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Readers Angry but Still Unable to Find Case of Halloween Horror

November 09, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

--Mark Twain

Twain should have added that the shoes wouldn't help once truth got going, either. Catching up with a lie can often be just plain impossible.

I recently pointed out that the public conviction that there were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of human monsters out there poisoning Halloween treats was a lot of bunk--that it was myth, pure and simple, that there were no documented cases of any such crime ever being perpetrated.

That column made a lot of people a little queasy, including a couple of editors around here, especially since Ann Landers had just issued her annual warning about people doctoring candy and putting razor blades and needles in apples.

I received several calls from readers insisting I was wrong, that they remembered any number of cases over the years. My challenge to them remains: Show me. I can't find any record of any such case, and neither can any number of police and court officials I contacted.

So I was particularly interested in talking last week with Joel Best, a professor of sociology at Cal State Fresno, who has tracked this particular phenomenon for more than 30 years.

"You are right," he said. "Like the story of the alligators in the sewers of New York and others, this is an urban myth.

"And any urban myth is like a vampire; it's almost impossible to kill."

Best said he got interested in the subject in the early '80s and, with some students, began researching it.

"We checked major newspapers from throughout the country from 1958 through 1988," he said, "assuming that any story this horrible would certainly be well reported."

Well, they found a total of 78 cases and two deaths. Further checking proved that almost all of the 78 cases were pranks. The deaths were tragically real, but they, too, were misrepresented in the beginning.

One death was the notorious case of a Texas father, later to be executed for the crime, who poisoned his own son for insurance purposes and blamed it on Halloween candy.

The second death, according to Best, was in Detroit. A child reportedly had died from eating drug-laced treats. Police later ascertained that he had accidentally stumbled onto his uncle's stash of heroin and eaten it. The family had concocted the story to protect the uncle.

The pranks, he said, were all of kids--after years of hearing similar stories--inserting needles or razor blades into fruit, not realizing (or maybe realizing) how much they frightened their whole town.

"My favorite," Best says, "was the kid who brought a half-eaten candy bar to his parents and said, 'I think there's ant poison on this.' They had it checked and, sure enough, there was ant poison on it--significantly, on the end he had not bitten." Of course, the youngster had applied the poison himself.

Best has tried mightily over the years to destroy this particular myth, but obviously to no avail. "It's the old problem of trying to prove a negative," he says.

He published his findings several years ago and even wrote an article on the subject for Psychology Today magazine. He hasn't given up, though, and has a book titled "Threatened Children," which University Press of Chicago will release next summer, in which he again details his research.

"For whatever reason," he says, "people want to believe these stories. Maybe it's to distract themselves from bigger threats (like nuclear war) about which they feel they have no control."

He was pleased, he says, to see that many hospitals had ceased offering free X-rays of Halloween loot.

Interestingly enough, he says, although over the years they had detected nothing, that was not the reason they ended the practice. "Around the country, the costs were running into the millions of dollars; that's why they're stopping it."

That and a matter of liability.

It turns out that X-rays can only detect about 14% of foreign objects anyway, and hospital attorneys have begun to worry about what would happen legally if a child should be harmed by something in a treat that had been ruled safe.

And, of course, X-rays can't detect poison or drugs.

One concern I share with Best is that by accepting this particular myth as truth, we might be asking for it to actually happen--a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.

Maybe we should be accepting instead the old Irish superstition of never talking about the things--like death--that we fear the most, lest they happen.

Coincidentally, Best and I chatted on Halloween eve, a conversation that he had to break off because he was taking his 4-year-old trick or treating.

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