It's an urban legend we all know well: the maniac who takes advantage of trick or treaters by sliding razor blades into their apples and needles into their chocolate bars. While there has never been a credible report of any stranger murdering a child this way, the basis of the alleged phenomenon actually does come from a true story. However, it wasn't a stranger murdering a child — it was a father who murdered his son.
In Deer Park, TX, U.S., on Halloween night of 1974, Ronald O'Bryan, an optician and church deacon, was chaperoning his 8-year-old son Timothy and 5-year-old daughter Elizabeth as they trick or treated throughout the neighborhood. They stopped at a darkened house and rang the bell but when nobody came to the door, the children moved ahead impatiently, catching up to three other neighborhood children. O'Bryan lingered behind. When he caught up to the kids he had good news: someone had come to door after all and given him candy for the group. He produced five 21 inch Pixy Stix. He gave one each to Timothy, Elizabeth, two of his neighbor's children, and a 10-year-old boy he recognized from church.
Later that evening, Timothy was allowed one piece of candy from the night's haul. His father encouraged his son to eat Pixy Stix. The powdered sugar had a strange chunky consistency and when he complained to his father that it tasted bitter, O'Bryan gave his son a glass of Kool-Aid to wash it down. Almost immediately, Timothy began to convulse and vomit. He died at the local hospital an hour later.
The medical examiner told law enforcement that the boy's breath smelled of almonds — a telltale sign of cyanide poisoning. An autopsy later confirmed that Timothy's candy had been tainted with a fatal dose of potassium cyanide. A pathologist found the amount in the Pixy Stix would have been enough to kill two people.
O'Bryan stuck to his original story — he'd been given the candy from the darkened house in the neighborhood — but his alibi quickly fell apart. Police learned that O'Bryan was in $100,000 of debt and had recently taken out life insurance policies on his two children. As murder would negate a payout, he'd decided to hand out the poisoned candy to other children in the neighborhood as well in an attempt to cover his tracks. While none of them had consumed the tainted treats, one family found their son asleep in bed, clutching the Pixy Stix — the staples O'Bryan had used to reseal the candy after poisoning it had been too difficult to pry apart.
O'Bryan was convicted of one count of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder in 1975. The jury sentenced him to death. He was executed by lethal injection in 1984 as a crowd of demonstrators stood outside the prison and shouted "Trick or Treat!" while pelting anti-death penalty protestors with candy.
Despite this terrible crime, Joel Best, a professor of Sociology at the University of Delaware has been warning people not to worry about the alleged phenomenon he calls "Halloween Sadism" for decades. In 2016 he told Vice that "he has hasn't collected any evidence to support the widespread belief in strangers with dangerous candy." He chalks up they myth's ongoing prevalence to the way in which society uses urban legend to compartmentalize anxiety about large fears that are out of our control.
"It's the greatest thing in the world you can be afraid of because you only have to be afraid of it for one night a year," Best told Vice. "You know, maybe there's somebody down the block who's so crazy that he poisons little children at random, but he only does it one night a year. Throughout the rest of the year, he's normal."
In fact, the dangers children are most likely to face on Halloween are frighteningly common. Children are at a higher risk of being hit and killed by a car on Halloween, they can get sick from ingesting the material in glow sticks, or be burned by dry ice used in decorations. For those who are concerned about danger, there is plenty of practical advice on keeping your kids safe this Halloween.