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Halloween Candy Tampering: Fact or Urban Legend?

Are our parents’ warnings warranted? 

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  • Photo Credit: Featured photo: Ambitious Studio / Unsplash

With Halloween almost upon us, there are so many activities and events to look forward to. However, perhaps the most anticipated activity is the trick-or-treating tradition! It's that special time of year you won’t be given a sideways glance from your neighbors when you pound on their door, taunt them with the traditional phrase “Trick-or-treat!”—and take the free candy and treats they offer. 

But for some trick-or-treaters, the excitement surrounding this holiday ritual is slightly tainted—and no, not just because their parents sneak pieces of their candy, which always happens to be their favorite most delectable morsel, from their candy stash.

It’s because every Halloween that rolls around, their parents remind them to watch out for razor blades in their chocolate bars or poison in their sour candies.

We've all heard variations of these disturbing warnings.

Every Halloween, without fail, my mother retells the story of her worst Halloween ever. Her dad, after biting into an Almond Joy from her Halloween supply, began feeling a tingling sensation in his mouth, sending him quickly into an anxious spiral as he convinced himself he had been poisoned.

Needless to say, the night ended with a distraught and confused eight-year-old forced to dispose of the remaining pieces of her delicious spoils—and later, an apologetic father with a clean bill of health after a frantic trip to the hospital revealed it was solely a case of anxiety. 

So why is it that so many households to this day have a fear that their children’s lives are at stake every Halloween night? Is there any truth behind this old urban legend of Halloween candy tampering? Should parents really be checking their kids’ candies piece-by-piece to ensure no tricks are hiding among the treats? 

Continue reading to find out how this candy-tampering hysteria came to be, and if you're in the mood to read even more unsettling material, we’ve compiled a list of creepy horror books that center around Halloween candy paranoia for you to devour in one sitting!

Why Was There Mass Hysteria?

Although the paranoia surrounding Halloween candy tampering began popping up more prevalently in the 1950s and 1960s and appeared to grow even more drastically throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the fear of contaminated food actually began all the way back in the 1800s.

Consumers began feeling worried about the content of their food during the Industrial Revolution since it moved fresh food, that used to come from farm to table, to a distant factory where people were forced to put their trust in companies to look out for the wellbeing of their families. The community did seem to be rightly concerned since the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry tested thousands of candy samples in the late 1800s and found traces of copper, cheap dye, and syrup—although thankfully, no traces of poison.  

Jump forward to the 1960s and 1970s and the anxiety bred from societal fear surrounding “otherness” within middle-class white suburbs directly influenced neighbors to feel distrustful of one another. There was a deep fear of not only people of color transforming their neighborhoods and cities but also the new concept of the “career woman” who could intimidate by being both a doting mother and a highly successful employee or boss rising in rank.

These changes led people to become suspicious about the lives that their community members were leading. Therefore in 1985, a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post revealed that 60% of parents were fearful of candy tampering during Halloween time.

Are These Halloween Candy Fears Founded?

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  • Pieces of the Humbug hard candy.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Candy Poisoning in Bradford, England (1858)

Before we investigate whether we should be afraid of the goodies gifted to us on Halloween night by our seemingly friendly neighbors, it’s important to mention that there have been various large-scale accidental poisonings due to unregulated food production. Take the 1858 candy poisoning in Bradford, England, for example. To save money on sugar expenses, a local candymaker, William Hardaker, wanted to purchase powdered gypsum, which could conveniently be used both in drywall and as a food additive in his Humbugs, a peppermint-flavored hard candy.   

William Hardaker then conducted business as usual and directed his gypsum supplier to add it to the candies. But he didn’t know that a series of events would lead to catastrophic consequences. It just so happens that this day his supplier sent another man, James Archer, to buy the ingredient from pharmacist Charles Hodgson. Hodgson, down with sickness, asked his young apprentice, William Goddard, to complete the transaction on his own. Unfortunately, the young man mistook arsenic trioxide for gypsum, leading to 40 pounds of Humbugs being made from 40 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide, four pounds of gum, and a bit of peppermint oil. Even though the candies had an odd discoloration, Hardaker accepted them after taking a discount, and although he became violently ill after testing some of his new batch of candy, he ended up selling 5 pounds of them, having not realized the source of his sudden bout of illness. 

