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Does the word candy kill? – the legend of poisoned Halloween treats

On Halloween night, 2018, Amy Dixon, mother of four, arrived flustered and tearful at Wallsend Police Station in North Tyneside. She presented to police officers a brown jiffy bag containing around eight pills, which she claimed were the drug ecstasy. More disturbingly, Amy recounted, was the manner in which the bag came into her possession. It was collected by her daughter that evening whilst out trick-or-treating in her local neighbourhood of Shiremoor. The pills, which her daughter assumed to be sweets, were spotted just in time to prevent them from being eaten. 

As Amy describes the events, she herself had stayed home that evening to prepare dinner, whilst her partner, Mark Richardson, took the four children, aged between 2-13, out trick-or-treating. Their travels mostly included the local streets close to their house on Farne Road. After a sufficient stash of goodies were collected the group returned home, and five-year-old Lexi-Mai rushed to show her mother all the sweets she had collected. Eager to begin sampling her horde, Lexi-Mai sprayed her bucket of sweets across the kitchen counter, with all manner of treats laid out in front of her she couldn’t resist just diving straight in. Amongst the collection was a single unmarked brown jiffy bag, to which Lexi-Mai was curiously drawn. Upon opening it she found a collection of what looked like pink sugar sweets. Quickly partner Mark snatched the bag away, claiming they didn’t look like ordinary sweets. Amy soon showed the sweets to a neighbour, who thought they were ecstasy pills. Amy then drove to the local police station to report the incident, stopping outside in her car to record a ‘reaction’ video for Facebook. The social media video soon spread, and the story was picked up by press and media across the UK. 

Police have logged a report on the matter and have taken the ‘sweets’ as evidence. Northumbria Police have stated; “We are investigating a report from a parent that unknown pink tablets were placed in her daughter’s trick-or-treat bucket in Shiremoor last night. Enquiries to establish if the tablets are harmful are ongoing but any reports of this nature are extremely concerning and will be taken seriously by police.”

The idea of a child collecting some mysterious treat during Halloween, that is seemingly designed to seriously injure, or even kill, is not a new one. This is what is known as the Halloween poison candy legend, and is a common scare-story that frequents the season, occasionally in the UK, but more often through America. It should be noted that although scare stories, rumours and urban legends surround the distribution of poison Halloween treats, no cases of strangers killing or seriously injuring children in this manner have ever been proven. That is not to say Amy Dixon’s account is not accurate, but that the context of trick-or-treating, and especially Halloween itself, may be an irrelevance. 

Joel Best, professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, is considered a leading authority on Halloween poison candy, and can explain the legend in more detail. When talking about poisoned trick-or-treat goodies, Best has said, “You cant say that it never happens, but it certainly isn’t a giant problem.” In his 1985 essay ‘The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends’ Best describes the principle fears around poisoned candy, and how they relate to a danger to children and a contamination of food. 

Fears around contaminated food gained popularity in the general public consciousness following the changes in food production associated with the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly food was not made locally, by known and trusted neighbours, in kitchens and bakeries visible to those who ate the bread, pies, and sweets made in them, rather it was made in some remote location, involving strangers and new machines. During such social change, fears were actually exacerbated by many local Doctors, who would often blame sickness in children on strange things they had been eating. By the 1890s the US Bureau of Chemistry was called to inspect foods produced specifically for children, such was the general insistence that many products were contaminated with something. After investigating numerous facilities and hundreds of products, they found nothing to suggest there was any evidence of sweets and candy containing poison, industrial waste, or any other contaminants.

The fear of strangers, contaminated food and the targeting of children reemerged in America during the 1960s and 70s. Another time of social change, old legends were reinvented for a new audience. Following the economic boom of post-war America, many social conventions of old were challenged, as racial integration was encouraged, and women were able to make notable steps to greater social status.  Many questioned the levels of trust between those of different social standing as well as cultural and ethnic difference, and found changes to who could do what within society disconcerting. African Americans were no longer limited to segregated facilities, or menial low-paid labour jobs, equally women were not confined to the role of housewives, all had the potential to become people of responsibility, as much as any other, or certainly in a way far improved from previous generations. Other events – the assassination of a president, the Cold War, a long and ugly conflict in Vietnam – all contributed to a growing feeling of paranoia, and an erosion of trust in figures of authority. Given this context, the Halloween poison candy legend essentially asks the question – do you really trust your neighbour?

