Slay The Date is a bi-monthly column bringing you something different, compelling, and fun with each edition. As we celebrate Halloween, we explore one of the holiday’s most enduring legends.
During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults. Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover-ups. - House of the Devil (2009)
This might seem remarkable to anyone born later than the mid-90s, but folks like me can tell you that Satanic Panic was all too real. I still recall my mother mocking our next door neighbor’s conviction that Satanists were active in the woods surrounding our condo in western Massachusetts. (This same neighbor also thought that bats went for your hair, so go figure.) The most pervasive belief about these Satanists was that they sabotaged children’s Halloween treats with poison, razor blades and needles. Checking candy before eating it was a universally accepted safety practice; I remember my dad saying that, as much as he loved the TV special Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985), the scene of Garfield and Odie letting candy fall into their mouths might be sending the wrong message to kids.
The truth, of course, was that nothing of the kind was happening; in the widely reported case of Tim O’Brien, who died from eating poisoned Pixie Stix on Halloween night in 1974; his own father was the culprit. Down-on-his-luck Ronald O’Brien was looking to collect on a new insurance policy taken out on all of his children, and figured the omnipresent candy tampering would provide a convenient scapegoat, but he was careless and was caught, convicted, and ultimately executed by lethal injection.
Although O’Brien’s story had nothing to do with random sadism, it was widely publicized in the media and ultimately fueled the stories for over a decade. This, of course, was reflected in popular culture, and the deliciously macabre nature of the legend was perfect for horror. "Today it is difficult to imagine that fear of Satanic ritual abuse … plagued a portion of the 1980s population, but the exploitation of that fear throughout the decade’s media is proof that it did," J. Blake Fichera wrote in a Scream Magazine retrospective on The House of the Devil (2009).
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) reflected, in its way, the idea that insidious and evil forces lurked behind the cheery façade of Halloween. In its 1981 sequel Halloween II, the legend was realized onscreen in the form of a poor little boy (Ty Mitchell, The Fog) with a razor blade embedded in his mouth. It’s a dark, sinister moment that demonstrates that horror isn’t limited to the murderous Michael Myers; or, as author David J. Skal writes in his Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002), "Clearly, Halloween in Haddonfield this year is a total bummer."
It was the second sequel to Halloween that would really put the concept of Halloween sadism front and center. In 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an evil toymaker plans to kill scores of children not with candy but with magically charged masks that will cause their faces to explode with insects and snakes. Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) is a witch of the demonic variety, not unlike the Satanists assumed to be behind more mundane atrocities. "It remains the only full-scale fictional interpretation of urban legends about Halloween booby traps and terrorism," Skal wrote in Death Makes a Holiday.
The focus on harming children was likely inspired by the growing Satanic Panic. Apart from Halloween sabotage, many of the stories focused on disturbing and disgusting child abuse. This led to a number of tragic cases in which innocent daycare teachers were sent to prison based on shoddy research and manipulative, misleading conversations with preschoolers. There was even a picture book, Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child’s Book About Satanic Ritual Abuse (1990). One of the more benign pages depicts a Halloween circle time with sinister overtones. “Halloween figured prominently in the conspiracy claims,” Skal wrote. "To the believers in Satanic cults, the holiday was, and is, an open invitation to an orgy of human and animal sacrifice-- a kind of Super Bowl for the 666 set." An orgy of sacrifice is an apt description of Cochran’s plan, which he obviously takes perverse glee in. "I do love a good joke!" he tells his adversary Dr. Challis (Tom Atkins). "And this is the best joke yet-- a joke on the children!"
Although nowhere near as expansive as Halloween III, Kevin Tenney’s Night of the Demons (1988) did touch on the stories. The film focuses primarily on evil spirits wreaking havoc at a Halloween party, but is bookended by a black comedy subplot involving a mean old coot who boobytraps candy because he hates kids and the holiday. He gets his just desserts, literally, when his wife bakes him a pie using razor blade laced apples. The shot of little Ty Mitchell in Halloween II is suitably gory, but Night of the Demons shows us a throat getting sliced open by razor blades. Bon appetit!
