Over on Etsy, I recently investigated the early origins of Halloween traditions, including Trick or Treating. But my research turned up a 20th century twist that I had never considered: the old “razor blade in the apple,” and the fear associated with Halloween candy.
In my Etsy article, I began with my own memories as a trick-or-treator:
I was a trick-or-treat migrant. My mom would import me from my rural home to the neighborhood where she grew up in, an urban suburb with houses closely packed on postage stamp-sized lawns. These city blocks, not the country ones that stretched for miles, were prime candy-collecting territory…I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure, pressing onward into the night, my pillowcase getting heavier and heavier with my candy treasure.
The neighborhood Mom took me to was old-school, meaning in between the houses that passed out Tootsie Rolls and pennies, there were places where elderly couples passed out King Size Snickers bars–king sized! And I’ll never forget the night when a tiny, teetering old lady came to the door with a sheet of freshly baked cookies, still warm from the oven.
I took the cookie to my Mom, terrified. Every year, teachers and television had beaten into my brain to only accept store-bought, wrapped candy. Even then, the treats had to be inspected for tampering. My mom laughed at my nervousness–”If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it!” And she did. And she said it was delicious.
I’ve never forgotten that little old lady. To this day, I wish I had eaten that cookie.
That cookie was from an earlier era: through the 1950s, a trick-or-treator could receive a bevy of homemade treats, and in many cases, could expect to be invited in (to stranger’s homes!!) for punch, snacks, and games. But that all changed in 1964 when a woman in New York got fed up with kids she thought were “too old” for trick-or-treating and began passing out bags of “dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool” as a trick (source). No one was injured in the incident, but it gave birth to the legend of dangerous Halloween candy. The news media ran with the story, warning parents to inspect candy for tampering, and throw away any homemade treats like apples–lest they contain a razor blade. The “razor blade” motif began emerging in the late 1960s, when the Times reported on more than 20 cases of apple tampering in New Jersey. The razor blades were found by children eagerly chomping into their apples, who then revealed their discoveries to their parents. Except, stop to ask yourself what child is wildly biting into apples on Halloween, when there is a pile of candy as an alternative? It’s ludicrous–and all the incidents were found to be hoaxes (source).
But the nail in the coffin came in 1982, during the Tylenol tampering scandal. Consumers began to fear commercial goods and homemade treats alike, and the heyday of trick-or-treating began to come to an end.
An early 20th century Halloween prank.
It’s interesting how this scenario turns the trick-or-treating tradition on its head. The practice evolved, sort of tongue in cheek, as a bribe to prevent young pranksters from wreaking a little holiday havoc on your house (common prank: remove gate from hinges and leave in street). But in the modern situation, the person who would have been the victim is now pranking the pranksters. And it resulted in a culture of fear.
More and more, general warnings about dangerous candy have resulted in parents and community organizations throwing Halloween parties as opposed to trick or treating. These parties are a throwback to the games and treats of early 20th century Halloween celebrations and they’ve also revived many of the old Harvest celebrations like bobbing for apples. I enjoy a good Halloween party–but I still hope I can give my children the thrill of hunting through the darkened streets for the King-Sized Snickers bars.
What do you think: will your family be trick or treating this year, or throwing a party instead?