Every time Halloween rolls around, people start telling stories about “Halloween sadism,” or the practice of providing trick-or-treaters with tainted treats. Parents are told to be on the lookout for everything from razor blades in Reece Cups to cyanide-laced Good & Plenty. Despite how much we hear about Halloween sadism in the popular media, there has never been a substantiated case of death or serious injury linked to it. Nonetheless, the myth persists and it continues to frighten parents to this day. But this isn’t the only thing today’s parents are told to worry about on Halloween—they are also being told to watch out for sex offenders using costumes and candy to prey upon innocent children (here’s just one example of what the media is telling people, complete with creepy photoshopped image: Halloween Warning to Parents: Look for Sex Offenders). This concern has even prompted some states to pass laws regulating the activities of convicted sex offenders on Halloween. But is all of this worry about increased risk justified, or are we being fed another media myth?
A recent study analyzed national crime rate statistics from the years 1997-2005 in order to determine whether sex offenders are indeed exploiting this holiday.1 Specifically, the researchers looked at various forms of rape and sexual assault across each of these years that (1) affected victims ages 12 and younger and (2) involved a perpetrator who did not have a previous family relationship with the victim, given that the primary concern with Halloween-related sex offenses is that they will be committed by strangers. Halloween was defined as a three-day period, which included Halloween day itself and the two preceding days. This was done because trick-or-treating is often scheduled on other days depending upon which day the holiday falls in a given year.
Results indicated that there was no significant increase in sex offenses on Halloween or the days leading up to it. Thus was true for each of the 9 years that the data spanned. The nature of the actual sex crimes committed on Halloween was no different from average either.
Of course, this is not to say that Halloween poses no risk or that no one has ever tried to exploit the holiday to commit a sex crime. All these results tell us is that there probably isn’t a need for parents or law enforcement to increase caution above usual levels on Halloween with respect to sex offenses because there’s no evidence of greater risk during trick-or-treating. Is enhanced vigilance for your childrens' safety on October 31st a bad idea? No. However, this vigilance might be better served if it were directed toward known risks, such as the significantly increased odds of kids being hit by cars. Compared to all other days of the year, children are four times as likely to be struck and killed by a motor vehicle on Halloween.2 And if there's a seasonal trend in sex offenses we should be concerned about, it would be the peak in sex crimes that reliably occurs during the summer months.
In short, as with Halloween sadism, the oft cited risk of increased sex crimes on this holiday appears to be just another urban legend perpetuated by the media that may be overshadowing the known risks.
1Chaffin, M., Levenson, J., Letourneau, E., & Stern, P. (2009). How safe are trick-or-treaters? An analysis of child sex crime rates on Halloween. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 21, 363-374.
2Centers for Disease Control. (1997). Childhood pedestrian deaths during Halloween—United States, 1975-1996. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 46, 987-990.
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