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'Stranger Danger' and the Decline of Halloween
No child has ever been killed by poisoned candy. Ever.
Take "stranger danger," the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the "Bewitched" and "Brady Bunch" costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.
That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger's Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)
Anyway, you'd think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won't be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!
So stranger danger is still going strong, and it's even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That's why they don't let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: "You never know!" The psycho-next-door fear went viral.
Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either—kids could trip! Fall! Die!
Treating parents like idiots who couldn't possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.
Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they're willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child's vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, "dangerous."
Think of how Halloween used to be the one day of the year when gaggles of kids took to the streets by themselves—at night even. Big fun! Low cost! But once the party moved inside, to keep kids safe from the nonexistent poisoners, in came all the nonsense. The battery-operated caskets. The hired witch. The Costco veggie trays and plastic everything else. Halloween went from hobo holiday to $6 billion extravaganza.
And it blazed the way for adult-supervised everything else. Let kids make their own fun? Not anymore! Let's sign our toddlers up for "movement" classes! Let's bring on the extracurricular activities, travel soccer and manicure parties for the older kids. Once Halloween got outsourced to adults, no kids-only activity was safe. Goodbye sandlot, hello batting coach!
And now comes the latest Halloween terror: Across the country, cities and states are passing waves of laws preventing registered sex offenders from leaving their homes—or sometimes even turning on their lights—on Halloween.
The reason? Same old same old: safety. As a panel of "experts" on the "Today" show warned viewers recently: Don't let your children trick-or-treat without you "any earlier than [age] 13, because people put on masks, they put on disguises, and there are still people who do bad things."
Perhaps there are. But Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, studied crime statistics from 30 states and found, "There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation."
In fact, she says, "We almost called this paper, 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year,' because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day."
Why is it so safe? Because despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media, it is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community.
We can kill off Halloween, or we can accept that it isn't dangerous and give it back to the kids. Then maybe we can start giving them back the rest of their childhoods, too.
Ms. Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids" (Jossey-Bass, 2010).