In the middle of writing a post about creepy clown sightings I found an excellent article on the subject at Rolling Stone, so I’m going to save some time and post that instead: ‘Killer Clowns’: Inside the Terrifying Hoax Sweeping America.

As campus safety officials in Pennsylvania pointed out in their notice, the “creepy clown” situation is becoming a national phenomena. Unfortunately, the situation is nothing new. In 1981, “sinister” clowns were seen in Boston and neighboring towns throughout New England. The clowns, who harassed small children, were never seen by adults. They would coax children into vans with candy, usually driving alongside children walking down the street or in front of schools. The Phantom Clowns, as they were dubbed by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman given their allusive nature, spread to Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, and Pennsylvania. Since the 1980s, clowns have made appearances across the country, usually in the weeks and months leading up to Halloween.

There is, of course, much more to the article but I’m not going to pull anymore quotes out.

Instead here’s some creepy bonus clown content to send you on your way to Rolling Stone. Or is it bonus creepy clown content? How about creepy bonus creepy clown content? Yes, that last one, definitely that last one, so here it is:

[youtube video: clown scene from Poltergeist (1982)]

You’re welcome, JunglePete!

Youbtube clip at top of post from Supernatural S7 E14, “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie”.

IMG_1561

My neighborhood gets pretty festive for Christmas, but I find the amount of time and money that goes into Halloween is staggering. Fun, but a bit crazy.

IMG_4992.JPG

I love Halloween and, admittedly, I require vigilant adult supervision in the Halloween aisles so that I don’t cart home every single novelty item pertaining to bones or mummies. Fortunately, I hate clutter so I’m generally able to resist all but the very coolest items.

Up until about 1984, folklorists considered Halloween the least commercial modern holiday.

Now, like an undead neoliberal dream, the American fear of strangers shambles forth anew each year to pick pockets and fill attics with orange & black plastic rubbermaid tubs packed with tombstones, black and orange tinsel, light strings, spiderwebs, fog machines, and decapitated rubber body parts. (As of 2006, Snopes reported that Halloween was still down in 6th place in terms of total holiday retail spending, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a multi-billion-dollar holiday).

But let’s get to the candy-tampering legends, since that’s the actual topic of this post and the most likely factor for this orgy of Capitalism.

In 1970, the New York Times ran a lengthy article about Halloween sadism, extensively quoting an ultra-conservative psychiatrist named Reginald Steen, who spun an elaborate tale of potential sadism and candy tampering by people emboldened by what he considered the increasing over-permissiveness of modern society.

In 1975, Newsweek reported the unsubstantiated “fact” that several children had died and hundreds more had barely escaped injury from candy tampering by strangers.

They were almost sort of accurate, in that a child did die from eating poisoned candy. In Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, David Skal describes the 1974 murder of a young boy. Ronald O’Bryan put cyanide in pixie sticks, killed his young son, and collected the insurance money. At first he was a hero because he leapt into action and saved the other neighborhood children from eating the tainted candy. Which he had poisoned.

Dubbed the Candyman by the press, O’Bryan was tried and convicted in 1975.

The National Confectioners Association worked desperately with the FDA throughout the 70s and 80s to debunk this story but were unsuccessful. Candy manufacturers were unable to avoid a changeover to individually wrapped candy, which is more expensive to produce. Additionally, the emphasis on “safe” costumes” and decorations for group celebrations encourages people to spend more money on decorations, less money on candy.

Ironically, baking Halloween-themed treats (after purchasing the specially decorated cupcake supplies or cookie cutters or black icing) is wildly popular now. It seems like it would be a lot easier to poison a batch of cookies than to concoct a nefarious terrorist plot involving individually wrapped candy. After September 11th, there was apparently an upswing in parental fears about anthrax on candy –

Or to conceal a razorblade in an apple, an action that any sane person who’s ever seen an apple realizes is pretty much impossible. That’s not to say that no one has ever tried it (I can’t prove it didn’t happen) or that kids don’t attempt it for attention, concealing the damage to the apple’s skin by claiming they bit into it, but I just want to point out that it’s a pretty ridiculous idea.

In 1985, California State University sociologist Joel Best collaborated with folklorists to study these legends of anonymous Halloween sadists.

In “Razor Blade in the Apple,” (Social Problems, 32(5):488-499), Best reports they found a lot of localized hoaxes between 1959-1985, and some attention-seeking behavior from kids, but no evidence of strangers tampering with candy.

At a time when evangelical ministers were becoming regular cultural commentators on television talk shows, satanic and ritualized abuse panics were reported breathlessly on the nightly news, and people were growing concerned that increasing urbanization would lead to isolation and the breakdown of communities, Best concluded that protecting the children from this amorphous threat with a bold gesture once a year was a way to express fears about social change without taking radical action or working for real change in society.

According to Skal, the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in Chicago caused a temporary upswing in paranoia in the National media that had consequences for the way many products are packaged, but had surprisingly little lasting impact on Halloween.

Best agrees with Urban Legends and Folklore guru Jan Harold Brunvand that legends like this persist because they have a very general underlying message that can evolve as social conditions change. He concluded that the national media played very little role in keeping the legend alive. Local communities acted out their fears in their own ways.

Just yesterday, not wanting to let facts get in the way of a click-bait story about a possible case of candy-tampering, ABC news published a story that included this:

Tampering with Halloween candy became a problem in the late 1970s and early 1980s when police departments reported incidents of children finding blades, pins and pieces of glass in their candy.

The story concludes with this information:

Beginning in 1982, the National Confectioners Association maintained a Halloween Hotline in which law enforcement agencies could report incidents of tampering, and some hospitals X-rayed children’s candy for foreign objects.

Last year the NCA shut the hotline because “there is very little occurrence of tampering,” said spokeswoman Susan Smith. “Tampering is extremely rare, and we don’t even track it anymore because police just aren’t seeing it,” she said.

Oh, hey, look! (listen?) you can listen to NPR’s Robert Siegel interview Greg Best about candy tampering

updated to add this article I missed on the Smithsonian Magazine blog: Where Did the Fear of Poisoned Halloween Candy Come From?

I wanted to write a really great conclusion to this post, but now all I can think about is making grilled cheese bats, so instead here’s the trailer for a fun Halloween movie, Trick-r-Treat:

When I was a kid, our next door neighbors had a Hammond organ. They used to let me play it but their sheet music selection was pretty limited.

Very limited.

Let’s put it this way: if you ever form a Jim Croce cover band and need some funky organ breaks for “Time in a Bottle,” I’m your girl.

I have no idea how this post was supposed to end because I went down a rabbit hole for a while. I was linking to Jim Croce’s website and the front page link for “dinner reservations” was deeply confusing until I discovered it led to the Croce’s Restaurant site. Croce’s Restaurant is closing in December. It’s in San Diego, I bet Batty has been there.

I should really get back to lecture writing. Or watching shitty movies. Ooh, my lecture is on urban legends, so I could watch the movie Urban Legends and multitask!

I’ve been talking with faculty in Anthropology and CompSci about developing a course in Digital Culture that I could possibly teach after I finish my Master’s Degree next year. I have to finish Comprehensive exams and complete two major projects between now and then, so I don’t want to get too excited yet….

If you were teaching (or taking) a class in cyberculture, what would you want to cover? Cyberpunk? the Digital Divide? Urban legends? Online fandoms? Gender? Privacy? What else?