This year's obligatory, viral warning about dangerous Halloween candy came late last month from police in the small town of Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The department encouraged parents to check if their children's treats are laced with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and local news outlets amplified the message alongside images of bags of candy labeled with pot plants and words like "medicated."
Jokes about how stoners would never waste money to get random kids high followed, but parents will still diligently search through their kids' pillow cases and pumpkin pails this weekend. In 2021, fearing contaminated candy is almost as much a Halloween tradition as costumes.
Trick-or-treating became popular after World War II, and not long after came the first rumors of strangers trying to hurt children going door to door on Halloween, according to Joel Best, PhD, a leading expert in Halloween sadism. While he's heard stories dating back to the '50s alleging people dropped pennies heated on stoves into children's outstretched palms, it's in the '60s and '70s, he said, that these claims really took off. Other versions include razor blades in apples and needles in Snickers bars, and weed candy is just the latest one, popping up more frequently as more states legalize marijuana.
But in Best's research, which includes documents as old as 1958, he "can't find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," he told NBCLX. What's more, there are plenty of other phenomena that we've grown accustomed to fearing in daily life despite a lack of evidence that they actually happen. Let's take a look.
Contaminated Halloween candy
Best notes in his research that there are instances of kids seemingly being hurt by Halloween candy, but in all of them, the real cause was something else. Most famously, in 1974, 8-year-old Timothy O'Bryan of Pasadena, Texas, died from eating cyanide-laced candy around Halloween, but it was given to him by his father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who'd taken out a life insurance policy on his son.
"He thought this would be the perfect crime because little kids are getting poisoned by Halloween candy all the time, so the police would never suspect a dad," Best said. Of course, O'Bryan's thought process was based on folklore, so while he never confessed, he was convicted.
Best stressed that it's impossible to prove definitively that something has never happened, but the lack of evidence does prompt the question: Why are people still so scared about contaminated Halloween candy? Best's theory: It's a lot easier to address than climate change, an economic collapse, more pandemics...
Sex offenders using Halloween to attack kids
A Google search for "sex offenders Halloween" generates countless results offering parents advice on how to protect children from pedophiles while roaming the neighborhood asking for candy.
"There was this national moral panic about, 'Oh my God, we need to make sure sex offenders have signs saying, "No candy at this house,"'" author and folklorist Benjamin Radford told NBCLX. "There were a couple of studies done, and there was no increased risk of children being molested, certainly not in costume at a stranger's house, than any other time."
In fact, a 2009 study in the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment called it "a problem that does not appear to exist."
An attacker hiding under your car
Last summer, a viral TikTok resurfaced a fear that has been around for decades: a man hiding under a car in a parking lot waiting to slash his victim's Achilles tendon so she can't run away, facilitating an abduction. In the video, the TikTok user says she heard about it on, unsurprisingly, TikTok, and offers a word of warning.
"We don't have lots of research on gang members hiding under people's parked cars when they come out of the mall," Best quipped, referencing one pre-TikTok version of the story that included a gang initiation. According to Snopes, there are no verifiable reports of slashers under cars, and as the fact-checking site points out, most cars don't have room for an adult to fit below and move freely enough to wield a knife.
If you've ever seen a procedural cop show, then you know white vans are serial predators' preferred method of transport and the go-to description that victims provide. Turns out this imagery draws on urban legend, Radford said, adding that white vans, especially windowless ones, appear over and over again.
"There's something inherently creepy about a white van, especially with tinted windows. It's sort of sinister, lurking, evil clowns in white vans type stuff," he said. "It got so bad ... [that] there were actually people who were being stopped, just ordinary plumbers and craftspeople who were being pulled over by ordinary citizens ... wanting to check their van for abducted kids in the back."
During the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings in October 2002, authorities and media alike created a frenzy over white vans, and many in the area were fruitlessly searched, local outlet WTOP reported. In reality, the shooters drove a dark blue 1990 Chevy Caprice, according to the FBI.
"More often than not, when a folklorist hears a story that involves a white van, we're like, 'OK, I see where this is going,'" Radford said.
Dirty needles left in places where strangers will get stuck
There's no need to wince or prep yourself for a painful prick the next time you reach to get change from a vending machine. According to Radford, the story goes that evil people deliberately leave hypodermic needles in places like movie theater seats and payphone coin returns — that's how long this one's been around — in hopes of injuring a random stranger.
Back in 1999, the CDC even issued an alert responding to one iteration of this rumor, that the needles were infected with HIV. "The CDC are unaware of any cases of HIV infection being transmitted via accidental needlestick, except among healthcare workers," the agency said.
Now, Radford's not denying that people have found hypodermic needles in dangerous places, like theater seats, but the idea that it's part of a conspiracy in which people are doing this intentionally just has "no truth to it," he said.
So what gives these stories their staying power when it's easier than ever to dispute them?
"All these urban legends, they're all plausible," Radford explained. "The person (sharing it) may not even believe it. In fact ... they may be pretty sure that it's BS, but they still think, 'What if it's not? What if I save one life?'"