The Mythical Halloween Sadist


C South Hadley. -- Although Halloween itself dates back several centuries, the myth of the Halloween Sadist was created in the early 1970s. Some of the nation's most prestigious periodicals began reporting the discovery of a dangerous new type of killer.

Newsweek magazine warned that "several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury" from dangerous objects concealed inside Halloween goodies. The New York Times cautioned that the plump red apple that Junior gets from the kindly old woman down the block "may have a razor blade hidden inside."

Legislators in California and New Jersey responded by passing tough new laws. A few communities even tried to ban trick-or-treating altogether. Schools started training children to inspect their goodies for tampering. Soon everyone from Dear Abby to the local police chief was giving advice on how to protect children from Halloween Sadists. Hospitals offered to X-ray children's candy.

Those of us who study crime for a living were immediately skeptical. It seemed implausible that a homicidal maniac would limit his attacks to one night a year. And it sounded too much like the Halloween legend itself.

In 1985 two California State University professors set the record straight. Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi published a study which concluded that the Halloween Sadist was a myth. After examining the nation's newspapers over a 15-year period (1969-1984), they managed to locate only 76 reports of %o tampering with Halloween candy.

Most turned out to be either mistaken or fraudulent; only 20 cases resulted in injuries, and all of them were minor. There were two deaths. One involved a child who ate heroin concealed in candy he found at his uncle's house; the other was a child poisoned by his father, who put cyanide in his candy to make it look like he was killed by a Halloween Sadist.

How then can we explain the persistence of this myth? The Halloween Sadist was created about the time we "discovered" other threats to our children: child abuse, kidnapping, child pornography and, more recently, the hysteria over allowing children with AIDS to attend public schools. These are real problems, but with the exception of AIDS all have existed for centuries. They attracted great publicity only during the last decade an a half -- publicity that is largely unrelated to the actual incidence of the phenomenon.

The causes of our exaggerated fears about children are not well understood. Social scientists might explain them by pointing to the radical transformation of the American family during the last 20 years. The two-career family has given rise to "latchkey children" who return home from school to empty houses. As we spend less time with our children we become more fearful for their safety.

The easy psychiatric explanation is that we are projecting our own fears of an uncertain world onto our children. While the actual causes remain an intriguing social mystery, there is undoubtedly a growing sense in America that our children are no longer safe.

One of the surprising things about the myth of the Halloween Sadist is how few copy-cat crimes it has inspired. My own research did not uncover a single case of child murder that could be attributed to a Halloween Sadist. One might ordinarily expect that a myth that has so captured the public's imagination would have produced more cases, since the criminally insane often play out scripts written by the rest of us.

The most harmful effect of the myth seems to be the emotional difficulties it causes among both adults and children. The social production of unrealistic fears about child safety threatens to produce a nation of anxiety- ridden parents and, more important, a generation of paranoid kids.

The truth is that unless you're a nutrition buff, you really don't have to worry about your child's Halloween candy. What you need to worry about is flammable costumes, masks that obscure a child's vision -- and your kid getting hit by a car in the dark. Take some precautions, but forget about the candy. Let your child be a child, at least one night a year.

Richard Moran teaches sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke College.

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