The most significant appearance of the legend arrived over a decade later with Trick ‘r Treat (2007). (Funnily enough, the previous Trick or Treat movie, in 1986, was all about Satanic heavy metal.) Michael Dougherty’s cult classic Halloween anthology film incorporated many of the beliefs and practices relating to the holiday. Reflecting the belief that Halloween sadists were hiding among seemingly normal folk, school principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker) is secretly poisoning the same children who attend his school. When he catches Charlie, a local hooligan, smashing pumpkins and snatching candy, he strong arms him into staying to chat and offers him a candy bar. The two sit on Wilkins’ front steps as the principal carves a pumpkin. Wilkins says he was once like Charlie, until his dad set him straight. He waxes poetic about the rituals of Halloween: "All the traditions… costumes, jack-’o-lanterns, handing out treats-- they were started to protect us," he explains. "But nowadays… no one really cares." As Charlie starts to cough and choke, Mr. Wilkins reminds him "There is one more tradition. An important one, too. Always check your candy." The next instant Charlie vomits a torrent of black puke all over the stairs and slumps over, dead.
Inside we get a peek at Wilkins’ chemicals for his candy poisoning operation, while the backyard is filled with the graves of victims. Later, crotchety old Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) takes a bite out of one of those tainted treats and promptly spits it out. Kreeg’s own backstory might owe something to the legends, as he’s revealed to be the driver who tried to drown a school bus full of special needs kids on Halloween many years earlier. Trick ‘r Treat’s world of killers, ghosts, and werewolves certainly suggests that peril is lurking around every corner on Halloween night-- up to and including deadly treats.
Director Chris LaMartina’s loving 80s tribute, WNUF Halloween Special (2013) takes pains to recreate the fun of that decade. Faux commercials for makeup and carving kits and a spooky 1-900 number will bring a smile to the face of anybody who remembers this time period. The Satanic Panic also figures into this retro world. Early on a police officer’s Halloween safety tips include checking candy before eating it, lest you find a razor blade or "a needle infected with the AIDS virus!" (The latter was another hot topic in 1980s urban legends.) In an evening news report on an anti-Halloween protest, Angela Harris of the fundamentalist organization Harvest warns: "Curses have been sent through the tricks and treats of the innocent. There are goblins in the candy. It is prayed over and cursed by witches." A special report on supposed Satanic activity in the area pops up later. [Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen WNUF Halloween Special, get it into your eyeballs as soon as possible and then meet me back here.] In the end, the movie suggests that it’s the fundamentalists who are truly dangerous, as Angela and one of her cohorts murder and mutilate everyone who participates in the titular broadcast. [End of spoiler alert.]
The most recent portrayal of these stories occurred in this year’s excellent sequel, Candyman (2021). In Nia DaCosta’s film, Tony Todd’s Daniel Robitaille is just one of many Candyman figures throughout history. In the prologue, a deceptively sinister looking man is ambushed and killed by police. Known as “Candyman” for his habit of giving out sweets to the kids in the Cabrini Green neighborhood of Chicago, he was immediately suspected for a string of candy poisonings. (Perhaps coincidentally, the murderous Ronald O’Brien was also called “The Candyman” in media reports.) After his death, though, more poisonings occurred; he was innocent, and his vengeful spirit continued to haunt the area. This sets up a recurring theme of racial injustice and trauma that continues throughout the movie. It also leaves open the question of who actually did poison the treats, suggesting a world filled with violence and terror.
We may seem to be moving beyond these tall tales, but in truth they’ve just shifted into new forms. Police propaganda peddling edibles given to children as the new tainted candy; of course, some wonder which address they can visit to get that sort of thing for free. The Satanic Panic lives on as the QAnon conspiracy theory, in which a secret cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles operates at the highest levels of power. This sort of harmful misinformation is troubling, especially in these frightening times, but I can’t help but wonder what kinds of new horror will emerge as a result and what sort of outlandish legends will someday supplant these ones.
Justin Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based film writer, contributor for Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Scream Magazine and many more in addition to being a lover of campy, “Psychotronic” B movies. He's a lifelong horror fan and recurring guest on the Slay Away horror podcast.