The poisoned candy scare was a moral panic in the United States (and Canada) during the 1970s and 1980s regarding the threat that children could be in danger of ingesting razor blades, needles, or poison introduced to candy by tampering, especially during traditional Halloween trick-or-treating. Apart from one incident—actually an act of premeditated murder by a trick-or-treater's father—there have been no recorded incidents of deliberately poisoned candy during Halloween or any similar occasion.
Although the origin of the candy tampering myth is uncertain, there are two events in particular that no doubt played a large role in how the crisis was shaped within the public's mind.
The first event took place in 1964, where an annoyed New York housewife started giving out packages of inedible objects to children whom she believed were too old to be trick-or-treating. The packages contained items such as steel wool, dog biscuits, and ant buttons (which were clearly labeled with the word ”poison”). Though nobody was injured, she was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to endangering children.
The second milestone in the spread of the candy tampering myths was an article published in the New York Times in 1970. This article claimed that "Those Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend on their rounds of ‘trick or treating’ may bring them more horror than happiness", and provided specific examples of potential tamperings.
In 2008, candy was found with metal shavings and metal blades embedded in it. The candy was Pokémon Valentine's Day lollipops purchased from a Dollar General store in Polk County, Florida. The candy was determined to have been manufactured in Israel and not tampered with within the United States. The lollipops were pulled from the shelves after both a mother reported a blade in her child's lollipop and several more lollipops with metal shavings in them were confiscated from a local elementary school.
Over the years various experts have tried to debunk the various candy tampering stories. Among this group is Joel Best, a University of Delaware sociologist who specializes in candy tampering. In his studies he researched newspapers from 1958 on in search of candy tampering. Of these stories fewer than 90 instances might have qualified.
Upon closer examination nearly all of these claims were false or hoaxes created by the child. Within the reports of candy tampering Best has only found five child deaths that were initially thought to be caused by homicidal strangers.
In 1970, a 5-year-old boy from the Detroit area found and ate heroin his uncle had stashed. The boy died following a four day coma. The family attempted to protect the uncle by claiming the drug had been sprinkled in the child's Halloween candy.
In a 1974 case, Timothy O'Bryan, an 8-year-old boy from Pasadena, Texas, died after eating a cyanide-laced package of Pixy Stix. A subsequent police investigation eventually determined that the poisoned candy had been planted in his trick-or-treat pile by the boy's father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who also gave out poisoned candy to other children in an attempt to cover up the murder. The murderer, who had wanted to claim life insurance money, was executed in 1984.
Despite the falseness of these claims the news media promoted the story continuously throughout the 1980s, with local news stations featuring frequent coverage. During this time cases of poisoning were repeatedly reported based on unsubstantiated claims or before a full investigation could be completed and often never followed up on. This one sided coverage contributed to the overall panic and caused rival media outlets to issue reports of candy tampering as well.
By 1985, the media had driven the hysteria about candy poisonings to such a point that an ABC News/Washington Post poll that found 60% of parents feared that their children would be injured or killed because of Halloween candy sabotage.
This collective fear also served as the impetus for the "safe" trick-or-treating offered by many local malls.