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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Iain Murray and Howard Fienberg

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Consumer Reports

Halloween nightmares -- HALLOWEEN is a time for scary stories: tales of ghouls, ghosts, Hookhand and The Boogeyman. Most of us adults know that these stories are not true. But this Halloween the best selling mask is expected to represent Usama Bin Laden, the real-life Boogeyman of recent weeks. With worries over anthrax and e-mail warnings of attacks at malls this year, is there a chance that those scare stories might come true? And isn't Halloween dangerous enough already, with homicidal strangers regularly poisoning trick-or-treat candy? We can't really know what the terrorists might or might not do on Halloween, just like any other day of the year, but we can get a good idea of how much risk our children face by looking at those other "dangers."

Every year, newspapers and television programs send warnings to parents, usually including gravely-worded reminders to check apples for razor blades and needles. Some hospitals and airports offer to X-ray children's trick-or-treat bags as a community service. In fact, this time-consuming and expensive practice has become so widespread that a controversy arose in St. Louis a few years ago when a local hospital decided to stop offering the service.

Why would a hospital be willing to risk children's lives to save a few dollars? Because their experience has been consistent with the national data: Halloween candy-tampering is a myth.

Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware, has studied national criminal data going back to 1958 and found only 76 reports of any kind of tampering. Almost all of these have turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent.

In all that time, there have been only three incidents of children dying in what were reported as cases of tainted candy. But even these had nothing to do with homicidal strangers. A case in 1970 involved a child from Detroit who had stumbled upon, and eaten, his uncle's stash of heroin. The child's parents, not wanting the uncle to go to jail for possession, concocted the tainted-candy story. In 1974, a Houston boy was intentionally poisoned by his father, who then made up the story about contaminated candy. The third case, in 1990, concerned a Los Angeles-area girl with a congenital heart condition. The girl had a fatal seizure while trick-or-treating, and even though her parents immediately notified the authorities about their daughter's heart condition, television, radio and newspapers blared shocking news reports of yet another incident of poisoned Halloween candy. Needless to say, no evidence of tampering was ever found.

Professor Best emphasizes that "It is not the number of cases, it is the fact that there aren't any cases that involve death or injury."

There is one undetermined case. In 1982, 15 children and one adult fell ill following eating candy and cakes supplied at a New Jersey school Halloween party. Some observers were suspicious, although there did not appear to be any tampering. Regardless, no one died. The lack of evidence is such that Mt. Holyoke College criminologist Richard Moran could "not uncover a single case of child murder that could be attributed to Halloween sadists."

But might not our children fall victim to bioterrorism this year? Unlikely. It has been the powerful (Tom Daschle) and famous (Tom Brokaw) that have been the targets. Even the very first victim had reportedly opened a letter that had been addressed, care of his magazine, to Jennifer Lopez. The general public have so far not been targeted.

So why do we persist in scaring ourselves this way? Strangely enough, the reason may lie in how safe our society is for our children. If our children are not subjected to the real horrors of everyday disease, starvation and war that have been major worries for parents throughout history, we still feel a need to protect them from something. The figure of the murderous candy-poisoner or foreign terrorist fills the vacuum very well. But, in protecting children from an unproven threat, parents may not just be taking some of the fun out of childhood but also raising children in an atmosphere of paranoia, which cannot be good for them.

That is all the more true this year. Every day since September 11 we have been subjected to scare stories and tales of imminent terror. But, since that fateful day, very few have died. Three unfortunate people have died in the anthrax scare that has gripped the nation. Far more have died in car accidents - some of which may have happened after people took the decision to drive rather than fly. September 11 reminded us that there are real monsters in the world.

This Halloween we can help defeat them by putting a stake through the heart of irrational fear.

Iain Murray is senior analyst and Howard Fienberg is research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Statistical Assessment Service