The 1983 essay, ‘Does the word Dog bite? Ostensive Action: A Means of Legend-Telling’ written by folklorists from the University of Indiana, Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi, discusses the idea of ostension as a method of how urban legends develop through a society. Ostension, as it relates to folklore, is a way of communicating a legend, or developing an aspect of an existing legend, by means of acting out part of the narrative. For example, someone may act out and claim an existing legend as their own experience, others may misinterpret the actions of others as an example of such a legend, or people may re-evaluate real events to fit the narrative of a legend. Local stories of haunted houses and mysterious boogymen generally develop this way, and in turn create a palpable manifestation of a story that evolves with each reenactment, or perceived reenactment.

In Dégh and Vázsonyi’s essay Halloween is used as a specific example of ostension, as it is ‘based on legends, communicates legends, and creates legends.’ Noted too is the idea of ‘status reversal’ within the context of Halloween, where power structures are changed around – such as children who go door to door extorting gifts from obedient adults. Role reversal is common through costume, with the young and innocent transforming into the old and grotesque, adults change genders, upstanding citizens become masked villains and monsters, the living pose as the dead. Austrian psychoanalyst Richard Sterba argues too that, in general, Western society has a habit of suppressing knowledge around the reality of death, specifically in the context of children, however, Halloween night seems to actively encourage the opposite. With children dressing as ghouls, ghosts, monsters and zombies, and travelling house to house, the most innocent of society become the most potent and noticeable representations of the spirits of the dead. It is not surprising therefore, given this scenario, that many of the scare stories that originate from Halloween come from the imaginations of the children themselves, as they are whipped up into a morbid frenzy around the themes of death, fear, and collection of trick-or-treat candy.

The narrative of poisoned Halloween candy is a perfectly crafted one for the season. It centres on the ritual of trick-or-treat, of interaction with strangers, and of the fear expressed between children and the monsters they dress as and also encounter on their evening festivities. Early examples of tainted Halloween treats emerged in the late 1940s, with The New York Times publishing a story in 1948 warning of the dangers of poisoned candy. Since 1964, the year after the assassination of JFK, and the year in which the Civil Rights Act was passed, America has not been without some form of annual Halloween trick-or-treat scare story. As Dégh and Vázsonyi point out, many such legends develop first by rumour, and then by action. In what is termed the ‘incubation period’, scare stories are imagined first, and then acted out second through the ritual of ostensive reenactment. Many of these stories are just that, works of fiction, others are exaggerated or misinterpreted events, repurposed to fit the mood of the season. Though, as with many good legends, there is a kernel of truth to some of them. 

In 1959 Californian dentist William Shyne handed out around 450 laxative pills coated in sugar to trick-or-treaters. Around 30 children consumed the treats, and subsequently suffered the consequences of eating a bag full of laxative, though none were seriously harmed. Five years later, Long Island resident Helen Pfeil took to pranking teenage trick-or-treaters she deemed too old to be out asking for Halloween candy. Pfeil’s prank involved the handing out of arsenic soaked poison pellets, known as ant buttons, to selected children. It was eventually discovered she had handed out nineteen such ‘joke bags’. Though no one had consumed any of her ‘treats’, the prank resulted in her eventually being questioned by Police, and charged with two counts of child endangerment. 

A more sinister case of poisoning began in the run up to Halloween 1982. Known as the Chicago Tylenol murders, when seven people died during late September after consuming Tylenol brand acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. The poisonings were seemingly random, with tainted bottles of capsules hidden amongst non-tainted ones on the shelves of local stores. Widespread panic resulted in company Johnson & Johnson recalling the 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation at the time. The case has never been solved, only adding to public fear of a crazed boogyman out to randomly poison people around the Halloween festival. Fears concerning trick-or-treating poisoning were at an all time high that season, unsurprisingly numbers of children going out door-to-door asking for candy dropped considerably that year. Matters were not helped by a number of copy-cat style crimes committed following the Chicago Tylenol murders. Cases emerged of pills tainted with rat poison, others involved medication containing hydrochloric acid.

Especially in the cases of children, several deaths occurring on October 31st have been misattributed to events concerning the celebration, and specifically consumption of poisoned treats. In 1970 five-year-old Kevin Toston died in mysterious circumstances just after Halloween. Traces of heroin in his system resulted in a story that he had eaten Halloween candy sprinkled with the drug. Medical analysis soon suggested the quantity of heroin was similar to that commonly found within a capsule of the drug, and it then emerged that Kevin had eaten a stash of his Uncle’s heroin, and the family attempted to cover it up by blaming it on poison candy.

