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October 31, 2012

Halloween Safety Tips and Crime Myths

J.D. Valesco
October 28, 2012

Halloween is a time for fear and fright, but some common worries about the ghastly holiday may be overblown, experts say.

There are legitimate safety issues to consider on the holiday - pedestrian-vehicle accidents, fire hazards, dogs who get into chocolate.

But many of the scariest Halloween horror stories - poisoned candy, satanic sacrifices of pets, and rampant criminal activity - have little basis in reality.

Amanda Perez, a lecturer in American studies at Cal State Fullerton, calls those kind of myths and legends "Halloween sadism."

"It's this idea that bad things happen on Halloween," Perez said.

West Covina Police Chief Frank Wills said fear of holiday dangers seem to have resulted in fewer costumed kids roaming the streets in search of treats on Halloween.

"People lament that you used to see the residential streets bustling with children and you don't see that as much anymore," Wills said.

Poison and razors

Perhaps the most common cause of parental angst on Halloween is the prospect of a child being given candy laced with poison or drugs, or apples stuffed with razor blades.

The poisoned candy myth has its origins in a case that occurred in New York state in 1964, when a woman passed out ant poison, dog biscuits and steel wool to children she thought were too old to be trick or treating.

"She said she was doing it not to the kids, but to these older kids that were coming by for candy," Perez said. "This is when I think really a lot of the folklore about tainted candy got into circulation."

There have been incidents in which children have been killed or sickened by candy tainted with poison or drugs, but not by strangers, said Eileen Wallis, a Cal Poly Pomona history professor.

"That has happened a couple of times, but it's always been a relative," Wallis said. "It's always been a murder concealed as an accidental poisoning or a stranger poisoning."

The myth of poisoned candy was further cemented in people's minds by later unrelated events, Wallis said.

"I think a lot of it got tangled up with the Tylenol scare back in the `80s," Wallis said, referring to the 1982 murders of seven Chicago-area people through Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

Incidents of apples containing razor blades have also occurred, but they were "pranks gone wrong," Wallis said.

Those pranks were between friends or siblings, not strangers, she said.

Rumors of temporary tattoos laced with LSD or PCP are variations on the same myth, Wallis said.

"We do know that powerful myths have a way of simply evolving over time," Wallis said. "It's like the old game of telephone."

These kind of myths are a natural outgrowth of a parents' desire to protect their children, Wallis said.

"It's about vulnerability and the vulnerability of children," Wallis said. "It's about letting your children go up to a stranger's house that you don't know."

Satanic sacrifices

Another persistent urban legend about Halloween is that pets, particularly black cats, will be captured by satanic cults and sacrificed if they are allowed outside.

Perez of Cal State Fullerton said it's a belief dating back to the celebration of Samhain by ancient Celts. The holiday marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

As Christianity spread through Europe and found itself in conflict with the pagan beliefs of the Celts, rumors were spread of human sacrifices on Samhain. The idea that pets are being sacrificed for satanic rituals is the modern incarnation of the belief.

"I think in the popular imagination these things have gotten mixed up," Perez said.

Pay Brayer, president of the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society, said rumors of pet sacrifice don't match with what she's seen in her career.

"We haven't had any experience of anything happening to pets on Halloween," Brayer said.

Some people will point out the fact that many animal shelters refuse to adopt out black cats near Halloween as proof that satanic activities are real, but Wallis said there's a more mundane reason for such policies.

"People might adopt them as props. You want to have a cat for Halloween," Wallis said. "It's like when people adopt bunnies around Easter."

Satanists or not, Halloween does present some very real dangers for cats, Brayer said.

"Bad things happen to cats that are outside to begin with," Brayer said. "Most kids are good, but sometimes if the opportunity presents itself..."

Halloween is fraught with danger for dogs as well, Brayer said.

"The biggest danger to primarily dogs is chocolate, it's deadly to them," Brayer said.