21 people died, and 200 people became extremely ill. Goodard, Hodgson, and the supplier, Joesph Neal were all arrested and charged with manslaughter by gross neglect but were eventually acquitted. This sad event ended up resulting in better protection being put in place to prevent other similar incidents from happening. For instance, The Pharmacy Act of 1868 was enacted to control the distribution of poisons and resulted in a national Poison Register. Nevertheless, this occurrence shows how helpless consumers can be when it comes to putting unwarranted trust in food companies.  

Chicago Tylenol Poisoning (1982)

You may be thinking, well, thankfully, that happened far in the past, and we’ve come a long way with different food policies and prescription drug policies in place to protect us, right? Yes, that might be true, but sometimes that doesn’t prevent twisted people from finding a way to do harm anyway.

Consider the 1982 case in which seven people died after taking Tylenol, which was then tested and found to have traces of cyanide. The manufacturer of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, sprang into action by issuing a nationwide recall, stopping all further production of its product. However, it was clear that the bottles had been tampered with post-production since each bottle had come from a different manufacturer. Although there have been various suspects, the culprit has never been caught. 

This disturbing case of poisoning led to the creation of Title 18, which makes it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products. It also pushed drug and food companies to develop safer tamper-proof seals and Johnson & Johnson to develop the “caplet” form of their drug rather than the capsule that was easily tampered with.

Despite the positive effects that came from this incident, this case destroyed the American people’s sense of safety and added to the deep-rooted fear that their everyday products could easily be tampered with—all that would be needed was a sick-minded individual willing to execute a deadly plan.       

All Tricks and No Treats 

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So, getting back to our initial question: do we need to be weary of neighbors with secret deadly vendettas or plans for cruel pranks on Halloween night? Possibly. There have been instances in which candy has been tampered with throughout the years. However, as you will see with the following examples, many instances could be considered sick pranks meant to do minor bodily harm rather than with intent to commit callous murder. 

Take New York housewife Helen Pfeil who was upset with older trick-or-treaters who knocked on her door (even though her teen sons were out doing the same thing), so she placed a bottle-cap-shaped ant trap labeled “poison” in their bags for the trick-or-treaters to find in 1964. 19 ant traps had been handed out but when she was arrested with child endangerment charges, she claimed it had been a “joke.”  

Then there was California dentist William V. Shyne, who handed out 450 candy-coated laxatives to trick-or-treaters, causing 30 kids to get sick and Shyne to be eventually charged with “outrage of public decency.” And then finally the case from 2000 in Minneapolis, when James Joseph Smith hid needles in Snickers bars that resulted in a 14-year-old boy getting pricked as he unsuspectingly took a bite. None of these cases thankfully didn’t result in death but drew alarm to community members who wanted to ensure their kids’ safety. 

Professor Joel Best’s research suggests that there have been around 80 cases of sharp objects in food incidents since 1959. Only 10 led to minor injuries, the worst case being a woman who needed to get stitches. Most cases appeared to be hoaxes planned by parents or children to get some laughs for some “good old-fashioned” Halloween trickery (even if they're deeply unsettling laughs if you ask me).

Yet there has been one case of candy tampering that has led to an innocent life lost and one sinister coverup of murder. Both are, in some ways, more sinister than the myth of trick-or-treat murders of random unsuspecting kids: these murder victims and murderers were not strangers. 

A Candy Coverup (1970)

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  • A picture of five-year-old Kevin Toston.

    Photo Credit: YouTube

In 1970, five-year-old Kevin Toston from Michigan died after ingesting heroin. Yet, at first, it appeared to be a case of candy poisoning since the heroin was found sprinkled on his treats. In reality, the boy had mistakenly swallowed some of his uncle’s heroin stash, so his family dusted his candy with the remaining drugs to make it appear like someone outside of the family had killed their son. Thankfully, the investigators were able to determine what actually happened to the young boy. 

Halloween Murder (1974)

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  • A mugshot of Ronald Clark O’Bryan.

    Photo Credit: YouTube

The only known murder that was the result of candy tampering was not some masked killer stalking the streets on Halloween night; it was instead, a greedy father who wanted to fix his financial situation by killing his own son. Ronald Clark O’Bryan seemed like a family man with good morals; he even sang in his church’s choir, but a callous decision one Halloween night in 1974 revealed his hidden, demented nature. 

