‘Treats may be tricks’: The New York media roots of Halloween-candy paranoia

Halloween cookies: Do not touch! ()
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Recently I was watching an old episode of "Freaks and Geeks," the canceled-before-its-time sitcom about growing up in Michigan in the early '80s from Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, when I came across a brilliant scene.

Homemaker Jean Weir, mother of our chief protagonists, is excited for Halloween and has dressed up in a Nashville-style cowgirl outfit of shiny blue and white satin, and forced her husband into a vampire suit. Her enthusiasm for Halloween has outlived the excuse of having children of her own to cater to, since both are a little old for it; so her exuberance is poured out on the neighborhood kids.

She has gone to the trouble to bake sugar cookies with white frosting in the shapes of ghosts to give out to neighborhood kids trick-or-treating, instead of grabbing bags of cut-rate Fun Sizes at the local supermarket.

When her husband scares a cute group of trick-or-treaters away with his vampire scowl, Jean attempts to apologize to one of the mothers who has marched up to her door.

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"Here, give these to your children; they're homemade!" she says.

The woman, her face scrunched up like a rotted jack-o'-lantern (and a giant jack-o'-lantern sweater on, too), is not becalmed.

"Are you crazy?" she asks. "I've been lecturing my kids for weeks about not taking unwrapped candies for weeks! Those cookies could have razor blades, or pins, or ..."

Jean interrupts her. "But, I wouldn't do that!" she says, incredulous. Ms. Jack-o'Lantern stalks off, and Jean slinks, defeated, back into her foyer, looking sullenly at the ghosts like they are talismans of her naiveté, or the world's corruption.

Really, Mrs. Weir wasn't living in a world of mad kid-poisoners, but one of child-safety paranoia. And around Halloween in the 1970s and 1980s, it was in a fever pitch.

Credit the first round to a Long Island woman named Helen Pfeil. On Halloween of 1964, Annoyed at the prevalence of kids too old to beg for candy and too lazy and vain to do much in the way of costuming themselves, she set up "special" gift packages for them: Steel-wool pads, dog-biscuits and ant-poison pellets, wrapped in foil pouches. Her lumps of coal, for the kids who she felt were gaming the system unfairly.

Herself a housewife and mother of three, Pfeil was in most respects an ordinary citizen of suburbia until one of the families where her foil packets landed called the police.

Of course, the fact that she only gave them to older kids, that the ant pellets were clearly labeled "poison" and were accompanied by obvious gag gifts, and the fact that, she says, she told them as much when she distributed them, did little to quell the paranoia. It doesn't help that the main ingredient in the ant pellets popular at the time was arsenic, which is probably better known as a murderer's favorite poison than for any of its many over-the-counter industrial uses.

Newspapers picked up the story with maximum credulity. After all, the idea of a bitter old women angry at trick-or-treaters plying them with poison has a Grimm-like appeal that dates back at least as far as Hansel and Gretel.

This was the era of random and depraved crime, and America thrilled to it, while affecting utter shock. Pfeil's story was distributed in newspapers all over the country, a real-life version (if only half-baked) of a long-imagined conspiracy of evil witches who hate children.

By 1970, the Times was in on what would become an annual ritual (implicating no less an authority than America's greatest agony aunt, Ann Landers) of warning parents of the prevalence of poisoning, booby-trapping or otherwise maliciously tampering with Halloween candy, to spread maximum death or destruction among the nation's cute, costumed kids. The depravity!

Here is award-winning Times writer, Judy Klemesrud, in Oct. 28, 1970 editions of The New York Times:

Those Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend on their rounds of "trick-or-treating" may bring them more horror than happiness.

Take, for example, that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block. It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate "candy" bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.

It's hard to argue with that. It's certainly not impossible. But it never really happened this way.

Klemesrud is perhaps not to be blamed, since she managed a quote from a genuine authority in the area: New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Hollis S. Ingraham, who told her: "In recent years, pins, razor blades, slivers of glass and poison have appeared in the treats gathered by children across New York State."

The problem is that nobody can seem to find any of these cases. Experts have tried to pin down two cases vaguely cited in the article by Klemesrud, one in Oneida, N.Y. and another in nearby Ilion, N.Y., to no avail. But, moving on, Klemesrud provided the psychological motivation for these neighbors who become demons on Halloween:

"They are probably frustrated and filled with resentment against the world in general," a Hempstead psychiatrist tells Klemesrud. "They have paranoid feelings."

Or they would, if they existed in any significant numbers.

The Times article is a favorite target for scholars who study urban myths and have been trying in vain to dispel the paranoia that ruined Jean Weir's Halloween (and created a frisson of excitement in the Halloweens of my own youth).

