Friday A/V Club: Vintage Halloween Safety Films
From 1953 to 1977 to 1985 to today
The filmmakers behind 1953's Halloween Party didn't have safety lessons on their mind. If you don't know that going in, you'll probably pick it up by 2:27 mark, when the picture invites you to be amused by a frightened dog who's about an inch away from a jack-o-lantern with a blazing candle inside it, growling like he's about to leap on the pumpkin and set the living room on fire. The movie doesn't include any trick-or-treating footage either, which is a shame: Back then it was more common for families to make the treats they handed out than to buy them, and footage of all those unwrapped cookies and candies would have made a fine contrast with the neighborphobic safety tips that kids are taught today.
But this is still a fun glimpse at the holiday as it was celebrated 62 years ago. Be sure to stay tuned for the last-minute costume that Mom makes for her son at the end. When I first heard the narrator tell us she's going to use a "Mexican hat," I braced myself for some sort of brownface minstrelsy, but instead she opted to dress her boy as something more progressive: a "lady scarecrow."
The filmmakers behind our next movie, by contrast, did have safety lessons on their mind. It's right there in the title: Halloween Safety. This came out in 1977, and most of its tips have to do with things like pedestrian safety while trick-or-treating, not random poisonings or similar urban legends. In other words, the film's focus is on the ways kids really are more likely to be injured on October 31 than on other days of the year. But some of those phantom fears work their way into the film too.
That fits the time period. The notion that mild-mannered maniacs see Halloween as an annual kid-killing festival started spreading in the 1960s and '70s, and it got a major boost in 1974, when a boy named Timothy Marc O'Bryan died after eating a cyanide-laced Pixie Stix he had alleged received while trick-or-treating. It turned out O'Bryan had been murdered by his own father, who had poisoned the candy himself and slipped it into his son's treats. But that first false narrative—that tale about a mystery man giving lethal treats to any kids who knocked on his door—got lodged in the public imagination.
Finally, from 1985, we've got Halloween Safety (Second Edition). This was released by the same company that produced the previous picture, and as the title suggests, it's a remake of sorts. But there are notable differences. There's the cheesy '80s soundtrack. There's the fact the film is narrated by an animated pumpkin. And there's the rather more extensive discussion of the threat of treat tampering.
That fits its time period, too. This movie was made three years after the Tylenol murders of 1982, when someone had added cyanide to Tylenol tablets in the Chicago area, killing seven people. They started dying a month before Halloween, and a fear swept America that copycat killers would soon do something similar to children's candy.
I was 12 at the time, and I can attest that this was the first year I even heard of the concept of someone putting a pin in a chocolate bar or a razor blade in an apple. Indeed, in the rumor mill that was the Glenwood Elementary School playground, the notion took hold that consumers were already finding blades in their food weeks before Halloween, and that the same group responsible for the poisoned Tylenol was behind these terroristic tamperings too. ("Have you heard what they're doing now?" one of us would say to another, with little thought for how we'd conjured up that "they." Conspiracy theories start young!) In that atmosphere, more than 40 communities across the country cancelled trick-or-treating altogether. A year later, candy manufacturers felt the need to make a PR push to get kids outdoors on October 31 again.
In this case, the facts were on the industry's side. As the AP reported a week before 1983's Halloween,
Candy makers this year are stressing that most reports of tainted candy from Halloween 1982 appeared to have been unfounded.
An overview released as part of their information campaign notes that more than 95 percent of the 270 "potential Halloween 1982 candy adulterations" showed no tampering when analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration.
The finding "has led one FDA official to characterize the period as one of 'psychosomatic mass hysteria,'" the document says.
"I don't know where they got that (comment) from, but basically it's true," said FDA spokesman Chris Smith.
Three decades later, there are still no known cases of trick-or-treat poisonings. Blades and pins do occasionally turn up in Halloween bags, but when traced back generally turn out to be hoaxes perpetrated by kids. Tricks, to coin a phrase.
Enough context. Here's the movie:
For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For last year's Halloween edition, go here. For Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi's classic sociology paper "The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends," go here. To read about a 1969 razor-blade hoax that got a man arrested, go here.