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A Brief History of People Tampering With Halloween Candy

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When kids start wolfing down their Halloween treats, there’s always one grim specter lurking in the back of parents' minds: what if some madman had filled their candy with poison, razor blades, needles, or some other decidedly terrifying foreign substance? But has this ever actually happened? Let’s take a look at how realistic these fears are.

Has anyone ever really handed out poisoned Halloween candy?

To random children? Not that we know of. In 1974, an eight-year-old Houston boy named Timothy O’Bryan died after eating cyanide-laced Pixy Stix while trick-or-treating. Although the poisoning initially looked like it might have been the work of a deranged homeowner, the investigation into O’Bryan’s murder soon centered on his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan.

A bit of digging revealed that Ronald O’Bryan had recently taken out hefty life insurance policies on both of his children, and police quickly built a case, albeit a circumstantial one, that O’Bryan had given both Timothy and his daughter, Elizabeth, the poison candy to try to collect on the policies. To help cover his tracks, O’Bryan also gave two other children cyanide Pixy Stix. Luckily, his daughter and the other two children had passed up the poisoned powders in favor of other treats.

O’Bryan was eventually convicted and executed for murdering his son. While his crime was certainly a horrific one, it was hardly the sort of random poisoning that parents fear.

So nobody’s ever died from poisoned Halloween candy?

By all indications, no. Snopes has collected an impressive array of stories where randomly poisoned Halloween candy was blamed for deaths, though. In 1970, a five-year-old in Detroit died after ingesting a massive amount of heroin. Tests on his Halloween candy showed that some had been sprinkled with the drug, but the police actually learned the tragic truth behind the boy’s death. He had stumbled across his uncle’s heroin stash and mistakenly eaten it. His family then sprinkled the drug on the boy’s Halloween candy to throw off investigators.

Why so many scares, then?

It’s easy to see how these urban legends have taken hold because they’re so terrifying. After all, parents spend 364 days of every year telling their kids not to take candy from strangers precisely because it might be poisoned, then give the thumbs-up to taking snacks from every house in the neighborhood on Halloween. It’s only natural that parents would get a little nervous. Plus, after the terrifyingly random Tylenol murders of 1982 where seven Chicagoland people died after taking randomly poisoned pain medication, many people have been more than a little nervous about crazed poisoners.

Of course, the scares get a real boost every few years when someone, often a parent, dies while eating Halloween candy or immediately afterwards. Statistically, you’d expect just as many people to randomly drop dead on Halloween as any other day of the year, but any time a parent has a fatal heart attack after eating a miniature Butterfinger, the poison candy scourge gets the blame until the autopsy results come back. Everything from heart failure to fatal bacterial infections have been initially blamed on poisoned candy.

Okay, so there’s probably no poison in my kids’ Halloween candy. What about razor blades and needles?

Now here’s what you should really be worried about. Actually, “really be worried about” is too strong of a wording; let’s say this is what should mildly concern you. Unlike randomly poisoned candy, there are verified reports of sharp objects being placed in random trick-or-treaters’ candy. Fortunately, though, these incidents hardly qualify as an epidemic. In fact, they’re really, really rare.

According to Snopes, since 1959 there have been around 80 reports of sharp objects adulterating food. The great bulk of those reports turned out to be hoaxes, and even when the stories turned out to be true, the needles or blades were usually placed in the food by a relative or friend who had a really boneheaded idea of what constitutes a good prank. Hardly the sort of crazed loners who should be keeping us awake at night.

Moreover, compared to cyanide poisonings, the potential downside of biting into a sharp object is fairly low. The worst of these verified reports resulted in someone needing to get a few stitches to close a cut in the mouth. While that would certainly be enough to ruin your day, and you should obviously still inspect your child's bag of Halloween loot, it’s not quite as terrifying as keeling over with a Jolly Rancher in your mouth.

Has anyone been caught for one of these needle attacks?

Despite decades of parental worry, the first organized attempt to spoil Halloween with sharp objects didn’t happen until 2000. That year James Joseph Smith of Minneapolis allegedly stuck needles in the Snickers bars he handed out to trick-or-treaters. While several of the children bit into Smith’s nefarious bars, he could hardly claim a huge victim toll. The only injury was to a teenager who was pricked by one of the needles, and even he didn’t need to go see a doctor for his relatively small wound. Police charged Smith with one count of adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness.

Anything else weird turn up in Halloween candy?

How about pot? In 2000, parents began finding an odd trick mixed into their children’s treats: Snickers wrappers stuffed with marijuana. Police jumped on the case and quickly traced the wacky chocolates back to a homeowner who seemed truly confused about the whole hullabaloo.

Eventually, the police and the homeowner pieced together what had happened. The man worked in the dead letter office at a local postal facility, and when he found a bag of Snickers in a lost package, he brought them home to give out as treats. He hadn’t realized, though, that the candy bars were actually someone’s attempt at smuggling pot through the mail.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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GhostwatchBTC via YouTube
The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers
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GhostwatchBTC via YouTube

After more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK's Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death.

