"It's Halloween again and time to remind you that ... Somebody's child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade." 

—"A Night of Treats, Not Tricks," Abigail Van Buren (aka Dear Abby), 1983

I was recently asked, "Why do fears of poisoned Halloween candy still persist?" Here's my response:

Despite being debunked as an extremely unlikely event, the idea that Halloween candy might be poisoned or contain razor blades has become a seemingly self-perpetuating, cultural meme that refuses to go away. Its persistence is related to our tendency to be biased in assessing risk, with five specific factors contributing to how we think about such dangers at this time of year.

Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock
Source: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock

1. Terrorizing risk

We worry more about risks that are very small when the outcome is very, very, bad or very, very frightening. We’re all familiar with the idea that driving a car presents a much greater risk of death than being blown up by a terrorist during air travel. And yet, we get into our cars every day without thinking about that risk, while spending millions of dollars to create a screening process for boarding airplanes that's both cumbersome and ineffective. Sadly, this disproportionate response perpetuates the idea that we should be scared of airplanes and terrorists, completing the circle to accomplish the very mission of terrorism itself. Nevertheless, the idea of being killed by a terrorist or having one's child bite into an apple with a razor blade in it on Halloween can simply be too terrifying for some of us to ignore.

2. Parents just don't understand

When thinking about terrifying outcomes, parents are especially likely to discount how unlikely a risk is when children are involved. In this way, persistent fears of poisoned Halloween candy are similar to concerns about childhood abductions. Despite the fact that childhood abductions in the U.S. are very rare and are not increasing, infrequent incidents have occurred often enough over time to have resulted in a culture of “helicopter parenting," at least here. While we’re beginning to have discussions about whether that approach to parenting might actually be harmful to a generation of children, increasing childhood anxiety and leading to “failures to launch” as young adults, it’s hard to convince a parent to be less protective when it comes to their kids. 

3. Primed for fear

It’s possible that fears about Halloween candy could be related to “priming effects.” Like taking a roller-coaster ride, part of the fun of Halloween is exposing ourselves to imagined fears. The inextricable link between Halloween and horror and the juxtaposition of "trick" and "treat" might prime us to be more fearful of real-life risks, however small. 

4. Don't believe the hype

The way we assess risk is heavily influenced by the media. Although there have been rare, real-life incidents involving poisoned candy, the media coverage of those events and subsequent recommendations for caution have amplified that risk in the public consciousness, just as they have with airline terrorism and childhood abductions. This amplification may not be deliberate: For example, while both airport screenings and AMBER Alerts are designed to decrease risk, they may unintentionally perpetuate a “culture of fear.” When the well-intentioned columnist Abigail Van Buren (aka "Dear Abby") warned of poisoned Halloween candy in 1983, and Ann Landers repeated those warnings in 1995, they unwittingly set in stone a Halloween candy phobia for generations to come.

Public domain

Still Life with Skull, Paul Cézanne (1898)

Source: Public domain

5. The Backfire Effect

When thinking about the influence of the media, we should also remember the “backfire effect,” a cognitive bias that can cause us to strengthen our beliefs when presented with counter-evidence. In other words, news articles (and blog posts) intending to debunk the urban myth of poisoned candy, explaining that such fears are disproportionately irrational in comparison to the actual statistical risk, may have the opposite effect for some readers, increasing fears for those who were already concerned.

You are reading

Psych Unseen

Risky Business: What Can We Do to Keep Teenagers Safe?

An interview with author and child psychiatrist Dr. Jess Shatkin, Part 2

Born to Be Wild: Why Do Teenagers Take Risks?

An interview with author and child psychiatrist Dr. Jess Shatkin, Part 1.

"I'm Sorry If I Caused Offense": How Not to Apologize

Intention, impact, & racial slurs in professional sports (and everywhere else).