Another case occurred in 1974, when Ronald O’Bryan had taken his two children, including  eight-year-old son Timothy out trick-or-treating. Going out in a group with their neighbour, along with some other children, they began the ritual of calling at homes in their local area. After the group called on one door the house remained silent, the occupant had failed to answer, so the children ran ahead. Ronald’s neighbour went with the children, but Ronald briefly stayed behind. Rejoining soon after, Ronald presented the children each with a Pixy Stix – a sweet and sour powdered candy treat packaged to look like a drinking straw – that he claimed had been given by the previous house who had, eventually, answered the door. On returning home Timothy ate some of the Halloween candy, including the Pixy Stix. He began vomiting, and became limp, concerned parents soon rushed him to hospital, but it was no use, he died en-route, less than an hour after eating the candy. It was later found that father Ronald had laced the sweets with cyanide in order to cash in on the life insurance payout following his Son’s death. There had been no mysterious boogyman at the silent house, Ronald was just waiting for an opportunity to present his tainted sweets. His plan was to make the death look like a random Halloween poison candy attack, and it is just pure luck that none of the other children ate the other Pixy Stix, as they too contained cyanide. O’Bryan was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death, ultimately receiving his own lethal injection of poison, in March 1984.

Other deaths occurring on or around Halloween night have also been attributed to tales of poison candy, such as that of Ariel Katz, a seven-year-old from Santa Monica, who died whilst trick-or-treating in October 1990. After she collapsed and died whilst out for Halloween, police quickly warned parents to confiscate any treats picked up in the streets that Ariel had been out in. Officers cordoned off the area, and began hunting door-to-door, looking for the source of the poisoned sweets. However, it later transpired that Ariel Katz had been diagnosed earlier that year with having a heart murmur, and was not receiving any medical treatment for the condition. It was this, not candy, that was the cause of her death.

Reports of actual Halloween candy being tampered with, with the malicious intent to cause harm to strangers, specifically children, is so rare, both in the UK and the USA, that it is virtually non-existent. Like the cases discussed above, deaths are generally coincidental, and misattributed to some aspect of the Halloween season, or like the case of Ronald O’Bryan, pre-meditated murder targeting a specific individual. Though it is not true to say that no cases of tampering have ever been found, though often they do not take the form of poisoning. Since 1959 there have been approximately 80 cases recorded through America of foreign objects, such as pins or razor blades being discovered having been placed into Halloween treats. Of these, the vast majority were found to be hoaxes, conducted in most part by the children themselves, though sometimes also the parents, and only ten resulted in minor injury. That averages out to one minor injury, every 5 to 6 years, from adulterated Halloween candy.

Pranks with the intention to scare is all part of the Halloween tradition, and in good taste or not, a razor blade obviously lodged into an apple and given out as a Halloween treat, is largely considered to be a joke. Generally those who devise such pranks, like Helen Pfeil and her ant buttons, do not fully think through the potential consequences. The intention is to scare, it is not to seriously injure and certainly not aimed to kill, and in most cases the recipient will either be in on the joke, or the joke so obvious that it can’t be confused with hidden intent. Many razor-blade-in-apples accounts were later shown to be devised by the children themselves, pushing a shaving blade into a piece of fruit for example, and then using the item to ‘freak out’ their parents.

One exception may be the case of James Joseph Smith, a resident of Minneapolis, who, in 2000, was caught after putting needles into Snickers bars and handing them out to children. This was not done as a prank, Smith was genuinely out to hurt strangers. He was charged with adulterating a substance with the intent to harm, after a fourteen-year-old bit into one of the chocolate bars, cutting himself on the needle and requiring medical attention. A possible copy-cat case emerged in Ohio, in 2015, when a child discovered a razor blade pushed inside a Snickers bar. It was however a single isolated incident, and Reynoldsburg police lieutenant Shane Mauger had stated it was the first such case of tainted candy he had seen in nineteen years on the force.

Equally the idea of drugs being produced specifically to target children, is an often circulated, but infrequently proven occurrence. Part of the potency of Amy Dixon’s account of her daughter almost eating ecstasy pills is the notion that they readily resemble sweets, and that children are susceptible to trying them if they ever come into contact with such drugs. Warnings about free drugs deigned to have a candy-like appearance in order to hook children are widely untrue. Reports of ‘Strawberry Quik’ a type of methamphetamine aimed at children emerged during 2007, when bright pink forms of crystal meth appeared resembling rock candy sweets. The shape, colour, and strawberry flavour was all designed, according to rumours, to make the drug appealing to children. Emails warning of the drug being used to tempt children into trying meth are still being circulated. However subsequent statements by federal drugs agencies have claimed that the name of the drug is in reference to the bright colour of the drug, created as part of the production process, it has nothing to do with any flavouring. US Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Michael Sanders has said methamphetamine targeted at children is not a trend or a real problem, rather it is an urban legend, fuelled by concerned parents sharing viral emails. 

