You’ve likely heard the spooky stories: adorable, sugar-crazed kids gleefully toddle from door to door in their homemade costumes and festive masks—only to be handed razor-blade-stuffed apples or cyanide-laced pixie sticks by wicked, faceless strangers.
As such, many a trick-or-treater has hauled their cloying bounties home over the decades only to surrender them to parental authorities for thorough inspection.
At some points, hospitals even offered free X-ray screenings for candy to make sure that the sweet loot was safe. Subsequent research found that this costly endeavor failed to turn up any threats. But it sitll seemed worthwhile.
Through the years, media reports continued to gather terrifying tales of deadly Halloween candy handed out be evildoers—a phenomenon dubbed “Halloween sadism” in the press. There was little 5-year-old Kevin Toston of Detroit, who died from heroin-laden Halloween candy in 1970. And 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan of Pasadena, Texas, who died from cyanide poisoning after eating tainted Halloween candy in 1976.
Then there were cases of sharp objects in Halloween sweets, particularly apples (as if getting fruit on Halloween isn’t bad enough). While the reports started bobbing up in the 1960s, they had a crisp staying power. In 2003, an Illinois physician reported the case of a 55-year old man with a sewing needling inside his stomach, presumably from eating caramel-covered apples around Halloween.
Though fear still lingers over toxic treats and boobytrapped apples, researchers separate fact from myth. As pediatrician Aaron Carroll notes today in The New York Times, researchers haven’t been able to substantiate a single case when a child was seriously injured—let alone killed—by Halloween treats made hazardous by strangers.
An investigation into the death of little Kevin Toston revealed that the deadly dose of heroin didn’t come from his Halloween spoils; it came from his uncle’s stash. Likewise, Timothy O’Bryan wasn’t poisoned by a stranger—he was murdered by his own father for insurance money. The tragic truth came out in court as his dad stood trial for capital murder.
In other deaths initially blamed on Halloween sadism, medical investigators found far less nefarious explanations. A 9-year-old who died while trick-or-treating in California in 1990 actually succumbed to a preexisting heart condition, not from poisoned candy, the coroner determined. An autopsy of an unnamed Canadian four-year-old who died after eating Halloween candy in 2001 revealed that she actually died of a streptococcus infection.
Although reports have indeed surfaced of parents finding sharp objects in apples around Halloween, the cases haven’t led to any serious injuries in children (and it’s unclear how the 55-year-old man came to have the needle in his stomach.) Moreover, investigators have found that the treats that are riddled with sharp objetcts are hardly ever sent from cruel strangers out for blood. Instead, they’re from bungled jokes or misguided pranksters attempting to frighten people. At worst, they cause minor cuts or pokes.
Still, “[t]hat doesn’t mean children are safe on Halloween,” Dr. Carroll writes in the Times. Researchers found that a far more concerning health risk of Halloween is kids getting hit by cars. This is particularly true as they scramble around poorly lit neighborhoods at night, wearing dark costumes that make it hard for drivers to see them, and masks that make it difficult for them to see cars.
A JAMA Pediatrics study from January of this year found that 4-to-8-year-olds have a tenfold increased risk of getting hit by a car on Halloween than on any other night of the year.