Junkfood Science: Twas the night of Halloween

October 31, 2008

Twas the night of Halloween

It’s that time of the year again, when scary stories of spooky dangers hiding behind every door go into high gear. It’s not ghosts and goblins some parents fear, but candy and sweets, razor blades in apples, and Halloween madmen.

Trick-or-treating has long been a night of fun, when kids get to dress up, eat gobs of candy and bring their fantasies to life, but for some parents it’s a witching night that threatens to permanently tempt children to the dark side of unhealthy eating.

Some candyphobics even believe it’s a sugar-holiday invented by evil candy companies, writes Rebecca Rich in the University of Ottowa’s Fulcrum. She counters such beliefs with a fun review of the history of Halloween, trick-or-treating, and Jack-o-lanterns. The origins of Halloween actually can be traced back to Celtic civilizations in the fifth century, she said. Interviewing Shelley Rabinovitch, a professor at the university’s Department of Classics and Religious Studies, best know for teaching witchcraft and magic, she learned that trick-or-treating isn’t new, either:

Rabinovitch explained that it was once believed that spirits could roam freely among the living and, because of this, certain superstitions developed. People began to travel from house to house, dressed in costume in order to distract or frighten the impish spirits away. As this service was considered a tremendous help to the homeowner, residents would often give small gifts to the group. This ‘treat’ often consisted of food and has developed more recently—to many parents’ chagrin—into candy.
Over the years, in many rural areas, if the homeowner did not provide a treat of some sort to the group, people would often respond by tipping the home’s outhouse, thus inserting the “trick” into the tradition of trick-or-treating.

According to the History Channel film The Real Story of Halloween, outside of Celtic custom, trick-or-treating was also related to the English tradition of giving soul cakes on All Souls’ Day in return for a promise to pray for a dead family member. Soul cakes were round cakes left at tombstones for the dead with the belief it would free a soul from purgatory. This practice was altered by the Catholic church as children were encouraged to “go a-souling”, or travel from house to house gathering food, alcohol, or money for their families instead of leaving the gathered goods for the dead.

Halloween and trick-or-treating first appeared in North America in the early 19th century, when Scottish, Irish and English were immigrating in high numbers, according to Nicholas Rogers, a York University history professor and author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. “Immigrants brought along their culture and traditions but as religion played less and less of a role in their lives, so too did the religious aspects of Halloween. Trick-or-treating became exclusively a children’s event in the early 1900s and has been ever-present to this day.”

Trick-or-treating, however, is a night of horror for candyphobics. It turns parents into sugar witches, writes a mother in West Hartford, Connecticut, in an opinion piece for the Hartford Courant:

Why Be Sugar Witch? A Better Trick To Treats

It's that time again — time for pumpkins to appear on doorsteps, children to dream up the perfect costume, and parents to scheme about how to take their kids' candy away within hours of the jack-o'-lanterns' going dark tomorrow. Easter and Valentine's Day, alongside Halloween, are holidays that provoke candy anxiety among parents worried about obesity and tooth decay. Parents scheme to replace the edible loot with some other kind of loot. I once read about two families that have rituals involving the Great Pumpkin and the Sugar Witch, who appear after Halloween to relieve the kids of their candy. In return, they leave a small toy.

Extreme candyphobia goes beyond holidays. Some schools have a zero-tolerance policy on candy. A friend's daughter came home from kindergarten in tears after being chastised because her mom included a Hershey's Kiss in her lunch. This demonization of candy does nothing to make kids healthier or teach them about reasonable indulgence.

There is something just plain stingy, even a little mean, about taking candy from children. Does no one remember the thrill of having a pile of Halloween candy, knowing that it was all yours to sort and savor as you wished?... This Halloween night, I'll watch my kids dump their candy on the floor, sort it by type and then carefully choose which kind to eat first. Instead of fussing about how soon I can get that candy out of their hands, I'll forage through our trick-or-treat leftovers, trying to figure out whether I like Reese's peanut butter cups or Kit Kats better, and realize I need to try just one more of each before making my final decision.

