Halloween Facts and Fiction: A In-Depth Analysis of Holiday Urban Legends


John A Cinnamon, Ranger Review Reporter

For decades now, rumors and legends have surrounded the crimes perpetrated on all Hallows’ Eve. The general populace is terrified of serial killers, poisoned candy, razor blades and needles embedded in food, abductions, sexual and physical assault, murder, larceny, and everything in between on every single 31st of October. 


But how many of these many fears are actually founded in reality and how much of it is simply superstition or paranoia of the supposedly cursed night of the year? A deep dive into the statistics of police reports, history, legends, media, and even governmental legislation might hold the answers as to what really goes bump in the night every October, and what should actually be feared this Halloween.


One of the most easily disproven and historically traced is the idea of the Halloween serial killer, the depraved psychopaths who only strike on the last night of October, preying on foolish teenagers and unsuspecting children. However, there is no record of such killings. While there have been murders on Halloween night, all of them have had previous motives, such as crimes of passion, and second degree felonies. Even in these cases, in a majority of them, the crime would have been the exact same as carried out on any other night, with a notable few exceptions, such as a woman who shot and killed her lover’s husband by concealing a gun in a paper bag and shooting after he opened the door for what he thought was a trick-or-treater. But there is not a single recorded case of a killer who commits heinous acts only on or only because of the date. The reason for the myth obviously comes from media, ghost stories and movies often featuring this type of killer, but this is one legend that doesn’t need any terror this Halloween. 


Another popular case of what is known as Halloween sadism also includes the idea that children are more likely to be abducted on this particular night of the year, leading to ‘safe’ Halloween candy collecting traditions, notably, the trunk-or-treat. 


However, statistics show that there is no notable increase in the number of abductions on Halloween as opposed to other nights of the year. For that matter, only 7% of child abductions come from people that the victim does not know, with a vast majority consisting of kidnappings from family members and friends of the victim in question. Despite this, many cities and counties have put into place safeguards just in case, such as in Gaston County, where all registered sex offenders must report to the courthouse or be hunted down and arrested, as well as a large police presence in neighborhoods during the hours of trick-or-treating. So while statistics show that there is no greater risk to child safety, the threat that is posed is taken far more seriously than other nights of the year. 


However, Fright Night is far from free of crime. Statistics show that theft and vandalism crimes increase dramatically, often due to the fact that houses are left empty as parents and their children are out collecting candy, allowing for theft and general property damage.  Specifically, according to insurance claim data collected in 2016, crime related claims jumped a shocking 24% on the night of Halloween, with the most common being automobile theft and general property damage. Vandalism is all too common, especially within large cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, LA, and New York, often caused by drunken young adults, and rowdy teenagers at parties, leading to many arrests on the 31st every year.


Now undoubtedly the most popular idea of Halloween Sadism is that of poisoned candy. The malicious neighbor who hands out poison laced candy for unassuming children to fall victim to, should their parents not take the proper precautions is a trope that has found its way into the imaginations of people all over the globe. However, this myth is extremely easy to disprove, as there has not once been a single recorded case of a stranger handing out poisoned candy to unsuspecting children. But that is not to say that the poisoned candy legend is entirely a myth. In fact it is easy to trace the irrational fear back to one case in 1974, where Ronald Clark O’Bryan laced five Pixy sticks with cyanide and handed them to his son Timothy O’Bryan, his daughter Elizabeth O’Bryan and their friends. O’Bryan had recently taken out insurance on his children, and wished to collect by orchestrating the death of his son and daughter. While the other four Pixy sticks went uneaten, tragically Timothy, who was only eight years old, did die from the poisoned candy. As such Ronald Clark O’Bryan has often been dubbed names such as ‘The Candy Man’ or ‘The Man Who Killed Halloween’, he was arrested five days after the murder, and spent a decade in prison before being excecuted by lethal injection in 1984. This is the only recorded case of fatality by poisoned candy, and was perpetrated by the victim’s own father. Hence, the idea of a stranger handing out poisoned candy to any child unlucky enough to cross paths with them is completely unfounded. 

However, Ronald Clark O’Bryan’s court defense rode on the urban legend of poisoned candy, giving the poison to the other children in order to play into the fear of the mysterious person who hands out poisoned candy, as Timothy and his friends were Trick-or-Treating together, and Timothy and his sister’s neighbors had nothing to do with the insurance scheme. But if this is the first case of fatality by poisoned candy, why would the fear exist for O’Bryan to attempt to exploit? For that matter, where do any of these fears come from? The answer is more complicated than it may at first seem.


The idea of bad omens and happenings transpiring on Halloween is certainly nothing new, with the concept dating back to over two thousand years ago with the Celtic people celebrating the end of their year, in a festival known as Samhain, where they believe that the worlds of the living and the dead merged together. The dead spirits were believed to destroy crops, but also grant clairvoyance to Celtic fortune tellers, as well as other supernatural powers. This tradition was carried on in the eighth century when November 1st was declared as All Saints Day by Pope Gregory III, also known as All Hallows’ Day. Due to being the night before, October 31st became known as All Hallows’ Eve, and later shortened to Halloween, which represented the evil which ruled through the night before being banished by the holiness of All Saints Day the next day. As for the paranoia of poisoned candy, no one is quite sure where and why it started, but the ideas can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution where food was just starting to be widely produced outside of the home, leading to paranoia as people no longer had full control over their own food and propagated throughout the years as killers have taken the inspiration caused by public panic to commit actual crimes, such as in the Chicago Tylenol poisonings of 1982, and the aforementioned case of Ronald Clark O’Bryan. In this way, humanity has in a way created the very thing that it fears, in a self-fulfilling prophecy of panic. 


So while the odds are stacked against meeting a malicious candy poisoner or a holiday specific serial killer, still be careful this Halloween. Check candy for alterations, stay in well lit sections of the neighborhoods, stay off the streets, and wear reflective clothing in order to avoid car accidents, and remember to take health precautions. In short, have a happy and safe Halloween this year.