Trick or Treat: Is There Poison in Your Pixy Stix?

iStock
iStock

Halloween has to be one of the best days on a kid’s calendar. Not only do you get to put on a snappy new costume and pretend to be a monster, superhero, or princess, but you also get free candy just for ringing doorbells. Seriously, what could be better than that?

Of course, when kids start wolfing down their 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 actually ever 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.

10 Things You May Not Know About the Easter Bunny

iStock.com/kzenon
iStock.com/kzenon

Whether you attend a church service, decorate eggs, or devour Peeps, no Easter celebration is complete without a visit from the Easter Bunny. Check out these 10 things you may not know about the Easter Bunny, from its contested origins to its surprising iterations around the world.

1. It may have come from a pagan goddess of fertility—with some help from a Brother Grimm ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts.
Eduard Ade, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While we don’t know its exact origins, some believe the Easter Bunny has its roots in Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to Bede, a prolific 8th-century English monk, the Anglo-Saxon month Eosturmonath (broadly the Easter season) "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance." Whether Eostre was real or an invention by Bede has long been controversial, but scholarship on the goddess didn't really pick up for over a thousand years.

In his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) speculated that Eostre was connected to a German goddess named Ostara (whose existence, again, is controversial). Almost 40 years later, Adolf Holtzmann wrote that "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara," and a contemporary named K. A. Oberle hypothesized that "the hare which lay the parti-coloured Easter eggs was sacred to [Ostara]."

Over the years, other writers repeated these speculations as fact, and the idea that a hare was one of Eostre's sacred animals spread. Although hares and rabbits are different species, they're often conflated because the animals look alike and are both associated with fertility.

2. … Or it may come from a myth about that goddess's bird.

baby chick and bunny cuddling in a field
iStock.com/UroshPetrovic

Other scholars, however, think the Easter Bunny originated from an Anglo-Saxon myth about Eostre. According to the myth, the goddess was entertaining a group of kids one day. To make them laugh, she transformed her pet bird into a rabbit, giving it the ability to lay colored eggs. Eostre then gave the eggs to the children. A similar myth portrays a more malevolent Eostre, who turned her pet bird into a rabbit or hare because she was enraged. But other historians, noting the lack of any information outside of Bede regarding Eostre or Ostara, have speculated that these stories are possibly corruptions of Ukrainian folktales that explained that country's practice of making pysanky—essentially highly decorated eggs. An alternate hypothesis is that Oberle (or perhaps Holtzmann) made the decision that because the rabbit lays eggs it must have at some point transformed from a bird, making this story an entirely late-19th century invention.

3. The Pennsylvania Dutch introduced the Oschter Haws to the U.S.

A nest of colorful Easter eggs
iStock.com/tortoon

In the late 17th century, groups of Christian German immigrants began settling in Pennsylvania. They taught their children about the Oschter Haws (or Osterhase), a hare from German folklore that gave colorful eggs to well-behaved children on Easter. To prepare for the Oschter Haws's arrival, German and German-American kids built a small nest or basket for the hare's eggs. Over time, the Oschter Haws character gained popularity and was Americanized, morphing into the Easter Bunny.

4. It's not in the Bible, but it might be associated with the Virgin Mary.

"The Madonna of the Rabbit," by Titian, circa 1530.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny is a secular symbol of a Christian holiday. Although the Easter Bunny doesn't appear in the Bible, some religious scholars argue that it was originally associated with the Virgin Mary, rather than the pagan goddess Eostre. Because rabbits and hares were so fertile, Ancient Greeks and early medieval Christians thought that the animals could reproduce without having sex. Consequently, artwork and manuscripts often depict the Virgin Mary with rabbit iconography, alluding to the view that both the Virgin Mary and rabbits were able to have virgin births.

5. In Australia, it's the Easter Bilby …

A chocolate Easter Bilby
iStock.com/Bastetamn

Rather than celebrate Easter with bunnies, Australians are increasingly ushering in autumn (which is when Easter falls in the southern hemisphere) with the Easter Bilby. Also called rabbit-bandicoots, bilbies are Australian marsupials with long, rabbit-like ears. Things began looking grim for bilbies two centuries ago, when new predators and diseases were introduced into their habitat. Then, European rabbits—an invasive species whose population really took off when a few were released more than 150 years ago so they could be hunted—drove them out of their natural habitat until only a few thousand of the animals remained. But in the 1980s and '90s, Australians began doing more to protect the bilby. A book called Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby popularized the concept of the Easter Bilby, and the establishment of the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia educated Australians about the ecological harm that rabbits wreak. Today, you can find chocolate bilbies in Australia around Easter time, and some chocolate companies even donate a portion of their proceeds to organizations that save the animals.

6. … And in other countries, you'll find The Easter Bell, Easter Witches, and Easter Cuckoo.

Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
Two women feed candy to fish while dressed as Easter witches at the Aquaria Vattenmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016.
JESSICA GOW, TT/AFP/Getty Images

While the Easter Bilby might sound strange to anyone unfamiliar with it, other countries have their own, even weirder versions of the Easter Bunny. In most of France, children believe that flying church bells travel to the Vatican and bring back chocolate treats in time for Easter Sunday. In Sweden, kids dress up as wizards and witches rather than bunnies. And in Switzerland, the Easter Cuckoo (bird) is a symbol of the spring holiday.