Snopes, one of my favorite websites (curated and in large part written by the indefatigable Barbara Mikkelson, who reports out urban myths and assesses their truth-levels) has an extensive treatment of the "Halloween Poisonings" myth here.

But credulity for these kinds of stories sells, as the New York Post demonstrated when it presented a rather skewed version of the story of that Long Island terror, in time for Halloween, just last year.

The reporter interviews two girls who were subjected to Pfeil's wrath, and whose parents touched off the investigation when they reported the incident (rightly, of course) to police.

The article doesn't mess with the facts so much as continue undaunted by them in its narrative of foul play. The teens who brought home ant pellets from Pfeil's house, interviewed years later, are portrayed as having been in imminent danger, and the article even has the cheek to end with a series of quotes from sociologist Joel Best, who has made a lifelong effort to attempt to restore some sanity to Halloween by debunking the myth of the sadist trick-or-treat poisoner.

"We have revised what the Halloween menace is -- [from] the homicidal maniac [to] a person so crazy that he poisons the candy of strangers," Best is quoted as saying, and though the context is as unclear as the quote itself, the overriding message from Best has always been that we need to stop terrifying ourselves with fears of evil treat-dispensers.

Here's Best doing what he does best, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1989:

"We checked major newspapers from throughout the country from 1958 through 1988," he said, "assuming that any story this horrible would certainly be well reported." Well, they found a total of 78 cases and two deaths. Further checking proved that almost all of the 78 cases were pranks.

And the two deaths, it so happened, were actually cold-blooded murders dressed up to look like Halloween sabotage. In both cases the culprits were discovered partly because the police know what the murderers did not: it has always been a misperception that the practice of random Halloween-candy tampering is pervasive.

Here's more from the interview with Best:

Best has tried mightily over the years to destroy this particular myth, but obviously to no avail. "It's the old problem of trying to prove a negative," he says.

He published his findings several years ago and even wrote an article on the subject for Psychology Today magazine. He hasn't given up, though, and has a book titled "Threatened Children," which University Press of Chicago will release next summer, in which he again details his research.

"For whatever reason," he says, "people want to believe these stories. Maybe it's to distract themselves from bigger threats (like nuclear war) about which they feel they have no control."

Very '80s, right? Best has continued his thankless task, and in 2010 even produced a report showing the incidences of reported "Halloween sadism" nationwide since 1958:

Look at 1982! Arguably, the year when the greatest amount of publicity about this non-trend suggested to the maximum number of lunatics a great prank for Halloween. It's roughly the year in the fictional world of "Freaks and Geeks" when Jean Weir had her crushing moment with the ghost cookies.

As far as I can tell, the New York State Health Department stopped offering Halloween safety tips back in 2001, when the most recent electronically available Halloween safety brochure was published.

It puts the hazards of "treats" distributed by strangers at the top of its checklist of safety tips, above wearing reflective clothing and not accepting invitations into strangers' homes. While there is no statement about the prevalence of treat-tampering, the list evokes a pretty broad and frightening array of attacks on trick-or-treaters:

Treats

• Instruct your children not to eat any treats before an adult has examined them carefully for evidence of tampering. To discourage munching provide a light snack before they go out.
• Discard any unwrapped, ripped or discolored items and homemade candy or baked goods.
• Wash all fruit thoroughly, inspect it for holes including small punctures, and cut it open before allowing children to eat it.
• Immediately report to the police any suspicious item that may have been tampered with.
• Serve only pasturized [sic] juice or cider that has been treated to destroy harmful bacteria at Halloween parties.
• Avoid items that are small enough to present a choking hazard for young children, such as gum, peanuts, hard candies or small toys.
• Note that the presence of white powder on candy may not be unusual and could be from starch, sugar, or chocolate "bloom" ( when fat separates from chocolate) and could appear as a white or grayish powder.

But such warnings have since dropped off, perhaps a sign that these kinds of scares are at a low ebb, outside of the Post.

I asked the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene whether they tracked such incidents and whether they had any warnings to issue parents about the dangers of booby-trapped treats, but I haven't heard back yet.

But in a circular distributed by the city's health department last year (the most recent available on the department's website), scant warning of the perils of witchy treat-givers is embedded among more mundane concerns. Most of the tips concern avoiding being hit by cars, and parental supervision especially when children are approaching neighbors' doorsteps and knocking.

One line reads, "Carefully check treats for tampering, choking hazards and possible allergies and limit the amount of treats your child eats."

In Bloomberg's New York, then, it's as much a worry your kid will get fat as that he or she will end up accidentally getting a mouthful of arsenic. What a relief.