Quick! Grab your kids, and handcuff them to the nearest radiator this Halloween. It’s for their own good. After all, children are FOUR TIMES more likely to die from a pedestrian accident on this night. And how could the pedophiles POSSIBLY resist all those children running around? And please, please, inspect their candy for razor blades or signs of foul play. In this piece, Angie Andriot deconstructs the myths and the fears surrounding Halloween.
Halloween is a night to be scared. But not all fears are created equal. We should fear monsters, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls. We should fear walking up to that house with the light on. Because there is a masked man with a chainsaw behind that bush over there, waiting. Waiting. WAITING. But another fear (an..ahem…decidedly more illogical one) is ripping away our opportunity to introduce innocent children to such thrilling journeys through wastelands of ghosts and goblins.
Take a look at darn near any newspaper this time of year, and you will be inundated with safety tips. Talk to parents and you will be inundated with fear for their child’s safety on Halloween night. Unsuspecting innocent children out walking the nighttime streets, knocking on strangers’ doors (Gasp! What if they’re drug dealers?!? Or pedophiles?), taking candy that may very well be laced with arsenic, or hiding a razor blade. What’s a concerned parent to do?
A relatively new phenomenon is the Trunk-or-Treat. Often put on by churches, in nice safe parking lots, where all the cars are stationary and all the adults are law-abiding church-going non-pedophiles with absolutely no interest in killing your kids for the sheer fun of it. Parents have a nice, safe, place to send their kids to get candy. I mean, drug dealers, sadists, and pedophiles don’t go to church, right? They’d spontaneously combust upon walking through the doors. So we’re cool, right?
Now, I’m not knocking the safety precautions. Really. Many of these measures are indeed important. It’s quite possible that those children who do end up hurt on Halloween are the ones who ran out into the street without looking both ways first, or didn’t have anything reflective on them, or went willingly into a stranger’s house. And I’m not knocking trunk-or-treat. It’s an awesome way for folks out in the boondocks to give their children the trick-or-treat experience when door-to-door is really mile-to-mile. And it looks like a great community activity, whereas on an everyday trick-or-treat street, all the parents are safely isolated in their respective homes. But I am asking, can we step back from the fear and look at the hard data?
Enter sociology, stage right. Sociology and statistics, that is. But first, the sociology.
For sociologists concerned with social problems, one of the key distinctions they focus on is between objective conditions and subjective concerns. An objective condition is anything rooted in hard evidence. Facts, data, sensory input. A subjective concern, on the other hand, is evaluative. It can be rooted in morals, values, or just ideas about what is “too much” or “weird.” Social problems are defined by their subjective concerns, not their objective conditions. So, what makes something a social problem is NOT whether or not it significantly affects lots of people, but rather it hinges on whether people are in an uproar about it. Take Halloween dangers, for example. People are in an uproar because they believe Halloween to be dangerous for kids. Thus Halloween becomes a social problem. Here are the fears I’ve encountered:
- Halloween Sadism – Adults are lacing candy with poison or needles or razorblades and then passing it out to unsuspecting kids.
- Death by Car – Kids are out on the streets, but so are the cars. Recipe for disaster.
- Pedophiles Lurking – What other night of the year can pedophiles just sit at home with their lights on and then have kids come like moths to the flame, taking candy from a stranger?
So let’s look at these sociologically one at a time.
- Adults are tampering with candy. Joel Best is a sociologist at the University of Delaware, and he has done a content analysis of media coverage of this “Halloween sadism” between the years of 1954 and 1989. He found a complete absence of evidence to support this claim. Two cases of apparent Halloween candy tampering have occurred, and both were eventually found to be relatives of the kid, trying to frame the nefarious “Halloween sadists.” One was a dad who put cyanide in his 8-year-old son’s Pixie Stick (purportedly to collect a hefty child insurance policy), and the other was a child who got into his uncle’s heroin stash, and then the family tried to cover the accident by sprinkling heroin over the child’s candy stash.
- Children are more likely to be killed by a car on Halloween. What is interesting about Dr. Best’s paper is that he also mentions another statistic indicating that there IS real danger on Halloween – it just comes in the form of vehicular manslaughter. The stat? Children are FOUR TIMES more likely to be killed by a car on this night than on other nights. And this is true. Funny thing about relative propositions based on odds ratios, though. They can be a tad misleading. Sample size matters here. So what is our sample size? “Overall, among children aged 5-14 years, an average of four deaths occurred on Halloween during [the hours of 4-10pm] each year, compared with an average of one death during these hours on every other day of the year” (CDC 1997). Four. Their “four times more likely to be killed” stat is, in raw numbers….wait for it…THREE MORE CHILDREN. In the entire country. Hardly an epidemic.
- Children are in greater danger from pedophiles on Halloween. Short answer: no. In a study conducted by Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau & Stern (2009), they found no increase in non-familial sexual assaults of children on Halloween. They examined a national incident-based crime reports over a 9-year period of time in order to come to this conclusion. Only about 10% of child sexual abuse comes at the hands of strangers. If you fear for your child, take a look at the people that child already knows.
Based on the evidence above, I suggest these fears are disproportionate to the actual danger. Teach your kids basic safety (look both ways before crossing, don’t break free from the crowd and wander off on your own, wear reflective gear, etc). Teach them to trust their gut: if something seems wrong, run. Inspect their candy if you must, but don’t make a big deal about it. And by all means, let them have their Halloween. We have bigger things to worry about here. Like that creepy masked man in the bushes…Is that a chainsaw in his hand!?!
- What does this article indicate about the relationship between objective conditions and subjective concerns? Which do you think is more powerful in terms of your own decisions regarding what is a social problem?
- Joel Best supports his argument that Halloween Sadism is a myth by showing there is no evidence to prove it is true. Has he proven there is no such thing as Halloween Sadism? Why or why not? Is it possible to prove a negative?
- Can you think of any other examples of instances in which fear has overwhelmed people’s ability to objectively examine the facts? Explain.