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Halloween sadism a myth, expert says

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Posted at 4:18 PM, Oct 10, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-12 23:33:49-04

Who would be so devious as to poison candy for random children?

No one, said Joel Best, who has studied the myth of Halloween sadism for decades. Or at least, Best said he has not found anyone yet. 

Best is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware as well as the expert on Halloween sadism.

About 30 years ago, Best said he thought about focusing his work on deviant behavior. So what better to research than those who would wish harm to children on a cherished childhood day. 

Best reviewed press coverage of such incidents from 1958-84.

The findings?

“I couldn’t find a single case of a child who was killed or seriously injured by the contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating,” he said.

Best said he could find stories stating a child here or there was harmed by a poisoned or drugged cheat. But every incident came back with a different explanation. In one case, for example, a child was poisoned by his own father.

“You cannot prove a negative, but I have been looking for this now going back 54 years,” Best said.

So how did the idea of children being poisoned on Halloween begin?

Best said the earliest tales he could find revolved around rumblings of people putting pennies on a skillet and dropping the hot coins on the outstretched hands of children.

The story picked up steam during the 1960s and 1970s as the drug culture came into play and people became more concerned with child abuse, Best said. The concern spiked in 1982 after seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol.

“People started speculating that there would be a lot of copycat crimes,” Best said.

But the copycats did not happen, Best said.

Best said he does see any problem with parents checking treats.

“This is a great thing to be afraid of because here’s somebody that’s so crazy that he kills little children at random, but he only does it one night a year,” Best said. “So you can get up at the breakfast table on Nov. 1 and look around and count noses and say, ‘Shoo, we made it through another year.’”

Best joked that he’s not even sure his wife did not check the Halloween goodies for their children.

“My attitude was that I resolutely never inspected my kids’ treats because I figured if you’re willing to tell people, you’d better believe it,” he said. “But I’m not convinced that my wife didn’t do it.”

Eric Pfahler is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @Eric_Pfahler or email him at eric.pfahler@scripps.com.