Halloween and Child Danger — From Legend to Law

October 31, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Halloween of 2006, when this blog was only a few weeks old, I did a post (here) that mentioned Joel Best’s famous 1985 Social Problems article debunking “Halloween sadism.” All those stories about evil adults putting needles in apples or LSD on candy, they were urban legends — stories that many people have heard about, but when you try to track down specific instances, they vanish like a ghost. Best updated his research in 2012 and still could not find case where a child had suffered serious injury let alone the deaths claimed in the legend. There a few stories, usually in local online news sources, of sharp objects found in candy, but no reports of injury.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the post was really about cognitive biases. It takes more than lack of evidence to drive a stake through the heart of a good legend. It’s not just that people don’t stop believing. They can expand and transform it, and then give it a much more solid form.  Halloween sadism has shifted shape and become Halloween pedophilia.  And while Halloween sadism was spread more or less randomly by word-of-mouth, Halloween pedophilia is now written into the law. Starting in the early 2000s, many states have passed laws restricting sex offenders on Halloween. In many places they are not allowed to give out candy. In some, they are not allowed to decorate their homes or have the lights on. Police and parole officers may intensify their surveillance, and some jurisdictions just round up all known sex offenders and keep them in a single location like city hall till trick-or-treat is over.*

These extraordinary measures are based on the assumption that, as Fox News puts it, “pedophiles will be out in full force” on Halloween.

The evidence shows no such Halloween effect. Researchers looked at rates of sex crimes against children over the course of eight years and found no difference between Halloween and any other day. Nor were rates any lower after the new polices were put in place than they had been before. (The article is a behind a paywall here.)

You don’t have to be much of a child safety expert to guess which people do actually present a greatly increased risk to children on Halloween. Motorists.

The numbers are small, thankfully, but the Halloween effect is unmistakable.

* In the last few years, we’ve had a more serious examples of new laws based on myth as myths of voter fraud and stolen elections became the basis for changes in election laws. The big difference is that the people propagating the election myths were doing so in order to further their own interests. The diffusion of Halloween myths was more “endogenous.” For more on endogenous and exogenous factors, see this earlier post on the rise and fall in the popularity of baby names and movies.

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