As children go trick-or-treating, it is exceedingly unlikely that your neighbor will put a razor blade in an apple, poison a wrapped Snickers bar, or, in this year’s version of the same old story, swap THC-laced gummies for regular candy, tricking innocent youngsters into accidentally getting high.
Historically, such acts have not just been rare, but very close to completely undocumented. The lack of evidence has done little to reassure parents, the police and some in the media, who have repeated the mostly unverified claims for decades.
Typically, the warnings come before Halloween, instructing parents to inspect their children’s haul for any signs of foul play. In recent years, with marijuana becoming legal in more states, the concern has shifted to children accidentally ingesting edible weed candies, laced with THC and designed to look like traditional snacks. “A different sugar high: Bensalem police warn of ‘weed candy’ this Halloween,” read one headline from Pennsylvania this month.
The specter of THC-laced candies is no more threatening than past baseless legends, said Joel Best, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware who has studied the topic since 1983. He’s found virtually no evidence of it happening in real life, despite the annual ritual of headlines and warnings.
“This spreads primarily among people who have no idea what this stuff costs,” he said.
A 500-milligram bag of a THC-infused Cheetos-like snack can be found online for $15 and up, while THC-laced imitations of Sour Patch Kids will cost at least $20. That price makes them something few people would give away, he said.
The legend may have its roots in 1959, when a dentist in California handed out laxative pills coated in candy, causing 30 children to fall sick. The police said 450 of the pills were “put into the trick-or-treat bags of youngsters,” according to a UPI report published in The New York Times a few days after Halloween that year.
Mr. Best, who has tracked media coverage in major newspapers every year since 1958, said the fear hit its peak in the early 1970s.
“Those treats may be tricks,” The Times warned in 1970.
“Take, for example, that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block,” The Times wrote that year. “It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate ‘candy’ bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.”
Concerns died down for a bit, Mr. Best said, until 1982, when cyanide-laced Tylenol pills killed seven people beginning in September, prompting copycat attacks and even more fears of contaminated items. Amid the nationwide attention, some communities banned trick-or-treating, and grocery stores reported candy sales dropping 20 to 50 percent.
The internet age would allow for more pranksters to claim they had found foreign objects in their candy. After all, kids playing tricks on adults is one of the main points of Halloween, and it’s not difficult to create a fraudulent Instagram post, he said. But he continued to find few confirmed cases of children actually being harmed by treats.
Over the years, occasional reports of a child being harmed would emerge in the media. But a funny thing happened when Mr. Best investigated what happened next: Nearly every time, the claims would later fall apart as hoaxes. In 2015, for example, two teenagers in Chester County, Pa., claimed they had found needles in their candy, but they recanted their stories days later.
“I can’t find any evidence of any child being killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating,” Mr. Best said.
He found five deaths that had been attributed to Halloween sadism, all of which later proved to have unrelated causes. One child died in 1970, after eating heroin that the police originally said had been in his Halloween candy; it later emerged that he had found the heroin in a relative’s home. An 8-year-old died after eating cyanide-laced candy, but he had gotten the candy from his father, who was convicted and executed for the murder.
One related example had nothing to do with Halloween. In 2018, the strawberry industry in Australia was affected after some people, including a 7-year-old girl who was not physically harmed, found needles in their fruit. For months, supermarkets pulled strawberries from their shelves, and eventually a supervisor at a strawberry farm in Queensland was arrested; charges against her were dropped this July.
As for the marijuana treats, Mr. Best said he hadn’t seen any confirmed reports of children being sickened by them. But warnings from police departments have often been repeated in local media outlets in recent years.
“These treats can look like traditional candies, but can have harmful effects if consumed by a child,” the Drug Enforcement Administration’s St. Louis division wrote in 2018. “The D.E.A. and law enforcement agencies throughout the country have seen an increase of seizures of drug-laced edibles, including but not limited to chocolates, suckers and gummies.”
It continued: “The D.E.A. St. Louis Division has not identified any specific threats but issues this as an advisory.”