Stranger danger: How the media perpetuates fear of tainted Halloween treats

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What came first, the tricks or the treats? Professor W. Scott Poole says candy was distributed to quell the pranks played on middle and upper class neighborhoods on Halloween night in 1920s America. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

“Part of the history of Halloween is the trick coming before the treats,” says W. Scott Poole. In an episode of the podcast “Today, Explained,” the professor of horror at the College of Charleston tells host Sean Rameswaram. In the 1920s, Halloween focused on pranking, particularly in urban America. “This was a time when working-class kids unleashed on the middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods,” he continues. The treats aspect of the holiday turned out to be a successful attempt to quell the tricks and normalize the evening. By the 1950s, the distribution of candy was widely popular.

The hysteria of tainted candy landing in children’s pillowcases and plastic pumpkins was sparked by an op-ed in the New York Times published on October 28, 1970, that talked about the possibility of strangers using the holiday to perform “acts of Halloween sadism.” Poole continues to outline other national scares that make parents weary of trick-or-treating, including more recently the rainbow fentanyl warnings, and how the media perpetuates these fears.