True Horror is a quarterly column examining true crime representation and misrepresentation in the horror genre. Breanna Lucci looks at how its echoing effects shape public opinion and perception.
"The dark side of this holiday is that hundreds of children will be injured and some may be killed" – Ask Ann Landers, October 31st, 1995.
Halloween is when we celebrate the changing seasons and indulge in the macabre—costumes, frights, scary movies, and…candy. In my youth, trick-or-treating always entailed wearing costumes one size too big so I could fit warm clothes underneath, thanks to the crisp Ohio weather, and carrying my favorite pillowcase to every door on the street.
However, part of the evening never made sense to me. Once I’d gathered every possible delicious piece of chocolate, my father and I would go home and dump everything out of my pillow case and onto our living room floor. We’d search through every package, looking for any holes, openings, or signs that the candy had been tampered with. He'd say, "This is just in case. You can never really trust people." I’d go along with it, grabbing the approved candy and eating as much as possible before being told to stop. While searching through candy didn’t make sense, who was I to question it? Father knows best, right? It wasn’t until years later that I learned the fascinating truth behind tainted Halloween candy and what drove him to ensure my candy was always safe to eat.
In his article, "A brief history of poisoned Halloween candy panic," W. Scott Poole describes how the panic around tainted candy began. Just three days before Halloween in 1970, The New York Times published an op-ed suggesting that strangers use trick-or-treating to poison our youth. Author Judy Klemesrud suggested that the “plump red apple” from the “kindly old lady down the block… may have a razor blade hidden inside.” Unsurprisingly, some took these statements as fact, which only amplified their horror when five-year-old Kevin Toston died two days later after consuming heroin in Detroit. Before figuring out his cause of death, the media reported his uncle’s claim that he’d eaten tainted Halloween candy. This fallacy spread like wildfire that couldn’t be tamed after it was discovered that Toston had consumed the uncle’s heroin, and the tainted candy narrative was nothing more than a cover-up.
On Halloween night in 1974, another child died in Texas. This time, 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan, died after consuming cyanide-laced Pixy Stix. His death became a catalyst for fear-mongering by the media, as countless outlets warned of the dangers of poisoned candy. The following year, Timothy’s father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, was convicted of poisoning Timothy and attempting to poison his daughter, Elizabeth, to collect $60,000 in life insurance. While this truth is grimmer than fiction, the damage was done. Timothy's death became forever intertwined with the tainted Halloween-candy narrative and the myths to this day.
By the 1980s, some communities banned trick-or-treating while others offered candy x-ray services or replaced trick-or-treating with monitored fall festivals. Popular media outlets like Newsweek and the "Ask Ann Landers" advice column continually perpetuated this fear, citing unbacked claims of thousands of children dying from tainted candy and people finding razor blades in candy apples.
Satanic Panic had an almost simultaneous rise to the public consciousness. A fear stemming from a hearty mixture of civil unrest and media fear-mongering cited more baseless claims of Satanic youths participating in an array of morally damning activities. Popular culture revolved around warnings of the dangers of heavy metal music with "hidden satanic messages." People claimed the popular game Dungeon and Dragons opened portals to hell, which the fourth season of Stranger Things (2022) creatively worked into the storyline. There were even reports of daycares becoming hubs for underground satanic networks to abuse children.
Like how current social media algorithms push people into extremist "flame wars" that spread uncertainty and fear to keep people on the platform, mainstream media in the 1970s - 1990s did the same. It wasn’t just news outlets that pushed the candy scare and Satanic Panic. It was the entertainment industry, with films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) furthering the anxiety and dread. As Michael Nordine argued in IndieWire, "The Exorcist made people really, really afraid of being possessed." Ambulances were often stationed near movie theaters to help people who fainted from fear, and countless others lost sleep over the film.
In 1981, Halloween II included a scene where a child had a razor blade in his mouth, which only solidified public panic. The myth lives on more recently with Trick R Treat (2007), which features the school principal giving a student poisoned chocolates. As the child begins to cough, the principal reminds him to "always check your candy."
While seemingly unrelated, the fear of Halloween candy, satanic panic, and pop culture was intertwined throughout the 1970s - 1990s when the news constantly reported unsettling and unfounded information, making it difficult to discern the truth. Political unrest between the civil rights movements for LGBTOIA+ and women’s rights, the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, its echoing consequences, and more overwhelmed everyday life. To avoid these real-life events, people would watch horror films to cope and have a place to focus on their fears.
It makes sense why the fear continues today. It’s arguably true, politically speaking, that things are worse now than ever before. In his article, "Half of Americans anticipate a U.S. civil war soon, survey finds," Rodrigo Perez Ortega reported that of 8600 adults surveyed, "half expect a civil war in the United States in the next few years." Regardless of the scenario's probability, people think things are bad, which is a breeding ground for unfounded fears and societal uncertainty. This is why myths and fears about tainted Halloween candy continue.
In truth, the concept that people taint Halloween candy is nothing more than a myth. The mainstream media, pop culture, and societal unrest have perpetuated this long-held fear. It's not a flawed idea to check candy given by strangers, but you probably don’t need to painstakingly sift through every corner of the candy your child gathered on Halloween night. Kids have been waiting all year to sweat in their Halloween costumes for candy, and to deny them is downright torture.
Breanna Lucci is an Ohio-based freelance writer, columnist, and content editor focusing on blog writing and film analysis, particularly in the horror genre.