Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween: An Unsafe Holiday?

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Over the last week or so I've heard several of my friends, coworkers and acquaintances talk about how “evil” or “dangerous” Halloween is.  I remember trick or treating as a child for many, many years and nothing bad ever happened to me. My own son is now of the age that he enjoys trick or treating as well. I keep hearing people say that the number of crimes has gone up and that Halloween is the most dangerous day of the year. With my own child partaking in the holiday festivities I had to wonder if there was any truth to these claims.

According to one study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, Lynn University, and the Medical University of South Carolina, “There were no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween, and Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics.” The study further points out, “sex crimes against children by non- family members account for two out of every thousand Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources on that day away from more prevalent public safety concerns.”

Regarding criminal activity on Halloween, theft and vandalism are particularly common. But, with so many teenagers and other people running around in the dark in costumes with their identity hidden, this is not really surprising. Almost of these are relegated to petty theft or property damage.

“On Halloween in 2008, we had a total of 59 calls,” said Sgt. Nathan O’Dell of the Blacksburg police. “In 2009 we had a total of 52 calls. Most of these were noise complaints from parties.” Noise complaints are certainly annoying, but hardly seem dangerous to me.

Officer Geof Allen, crime prevention and analysis officer for the [Virginia Tech] campus police said that in comparison to other days throughout the year, Halloween is barely different than any other day.

Several journalists and reporters have a theory about why these statistics are so scary. One journalist stated, “The concern for missing children resembles fears about other threats to children, such as child abuse, incest, molestation, Halloween sadism, and child pornography. In examining rhetorical tools used by child advocates when making claims aimed at raising public anxiety, the media’s role in transmitting these claims, and the public’s response to alarming statistics, the author contends that what is said about threats to children is subtly changed to fit the demands of journalistic and popular cultural formulas.”

But what about the satanic rituals and the killing of black cats? According to data from the ASPCA and other animal rights sources, there is a slight rise in animal abuse around Halloween. However, it should also be noted that the ASPCA says that these cases of abuse are for cats of every color, not just black. And they also say that animal abuse is a year round problem attributed to unruly and undisciplined children, not satanic cults. The myth of black cat sacrifices doesn’t have any specific origin, being attributed partly to druid priests, pagan Celts, and the early Christian church. Some sources say that the myth started more than 2,000 years ago. The long and the short of it is that this is a myth that has been long-perpetuated by stories and anecdotes with little or no empirical evidence to support it. Because the myth is so old and so well-known any suspicious animal injuries or deaths around Halloween are automatically attributed to satanic cults. Kim Hicks of the Arizona Humane Society has gone on record saying that Wiccans hold animals in higher regard than people and are not responsible for animal sacrifice. Instead she blames the teenagers. Or possibly those who dabble in the occult, but mostly teenagers. The notion that these are just wild tales told at Halloween are further supported by Dr. Leslie Sinclair, the Director of Companion Animal Care for the Humane Society of the United States. According to Dr. Sinclair, no shelter owner or operator that she has ever talked to has been able to cite solid numbers of animal sacrifices during Halloween. In 1996 she also assembled a team to scour newspapers from across the country for a period of time both before and after Halloween. They were looking for articles or cases of animal abuse, but they found nothing.

Another Halloween staple is the story of poisoned candy. Surely this has happened before. I mean, radio, TV and news agencies are encouraging people to go to malls and other social events instead of door to door, so this has to be true. In truth, this same song and dance has been played out for at least 40 years. To be fair, there were a few incidents that were initially reported as poisonings. However, upon further investigation they turned out to be something else. One of the most famous examples was the case of murder in Houston, TX in 1974. In this case the child died at 10pm on Halloween night after eating a Pixie Stick laced with Cyanide. What they didn’t tell you; he was killed by his own father who was seeking to collect the large life insurance policy. The boy’s father was convicted of the murder in May , 1975. Of course, this just shows that the legend has existed prior to 1974 or else the father wouldn’t have tried to use it to cover up his murder. There was another case in 1970 involving the death of another little boy whose candy was purportedly laced with heroin. According to the coroner’s report and the police investigation the boy found his uncle’s secret stash and poisoned himself with an accidental overdose. The family then laced the candy after the fact in an effort to protect the uncle. The list of cases goes on and on and on. All of them are unsubstantiated or falsely reported.

Now, there have been a few, and I’m talking about less than a half-dozen cases over the last 50 years, of people slipping needles and razor blades into candy. However, none of those cases resulted in any fatalities or serious injuries, with the exception of one person who needed three stitches after biting into an apple with a razor blade. After 50+ years of having millions of children trick or treat and only having 5 or 6 reported cases of this, that seems like a very low threat to me. For arguments sake let’s assume that there were 100 million trick-or-treaters across the country in the last 50 years. Having 6 reported cases is an absorbedly low amount of 0.000006%. Which means that it’s  99.999994% safe.

So why is this myth so hard to ignore? Several reasons. First, people love to tell a good story, and tragic stories are not only attention getters, but they get our adrenaline going. If not, why else would so many people frequent horror movies? Second, a lesson from educational psychology; the Law of Primacy. Basically, the principle here is that “whatever you learn first, you learn the best.” If someone tells you something, and then later someone tells you different or conflicting information, you are far more likely to remember the first stuff that you heard.

The one danger that is supported by evidence is that, according to the Center for Disease Control, “children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year.” The reasons that they cite for this is due to children wearing dark-colored costumes walking at night, as well as children darting across the street in their excitement for more candy. Steps to take to make your children safer; walk with your children as they trick or treat and keep yourself between your children and the road, only cross the street at designated crosswalks and intersections, and in rural areas where there are no streetlights provide your children with flashlights and other reflective gear.

Oíche Shamhna Shona!

Don’t just take my word for it! My sources:

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