Over the past Halloween weekend, scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children.
Nearly a week after Halloween-after the candy has been eaten and the proverbial fairy dust has settled-the comforting truth about the recent candy scare has finally come to light: Police have determined that the incidents were hoaxes.
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A Philly.com news story reported an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy "who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy in Kennett Square have admitted they made up the story .... The girl hid needles from her mother's sewing kit in Twix bars she was given while trick-or-treating, prosecutors said. She then lied to her parents, who prosecutors said rightly reported the incident to police. The boy heard about the first case, then put a needle inside a Snickers bar that he showed his older sister, who contacted police."
Kids do stupid things, but adults are in on the fearmongering as well. At least one person has been arrested for faking tainted candy; according to Philly.com:
"Gloucester Township police said 37-year-old Robert Ledrew reported that he found needles in four separate pieces of trick-or-treating candy. Prior to calling police, he posted photos of one of the alleged needles on social media. But investigators determined that Ledrew, of Hillcrest Avenue in Blackwood, made up the story and put the needles in the candy bars himself, police said. He was charged with making a false report and released on a summons, officials said."
Ledrew claimed he had put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety.
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News of Ledrew's arrest may keep some of the tainted candy reports from being solved; pranksters who might otherwise consider coming forward to calm nerves in their household or community may not do so out of fear they'll be arrested, and decide it's better to let the case remain unsolved. The nature of tainted Halloween candy is such that it's a very easy thing to fake, and very difficult to investigate.
There have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers; there seem to be no news reports of children being taken to the hospital and having to undergo emergency surgery as a result of a foreign object accidentally eaten. Instead it's always a near-miss, a case of "look what we found before anyone was hurt."
Hoaxes and Copycats The tainted candy scares this past Halloween-as in previous Halloweens-have been the result of hoaxers and copycats. Why would someone fake such a horrible thing? For fun, attention, sympathyor any number of other reasons.
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Kids and others get the idea to pretend to find tainted Halloween candy mostly from popular culture and the news media. This is a process that folklorists call ostension. Scary themes are especially common in ostension, for example when ghost hunters seek out spirits in a reputedly haunted location, or when girls perform the Bloody Mary ritual to summon a witch from a mirror.
Putting a needle in candy gives kids a personal role in real-life legend making, a sinister form of "let's pretend"-which is of course what costumed trick-or-treating is all about.
Police and the news media are in a difficult position. Until the tainted candy reports are disproven, it seems prudent to warn parents that apparent cases have happened. But the irony is that the more people hear about these (hoaxed) cases through the news and social media, the more likely it is that someone will be inspired to do a copycat hoax for attention or sympathy.
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It's very easy to fake finding some foreign substance in candy; all you need are needles, thumbtacks, nails, or any other common household object that could be harmful if eaten. It takes mere seconds to put it in a candy and then innocently ask someone nearby, "Hey, what is this?"
The candy scare is part of the venerable Stranger Danger theme common in American culture, fueling fears that evil strangers are hoping to hurt innocent children. Few if any sinister foreign objects are ever found in Halloween candy. This threat is essentially an urban legend.
There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers, but murdered by one of their parents.
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Sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi researched news stories on Halloween sadists and found the threat to be "greatly exaggerated." They discovered the fear of razor blades in apples and poisoned candy was fueled largely by the news media. Best and Horiuchi concluded that most reports of Halloween sadism appear to be imaginary, and that many are hoaxes by kids themselves seeking attention and sympathy. The mythbusting website Snopes.com also updates its section on tainted candy every year.
While the fact that children and adults have been caught faking tainted candy is troubling, the good news is that the world is not such a scary place, since strangers are not in fact trying to harm or kill random innocent children.