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How Safe Is Halloween Candy?

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were a lot of stories about people maliciously tampering with Halloween candy. In 1982, concerns increased when seven Chicago-area Tylenol buyers died from cyanide poisoning just before Halloween. Investigators found the packaging had been tampered with and the Tylenol capsules filled with lethal doses of potassium cyanide.

The fear of Halloween poisonings grew

The notion of killing people at random was frightening. People passed around stories of poisoned candy and apples with razor blades and fish hooks hidden inside. The collective fear was so great that the mayors of dozens of cities warned the public to use extreme caution. Chicago mayor Jane Byrne had a million leaflets distributed and the governor of New Jersey signed a bill with a mandatory six-month jail sentence for anyone convicted of handing out contaminated candy or foods. A dozen years later, Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby warned their readers that the dangers of contaminated candy were so great that it was no longer safe to take candy from strangers.

Joel Best is the go-to guy for contaminated candy

Best was a graduate student in sociology when warnings about the danger of poisoned candies given to trick-or-treaters were prominent everywhere. He wondered how many such incidents actually happened in the United States and set off to find out. 

For the last six decades, Best has been collecting and analyzing data

He started his project by searching 25 years of newspaper reports in the Big Three Newspapers: The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times. These big-time newspapers have connections with news syndicates and smaller papers all across the county. They hire stringers who bring noteworthy stories to them to publish nationally when the story is big enough. Any verified reports of Halloween candy victims would quickly make it to the Big Three.

After going through 60 years of newspaper reports, Best was able to find fewer than 100 minor cases of tampered treats

Carolyn Mimbs Nyce, writing in The Atlantic, says Professor Best “has researched this recurring plot for decades and has never found any evidence that a child has been killed or seriously injured by Halloween-candy tampering.” The New York Times said the legend of killer candy may have begun in 1959, when a California dentist handed out 450 laxative pills with candy coating. Only 30 of those trick-or-treaters got sick and none were hospitalized.

If it’s not the candy, why do so many kids die on Halloween?

It’s not poison or razor blades. It’s kids walking around in the dark, crossing streets while wearing masks that make it difficult to see, and tripping over their own costumes. The National Institutes of Health says children are twice as likely to be killed by an automobile on Halloween than any other time. Even more startling is their finding that pedestrian fatalities increase tenfold among children aged 4 to 8.

This year, The Not-So-Great-Pumpkin answers your Halloween questions

Where did the idea of dressing up and going around trick-or-treating come from? In medieval Europe, people would travel from door to door offering prayers for those trapped in purgatory. Grateful, the people of the household would give them small cakes to take with them.

Why do we wear costumes and masks on Halloween? To impersonate dead ancestors and trick the ghosts. For thousands of years, everyone knew for a fact that ghosts of the deceased would disguise themselves in human form and knock on your door to ask for food or money. As the superstition went, if you turned these travelers away, you would be haunted evermore.

Why do we say trick or treat? You’d think it would be another ancient custom, but no. The first time the phrase was mentioned in print was in a Canadian newspaper in the 1920s. Most contend the trick is a prank done to those who didn’t give them a treat.

Why are ghosts part of Halloween? It’s thousands of years of the tradition of wearing costumes and lighting bonfires to protect against ghosts, phantoms, and specters.

What about spiders? Most people are scared of spiders because they know some of them are deadly. The Black Widow is nearly as famous as the one that sat down beside Little Miss Muffet. Spider decorations tend to be huge, adding a mutant touch that makes them even scarier. Haunted houses are ideal spots for spider webs.

Why are witches, black cats, and black bats symbols of bad luck? Back in the Dark Ages, they were the preferred pets of witches, and everyone feared witches. Two thousand years ago, on the Celtic equivalent of New Year’s Eve, demons and the spirits of the dead walked the earth. Witches used magic powers to do evil and harm others. During the 1300s, one in three people across Europe died from The Black Death. Estimates of how many died range from 75 to 200 million. Panicked people attributed the deaths to witches and other supernatural forces of evil. You may know it as the Bubonic Plague.

Where did the jack o’ lantern come from? Ireland. As the story goes, Jack lost his soul and was condemned to purgatory. Wandering through the endless darkness, he used a lantern made by putting a burning lump of coal inside a hollowed-out turnip. Jack’s lantern had a scary face carved on it to frighten away the evil spirits.

Why are Halloween colors orange and black? Pumpkins, witches, cats, and spiders.

What are Billboard’s Top Three Halloween songs? Monster Mash, Thriller, and This Is Halloween.

When did wrapped candies replace fruits, nuts, and homemade cookies? In the 1960s, candy manufacturers began to heavily promote their products as more affordable, convenient, and safer. By the 1970s, factory-made wrapped candy had become the norm. Today, billions of dollars are spent on wrapped candy every year.

How much will be spent on Halloween this year? Probably a few billion dollars more than the $10 billion spent on costumes, decorations, and candy last year.

How many Americans say they participate in Halloween activities? Three out of four. The highest rate is among Young Moderns between 18 and 34,

How many Americans believe in ghosts? CNN says it’s nearly half. The higher the level of education, the lower the number of believers.

How many Americans say they’ve seen a ghost? Not counting the Ghostbusters movies, one in five.


Snopes.com calls itself “The definitive fact-checking site and reference source for myths, legends, rumors, folklore, and misinformation.” They checked the claim, “People have documented cases of people randomly distributing poisoned goodies to children on Halloween,” and say it’s false.

There is one case from 1974 that wasn’t random. An eight-year-old boy died after eating Pixie Stix that contained a lethal dose of cyanide. The courts decided that the boy’s father was guilty of poisoning his own son to collect on a life insurance policy. Ten years later, Ronald O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection.


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