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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.