Urban Legends: Scary Stories and Halloween
Year after year, sociologist Joel Best is inundated with calls from reporters during Halloween season. They call for a single reason, to debunk a story that you might have been told was true your whole life. Best has researched the claim that children are regularly poisoned by eating tainted Halloween candy, and found no evidence to support this widespread fear. (Check out his piece in The Society Pages on his experiences talking to reporters this year).
I heard about people poisoning Halloween candy as a child; as a result my parents would carefully inspect my haul after a night of trick-or-treating. Growing up I even heard of some emergency rooms allowing families to bring in their children’s candy to be x-rayed in order to make sure there weren’t sharp objects inside, waiting to slice the tongue of an unsuspecting child.
The spiked Halloween candy has become what sociologists call an urban legend: folklore that is shared in communities, through oral tradition, news media reports, and now through the internet and social networking. Urban legends may not have any empirical evidence for support, but they reflect a specific anxiety of contemporary life that makes them plausible enough for people to believe without empirical evidence.
Sociologists are very interested in understanding why particular legends loom large at any given time. Fears like those of tainted candy typically reflect the trend towards urbanization over the last century. When people live in large, heterogeneous society where we often don’t know—or trust—our neighbors, it is easy to become fearful of a number of things. Local news is notoriously filled with crime stories that can make us believe that our communities are increasingly dangerous, filled with people who would do us harm.
Halloween is not just a macabre celebration of ghosts, goblins, and evil spirits; it represents a break from the social order. Children may knock on strangers’ doors asking for candy and visit haunted houses; in contrast to most days, when adults try to avoid scaring children, fear becomes part of the fun.
At a time when children are closely monitored, perhaps more closely than ever in American history, it should come as no surprise that Halloween and an urban legend would emerge that focuses on the alleged dangers children face. As people in the US and other developed nations have fewer children later in life, they have more monetary and emotional resources to invest in their children, well into adulthood.
Despite the relative safety children enjoy today compared with past decades (I discuss this in much more detail in my book Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions about Today’s Youth), urban legends stem from the notion that life has become more dangerous compared with the past, evidenced from the relative freedom children were once given to roam the streets to play and during Halloween. But as you can see from the Bureau of Justice Statistics data below, violent victimization and homicides against young people have dramatically fallen in recent years:
Note that the homicide graph represents the raw number of victims nationwide; despite significant population growth between 1990 and 2010 (for example, the U.S. population grew from about 250 million to nearly 310 million during that time) the number of victims has declined sharply. Juvenile victims of homicide are also far more likely to be killed by family members than strangers; and the younger the child the lower the “stranger danger.”
But the poisoned candy and other myths imply that it is outsiders who pose the biggest risk to children, not family and friends. Yes, this fear might be protective, for instance, when it’s mandated that registered sex offenders not invite trick-or-treaters, but it also helps us overlook the most likely dangers children face come from inside their own homes.
Sociology calls on us to find empirical data to determine whether a particular phenomenon is actually taking place. It’s not uncommon for fears to continue long after we have found evidence that a fear is unfounded, as I have blogged about before regarding Ebola, vaccines, and video games to name a few.
Part of developing a sociological imagination involves thinking critically about taken-for-granted assumptions and widespread fears. Joel Best’s work is an excellent place to start to understand more about misleading claims, including his books Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from Media, Politicians, and Activists and More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues.
Beyond debunking false claims, we can learn a lot from the kinds of fears that persist despite a lack of evidence to support their existence. These fears often shape public policies, creating laws based on misinformation. Perhaps more importantly, as Barry Glassner explains in his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, these fears can act as a kind of sleight of hand, misdirecting the public’s attention and energy away from more pressing concerns.
What other urban legends can you think of? How might they reflect contemporary fears?