There is something of a myth surrounding Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938. As the decades have passed, accounts of how Welles used the H.G. Wells story to fool a nation into believing aliens had invaded have become embellished. Listeners had supposedly become so infused with terror that they leapt from windows and suffered nervous breakdowns. Major cities had streets crowded with people craning their necks and looking for signs of a violent galactic attack.

While it’s true a number of people may have been disturbed by the “accounts” of military forces being overwhelmed by aliens, it’s unlikely to have been as widespread as later accounts would have it. Newspapers eager to browbeat the competing medium of radio exaggerated the show’s effect, then quickly dropped the matter; it’s not likely all that many people were even listening in the first place, with the program going up against a popular comedy show airing at the same time.

As perpetrators of hoaxes go, only Stephen Volk seems to have lived up to the standard Welles is thought to have set. A screenwriter, Volk pitched the BBC on a six-part series in 1988 about a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.

The BBC, however, wasn’t that enthused about devoting that much time to the idea. Instead, the pitch was condensed down to the last episode—a kind of “mockumentary” take on a paranormal occurrence that the channel could air as a Halloween special.

For Volk, it represented an opportunity to explore what he felt was the relative comfort of a television broadcast. Audiences went to horror films, he believed, knowing what to expect, consenting to being scared. But television was more intimate and less predictable. Viewers who tuned in anticipating a spoof or anticlimactic, tongue-in-cheek exploration would be in for a surprise—and not a pleasant one.

To add to the program’s credibility, Volk and director Lesley Manning structured it so two BBC presenters—Sarah Greene and Craig Charles—would be installed at the Early house, while highly regarded broadcaster Michael Parkinson would anchor from a studio. (Both Charles and Greene frequently popped up on BBC children’s programming, which would prove to be a lure when it came to an adolescent audience.)

Actors portrayed members of the Early family: single mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim all reported instances of strange activity in their home, including rattling, mysterious cat noises, and smashed dishes. Suzanne would sport odd scratches on her face, which she claimed to be the work of Pipes, the ghost who refused to leave their home.

(In a testament to Volk’s commitment, he petitioned the BBC to allow him to try and insert a high-pitched warble on the soundtrack that would be audible to animals near televisions, hoping their bizarre behavior would unsettle viewers more. It proved to be technically impossible to do.)

Various ideas were batted around to reinforce the disclaimer, but few made it to the air. Mike Smith, Greene’s real-life husband and an on-air BBC correspondent who appeared on the special, once told the Radio Times that he suspected things might go south. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” he said. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss. They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn't enough."

By the time Ghostwatch premiered at 9:25 p.m. on October 31, 1992, the special had already been filmed, showing Parkinson reacting to segments and taking calls—all staged—that invited the audience to discuss their experiences with paranormal activity. In the interests of fairness, he also included an interview with a (fake) skeptic dismissing the Earlys’ claims.

Only highly observant viewers would have done the same. While the show began with a title card indicating it was written “by” Volk, the graphic was onscreen for only a split second; the presence of established and familiar faces to BBC viewers added to the verisimilitude. So did the program’s slow burn. At 90 minutes, it took its time, showing only fleeting glimpses into the Early family’s experiences that were left purposely ambiguous.

In the show’s second half, things took a turn. A viewer called in to tell them that someone had once committed suicide in the home; a mutilated dog corpse was said to be recently found nearby; the Early children were depicted as increasingly upset over the home’s disturbances. Around an hour in, Parkinson even advised viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming to remain with Greene due to the "extraordinary" events taking place: Suzanne speaking in a baritone voice, and unseen cats mewling behind the walls.

Ultimately, Greene disappeared in the crawl space under the home’s stairs while a paranormal expert proclaimed that the television audience had unwittingly participated in a mass séance that had further emboldened Pipes. At the end of the show, Parkinson was seen being apparently possessed by the ghost’s spirit.

The finale laid it on a little thick, but not everyone made it that far in. By the time Ghostwatch signed off, a not-insignificant portion of the show’s 11 million viewers were either convinced ghosts were real, extremely upset at the BBC for traumatizing their children, or both.

The broadcaster had just five operators standing by its phones [PDF] once the show went off air, a number that was quickly overcome by the thousands of calls that flooded in. One woman reportedly went into labor due to the stress caused by watching the program; another reported her husband had soiled himself. Within hours, the BBC aired a brief segment that reminded viewers the show was fictional. It was a little too late.

Public discourse—including on the BBC’s own viewer feedback show, Bite Back—criticized the station for using its reputation to fool viewers into thinking harm had come to both the Earlys and to their hosts. Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later said that “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting … The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”

Greene quickly appeared on children’s shows to reassure younger viewers she had not been abducted or murdered by Pipes. Volk and Manning offered their own apologies, feeling that the BBC considered them pariahs. They had simply wanted to pay homage to Welles, never imagining the program could have the kind of effect it did.

In a report published in the British Medical Journal 18 months later, doctors in Coventry reported cases they classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder” from consumption of media—in this case, Ghostwatch. Two 10-year-old boys were suffering from panic attacks and sleep disturbances as a result of the broadcast. When the piece appeared, the Journal received correspondence from other doctors relating similar cases.

