Six separate cases of tampered Halloween candy have been reported in Nova Scotia this year. But based on the information I have collected from police, I conclude that the reports are very likely false.
This would not at all be uncommon. Snopes, the website dedicated to debunking or confirming urban myths and internet rumours, has for years collected reports of Halloween candy that has been poisoned or tampered with, and concludes that nearly all of them are false. “It’s a sadness that a holiday so thoroughly and greedily enjoyed by kids is being sanitized out of existence in the name of safety,” writes Barbara Mikkelson. “Sadder still is there appears to be little reason for it.”
Mikkelson could not find a single legitimate case of Halloween poisoning, which she defines as follows:
To qualify as a Halloween poisoning, poisoned candy has to be handed out on a random basis to children as part of the trick-or-treating ritual inherent to Halloween. The act cannot be targeted to any one specific child.
There have been several notable reports of poisoned Halloween candy, but all fail to meet Mikkelson’s definition. The most notable concerned the murder of eight-year-old Timothy Marc O’Bryan by his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, in Houston, in 1974. The elder O’Bryan had taken out a large life insurance policy on his son, and on Halloween night put cyanide-laced Pixie Sticks into the boy’s trick-or-treating collection—after he arrived back home from knocking on neighbours’ doors. “The O’Bryan murder was an attempt to use a well-known urban legend to cover up the premeditated murder of one particular child,” writes Mikkelson. “Note that for this explanation of the boy’s murder to have been believed, the legend had to have been in wide circulation by 1974.”
As for Halloween candy that has been tampered with, Mikkelson writes that there are many reports every year—she’s tracked about 80 from 1959 to the present—but:
Nearly all such cases turn out to be nothing: they’re pranks played by children on their parents, siblings, or friends; they’re false reports generated by attention-seeking children and adults; they involve material that accidentally, rather than deliberately, ends up in children’s goodie bags; or they’re examples of coincidence mistaken for causation (e.g., a person eats a piece of candy and shortly afterwards feels ill, then erroneously attributes the illness to tainted Halloween candy). But often no follow-ups are done on such news stories after the initial, unconfirmed reports, leaving the public with the impression that all of them involved genuine cases of tainted candy being distributed to trick-or-treaters. [emphasis added]
But what about the reports here in Nova Scotia? Here what we know about the incidents, collected from police and media reports:
1. Cole Harbour, Sunday, November 2:
Cole Harbour RCMP are investigating the report of a one inch pin found inside a small chocolate bar.
A family from Eastern Passage reports that their daughter was trick or treating with friends in the Astral Drive and Stratford Drive area of Cole Harbour on October 31st.
On November 2nd while their daughter was enjoying her Halloween treats she noticed the pin after breaking a chocolate bar in half, as she does for all the candy she receives.
There have been no other reports of ‘treats’ that have been tampered with at this time.
Parents and children are reminded to check items for tampering prior to consumption and to report any irregularities to police.
Global TV interviewed the girl’s mother, who explains how the incident played out:
Nancy Hayes’ 14-year-old-daughter Ariane and her friends had gone trick-or-treating on Halloween night in the area of Astral Drive and Stratford Drive in Cole Harbour.
On Sunday, Ariane broke apart a piece of Wunderbar and discovered a 2.5-centimetre pin inside.
The teen took a photo of the chocolate bar with the pin still inside and posted it to Instagram. The mother of her friend saw the photo and called police.
Note the photo of the tampered candy, showing an inch-long pin in a Wunderbar.
2. North Sydney, Monday, November 3:
A family in North Sydney called police Monday night after someone bit into a small Aero chocolate bar and discovered a needle inside.
Cape Breton Regional Police Staff Sgt. Reg Hutchings described it as a sewing needle and said the family got the candy trick-or-treating on Friday evening in the Pierce Street area of North Sydney.
“The young girl took it home, her mother had the treats on the counter and a neighbour that was there took a bite of the bar,” he said.
Oddly, the report does not appear on the Cape Breton Police media release page. But the CBC gives the additional information that candy in question was a “small Aero chocolate bar.”
3. Cole Harbour, Monday, November 3
A RCMP release:
Halifax District RCMP are investigating a second complaint of a pin inside a Halloween-size candy bar.
On Monday, November 3rd at approximately 11:00 a.m. a student at Astral Drive Junior High in Cole Harbour discovered sewing pin inside a small candy bar when she took a bite. The student brought the candy bar, wrapper and pin to the school administration, who then notified an on-site RCMP School Liaison Officer. Preliminary investigation determined the student was trick or treating on Astral Drive and Colby South this Halloween Night. The student was not injured during this incident.
Police released accompanying photo of a Coffee Crisp bar.
4. Portland Estates, Thursday, November 6
On November 6 at approximately 10:21 a.m., a parent discovered a sewing pin inside a small candy bar when he took a bite. The initial investigation determined the man’s child had been trick or treating in the Portland Estates area of Dartmouth on Halloween night. Fortunately, the man was not injured during this incident.
The CBC gives more details:
Parent Tim Johnson was at home Thursday morning when he dipped into his son’s Halloween candy stash. He was eating a Mars bar when he discovered it had a sewing needle in it.
