The Sociology Behind Halloween Fears

by Jayne Yerrick

Photo by Jayne Yerrick

It is officially the spookiest season of the year, which means that costumed trick-or-treaters will soon flood the streets and go door to door, hoping for treats. 

However, before kids can enter their sugar comas on the night of Halloween, it’s likely that their parents will first inspect the bags of candy (for reasons other than snatching some of their favorite sweets). 

A key concern for many parents when Halloween rolls around each year is that the candy their children collect will be tampered with in some way or another. In fact, according to a study conducted by WalletHub, 83% of parents said that they checked their children’s Halloween candy for signs of suspicious tampering before they let the child eat it, according to a study conducted by WalletHub. 

Anna Brant, a sophomore studying biology, said that although her parents did not check her candy frequently when she was younger, she knew exactly what they would be looking for when they did. 

“They probably looked through it, but I don’t think they ever inspected it carefully,” said Brant. “They were probably looking for razors because I know there was that one news story about hidden razors in kids’ candy.”

This fear of candy stuffed with razor blades or cyanide-laced sweets is a common concern for parents on the night of Halloween.

Some police stations even send out announcements each year that tell parents exactly what to look for when investigating their children’s candy. For instance, in 2016, local authorities in Wakeman, Ohio, warned citizens to check their children’s bags of Halloween candy, based on reports of “very suspicious” candy. 

However, it turns out these precautions are almost always unnecessary. In reality, there have been no cases to-date of a stranger poisoning trick-or-treaters, which makes these concerns largely unfounded.

From a sociological lens, this urban myth about poisoned Halloween candy is referred to as reliance on commonsense knowledge. To clarify, sociology is the study of society and human interaction.

Commonsense knowledge is often what humans rely on to make decisions and conclusions. Similar to background knowledge, commonsense knowledge is made up of people’s personal experiences or perceptions. 

Most people believe that the potential of a stranger tampering with Halloween candy is at least plausible. This strongly contributed to making the concern so prevalent. The poisoned Halloween candy urban myth is believable because it does not seem that far-fetched that some stranger would see Halloween as the perfect opportunity to poison the neighborhood kids. After all, children are taught about “stranger danger” from a very young age, but on Halloween, they are taught to eat the candy given to them by strangers.

Similar to the unfounded candy concerns, this perspective of “stranger danger” is somewhat blown out of proportion. Although children do have the potential to be harmed by a stranger, children are still much more likely to be victimized by people known to them

So where does this fear of strangers tampering with Halloween come from?

Although no child has died from candy that was poisoned by a stranger, there have been cases of children dying after digging into their bag of Halloween candy. 

In 1974, an 8-year-old child died in Deer Park, Texas, after ingesting candy laced with cyanide. However, a stranger was not at fault for the child’s death. In fact, it was the child’s own father that was responsible for killing his son to pocket the life insurance money. 

Another event that contributed to the fear of tampered Halloween candy was the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. In this case, there were multiple deaths in Chicago after bottles of Tylenol were poisoned with cyanide. This happened just a few weeks before Halloween and ignited a panic over the possibility that the same poisoning would happen to children’s Halloween candy later that month. As a result, over 40 cities canceled Halloween trick-or-treating events that year.

The real scare for kids on Halloween? Car accidents.

The late-night drivers combined with children roaming the streets in dark clothing on Halloween night creates an influx of deadly car accidents for children on Halloween. In fact, kids are twice as likely to get hit by a car and die on Halloween more than any other day of the year, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study.

The prevalence of this urban myth proves how important it is to look at situations from a sociological perspective. Sociologists are systematic and use techniques like the scientific method to make conclusions, which helps make decisions more fact-based.

But don’t feel bad if you fell for this Halloween urban myth. Relying on commonsense knowledge to make decisions is part of what makes us human. 

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