psychopaths don't go to the trouble to bake cookies or soak loose lemon drops in LSD. My hovering, nervous, worried mother self doesn't care. Unwrapped jelly beans, into the trash you go.”