Other cases of illegal drugs allegedly targeted specifically at children include brightly coloured cannabis ‘pots’ – jars containing real cannabis plant heads, inscribed with names such as ‘bubblegum’ and ‘peanut butter’. Another is a variety of MDMA tablet, moulded to resemble Lego bricks, which appeared in 2016. In both cases police issued statements warning about the drug, and also how they believed the style of manufacture meant the intent was to target children. There is however a long established history of particular types of drugs resembling garishly coloured sweets. Partly, in the case of pills, such mouldings likely already exist making some aspects of production easier, and second, drugs such as ecstasy are promoted as ‘fun’. Bright, often child-like designs, smiley faces, along with references to children’s television, are all part of the acid-house and rave cultures to emerge in the late 1980s, a fashion now synonymous with increased recreational use of drugs like ecstasy.

The fear that such drugs are being made to target children has also, unsurprisingly, been pulled into the Halloween poison candy legend – as seen with Amy Dixon’s experience – however hers is not the first such account. In September 2015 scare stories began being shared via Facebook around images of ‘new shapes of ecstasy’, specifically aimed at killing kids, that were likely to be distributed via Halloween trick-or-treat gifts. The rumours even resulted with Police in Jackson, Mississippi, putting out warnings about MDMA laced Halloween candy. Other Halloween rumours involve circulation of drug-laced gummy bears, and in 2017, again via Facebook, rumours of pink-teddy-bear shaped ecstasy pills being given out to children on Halloween began to circulate. 

This Halloween, over in Galion, Ohio, five-year-old Braylen Carwell tested positive for methamphetamine after he was taken to hospital following his eating of some trick-or-treat candy. The assumption his sweets had been purposefully contaminated with the drug prompted warnings concerning tainted candy being circulated in the local area. Police had begun advising families in Galion to be vigilant and to check all of their children’s collected candy for anything suspicious. Further investigation however has revealed that Braylen’s parents have a history of drug use, and a search of the family home uncovered drug paraphernalia, along with marijuana and meth. Tests on Braylen’s candy came back negative for traces of any drugs, suggesting it most likely his consumption of methamphetamine is related to some activity within the home.

Back in Shiremoor, Amy Dixon’s bag of pills, collected by daughter Lexi-Mai, and then delivered to Police, have now been confirmed as ecstasy. Police have also stated however that no other reports of children receiving tablets like this in the area have occurred. The Lexi-Mai case is being treated as an isolated incident, and Chief Inspector Ron Charlton has stated that ‘we believe it more likely the tablets have been received by accident’. So why did Lexi-Mai receive a bag of ecstasy pills? Perhaps a drug pick-up gone wrong, delivered to the wrong family, taken somehow by accident, possibly even given as a joke, but without more information, you can only speculate. One thing is clear though, the spectre of the Halloween boogyman, dishing out poisoned treats to children, lives on for another year.

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Daisy the Dog and post-trauma mythology

A touching story concerning a dramatic rescue of survivors trapped in the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center continues to circulate online through social media channels. The story concerns ‘Daisy’, a golden retriever and guide dog to worker James Crane, who was working on the 101st floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the first plane struck on September 11th 2001. So the story goes that on hearing a great explosion several floors below, James instinctively knew he was about to die, and that as a blind man he had little to no hope of navigating his way down a hundred floors of a burning, and soon to be collapsing, building. He instructed his beloved guide dog Daisy to flee. James believed he wouldn’t make it out, but he reasoned Daisy just might, and so sent her off into the panic and smoke of the building while he himself sat down calmly, awaiting his fate. There he sat for approximately 30 minutes until Daisy re-appeared, along with James’ boss, whom the dog had recovered from the 112th floor. Daisy, along with James’ boss, began to lead James gradually down the fire routes to safety. On their way the group came across many other trapped survivors and, thanks to the instincts of Daisy, they eventually navigated 300 people out of the burning building. The miraculous rescue does not end there. Against James’ wishes Daisy dashed back inside the World Trade Center, the structure now on the verge of total collapse. A time later Daisy re-appeared, along with a group of another 392 people she had found inside. Daisy, knowing yet more people were trapped inside, dashed back into the building again, with James pleading her to come back. This time, whilst Daisy was inside, the building collapsed. James fell to his knees in tears. But from the burning rubble a fire fighter appeared out of the smoke, carrying Daisy in his arms. The dog was alive, but with four burnt paws and suffering smoke inhalation. Behind them, another 273 people Daisy managed to round up and guide to safety. On that day Daisy directly helped save 967 lives. For her gallantry Daisy was awarded the Canine Medal of Honour for New York, the first civilian canine ever to receive such an award.

