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Razorblades, Apples And The Rude But True Story Of How A Dentist (Kinda) Ruined Halloween
It's always the dentists.
We talk a lot around here about disinformation and conspiracy theories, the way they develop, and how people end up believing them. Of course, we’re usually talking about modern nonsense like QAnon, Pizzagate, the Queen of Canada and what have you. But since it’s Halloween week, I thought it might be fun to jump into some festive, older nonsense (or is it?!?) — the urban semi-legend of poisoned candy and razor blade-filled apples.
One of the grand traditions of trick or treating is the part when you get home and your parents go through all of your candy, throwing out anything that isn’t properly wrapped, any apples, any homemade treats and taking all of the boxes of Good ‘n’ Plentys for themselves, which is fine because they’re gross anyway. But thinking about it in retrospect, it seems like we were probably deprived of those apples for no good reason (though I don’t recall ever actually getting any, I probably would have been happy about it because I love apples).
It should have been relatively obvious from the start that the razors in apples thing was always going to be nonsense. People are largely familiar with apples and how they work! If someone put a razor blade inside of one, it would be pretty obvious because even if someone were somehow able to fit a whole razor blade in an apple without part of it sticking out, the skin would be broken and you’d probably still be able to see it. Like, you can look at an apple, with your eyes and see if it is okay to eat or not. Plus it would be dripping juice!
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This scheme, when you think of it, would involve someone going out and purchasing a fuckton of apples (unless they literally lived on an apple orchard, I guess) and a fuckton of razors and then sitting for hours shoving those blades in — just to maybe hurt a bunch of kids you don’t know, without personally witnessing it. And then they’d be quickly arrested because at least one kid would know who gave out the apples, just like we all knew which houses gave out the full-size candy bars and which houses gave out toothbrushes or bags of pennies. And speaking of toothbrushes …
Dentists Are The Natural Predators Of Halloween Good Times
Based on informal surveys (by which I mean normal human conversations) I have conducted over the years, most trick-or-treating neighborhoods had at least one judgy-McJudgerson dentist who handed out toothbrushes on Halloween, as though we were all just a bunch of Snickers-bar-hoovering street urchins who didn’t know we were supposed to brush our teeth after eating, instead of kids who do this literally once a year, for funsies.
Thus, it should not come as a huge surprise to anyone to learn that the first documented case of actual Halloween candy tampering was actually committed by a dentist. Only instead of toothbrushes, he doled out laxatives.
In 1959, California dentist Dr. William Shyne, DDS put the trick in trick-or-treat when he doled out over 450 candy-coated laxatives to the neighborhood children — 30 of whom became violently ill. Police quickly determined the source of the not-exactly-candy and Shyne was charged with “outrage of public decency” and unlawful dispensing of drugs. He claimed he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, just playing a prank, but he kicked off decades of fears surrounding “Halloween sadists” who were out to hurt innocent children.
Obligatory musical theater interlude.
But The Poisoned Candy Was (Mostly) Calling From Inside The House …
Rumors about poisoned candy flourished during this time — notably, as Samira Kawash points out in Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure (Wonkette cut link), a time of great social change, from women entering the workforce to neighborhoods and schools becoming (somewhat) more integrated.
In 1964 there was one documented instance during this time … sort of. Long Island housewife Helen Pfeil was very upset about older kids trick-or-treating and thought it would be hilarious to teach them a lesson by giving poison ant traps filled with arsenic, along with steel‐wool pads and dog biscuits all wrapped up in aluminum foil. She said it was only a joke and that she told the teenagers it was a joke, and no one actually got sick or ingested the poison, but she was arrested all the same. She pled guilty half-way through her trial and the judge suspended her sentence, which would have been two years.
In 1970, The New York Times published an article in which columnist Judy Lee Klemesrud claimed that tainted treats were a rampant threat and that children everywhere were getting hurt, sick or worse every Halloween, no thanks to their sadistic neighbors.
