Truth in a season of lies…

Another Hallowe’enis imminent, a time of year when children dress up as fictional or fantasy characters in order to acquire a plastic bag filled with candy. Small favors, indeed.For an occurrence which traces its origins to a vague syncretistic fusion of the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain and the Roman Catholic holy day of All Hallow’s Eve, our modern custom bears little resemblance to either the sacred or the profane.

However, much like religion itself, Hallowe’en is rife with innumerate legends and mythos pervading its observance.

There is the oft-repeated anecdote of a finding a razorblade in an apple or a needle in a Snickers bar, it’s my understanding that this little chestnut has been with us for quite some time.

An early reference in the mainstream media comes in a New York Times article from the late 1960s, dealing with claims of candy tampering found “throughout the Eastern Seaboard and Canada” but were all later found to be either deliberate hoaxes or complete fabrications.

Related to this is what few actual documented cases of poisons or harmful drugs added into candies. Some are stranger than others and almost all of them have an oeuvre of tragedy, but none of them show any indication of being quite as widespread as all those religious tracts would have you believe.

In fact, Dr. Joel Best, professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, published a comprehensive study of these sorts of “urban legends” that traced approximately 80 such claims. Beginning from one of the earliest known reports in 1959 until our present day, Best found that only a fraction of the incidents actually took place and none of them showed any sign of a deliberate attempt by a stranger to cause harm to a child.

“You find that what few of these events are actually documented are, ironically, imitations of things that never actually happened in the first place,” Best said in a recent interview with NPR. “One sibling merely attempting to frighten the other but then the prank goes awry, of course there’s an immediate outcry but ultimately the truth comes out.”

Unfortunately, the truth never gets in the way of a good story

A few days ago I had a conversation with an old friend who just swears that a little boy “in Houston or somewhere” died from ingesting a “Pixie Stix” candy straw that had been filled with a poisonous powder. Of course, out of a deep sense of concern for this poor child (or the simple fact that I just hate to lose an argument), I started snooping around.

It turns out, a little boy in Houston did die of just such a crime in 1974. However, it was no random attack of a child-hating stranger but a deliberate attempt of a father to collect a large insurance policy he had taken out on his children. Though it is certainly both appalling and tragic, this relatively rare occurrence is a far cry from a nationwide epidemic.

What is it in human nature that makes us cling to these scandalous falsehoods? Surely no parent would believe it out of a desire for solace, for what comfort comes of being paranoid that your child stands a good chance of being maimed or killed in a frivolous seasonal festival like Hallowe’en.

Do people truly prefer a complicated and dreadful fabrication instead of the plain truth? The cynic in me says “yes,” and even the idealist in me says, “probably.”

Vladmir Lenin is purported to have said (though it sound more Trotsky-esque to me) that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth,” but this idea, like most of Lenin’s, has far deeper consequences than I can connote here. However, I think that I prefer, with Cicero, to believe that there can be no dignity where there is not first honesty.

Or even better, to be of a shared accord with Jesus Christ: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.”


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