The True American Horror Story: A Brief History Of Tainted Halloween Candy

If there’s one Halloween horror story that’s a durable urban legend, one that’s taken root so deep in our psyche we think it’s real, it’s the one about the creepy neighbor doing… something to the candy. You’d think it happens every year, but in reality, it’s almost always a hoax. So why do we cling to this particular Halloween horror story?

Trick Or Treat

Really, it starts with the history of trick-or-treating, which is a lot more recent than you might think. While there have been customs and ideas that resemble it since the Middle Ages, ranging from souling in England to belsnicking in Germany, the American idea of sending children out in costumes to hit up the neighbors for candy actually began in the late 1940s, starting out West and spreading across the country.

Why? Good question: Historians are still working on it. Generally it’s held that adults came up with it to contain obnoxious childish pranks, but there’s little record of that. In fact, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find a lot of people actually furious that kids were showing up at their houses demanding candy, calling it extortion.

In truth, it was probably because Americans were dealing with the present. After World War II, many Americans moved to suburbs far away from their families, and needed icebreakers to meet the neighbors. It helped that trick-or-treating reflected a lot of holiday traditions from around the world. It was something new, yet familiar enough to be comfortable. It served a needed cultural purpose, whether people admitted it or not.

A Free-Floating Anxiety

It was really only after it got firmly established that people realized sending their children out in the dark to hit up total strangers for sugary snacks was maybe not the best idea in the world. Sure, it seemed safe, but then, as the ’50s progressed, it began to become clear that maybe America wasn’t as safe as we thought. In 1957, Ed Gein was arrested to media sensationalism, and it’s telling that around this time, the rumors began to go around: Some monster was poisoning Halloween candy.

These rumors change with the times, reflecting larger social anxieties. Growing up in the ’80s, I was always warned somebody might put PCP on my candy. And this year’s dumb panic is over marijuana-laced candy, something that will probably give ’70s kids deja vu.

It doesn’t help that every now and then, somebody is inspired by the rumors to actually do this. If you live in Houston, you probably know about Ronald Clark O’Bryan, nicknamed the Candy Man, who poisoned his children’s candy to collect their life insurance money. And in 2000, James Joseph Smith handed out Snickers bars full of needles, although no one was seriously injured.

Still, according to Snopes, after decades of trick-or-treating, there have been eighty cases reported, almost all of them fake. So why does this belief endure?

The Great American Horror Story

Because, on some level, it’s the great American horror tale. It perfectly distills our anxiety about trusting strangers and the possible threats lurking out there wearing masks that look just like us into a simple story, easily told. Somewhere there’s a monster, and he’s trying to ruin the holiday. On one level, we know it’s a load; yeah, the creepy old man down the street might weird you out, but you’d know if he was committing assault by now. Really, you can sum up this Halloween legend in three words: “Trust, but verify.”

In an odd way, as annoying as this legend and the panic it sometimes engenders can be, it’s arguably a perfect reflection of the holiday. After all, horror is about confronting your anxieties without risk. So perhaps it makes sense to treat this as a campfire story for adults, a way for us to deal with our day-to-day anxieties without a therapist. Or, you know, just because that dude down the block really is that creepy.