It’s a heart-warming tale of hope and survival, juxtaposed against the tragic backdrop of the 9/11 attacks on New York. It would be lovely if such an account was true, or even partially true, but in this case, it is entirely fiction. A version of this story has been circulating online since as early as November 2001, and always presented as if a factual account. So much do people want this story to be true that it continues to be widely circulated seventeen years later, a far longer life-span than many internet memes. Rumours have attributed its origins to a story published in The New York Times on 19th September 2001, but no story even faintly resembling Daisy the dog was published by that paper, or any other, on that date, or at any time since. 

There are accounts of guide dogs helping individuals to escape the Twin Towers, and so it is a possibility that Daisy is just an extrapolation of these accounts, though it is a wild exaggeration if that is the case. The closest real events that can be related to the Daisy the dog myth involve the story of Michael Hingson, a blind worker who was guided to safety by his guide dog Roselle from the 78th floor. Another worker, Omar Rivera, also made it out of the Twin Towers safely after being aided by his dog Salty, this time from the 71st floor. In both cases the only people involved in the ‘rescue’ were the dog and its owner, and in both cases such an escape prompted subsequent media attention and recognition. Michael Hingson has even written a book concerning his account, Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust (2011), a best-seller that prompted Hingson to also produce the sort-of prequel Running with Roselle (2013). Both dogs, Roselle and Salty, were awarded the Dickin Medal for their efforts concerning 9/11, an award for gallantry granted by the PDSA. Generally the award is reserved for animals serving in military conflict, essentially an animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor. A third dog, Appollo, also received the Dickin Medal, but did so on behalf of all search and rescue dogs involved with activity around ground zero. A great number of search and rescue dogs were used to explore the rubble of the Twin Towers, risking their lives for nearly 3 weeks in a bid to save others. Yet, even if every dog story even faintly associated with 9/11 were combined into one uber-narrative, the real events would not come close to the claims of Daisy. If her tale was true, she would likely be the most famous dog in the world, not some obscure unsung hero confined to internet memes.

The interesting questions around the Daisy the dog story are why it came to exist in the first place, and why people are so ready to believe and circulate it. Firstly though, for those in any doubt, there are clear reasons as to why there is certainty the story is a myth. At 8.46am, when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower, it smashed a gigantic hole into the building, essentially destroying the 93rd-99th floors. Those on these floors would have likely died instantly, and the vast majority of those on the floors above would have not fared better, the resulting fireball from the exploding plane quickly devastating the upper-levels. Indeed, only 19 people survived the 9/11 attacks who were in either tower above the point of impact. James Crane was not one of them; indeed he wasn’t on any floor, as no worker of that name existed in association to the north tower. The 101st floor, where it is claimed he was based, was occupied by a number of companies—Cantor Fitzgerald, Kidder Peabody & Co, The Boomer Esiason Foundation, eSpeed, and the charity Chances for Children—none of which employed a James Crane. His boss, who worked on the 112th floor is certainly not real either, for no less of a reason that the north tower only had 110 floors. Even the Canine Medal of Honour award is false, the closest award as previously mentioned is the Dickin Medal. No dog named Daisy has ever been awarded the Dickin Medal, and no dog, or any other animal, has been awarded the medal for events resembling her story; the closest are Roselle, Salty and Appollo. Stories concerning survivors of 9/11 filled newspapers for a considerable time, and there is not a chance that one concerning a guide dog rescuing close to 1000 people would have been missed by every media company in the world.