O’Bryan took his eight-year-old son Timothy and five-year-old daughter Elizabeth trick-or-treating and told them that a house had given him Pixy Stix for his children to enjoy. So he passed out five of them, two to each of his kids and three to three neighborhood kids. Once home, he helped his son open up the Pixy Stix, which had been sealed shut with a staple, and allowed his son to eat the contents, which had been laced with enough potassium cyanide to kill two to four adults. He died on the way to the hospital. Fortunately, authorities were able to prevent the other unlucky kids from meeting the same fate, although a lawyer on the case described a chilling close call, stating that they had found one child holding the Pixy Stix as he slept, having failed to open the candy by himself. 

It turned out that O’Bryan was $520,000 in debt and on the verge of losing everything. He had planned on taking out over $50,000 in life insurance on both of his children in January and an extra $20,000 policy on both a few days before Halloween. On November 1st, before Timothy had been laid to rest, he had been calling his insurance company to collect payment for Timothy’s life. On November 5th, he was charged with one count of murder and four counts of attempted murder and found guilty by a jury in only 46 minutes. On March 31st, 1984, O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection, leaving others haunted by the heinous details of his crime as “The Candyman.”

Can Halloween Candy Be Trusted?

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  • Photo Credit: Sebbi Strauch / Unsplash

After all is said and done, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have to worry about your candy being messed with this Halloween. Many people who take part in the holiday do so because they want to bring joy to kids and be festive for the spooky holiday season since they remember the fun they had trick-or-treating when they were young. 

Halloween Horror Books Inspired by the Candy Urban Legends

However, if I were you, at least for your own peace of mind, I’d double-check to make sure that none of your candy packaging has been punctured or torn and think twice about eating, most likely well-intentioned, home-baked goods from strangers. Stick to those Pillsbury pumpkin and ghost ready-to-bake sugar cookies!

And while you're at it, settle down with the chilling reads inspired by tainted Halloween candy urban legends we’ve included below.     


Blood Sugar

By Daniel Kraus

A resentful outcast plans on exacting revenge on Halloween night. He enlists the help of three fellow outsiders who will assist in passing out Halloween candy that he has hidden razor blades, poison and broken glass within. The question is: will all of his collaborators go through with his plan, or will they try to prevent his scheme for delectable vengeance? This tale is as addicting as a candy bar is sweet. Thought-provoking, funny and frightening, you’ll keep returning for more. 


Poisoned Candy: Bite-sized Horror for Halloween

By Myk Pilgrim and Pippa Bailey

If you are in the mood for bite-sized horror fiction in 100 words or less rather than a “full-size” horror novel, then pick up Poisoned Candy. Inside, you’ll find stories and poems filled with gore, dark humor and shocking Halloween twists. Trust me, you’ll be able to finish this one before your final trick-or-treater knocks on your door on Halloween night!  


Halloween Candy

By Thomas M. Sipos

An anthology of horror chock-full of treats! It has film critiques, short stories, haunted house reports and the screenplay, Halloween Candy, with an exploration of the journey of how this movie was almost made. This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look into low-budget horror filmmaking.  


Candy Coated Madness

By Jeff Strand

Author Jeff Strand is an expert at weaving tales of horror with laugh-out-loud morbid humor. Because sometimes stories are so twisted and strange that you can’t help but let out a demented little giggle. You can look forward to reading about a virtual reality that allows you to commit horrible acts that seem a tad bit too real, mutant cockroaches fighting with zombies, consequences of pranks gone wrong and werewolves—lots of werewolves! 


The Halloween Store and Other Tales of All Hallows' Eve

By Ronald Kelly

Once you read this spooky collection, you’ll find yourself returning to it every Halloween. Here are seven creepy tales and two Halloween-inspired essays in which the author, Ronald Kelly, describes what he looked forward to as a child during the scary season. This is truly a love letter to Halloween, filled with unsettling stories of a creepy Halloween shop, a serial killer, sinister clowns and a teacher who passes out strange treats on Halloween night. You’re in for satisfying scares and stellar storytelling!   

Featured photo: Ambitious Studio / Unsplash; Sebbi Strauch / Unsplash