And the hustle and bustle of trick-or-treaters can be unsettling for dogs, she said. People should treat the holiday like July 4 and keep their dogs secured for the night, she said.

"We see dogs that get out their yard because they're afraid," Brayer said. "Even the children of the family dressed in costume is going to be different. They may find it threatening."

Real dangers

Though some of the rumors of Halloween dangers are based more on fear than fact, there are important safety precautions to remember while out for the night, authorities said.

West Covina Police Chief Wills advised parents and motorists both to exercise caution. Trick-or-treaters should be given flashlights or dressed with reflective clothing, Wills said.

"Sometimes traffic collisions spike on Halloween," he said.

Pedestrian fatalities do increase significantly on Halloween, according to statistics compiled by the California Office of Traffic Safety. Statewide, an average of 3.4 pedestrians were killed each Halloween from 2006 and 2010. An average day sees 1.7 pedestrian deaths.

Injuries to pedestrians were much higher, averaging 56 each Halloween during the same period statewide. About 35 pedestrians are injured on an average day.

Calls to police departments also increase on Halloween. In 2011, the Pomona Police Department received 15 percent more calls on Halloween than it did on the same day the previous week. That figure was 9 percent for the Whittier police. But calls to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department only increased by 2 percent compared with the seven-day average leading up to the holiday.

But Wills said additional calls to law enforcement do not necessarily mean more crimes are occurring.

"One of the other myths is that there's more crime on Halloween - sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not," Wills said.

Calls to the Los Angeles County Fire Department also increase, but statistics were not available, said Inspector Tony Imbrenda.

"I suspect there is more fire activity on Halloween," Imbrenda said. "Jack-o-lanterns near drapes or other flammable materials are an issue."

Some fire department calls are for injuries related to costumes, he said. Imbrenda advised parents to ensure their children's costumes are flame-proof and said trailing items that can get caught on things should be avoided. Shoes should be comfortable and easy to walk in, he said.

"Be sensible about masks that don't restrict vision or breathing," Imbrenda said.

Trick-or-treaters should remember that there's "safety in numbers," said Irwindale Police Chief Dennis Smith.

"Make sure you go up to doors as a group and leave as a group," Smith said.

Never enter a home, even when invited in, Smith said.

Parents should give their trick-or-treating children a cell phone for the night, and have a set time when the children are expected home, he said.

Halloween safety tips

Don't trick or treat! alone. Walk in groups or with a trusted adult.

Use reflective tape on costumes and bags so drivers see children.

Carry a flashlight.

Eat only factory wrapped candy. Avoid eating homemade treats made by strangers.

Check all candy and edibles for tampering - tears, pinholes, discoloration.

Remove any choking hazards from goody bags of young children - gum, peanuts, hard candy, small toys.

Don't let children snack while trick-or-treating before parents have had a chance to inspect goody bags.

Test face makeup in a small area first to check for allergic reaction.

Don't wear decorative contact lenses unless they have been properly fitted by an eye-care professional. Doing otherwise can lead to eye injuries, including blindness.

Wear well-fitting costumes and shoes to avoid falling.

Consider makeup masks or masks with big eye holes instead of loose-fitting masks that could block vision.

Don't use sharp swords or knives as part of costumes.

Don't use realistic-looking firearms.

Wear flame resistant costumes and avoid walking near candles - look for the label Flame Resistant. If you make your costume, use flame-resistant fabrics such as polyester or nylon.

Enter homes only with a trusted adult and don't accept rides from strangers.

Walk on sidewalks where possible. Avoid walking in street. Take care crossing streets.

Do not take shortcuts through backyards or alleys.

People expecting trick-or-treaters should remove obstacles from lawns, steps and porches and keep candlelit jack-o'-lanterns away from children's costumes.

Make sure apples are thoroughly washed before use in bobbing for apples games.

Don't eat too much black licorice - if you are over 40 years old and consume multiple 2-ounce bags a day for at least two weeks, you could be at risk for heart arrhythmia.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Los Angeles Police Department.