5. Joseph Howe Road, Thursday, November 6
On November 6 at approximately 5:40 p.m., police received a call that a parent had just discovered a sewing pin inside a small candy bar when she took a bite. The initial investigation determined the woman’s child had been trick or treating in the Joseph Howe Drive and Bayers Road area of Halifax on Halloween night.
Beyond being a small candy bar, no further information about the candy was released.
6. Sydney Mines, Thursday, November 6
The CBC reports:
Police received a call from a Sydney Mines parent Thursday evening after her son discovered a silver pin inside a candy bar he was eating. The pin was approximately 3.8 centimetres long.
The family said the child had been trick-or-treating on Demarco Street, Ocean Street, Atlantic Street, Georges River Road and Lannigans Lane in Sydney Mines.
Beyond being a small candy bar, no further information about the candy was released.
One Wunderbar, manufactured by Cadbury Adams
One Aero bar, manufactured by Nestlé
One Mars Bar, manufactured by Mars, Incorporated
One Coffee Crisp, manufactured by Nestlé
One one inch pin
Four sewing needles
One 3.8-centimetre long pin
What about the rest of Canada?
There is a cluster of Halloween candy tampering reports in North Bay, Ontario, population 64,000, including “powder found on a mini Mr. Big Halloween chocolate bar caused a woman’s face to become numb for about 15 minutes,” an unnamed brand of chocolate bar with a razor blade inside, and a second Mr. Big bar that “was bent in half and on the bar code was a big X and squiggly line made with a black marker,” but thrown away before reported to police.
A sewing needle in a chocolate bar was reported in Sault Ste. Marie, population 75,000.
Selkirk, Manitoba RCMP report that “a small razor blade was located in some wrapped candy” given to a kid on Halloween. Selkirk has a population of 10,000.
I can find no other reports of Halloween candy tampering anywhere in Canada.
I’ve asked police in North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, and Selkirk to update me on their investigations, and I’ll report back what they say.
Why skepticism is called for
The RCMP won’t confirm which brand of candy was involved in each incident, but I was able to discover four of the brands through other media reports. They involve three different companies, and so presumably three different supply and distribution chains, making a manufacturing error or tampering at a distribution centre unlikely. We’re left with the presumption that five (or six, if the two Astral Drive incidents are unrelated) different people across Nova Scotia placing pins or needles in candy bars and distributing them on Halloween.
On the face of it these type of incidents, if real, should be easy to track down. A child trick-or-treats at best at a few dozen houses, few enough to be easily canvassed by police. Combine that with some investigative shoe leather and forensic evidence, and police should quickly zero in on suspects, at least in some of the incidents.
I’ve asked the RCMP how the investigation is going. They said there are five incidents being investigated, so evidently one of the above has already been discounted.
Police say they “are analyzing the candy bars and wrappers for potential evidence. Investigators with the Forensic Identification Services are assisting in the investigation,” and that they’ve done “some” canvassing.
There has never been a confirmed case of candy tampering in Nova Scotia nor, so far as I can determine, even a report of one before this year. Is it likely that suddenly, all at once this year, five or six people in Nova Scotia suddenly decided to put pins and needles in candy?
And why would that criminal and perverse behaviour be restricted to Nova Scotia and a few small towns out west? Why aren’t there candy tamperers in the metropolises of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? Why don’t perverted people in New Brunswick stick needles in candy?
This looks to me like a text book case of social contagion, which is a well-documented aspect of human behaviour. The phrase “social contagion” was invented to describe the wave of suicides that occurred across Europe after the publication of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” in which the hero, Werther, commits suicide. To this day, suicide prevention experts warn of “contagion” through thoughtless media reports of suicide.
Another example of social contagion occurred in the 1980s. Starting with the McMartin Daycare Centre case, hundreds of Americans were falsely charged with child abuse (and some spent decades in prison) with the absurd suggestion that Satanists were running daycare centres across the country, bringing children to Satanist celebrations and ritualistically murdering them.
Here in Nova Scotia, the candy tampering reports started with single 14-year-old girl who supposedly found a pin in her candy but instead of telling her mother, put a photo of it on Instagram. I’m guessing that this started as a joke, but the girl quickly lost control of it—”the mother of her friend saw the photo and called police,” Global tells us.
After that initial report, other people—many of them also children—watching the same provincial media reports, started finding needles. All of the incidents were reported by people who could conceivably be watching the CBC Nova Scotia TV news. None of the incidents were reported by people who would likely be watching CBC New Brunswick TV news. (Likewise, all the people reporting tampered candy in North Bay were likely watching the same media outlets.)
And many of the incidents involved long chains of reporting: the mother of a friend. A neighbour dropping by to visit. Parents eating their children’s candy. All possible, sure, but when the reporting chain gets this long, it’s good to be skeptical.
I’ll withhold final judgement and wait for the police to complete their investigations, and I’ll stay on it and get back to readers. But I’ll be gobsmacked if these turn out to be “real” tampering incidents. And as I’ve said before, I really hope I’m right, because if not then there really are a bunch of criminal Nova Scotians attacking kids. We’ll see.
Finally, I asked the RCMP what would happen if they decided the reports of tampered candy were not true.
“Should the investigation determine these reports are false police could lay a charge of public mischief sec 140. (1),” came the reply.