When I call up Joel Best to ask him about tainted Halloween candy, I can almost feel his eye-roll over through the phone. "I've been giving essentially the same interview for 30 years," he says with a laugh.
That's not to say that he's bored of talking about it. A professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, Best is the leading authority on poisoned Halloween candy—or what he calls "Halloween sadism." The term might have been coined back in the 1974, when a guy named Richard Trubo wrote in PTA Magazine about the alleged phenomenon of maniacs putting needles in candy bars and razor blades in apples, but as Best has been telling people like me for the last three decades, it's all a myth.
Rather, it's a "legend" as he points out. "Reporters like the word 'myth' because it's only four letters long," he says, "but folklorists prefer to say 'legend.' A legend doesn't mean that something is false; a legend means that it's mostly communicated informally."
You can put a pin in a candy bar, and then run and say, 'Look, mom and dad, I found a pin in my candy bar!'
In an article that he's continuously updated each year since 1985, Best makes the results of his research crystal-clear: "I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating."
Best trawls news reports and medical literature for reports of Halloween sadism, but he has hasn't collected any evidence to support the widespread belief in strangers with dangerous candy. While there are reports of children dying or being poisoned on Halloween, they ended up having nothing to do with a psychotic neighbor. In one case, a father laced his own son's candy with cyanide in order to reap the benefits of his life insurance policy; in another, a girl who suddenly dropped dead while trick-or-treating was found to have had an enlarged heart.
And while there are rare reports of children finding foreign objects in their candy, Best believes that the lion's share of these are hoaxes. "It's really easy to do, he says. "You can put a pin in a candy bar, and then run and say, 'Look, mom and dad, I found a pin in my candy bar!' and you're rewarded with the concerned attention of adults who are treating you as a victim rather than a pest."
It's the greatest thing in the world you can be afraid of, because you only have to be afraid of it for one night a year.
He's not blaming the victim—in fact, Best seems nothing but appropriately cautious, if also realistic. "I don't want to say that I can prove a negative—you can't say that it never happens. But it certainly isn't a giant problem."
Before becoming the world's only authority on tainted candy, Best spent his grad student days studying criminal and deviant behavior. "I was reading all these autobiographies of thieves and junkies, and one of the things that becomes very clear is that they always have reasons for what they're doing," he says. "They may not be reasons that you think are good, but they have reasons. So for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why anybody would give a contaminated treat to a little kid. The answer to that is, 'Well, that's just the kind of thing they do,' which is the classic motivation for contemporary legends."
That's when Best began examining press coverage. "If there were stories, then that would suggest that there actually was something to this. The absence of stories, it seemed to me, made fairly strong evidence that this was not a major social problem."
But where does this legend come from, and why—especially if Best has been knocking it down like a razor-blade-studded whack-a-mole each year—does it keep cropping up?
Best points to the same sort of collective fear that animated the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, the rhetoric of which he wrote about in his book Threatened Children. "One of the remarkable things about our age is the extraordinary number of apocalyptic scenarios that we have," he laughs. "We have nuclear war, nuclear winter, global pandemic, economic collapse, environmental damage that comes in several different flavors, robot uprisings, and asteroid strikes. It's just extraordinary what everybody thinks. The thing that's fascinating is that you can't do anything about any of that. This is completely out of your control, whether or not you bring a cloth bag to the supermarket. It's not going to make a difference."
Poisoned Halloween candy, however, compartmentalizes some of that anxiety and makes it manageable. "It's the greatest thing in the world you can be afraid of because you only have to be afraid of it for one night a year," Best says. "You know, maybe there's somebody down the block who's so crazy that he poisons little children at random, but he only does it one night a year. Throughout the rest of the year, he's normal."
This year, of course, the bogeyman isn't cyanide or even ISIS—it's marijuana-infused food.
Best has noted that the Halloween narrative sometimes changes with the tide of the news cycle. After the Tylenol murders in the early 1980s, people were warned of candy that could be laced with deadly poison. After 9/11, a rumor circulated that terrorists would strike a shopping mall on Halloween. "There were also stories about people getting cupcakes or something that had little terrorist messages in them," Best says. "You can see how this taps into our core understandings of what worries us, so it's a great story."
This year, of course, the bogeyman isn't cyanide or even ISIS—it's marijuana-infused food. When the Denver Police Department cautioned Colorado parents last month about the possibility of trick-or-treaters getting doped on edibles, similar warnings were echoed in San Diego and New Jersey.
Best initially shrugs those worries off. "I was laughing with some friends of mine who have a great deal of drug experience, and they were saying, 'Oh yeah, that's just the way pot dealers think. I have a big pile of marijuana, so I think I'll give it away to children.'"
He does think, however, that there is plenty of possibility for a thoughtless mixup, rather than a criminal desire to get children stoned. "You can imagine a fraternity party in Boulder where there's a big bowl of this stuff out. If somebody decides to take a piece home, at that point it could get into somebody's hands."
"I don't think that there are going to be devastating consequences if somebody has one gummy bear," he says, "but if I lived in Denver, I would keep an eye out for loose candy. I think that if you had a loose gummy bear, you probably don't have to eat that one. If you have a Hershey bar that's wrapped up, there's not going to be anything that's wrong with it."
I point out that there's a certain level of irony at play when apples and cupcakes immediately get tossed from the trick-or-treat bag, but we fully trust a corn syrup-filled candy that was manufactured by robots somewhere, with God-knows-what kind of metal shavings that might've fallen into it. As long as it's wrapped, it's safe?
"I understand that criticism," Best says. "I had a neighbor who made homemade cupcakes, and she discovered that kids were throwing them away in the driveway. She had decorated them and everything, and the kids had been told, 'No, you can't eat that.' I think the loss in all of this is I don't know if it's a great idea to teach your kids that somebody down the block wants to kill them. You probably don't need to do that."
But would he let his kids eat the cupcakes?
"I never look at my kids' treats," he says firmly. "I figure you either believe your own work or you don't."