7. A sensory-friendly Easter Bunny caters to kids with autism.

Easter Bunny greets a small child
iStock.com/MCCAIG

A sensory-friendly Caring Bunny greeted and posed for photos with children with autism and special needs on World Autism Awareness Day in 2017. Sponsored by Autism Speaks, the event took place in malls across the U.S., dimming the lights, lowering the music, and shutting down noisy escalators and fountains to accommodate kids who are unable to deal with the visual and auditory stimulation of a normal mall. It's now an annual tradition at some malls.

8. Famous people love donning Easter Bunny costumes.

The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
The Easter Bunny drops eggs on the field in between innings of a Cincinnati Reds game.
Joe Robbins, Getty Images

While most people enjoy dressing up for Halloween, celebrities can't seem to get enough of donning a big rabbit suit on Easter. Singers, actors, and sports stars such as Mariah Carey, Madonna, David Beckham, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West have all shared photos of themselves wearing Easter Bunny costumes, which range from a simple set of bunny ears to a full-body white, fluffy suit.

9. Former U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was once the White House Easter Bunny.

Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reads a book to children during the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll in 2017.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

The White House's annual Easter Egg Roll, which began in 1878, draws children and families to the President's home for egg hunting and musical performances. Traditionally, a member of the president's administration dresses up as the Easter Bunny to entertain kids and their families. When George W. Bush was president, then-assistant U.S. trade representative for media and public affairs Sean Spicer wore the bunny costume. In March 2016, Spicer poked fun at his old role, retweeting a photo of himself with the comment: "The good ole days—what I would give to hide in a bunny costume again."

10. Chocolate bunnies are insanely popular.

A chocolate bunny
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Halloween and Easter are the two big holidays for candy sales, with Easter sometimes coming out on top (at least in dollar sales). This year, Americans are expected to spend $18.1 billion on the holiday, and 87 percent of celebrants planned to buy Easter candy like chocolate bunnies, marshmallow bunnies and eggs, and jelly beans. About 90 million chocolate bunnies are produced every Easter, which makes for a ton of mouthwatering chocolate rabbits in kids' (and adults') Easter baskets.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

A Brief History of the High Five

Getty Images
Getty Images

Since 2002, the third Thursday of April is recognized as National High Five Day—a 24-hour period for giving familiars and strangers alike as many high fives as humanly possible. A few University of Virginia students invented the day, which has since evolved into a “High 5-A-Thon” that raises money each year for for a good cause. (For 2019, it's CoachArt, a nonprofit organization that engages kids impacted by chronic illness in arts and athletics.) Here are a few more facts about the history of the hand gesture to get you in the high-fiving spirit.

UP HIGH

That may sound like a lot of celebration for a simple hand gesture, but the truth is, the act of reaching your arm up over your head and slapping the elevated palm and five fingers of another person has revolutionized the way Americans (and many all over world) cheer for everything from personal achievements to miraculous game-winning plays in the sports world. Psychological studies on touch and human contact have found that gestures like the high five enhance bonding among sports teammates, which in turn has a winning effect on the whole team. Put 'er there!

Down Low

There is some dispute about who actually invented the high five. Some claim the gesture was invented by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke when he spontaneously high-fived fellow outfielder Dusty Baker after a home run during a game in 1977. Others claim the 1978-79 Louisville basketball team started it on the court. Since no one could definitively pinpoint the exact origin, National High Five Day co-founder Conor Lastowka made up a story about Murray State basketballer Lamont Sleets inventing it in the late 1970s/early 1980s, inspired by his father's Vietnam unit, “The Fives.”

Regardless of which high-five origin story is more accurate, there is little question of its roots. The high five evolved from its sister-in-slappage, the low five. The gesture, also known as “slapping skin,” was made popular in the jazz age by the likes of Al Jolson, Cab Calloway and the Andrews Sisters.

Gimme Five

As the high five has evolved over the past few decades, variations have developed and become popular in and of themselves. Here are five popular styles:

  1. The Baby Five
    Before most babies learn to walk or talk, they learn to high five. Baby hands are much smaller than adult hands, so grownups have to either use one finger, scrunch their fingers together or flat-out palm it.
  1. The Air Five
    Also known as the "wi-five" in the more recent technology age, this one is achieved just like a regular high five, minus the hand-to-hand contact. Its great for germaphobes and long distance celebrations.
  1. The Double High Five
    Also known as a “high ten,” it is characterized by using both hands simultaneously to high five.
  1. The Fist Bump
    It's a trendy offshoot of the high five that made headlines thanks to a public display by the U.S. President and First Lady. Instead of palm slapping, it involves contact between the knuckles of two balled fists. In some cases, the fist bump can be “exploding,” by which the bump is followed by a fanning out of all involved fingers.
  1. The Self High Five
    If something awesome happens and there's no one else around, the self high five may be appropriate. It happens when one person raises one hand and brings the other hand up to meet it, high-five style. Pro-wrestler Diamond Dallas Page made the move famous in his appearances at WCW matches.

You're too slow!

Don't fall for that old joke. The key to a solid high five is threefold. Always watch for the elbow of your high-fiving mate to ensure accuracy; never leave a buddy hanging; and always have hand sanitizer on you. Have a Happy High Five Day!

This article has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER