The power of scary urban myths

As Halloween approaches, parents will take the usual precautions to prevent their children from being harmed by dangerous psychopaths who they fear will try to use the treats as vehicles for their attacks. But all that fear is based on myths.

For decades, parents have been warned to check sweet-wrappers for signs of tampering, chocolate bars for hidden needles, and apples for surreptitiously inserted razor blades when their children return home from knocking on strangers’ doors. But Dr Joel Best, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Delaware, has researched every reported case of so-called “Halloween sadism” in the past 45 years, and has concluded that not one of them was genuine.

“When you think about it, the whole concept just doesn’t add up. But there’s clearly something that makes people believe in a homicidal maniac who is so crazy that he will poison kids for no reason at all… but only do it on one day of the year.”

But unfortunately, despite our best efforts, it seems unlikely that we will ever dispel these fears because these stories share with other similar scare stories all the elements that make them ‘sticky’ in our minds. Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of a book MADE TO STICK: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die summarize those features in the acronym SUCCES, standing for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion-evoking and embedded in Stories.

The Halloween fears are generated by short stories that are frightening and superficially plausible and call for fairly simple actions to thwart the bad effects. So people think that it is better to be safe than sorry and pass on the stories and advice to friends and family and so perpetuate them.


  1. ohtheinsanity says

    chocolate bars for hidden needles

    What the hell? The whole thing is paranoid but this just takes the cake.

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