The September 11th attacks on America comprised of four coordinated terrorist attacks involving the hijacking, and subsequent intentional crashing, of passenger airlines. Two of the planes crashed into, and destroyed, the World Trade Center in New York, while a third plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, America’s headquarters of its national department of defense. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, came down in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers overpowered the hijackers, ultimately sacrificing themselves to prevent greater loss of life. Flight 93 was headed for Washington, DC, with the likely target of the White House. The attacks on that day killed 2996 people and injured more than 6000. There was approximately $10 billion of infrastructure and property damage associated with the attacks, and the financial hub of America, New York City, saw an economic decline of $27.3 billion in the year following the events of 9/11. The events became a type of national trauma for America, one of the most significant and destructive attacks on its own soil in the history of the nation. Media response to 9/11 was unprecedented, and for the vast majority of Americans it was through the screens of their televisions that the events were presented to them. Certainly a defining moment, for many Americans recent history can be divided into Pre-9/11 and Post-9/11.

A national trauma is a wounding event, or series of events, that affects a large collective of people and, as a consequence, leads to a notable collective response. Common responses to instances of national trauma frequently involve a call to national unity, and a greater demand to improve the moral purification of a country’s citizens. This can be evidenced after the 2001 attacks in America, with noted increases in church attendance, greater focus on family and home life, and a growth in patriotic acts such as frequent flying of the national flag. Psychoanalyst Charles B Strozier, who produced the book Until the Fires Stop Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses (2011), argues that the collective trauma suffered by the American people in the wake of 9/11 activated deep-seated complexes in the national psyche around apocalyptic fears, or what he refers to as ‘Endism’. Put simply, Endism is the realisation that we will all die, and the palpable realism of that thought brought about by a real world event. A common response is fear, or horror, and in the case of 9/11 feelings of anger and rage were also rampant. Such emotions can be easily manipulated, directly or indirectly, through conscious action or subliminal shifts in culture.

With the case of 9/11 examples of such subsequent cultural shifting are numerous. From changes in music taste governed by revised radio playlists, to heighted national security and the ongoing ‘War on Terror’, the impact has been both subtle and profound, and certainly long-lasting. Fear and paranoia are exemplified by the increased hostility toward Muslim communities, often seen through simplistic post-9/11 views that pigeon-hole many Middle Eastern countries as hotbeds for fundamental terrorists. Such shifts in attitude impact culture, and 9/11 certainly has its share of post-trauma mythologies. Most obviously this can be seen in the numerous 9/11-inspired conspiracy theories, generally dark, paranoid, and focused on government corruption or sinister New World Order plots to enslave humanity. Real effort has been put into providing credibility to the long disproven theory that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition, as well as far more outlandish claims, like those of Dr Judy Wood, who claims a directed energy beam from space vaporised the towers by a process that she terms ‘dustification’.

There is another brand of post-trauma mythology that is as based as much in fiction as the paranoid conspiracy theories. This brand does not deal so directly with fear and rage, as it does with hope and sympathetic emotion. There are several fraudulent 9/11-themed claims that could be described as appeals to emotion that have clear ulterior motives, beyond creation of a simple feel-good story. One example is the account of Alicia Esteve Head, a woman of Spanish origin who falsely claimed to be a survivor of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Her claims involve her survival by crawling through smoke and flames to escape the 78th floor of the south tower. She later established an online forum for survivors of 9/11, and Gerry Bogacz, founder of the World Trade Center Survivors Network, soon found out about Head’s forum and assimilated the group into his own. ‘Tania Head’, as she was now calling herself, became a prominent member of Bogacz’s group, and by 2005 she was delivering talks at universities about her experiences and leading tours for the Tribute WTC visitor center. Head was featured in numerous 9/11-themed articles, was photographed with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and eventually became president of the World Trade Center Survivors Network. In September 2007 The New York Times began research toward a 9/11 anniversary piece focusing on noted survivors. They began to look into the histories of survivors, such as Tania Head, with the aim of enriching their article. It was at this point that her claims began to rapidly unravel.

 Tania Head had given so many talks about her life experiences that her whole history had gradually become one of fiction through numerous embellishments. She claimed a degree from Harvard and employment by Merril Lynch Wealth Management. For added tragic twist, her fiancé ‘Dave’ was killed in the attack on the north tower. Research from The New York Times found that neither Harvard or Merril Lynch had any record of her, and later that ‘Dave’ was David S Suarez, who did die during 9/11, but his family had never heard of a Tania Head. Claims were even made of a charity set up by Head in Suarez’s honour – ‘Dave’s Children Foundation’ – but again no records of any such charity exist. Finally, evidence emerged that Tania Head was Alicia Esteve Head, and on September 11th, 2001 she had in actual fact been recorded as sitting in class at ESADE, a private Jesuit education institution, in Barcelona. Travel records showed the first time that she stepped foot in America was in 2003. Serious questions needed serious answers. She soon fled from public view, and in 2008 a rumour was circulated (likely from Head herself) that she had committed suicide. In a final twist, documentary film maker Angelo J Guglielmo Jr, whilst making the film The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012) about the Tania Head story, tracked down the alive and well Alicia Head, still living in New York City as of 2011. If the desire motivating her false claims was to gain attention, Alicia Head was certainly successful, if only for a period. She claims she never really made any money through her deception. If her aim was to offer hope that perhaps one more person did in actual fact survive 9/11, then this seems less clear, but it remains a possible aspect of her actions.