Amidst today’s absorption with healthy eating, few parents can admit they let their children eat candy without, in the next breath, describing the healthy food they feed her children. Fears that today’s children eat vast amounts of sweets and won’t really be able to titrate their hauls and savor them at their own pace are even hard for well-intentioned parents to totally overcome. “Our rules for holiday candy are simple,” she writes. “On the holiday, the children can eat as much as they want”… then it’s confiscated. Countless dieters will recognize the similarity to the pig-out the night before beginning the next diet.

Connecticut parents aren’t the only ones with children worried about sweets being packed in their school lunches for fear of being singled out. In Newburyport, Massachusetts, public schools have made candy illegal (whole milk, too), telling parents what is allowed in their child’s lunch boxes from home. “The ban is part of the school district's newly adopted wellness policy, which [Superintendent Kevin] Lyons said, was developed over the past year in an attempt to address the rising tide of childhood obesity and skyrocketing number of cases of childhood onset diabetes,” according to the Newburyport News.

Another Halloween legend

Halloween brings out another trick-or-treat fear among parents: of a madman handing out razor blades in apples and poisoned candy.

Did you know that, just like evil sugar stories, the Halloween sadist is an urban legend, too?

Professor Joel Best with one of his undergraduate students, Gerald T. Horiuchi, at California State University in Fresno, investigated 25 years of news stories about Halloween sadists giving children dangerous treats on Halloween. They found that the Halloween sadist is a myth, an urban legend that originated during the 1970s. These stories are spread primarily by word of mouth, not as much by news media, they said. All of the Halloween sadism stories were debunked in some way and nearly all of the stories of sharp objects in apples or other treats turned out to be pranks.

Their findings were published in a fascinating paper in the sociology journal, Social Problems. [The full text is available here.] Essentially, they found that like all urban legends, this one gave expression to growing fears about the safety of children, the dangers of crime and other social stresses. During the 1960s and 1970s, even doctors and social workers were promoting child abuse as a major social problem and the popular press responded with dozens of dramatic stories of cruelly treated innocent children. The Halloween sadist urban legend emerged as an expression of fears that children were threatened by modern society and no longer safe in the United States, fears of crime, and society’s growing distrust of others. The sadist is an anonymous, invisible, unprovoked assailant who preys on society’s most vulnerable members. This legend has persisted, as most do, because our culture feeds off fear, and anxieties about the future flourish. It’s natural to translate those anxieties into overestimations of the dangers faced by our children.

But no child has died or been seriously injured by a Halloween sadist even nowadays. “The same appears to be true in the UK,” the Times UK reported. “The Metropolitan Police Force, for example, says that there are no records of any major incident involving a child at Halloween.”

Joel Best, now a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, published an update of his earlier investigation of the evidence behind Halloween sadism. It remains an urban legend. [Text available here.] He was quoted in the Gainesville Times yesterday as saying that hospitals offering to X-ray candy for worried parents and reputable organizations issuing advisories telling parents to inspect their children’s treats, only fuel the urban legend. “Hospitals shouldn’t be doing this because it just buys into this sort of general anxiety that there are maniacs out there trying to kill children,” he said. In fact, his research has been unable to find a connection between sex offenders and Halloween, either. “But it’s part of this panic we have that sex offenders are out to get children at every opportunity.”

Of course, there are reasonable and prudent safety precautions parents take any time, but the greatest safety concern for children associated with Halloween isn’t from candy or maniacs, but being hurt by their costumes or hit by cars. It’s a night when millions of kids are out in the dark. According to a Safe Kids Coalition spokesperson, children are more than twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car on Halloween than any other night of the year. “Be safe and be seen.” Halloween safety tips are just a click away at Keep Kids Healthy.

Happy Halloween!

Be afraid, very afraid. This is Halloween — all for fun, of course.

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