Stop Worrying and Enjoy Halloween

With Halloween now two weeks away, it’s time to start thinking about Halloween safety. OK, that’s an understatement: if the local news programs are to be believed it’ time to start panicking. Poisoned Pixie Stix, needles-stuck Snickers, and razor-wielding Raisinets lurk behind every Jack-o-lantern-guarded door. Evil ne’er-do-wells lurk ready to pluck your children off the streets and do unspeakable things to them. The dead walk the earth and seek to steal the the souls of the unwary.

I mock, but only because these myths of Halloween are so eminently mockable. As it happens, Halloween has generated a host of safety myths, turning a once wholesome celebration of zombies, vampires, and other dead, undead, and half-dead things into something rather more sinister. Let’s examine some of these myths:

  • The candy is poisoned: Every year, we are bombarded with warnings to search our children’s candy carefully for puncture holes, opened wrappers, and so on. Homemade treats — popcorn balls, candy apples, and the like — have completely disappeared from the Halloween repertoire for fear of poisoning. And yet there has never been an instance of a child being poisoned by Halloween candy given her or him by a stranger. Never. The only incident in which Halloween candy has been used to poison someone was a little boy in 1974 who ate Pixie Stix laced with cyanide (rat poison, essentially) by his father, ostensibly to collect on the child’s life insurance policy.
  • There’s needles/razors in the candy: Unlike the fear of poisoning, this one has actually happened, though nobody’s ever been badly hurt. Almost all reported cases of needles or razor bladed being concealed in Halloween candy or other treats have been hoaxes, and the 10 or so that have been confirmed resulted in no injury. All but one of those have been pranks carried out by older siblings or friends. The one exception occurred in 2000 when a man stuck needles into Snickers bars and handed them out; nobody was injured. As it happens, needles and razor blades are easily discovered and not all that dangerous (and you can’t get HIV from them except under conditions that Halloween trick-or-treating simply can’t produce).
  • There’s child molesters roaming free in my neighborhood! You might have looked at one of the scare-sites (appropriate for Halloween, I suppose) that show you how many registered sex offenders live within spitting distance of your house, maybe even mapped their addresses. What you might not have known is how someone gets to be on the sex offenders registry. Many are folks who slept with their 15-year old girlfriends or boyfriends when they were 16 — or even when they were 14 (some states prosecute underage sex regardless of the age of the participants). Most, though, are in fact guilty of molesting children — almost always their own (or closely related). There are very, very few cases (less than 5%) of children being accosted by strangers — the number of cases over the last decade is in the hundreds, out of many thousands of child abuse cases.
  • The dead walk the earth: This one’s true. Give them candy. And pray…

The reality is that your children are fairly safe from victimization by your neighbors. Statistically speaking, you and your family are the greatest threat your children face — far, far more dangerous than any stranger. While it makes good sense to teach your children to be aware of themselves and their surroundings in the company of strangers, the feverish panic that breaks out every year in the weeks before Halloween is way out of proportion to the actual threat posed to your children.

So where does the panic come from? At least part of it has to be pinned on local news organizations and their addiction to the scare story as a way to drive ratings. “Poisoned candy rampant in the Southland! Are your children at risk??????” I can only assume that people respond to this kind of thing, since news broadcasters keep doing it, risking their credibility and seriousness in the process.

But the more important story lies in the anxieties we as a society have fostered over the last several decades. As we’ve become more and more isolated with the rise of suburban living, greater job demands, the availability of in-home and solitary entertainments, and so on, we’ve grown distrustful and suspicious of our neighbors because — more than at any other time in human history — we don’t know who they are. We don’t rely on them and they don’t rely on us, we don’t have any obligations to them and they don’t have any obligations to us. We are literally surrounded by strangers.

And along comes Halloween, and what do we do? We allow our children to go door to door among those strangers and beg for candy. In anthropological terms, feeding someone and eating together are powerful markers of intimacy and demonstrations of solidarity — but we aren’t intimate with our neighbors and there is no sense of solidarity. So we worry. And one way we express those worries is by telling each other urban legends about the dangers of strangers with candy, especially on Halloween. This may also be a defensive strategy, allowing us to ignore the fact that the most real source of danger to our children is their own family.

So don’t panic. Take reasonable safety precautions — make sure your kids are visible in the dark, have them carry flashlights, teach them traffic safety principles, supervise young trick-or-treaters, and don’t let Halloween pranks get out of hand. Don’t let these perfectly normal anxieties develop into irrational fears that end up polluting Halloween for yourself and your children.

Do be sure, however, to teach your kids about the dangers of the walking dead. Because that fear that is totally rational.

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