Welcome, foolish mortals, to the home of cadaverous casseroles, exsanguinous eats, and snack-related sagas so strange and frightening they may well transport you to a realm unknown. Welcome, readers, to A Dark and Stormy Bite, a monthly column (weekly, through October!) that dives deep into a teeth-chattering culinary dimension of utterly ghoulish proportions. Basically, if it involves food and goes bump in the night, we’ll cover it here. Do you have a favorite haunted restaurant or cursed recipe? Email firstname.lastname@example.org—and beware.
Growing up, half of my friends were forbidden from trick-or-treating. This is partly because their parents found the practice vaguely satanic, though no one seemed able to tell me exactly how Halloween had become synonymous with Old Scratch. (The official Jehovah’s Witnesses website describes the holiday as a “celebration based on false beliefs about the dead and invisible spirits, or demons,” to which I’d point out that Christ is the most famous zombie of all, no?)
In my Bible Belt community, we were taught that the Devil is all around us, taking the form of harmless fripperies that would ultimately lead to our downfall. Most of the time, the Devil took the form of smutty movies and secular music—but on Halloween, He took the form of sinister neighbors whose trick-or-treat offerings were poisoned in an attempt to wipe out the next generation of Christian soldiers.
My parents didn’t buy it. Every Halloween, they’d shoo me out of the house and tell me not to come back until I had a shareable candy bounty. They stood firm in their sugar cravings, ignoring the vague whispers of children falling prey to razor blades in candy apples, sewing needles jammed into 3 Musketeers bars, and Dum-Dums dipped in rat poison. Of course, maybe they knew something that their church friends didn’t: that the trick-or-treat panic actually began with one disgruntled dentist and a few dozen farty kids.
Per the CBC, the first report of adulterated Halloween treats occurred in 1959. That Halloween, a California dentist named Dr. William Shyne distributed 450 candy-coated laxative tablets to children. Why did he do this? We don’t know. Maybe he was trying to prove a point about the dental perils of sugar, although the candy-addicted youngsters almost certainly kept him in business. Maybe he possessed an uncannily scatological sense of humor. Maybe he thought the neighborhood kids looked a little plugged up and hoped to offer them some relief.
Regardless, the CBC reports that 30 of the kids “fell violently ill.” They all recovered just fine, so we can assume that “fell violently ill” means “pooped a ton and went to bed.” Eventually, the townsfolk traced the tampered-with candy to Shyne’s place. He was charged with “outrage of public decency” and “unlawful dispensing of drugs” after sitting through what I assume was the most embarrassing criminal trial of all time.
Now, more than six decades later, it’s clear that Shyne’s prank created a sinister legacy. Salon writer Samira Kawash reports that, in years following Shyne’s laxative surprise, more and more stories began surfacing involving poisoned Halloween candy. Kawash cites a cautionary New York Times article published in 1970, altering parents to the potential dangers lying in wait: ‘That plump red apple . . . may have a razor blade hidden inside . . . the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills,” the article read.
Pretty sinister, right? The problem is that trick-or-treat hysteria still isn’t rooted in reality—at least, not according to Joel Best, a University of Delaware sociology and criminal justice professor who co-authored a study on Halloween sadism.“I couldn’t find a single report of a child killed or seriously injured from a contaminated treat received during trick-or-treating,” Best told the CBC. “This is a contemporary legend, and that’s all it is.”
Of course, there was the case of one Ronald Clark O’ Bryan, whose son seemed to fall victim to a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix straw on Halloween—but, as VICE reports, Ronald was charged with the poisoning after police discovered that he had recently taken out major life insurance policies on both of his children.
Still, by the time I started trick-or-treating in the mid-1990s, the Bible Belt was riddled with urban legends about neighborhood devils handing out poisoned sweets. These mythical crimes even informed local legislature. This year, let’s spread the truth far and wide: the worst act of Halloween poisoning involved a bunch of gassy kids and a weirdo dentist. That’s not so scary, now is it?