It's almost Halloween. Are you afraid? Do you have the lab standing by to check your kids' candy? Time for the annual debunking of an urban myth:
Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it's probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.
Take "stranger danger," the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the "Bewitched" and "Brady Bunch" costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.
That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger's Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)
Anyway, you'd think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won't be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!
No child ever in the whole history of this country -- that's a bit too absolutist for me. But the point is valid. Paranoid parents egged on by a paranoid culture have turned the Halloween fun of being scared into a terror-filled modern nightmare. The latest goblin rattling everybody's chain is the "registered sex offenders who must not be allowed to turn on their porch lights," which Indiana is even upping the ante on -- here, we're going to round them up for mandatory group meetings while the kiddies are out. It's the same old paranoia:
But Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, studied crime statistics from 30 states and found, "There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation."
In fact, she says, "We almost called this paper, 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year,' because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day."
At what point does fear for our children's safety go beyond reasonable into the destructive delusion stage? Maybe, as the author suggests, if we give Halloween back to the kids, "we can start giving them back the rest of their childhoods, too."