Although Halloween horrors had populated news periodicals, the urban myth of poisoned Halloween candy exploded after the 1982 Tylenol Poisonings that terrified the United States.

Originating in Chicago, seven people died after ingesting Tylenol brand acetaminophen laced with potassium cyanide, a poison so strong an amount half the size of your pinkie nail is lethal. Fear flamed across drugstores everywhere and clerks pulled bottles of seemingly harmless Tylenol off the shelves by the dumpster load.

In time, the FDA would impose new regulations on the packaging and distribution of over-the-counter drugs, preventing an epidemic of deaths, but it was too late. The damage to our collective well-being was done.

Thus began the urban legend of poisoned Halloween candy. For most of us that went trick or treating in the 1980s, handing our pillowcase of candy to our parents was an obligatory part of the Halloween tradition.

They’d dump out the goodies and sift through carefully. Anything unpackaged or homemade–apples, cookies, pretzels–were immediately tossed out. Once our parents were satisfied, they’d hand back the candy and WE. WOULD. FEAST.

But we take for granted this knee jerk tradition. It’s too easy to dismiss the habit as helicopter parenting, unheard of “back in the good ol’ days”. Those days never existed. For every ‘Leave it to Beaver’, I could show you a Jim Crow. For every Gee Golly ‘Gomer Pyle’, there’s a Charles Whitman perched in a bell tower. 

In this case, however, we know exactly when the poisoned candy Halloween hysteria started, and even with this knowledge, we can be pretty sure that caution won’t stop. Even famed advice columnist Ann Landers helped spread the hysteria, authoring an opinion piece that referenced non-existent studies and stories. 

If you did a search for articles on poisoned Halloween candy, you’d find a wealth of articles on the subject, but you won’t find a single article on randomly poisoned candy distributed on Halloween. 


This oddity caught the attention of famed sociologist and criminologist Joel Best, who examined thousands of newspaper articles across the country from 1953 to 1983. In all those articles crossing coast-to-coast across the US, he failed to find a single example of a stranger murdering a child with poisoned candy.

Our fear of children randomly receiving poisoned candy from a sadistic stranger was and is an urban myth.


Some suspicious and sadist cases did exist, however, the most well-known of which was the murder of Timothy O’Bryan by his father Ronald Clark O’Bryan for a life insurance payout.

And cases of needles inserted into Halloween items are also documented. While those are horrific crimes, no doubt, the majority of perpetrators had intended it as a diabolical prank rather than a death sentence.

Poisoned Halloween candy is a perverted form of the chicken or the egg argument, and because of this, responsible parents will continue to sift through their child’s candy looking for anything suspicious, little nightmare bubbles popping in their imaginations. We have to, because we don’t know if the myth will stay or a myth…or inspire a monster.

The Indiana State Police warns against tainted candy with these general bits of sound advice: “Remind children not to eat candy until they get home. Always examine candy in a well-lighted place. Only eat unopened candies and other treats that are in original wrappers…”

It might be a wonderful world, like Louis Armstrong once croaked. But for a parent, it’s also scary as hell.