Halloween Scary Phantoms and Phantom Scares

October 31, 2019

Today is Halloween, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm children every October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats.

But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday…

1) Halloween is Satanic

While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent.

Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book Halloween and Satanism, explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children’s spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena–and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it’s not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about–they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books. Cartoonist Jack Chick, creator of the religious Chick Tracts, is also a vocal critic of the event, portraying it as evil in publications with titles such as The Devil’s Night.

Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism.

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween.

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 intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime. Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years-and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention.

The most recent twist on the legend involves THC–tainted candies. As an article by EJ Dickson of Rolling Stonenoted, Halloween is “the season for outlandish urban legends, from fears about crushed Tylenol being mixed into Pixie Sticks to that old chestnut about razors hidden in apples. This year, a police department in Pennsylvania is participating in the grand tradition of scaring the crap out of parents by issuing a warning about pranksters passing out THC edibles to kids. This particular rumor appears to originate from the Johnstown Police Department in Johnstown, PA. Last week, the department issued a safety warning urging parents to exercise caution this Halloween, posting a photo of edibles packaged as Nerd Ropes. “We urge parents to be ever vigilant in checking their children’s candy before allowing them to consume those treats,” the post said. “Drug-laced edibles are package [sic] like regular candy and may be hard to distinguish from the real candy.”

The whole story is, of course, bogus; there’s no evidence that anyone is planning to hand out THC edibles to neighborhood kids (especially considering how expensive they are). The article even quotes noted hack Ben Radford, who explains that “You’ve got the stranger danger, the fear of Halloween, the concern parents have about what the kids today are doing… Basically, all these elements combine to form this specific flavor [of urban legend].”

Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers.

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America’s children, and the FBI looked into the case. Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of ‘large quantities’ of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey.

A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man’s nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism.

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.

The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned” (Chaffin et al.).

5) Beware Scary Clowns

In the wake of the 2016 scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents asked children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties banned scary clown costumes and masks this Halloween. As one writer noted, “A Kemper County, Mississippi’s Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban –which will expire the day after Halloween –comes at the request of the county sheriff… It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches.”

Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as “USA Today” reported, “The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks.”

Fortunately there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks during Halloween. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media.

Earlier this month police and parents expressed concern over the then-upcoming film Joker, and its possible influence on unhinged people. As ABC News reported, “The… psychological thriller Joker starring Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix has prompted a ‘credible potential mass shooting’ threat on a movie theater somewhere in the United States, military officials warned in a memorandum issued this week. The alarming notice was sent out on Monday by military officials at Fort Sills Army base in Oklahoma, and was based on intelligence gathered by the FBI from the ‘disturbing and very specific’ chatter of alleged extremists on the dark web, officials said.”

It’s not just the FBI that’s concerned. As CNN reported, “A group of people whose loved ones witnessed or were killed in 2012’s Aurora theater shooting are calling on Warner Bros. to help combat gun violence as the studio prepares to release its rated-R comic book film Joker. In a letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and obtained by CNN, five family members and friends of victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado ask the studio to ‘use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns … . Over the last several weeks, large American employers from Walmart to CVS have announced that they are going to lean into gun safety. We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.’” 

I wrote about this scare in a previous blog (“Fear Of The ‘Joker’ Copycats”), ending by noting that “Whether the credible threat to the Joker film materializes remains to be seen.” As of today the film has been out for nearly a month, and not a single Joker- (or clown-) related mass shooting, theater shooting, or even theater violence has occurred. The feared wave of copycats never materialized, and the fear and panic was a tempest in a teapot.

Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids.  The real threats to children don’t involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can’t see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.

Reference: Chaffin, Mark, Jill Levenson, Elizabeth Letourneau, and Paul Stern (2009). “How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters?: An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween.” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, Vol. 21, No. 3, 363-374.

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