1031MYTHBUSTERS.AUDListen to University of Delaware professor Joel Best explain why "Halloween sadist" myths persist.
When: 3 to 5 p.m. today
Where: downtown Gainesville
How about the child who fell gravely ill after eating candy taken from a stranger while trick-or-treating?
The "Halloween sadist," as he’s been labeled, is a popular figure in urban folklore who rears his ugly head every October, but, according to experts, does not exist in the real world. And for once, you can’t blame the media for spreading this particular brand of bad news.
"This is really best understood as a contemporary legend, which is to say it’s primarily passed along by word of mouth," said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who has researched the Halloween sadist myth for more than 20 years. "The news media hasn’t reported much about this, because there’s nothing to report."
In his review of news coverage dating back to 1958, Best found reports of five child deaths initially attributed to Halloween sadism. All were debunked in one way or another, including the 1974 case of a father who laced his son’s candy with cyanide in order to collect on a life insurance policy.
Of the 80 or so reported cases in which sharp objects were found in apples or other Halloween treats, almost all were pranks and none resulted in serious injuries, according to Best’s research.
Best said the horror stories of poisoned tykes gain traction when reputable organizations advise parents to "inspect your child’s treats," among other precautions. Some hospitals will X-ray candy for concerned parents, which conceivably would catch needles or razor blades but would do nothing to detect poison.
"But that really misses the point," Best said. "Hospitals shouldn’t be doing this because it just buys into this sort of general anxiety that there are maniacs out there trying to kill children."
Best said this year’s requirement in Maryland that registered sex offenders place signs on their doors announcing "no candy" combines separate fears, much the same as the rumors that spread soon after the Sept. 11 attacks claiming terrorists would target shopping malls on Halloween.
"I have never seen in my research ... a connection between sex offenders and Halloween," Best said. "But it’s part of this panic we have that sex offenders are out to get children at every opportunity."
The Halloween sadism myth, Best says, is a manageable way for parents to externalize their fears of the future, whether it be war, economic collapse or environmental catastrophe.
"We take our anxieties about the future and we translate them into our worries about our kids," Best said. "Of course we want to protect our children, that’s a genuinely sincere impulse, but it’s also a way of expressing worry about the future."
Halloween, after all, "is a holiday for celebrating fear and horror, and here’s something that’s scary and horrific to think about."
Not that there aren’t real safety concerns associated with Halloween.
"This is a night when you’re sending tens of millions of kids out in the dark, and some of them get hit by cars, and some of them get tangled up in their costumes and hurt themselves," Best said.
Child safety advocates agree.
"The real risk has to do with pedestrian safety," said Beverly Losman, director of the Safe Kids Coalition of Georgia, which works to prevent child injuries. "Children are more than twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car on Halloween than any other night of the year."
A 1997 Centers for Disease Control report said that between 1975 and 1996, a total of 89 pedestrian deaths occurred in the United States among children ages 5 to 14 on Oct. 31, or an average of four child deaths each Halloween, compared with one child pedestrian death on every other day of the year.
Losman said close supervision is the most important step to take with trick-or-treaters, as well as going over the rules with kids before going out. Costumes should be short and snug and makeup should be used with costumes, instead of masks that can hinder vision. Flashlights, glow sticks and reflective tape are all tools that can be used to make trick-or-treaters more visible.
"Be safe and be seen," she said. "Have fun, but be careful."
"There are real risks you want to protect your children from," Best said. "(But) I don’t happen to think homicidal maniacs are one of the principal things you have to worry about."