Some appeals to emotion are more blatant in their materialistic motivations, such as the account of Cyril Kendal, who claimed his son, Wilfred, died during 9/11. For his loss Cyril later received $160,000 in compensation via the Red Cross. He subsequently spent a significant amount of the money on a sports car, but soon after it was revealed that he in fact had no Son — Wilfred Kendel had never existed. Cyril was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Certain types of stories that have emerged are clearly inspired by traumatic events—stories that are joyous, hopeful, uplifting and life-affirming—all of which have claimed to be true, but all of which are complete fabrications. Their reason for existence does not seem to be part of any paranoid conspiracy theory or a direct scam, yet they do seem capable of having a tangible influence on some members of society. This is a sub-genre of fiction-presented-as-fact that I term ‘Hope-Porn’, which resides somewhere between click-bait spam and conspiracy theory; certainly Daisy the dog sits comfortably within this category. Hope-Porn is always false; Hope-Porn is a cathartic response to a tragedy, personal or national; Hope-Porn narratives often borrow their structure from religious sources, or reference divine intervention; and in Hope-Porn, either everybody lives, or a death has profound meaning.

Hope-Porn can be seen as similar to the idea of Inspiration-Porn, a term coined by Australian disability rights activist Stella Young. With Inspiration-porn, remarkable, or seemingly remarkable, achievements accomplished by people with a disability are presented as wondrous triumphs, either in a condescending ‘they’re almost like normal people’ tone, or as some sort of magical super-power worship. The accounts render any achievements of a person with disabilities as uplifting inspirational fodder for the consumer, objectifying the individual at the heart of the story. Equally similar is the idea of a ‘Glurge’, a catch-all term for an inspirational tale, overtly fictional or otherwise, which often conceals a much darker meaning than the moral lesson it seems to present. Frequently such things take the form of sentimental parables that hammer home a simplistic moral message at the expense of wider ethics or logic.

Examples of Hope-Porn can be found with reasonable frequency online, and many ‘amazing true story’ click-bait items can at least contain some of the required ingredients. An example with some parallel to Daisy the Dog is the story generally titled ‘The Old One’. Here, in the run up to Christmas, a brother and sister visit the farm where their elderly parents keep a heard of horses. The youngsters despair at the poverty of the farm, pleading with their parents to not waste more money on caring for old show horses. As the brother and sister depart, the barn catches fire, due to some old and frayed electrical cable. No one notices as the blaze begins to spread, except ‘the old one’ — the oldest horse in the barn. By the time the fire department arrives, nothing is left of the barn but smouldering ash, and the old couple are devastated at their loss, assuming all their horses dead. A walk to a nearby hill to gather their thoughts turns sadness to joy, as behold, the old one stands, surrounded by the entire herd they thought they had just lost. The story actually has its origins in a sermon written by the Reverend David L Griffith, around 1998. Always intended to be a parable about caring for the old, it was revived into a ‘true story’ sometime around 2005 and is often attributed to be the account of the equally fictitious Eunice Day. The tragedy here may be a more generic house fire, but it could be easily seen as relevant to anyone recently having suffered some form of loss.

Another example is the story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, which is sometimes circulated as ‘The Fence’, and concerns a Jewish holocaust survivor and the girl who once fed him apples over the fence of a concentration camp. The girl is described as an angel, sent by Herman’s dead mother to look after him. Years after the war has ended, Herman is taken on a blind date, and discovers his date is none other than the apple-girl, who he credits with his survival. He proposes to her then and there, and the pair remain happily married for the next 50 years. Herman Rosenblat is a real holocaust survivor, who began writing his memoirs during the 1990s. By 2008, Berkley Books, who planned to publish the finished work, Angel at the Fence, withdrew plans to do so as it came to light much of the narrative was false. There was never a girl who gave apples at the fence, and although Herman did marry Roma, the circumstances of their engagement are quite different. The story still circulates in an abridged form online, and rumours of a film adaptation of Rosenblat’s unpublished memoir continue to resurface.

