(Conversation) – Every year around mid-October, journalists start contacting me wanting to talk about rumors of contaminated Halloween treats.
That’s because I follow media coverage of reported incidents of trick-or-treaters receiving razor blades in apples or needles and poison in candy. My records go back to 1958and my main finding is simple: I can find no evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up during trick-or-treating.
This often surprises people who assume that Halloween sadism is both very real and very common.
Tales of Contaminated Treats are best understood as contemporary legends. These are stories we have all heard, which we were convinced were true. They warn that we live in a dangerous world full of evil strangers who could harm us if we are not careful.
This year, reporters started calling earlier than usual, at the end of September, and wanted to talk about a new alleged threat: “rainbow fentanyl.”
The children are next
Fentanyl is a very powerful synthetic opioid that has caused thousands of overdoses and deaths over the past two decades. In August 2022 anti-drug authorities he noticed that pills containing fentanyl were produced in various colors. DEA Administrator Anne Milgram he said“Rainbow fentanyl — fentanyl pills and powders that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes — are deliberate efforts by drug traffickers to create addiction among children and youth.”
Covered by many news outlets this story, including the idea that the colors could be some kind of marketing ploy to attract younger drug users. But then some people started to associate the fentanyl rainbow with Halloween.
Interviewed on Fox News On September 20, 2022, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel stated, “Every mom in the country is worried, what if this goes into my kid’s Halloween basket?” Other Fox commentators suggested that parents might want to protect their children by not letting them go trick-or-treating this year. And, to prove the bipartisan appeal of child protection, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, repeated the warnings.
The crime of September lays the groundwork
It is worth considering what is known and what is new about these warnings.
One fairly standard element is the willingness of commentators to tie September’s crime news to the possibility that it might foreshadow what might happen on Halloween.
In 1982 there was a rush Tylenol poisoning – seven people died after buying and consuming unauthorized pill packages. Many commentators then warned that parents need to be extra careful when examining Halloween treats. Those deaths also led to a dramatic increase in protective packaging for all types of products to prevent unauthorized use.
Similarly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to rumors of threats for Halloween 2001 – that there were plans to attacked mall where some parents let their kids go trick or treating, or bought by terrorists huge amounts of sweetsprobably so that they could poison the treats before handing them out.
Trends in recreational or illegal drug use often lead to Halloween warnings. In 2014, the year Colorado first allowed the retail sale of recreational marijuana with a state license, Denver police posted online alerts that parents should watch out for edible THC candy in Halloween treats. However, after Halloween passed, a department spokesman admitted“We are not aware of any cases of children ingesting marijuana candy during the Halloween season.”
Similarly, in 2019 September reports The number of deaths caused by black-market THC vaping cartridges combined with news that Pennsylvania authorities seized commercial THC candies — allegedly smuggled out of the state where they can be legally purchased — to prompt another round of Halloween warnings.
The irrationality of everything
One glaring loophole in these concerns is that drugs tend to cost more than candy— edible marijuanafor example, running somewhere in the neighborhood of a dollar or two per dose or more.
Fentanyl is significantly higher expensive. It’s not unreasonable to wonder what the overarching goal of fentanyl dealers might be if they pass off the drug as candy. The suggestion that a school-age child would go from casual fentanyl user to paying addict is far-fetched.
Of course, villains in modern legends are not expected to behave rationally. Ask why gang members would try to kill drivers who they flash their headlights at them – an urban legend from the 1980s – and the answer will probably be: “That’s exactly what those sadistic people do”. It might not make sense for someone to give a small child a brightly colored opiate pill or THC candy, but it’s not impossible, right? Such thinking is thought to justify ringing alarm bells.
There is often a grain of truth in these fears. Fentanyl is certainly a dangerous drug. But American history it can be read as a long line of fears about witches, immigrants, drugs, conspirators and so on. These fears appear as a reflection of current social changes. Yes, things are always changing, and that can always scare some people. But it is also true that, in hindsight, these fears are usually exaggerated.
What seems new in describing rainbow fentanyl as a Halloween hazard is the willingness of major political figures and media outlets to spread warnings. Most previous claims of Halloween sadism lack such prominent spokespeople.
But at a time when many news outlets seem intent on retaining their audience scaring themand increased political polarization seem to be holding back efforts to design workable social policies, calls to protect our children from the threats of drug dealers, are returning us to the spirit of Halloween: offering new ways to scare people.