Every Halloween, children innocently ask, “trick or treat?” Meanwhile, their parents fear tricks in treats.
Urban legends of Pixy Stix filled with rat poison, razor blades hidden in apples and staples stuck into candy bars have haunted generations of Americans, who scour bags of candy for signs of tampering.
Fortunately, experts say there is no evidence that any child in New Jersey or nationwide ever has been killed or seriously injured from a tainted item picked up while trick-or-treating.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really had a case, thank God,” said Steven Marcus, executive director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center. “But there’s always the fear that there might be some crazy folks out there that might do it.”
It seems every list of Halloween safety tips for decades has included instructions to inspect all items in children’s bags before they eat any of it, and to discard anything that is already opened or tampered with in any way.
“It kind of speaks to our mistrust of people and our view of the world as a dangerous place,” said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at The University of Delaware.
Best is the country’s foremost expert on what he calls “Halloween sadism,” having done an analysis of newspapers nationwide for the past 50 years to find any evidence of contaminated treats hurting children.
“If this happened, it would be a big story, not just in Atlantic City, but it would get picked up probably throughout New Jersey and beyond,” he said. “But really, the absence of news coverage is telling.”
What he found was that every reported case turned out to be ingenuous in some way. Some were downright hoaxes. Others involved allergies or turned out to be instances of parents trying to poison their own children and hiding behind the poisoned candy myth.
“You can’t say that’s it’s never ever happened, because you can’t prove a negative,” he said, “but what you can say is there isn’t any evidence for it.”
Best first published his report on the research in 1985 and has updated it every year since. He said he has never received information from someone proving his research wrong.
Despite that, and countless other news reports highlighting his work, what he calls a “contemporary legend” persists.
But popular fanaticism about the threat seems to have died down to some extent in recent decades and turned to common sense cautiousness.
“When we were kids they told us, ‘Don’t eat the apples because there are razors in them,’” said Hammonton Police Chief Robert Jones. “Usually these days, we’re more concerned with kids crossing streets.”
Pam Brunini, co-president of the PTA at William B. Donini Elementary School, in Buena Boro, Atlantic County, said that she and her friends always check their children’s candy and throw out anything that is already opened.
She also said that concerns about the types of treats children are getting has changed what is given out. Whereas some people used to make homemade treats, such as candied apples, it’s rare now.
She said parents today are much more concerned with realistic, everyday threats, such as food allergies.
“When we get home, we make a pile for Gianna, and a pile she can’t have,” she said, speaking of her 10-year-old daughter who has allergies ranging from peanuts to shellfish to certain fruits. “And the pile that she can’t have usually goes to work with me.”
Francis “Butch” Gazzara, of Folsom, said he remembers when William B. Kessler Memorial Hospital in Hammonton used to x-ray candy bags for free, an offer that more than a few parents accepted each year.
He worked at Kessler for 33 years until it closed in 2009, last as director for critical care services.
“We never came up with anything,” he said, “but as a safety precaution, we offered it for no charge.”
Gazzara now works at the newly opened AtlantiCare Hammonton Health Park. He said he hasn’t heard of any trick-or-treat x-ray services this year.
“I think that fear, or trend, died off,” he said.
Despite little evidence of any treat-dispensing neighbor randomly poisoning children, checking candy for any flaws is a good idea nonetheless.
“It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” said Marcus.
“It’s the best thing in the world to be afraid of,” said Best, who said his wife still always checks their children’s candy.
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