The story ‘Pink Rose’, which has been circulating around the Internet since 2002, is supposedly written by a young girl in response to the September 11th attacks, and in particular dedicated to her fire-fighting father who died that day. The piece is actually a re-working of a poem by Cheryl Costello-Forshey, first published in 2000. The original poem, ‘Daddy’s Day’ was a fictionalised expression of loss that first appeared in the compilation book Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul (2000), but has been since changed to represent a factual account; sometimes it is also re-worked so that the father is a deceased marine. 

Other 9/11 post-trauma myths have a more obvious spiritual aspect. NYPD lieutenant Frank Marra claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a Second-World War Red Cross worker helping to search for the wounded amongst the debris of 9/11. Lillie Leonardi, a former police officer and FBI agent who retired due to post-traumatic stress disorder following the aftermath of 9/11, has described seeing the shimmering lights of angels in the grounds where Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, as documented in her book In the Shadow of a Badge: A Spiritual Memoir (2012). Finally, freelance photographer Rich McCormack, who documented the fifteenth anniversary event of 9/11, took pictures of the beams of light shone upward as part of the tribute. At the top of one of the beams McCormack captured what he described as ‘a vision of the Lord’. After the image was shared online, many supported his sightings saying that they could identify an image of Jesus or an angel on top of the beam of light. All such accounts offer hope of some sort, and the notion that some great other is watching out in times of need. 

The story of Daisy the dog may too have a spiritual aspect, though far subtler. It is important to note that Daisy was a guide dog, and while the original inspiration may have been an embellishment of Michael Hingson’s escape with his dog Rosella, a guide dog sets up an immediately sympathetic narrative centred on one who cares for the disabled. In this case a guide dog could be re-interpreted as a guardian angel. When Daisy leads James to safety, hundreds of people are drawn to follow her. There are no details in the narrative as to what her ‘saving’ involved. Did she dig them each individually out of rubble? Or were they compelled to follow her as a beacon of hope? Upon her third attempt at saving people she is assumed to die, crushed under the collapsing building. Amazingly she re-appears, resurrected, in the arms of a fire fighter—a literal rising from the ashes—surrounded again by hundreds of people she has ‘saved’.

Hope-Porn, like Daisy the dog, continues to be spread as it offers optimism for the future and comfort for the past. People will such accounts to be true because they are life-affirming, and if enough people help share such stories, then in a strange way the stories like that of Daisy almost do become true, at least to those who believe them. The reality however, is that such events did not happen, and despite the likely good intentions of distributing a feel-good story, there is a real danger in believing in such claims. For families whose loved ones were amongst the many unidentified dead at 9/11 there remains a distant hope that they are still out there and claims like those of Alicia Head offer a brief chance that there may still be survivors yet to come forward. For those who lost loved ones during the World Trade Center attacks, the miraculous rescue of people by Daisy offers some reprieve or comfort that hope was on the side of at least some people. Ultimately however fake viral click-bait does nothing to help real victims of a tragedy, but it might help the advertising revenues of whatever site is pushing the video around. Endorsement of Hope-Porn narratives leaves someone only a step away from engagement with Internet scams, as appeals to emotion can be easily turned into a good cause donation. Plenty of ‘sick child’ scams play on this very idea.

There are commonly understood responses that the average person will experience in the face of any tragedy. Disbelief, confusion, anxiety, fear, guilt, and sadness are matched with hyper-vigilance, poor decision making, changes to routine activity and recurring thoughts. Basic assumptions that a person may have about the world may be challenged. A person may lose hope, and view their environment as filled with danger and uncertainty. Survivors of a tragedy may struggle to give meaning to any event, and look for answers about why something happened, or if it could have been anticipated or prevented through intervention. Accounts like the Daisy the Dog story aim to take a tragic event, and make it a little less tragic by inventing a tale of rescue and escape. By giving a tragedy some meaning, such as a dog saving 1000 people, the tragedy seems just marginally less tragic, even if it does so by bolstering the  often erroneous ‘everything happens for a reason’ mantra. At its best, even when understood to be false, such accounts bring feelings of hope, in much the same way as an uplifting TV drama might. At its worst though, Daisy the dog is manipulative, and through its dishonesty is more likely to harm rather than help. It is a gateway to more overt scams and conspiracy theories, which collectively, well-intentioned or not, slowly corrode the understanding of what is real, and what is not.