If not for his reported learning disabilities, 18-year-old Martin Denham might have been more psychologically equipped to deal with some transient nerves from the show. When he became distraught in the days following the broadcast, he began to grow concerned he might make contact with ghosts and committed suicide. His parents, Percy and April, blamed Ghostwatch, leading the Broadcasting Standards Council to rule that the show had been improperly labeled, with too few warnings that it was a fictitious premise.

Later, the handheld-camera, raw-footage approach would unnerve cinema audiences that flocked to films like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. While those films rarely resulted in any claims more serious than motion sickness, Ghostwatch successfully married the BBC’s credibility with an effective ghost story to create an experience that’s unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Not that the network wants to try. Since its original airing, the program has never again been broadcast in its entirety in the UK. (Though it is available to stream via Shudder.)

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8 Famous Séances
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For centuries, séances have provided entertainment for skeptics as well as solace for people hoping to catch a glimpse of their deceased loved ones. Here are a few notable times mediums have tried to contact the dead.

1. THE ANNUAL HOUDINI SÉANCE

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Before magician and famous skeptic Harry Houdini died in 1926, he said that he would send word of the afterlife, if there was one, once he was gone. He and his wife, Bess, even devised a code word that only they knew. Though Bess held séances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, hoping to hear their secret word, nothing ever happened. Still, a variety of magicians, Houdini enthusiasts, and spiritualists have continued the tradition ever since.

2. JANE PIERCE’S WHITE HOUSE SÉANCES

Even if you don’t believe séances can produce spirits, you can’t blame First Lady Jane Pierce for trying. She had already lost two young sons before her husband, Franklin Pierce, was elected president in 1852, so she was particularly protective of Bennie, the only surviving child. Unfortunately, it didn’t do her much good—two months before Franklin Pierce was inaugurated, the family was involved in a train derailment that took 11-year-old Bennie’s life.

She wrote her deceased son a letter not long afterward, asking him to appear to her so she could apologize for failing him. To help him find his way, she hired the Fox sisters, famous mediums who did much to popularize séances. There’s no record as to what happened at the White House séance, but we do know Jane reported that Bennie had appeared to her in her dreams shortly thereafter.

3. LEVITATION SÉANCES

Starting in the 1880s, Daniel Dunglas Home convinced some people of his supernatural ability by levitating during séances. Though the stunts certainly generated publicity, Home's "abilities" were called into question when insiders said he simply stood between closely placed balconies or stood outside on wide windowsills. Home counted many celebrities among his fans, including Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, Napoleon III, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but he didn't impress everyone. Houdini wasn't fooled, calling Home “the forerunner of the mediums whose forte is fleecing by presuming on the credulity of the public.”

4. THE SÉANCE THAT “RAISED” A JUDGE

Judge John W. Edmonds died on April 5, 1874. A month later, he allegedly gave a speech in London, thanks to medium Cora L.V. Tappan, a young woman who had been giving spiritualist performances since the age of 15. The eloquent speech helped bolster the medium's successful career; she became the pastor of a spiritualist church the following year, and helped found the National Spiritualist Association.

5. THE MARY TODD LINCOLN SÉANCES

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Like Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln’s interest in talking to the dead is pretty understandable. And, also like Pierce, Lincoln employed the Fox sisters to help her reach a loved one taken too soon—specifically, her assassinated husband. There are no reports as to whether she was satisfied with the result, but the Fox sisters later admitted that their method of communicating with the dead—rapping on tables and other objects—was created by cracking their joints and making noises with their feet.

In addition to Abe, Mary also tried to contact her sons via séance, using a variety of mediums—and was quite happy with how those turned out. “Willie lives,” she once reported. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

6. MUSEUM-WORTHY SÉANCES

Georgiana Houghton was an artist who became interested in spiritualism in the early 1860s after the death of her younger sister. It didn't take long for Houghton to combine her two interests, channeling creative spirits during séances to create watercolors and other works of art. Though she originally said that dead family members helped guide her hand, Houghton later claimed to have contacted Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whether or not her works were the result of the afterlife, they're still relevant today—her art was exhibited at a prestigious London gallery just earlier this year.

7. THE BLACK HAWK SÉANCES

In 1913, Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association in Chicago, an organization partly founded on the messages she brought from her spirit guide, Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, during religious séances. Anderson never knew Black Hawk—he died in 1838, nearly 50 years before she was born. Anderson herself died in 1927, but the word she brought from Black Hawk stuck—some faiths still channel Black Hawk to this day.

8. THE PAY-PER-VIEW SÉANCE

Lest you think that séances are ancient history—a silly diversion for people unenlightened by technology—consider Spirit of Diana, a 2003 pay-per-view event in which British mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker claimed to have contacted Princess Diana. The things Diana "revealed" weren’t exactly shocking or personal: The mediums claimed she said she was “having fun” in the afterlife, chilling with Mother Teresa. She had planned on marrying Dodi Fayed, and was still watching over her sons.

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