“Take, for example, that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block,” she wrote. “It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate ‘candy’ bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.”
Klemesrud (who would later go on to write the first profile of one Donald J. Trump) claimed that multiple police officers and doctors had confirmed that “pins, razor blades, slivers of glass and poison have appeared in the treats gathered by children across New York State.” Except they hadn’t. There were no actual documented cases of this happening, anywhere.
Something did happen just a few days after that article was published, though — five-year-old Kevin Toston died. Initially, newspapers reported that the child had eaten Halloween candy sprinkled with heroin. But he didn’t. He had accidentally swallowed a capsule of it while visiting his uncle’s home and the family, panicked, decided to blame it on the supposedly plentiful tainted Halloween candy.
An even darker crime would occur a few years later in 1974, when eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan of Houston, Texas, died after eating Pixy Stix laced with cyanide. Except the thing was … none of the houses where he went trick-or-treating were giving away Pixy Stix, cyanide-laced or no. It later turned out that his father, Ronald O’Bryan, had given the boy the poisoned candy, having taken out a large insurance policy on him not long before. O’Bryan also doled out the candy to his daughter and some of their friends to make it seem like a random Halloween candy tainting, but none of them ate them. He was sentenced to death and executed in 1984.
In other cases, tainted candy was often suspected in Halloween deaths and accidents before more mundane explanations. Kawash notes that in 1991, when a man died after eating his kids’ Halloween candy, people assumed he’d eaten a poison Snickers or something and his neighbors dumped all of their candy. Except he actually just died of a heart attack.
So Is It All Just … Made Up?
In 1984, sociologist Joel Best looked into the phenomenon to see how widespread it truly was and found that, aside from accidents having nothing to do with candy, premeditated murder, and deaths from natural causes initially attributed to tainted candy, it was pretty much all bullshit. He was not able to find a single, actual case of “Halloween Sadism” in which a secretly child-hating and homicidal neighbor just poisons candy and hands it out to trick-or-treaters … at that time. In later years, there have been a few instances of people putting needles and other sharp objects in candy, likely inspired by the urban legend itself.
Interestingly, reports of tainted candy spiked in 1982, the year of the infamous Chicago Tylenol murders, in which a still-unknown person filled Tylenol caplets with cyanide, killing seven people. There were a number of other non-Halloween copycat crimes that year as well.
Best, who has continued to study the phenomenon throughout the years, also found that, in many cases of tainted Halloween candy, the children themselves were the perpetrators — having grown up on stories of tainted candy and razor blade-filled apples, they thought it was funny to prank their parents or siblings with “Oh no! There’s a sewing needle in my Tootsie Roll! One of the neighbors is trying to kill me!” without understanding the wider impact of these stories.
Unfortunately, like many urban legends, the story adapts and changes over time. Last year, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and many others started fear-mongering about evil drug addicts putting “rainbow fentanyl” in trick-or-treater’s bags — because if there is anything we know about people it is that they love giving drugs away for free.
But Isn’t It Better To Be Safe Than Sorry?
Well, A-Ha would argue that it is not, but sure! You should probably still take a look through your kids’ pillowcases full of candy just to be sure you’re not living next to the one actual candy-tainting maniac in the world. Can’t hurt! Just like, while “stranger danger” isn’t the widespread phenomenon it was once made out to be, you still might want to keep an eye on your kid while out.
That being said — these kinds of moral panics are not harmless. Not only do they give some bad people bad ideas, but overstating a threat tends to make people more distrustful and suspicious of the world around them than is warranted. And that can be dangerous. That perceived threat, that hypervigilance can lead them to cause actual harm, while fully believing they are just “saving the children.” Or to support harsh public safety policies that hurt more than help. Or to vote Republican.
So remember — if there is a widespread phenomenon of people doing something dangerous to children for reasons of “general evil,” or a supposed risk of teens doing something particularly evil or slutty, it’s always best to take a beat before taking it too seriously.