POP!Best! is my weekly look at The Best in pop culture from the preceding week. You know, because you don't hear about pop culture anywhere else in the universe.
This week Anna Carrera, top-notch reporter at WAOW in Wisconsin, tweeted a link to a story she'd done about a kid busted for carrying pot-laced candy at a local high school, which instantly brought to mind all those stories about tainted candy that circulate every year around Halloween. (Stories my own parents dutifully passed on to me, resulting in my addiction to/crippling fear of Pixie Sticks, a cupful of which I keep on my desk but which I eat only sparingly, "sparingly" meaning "only on Sundays, when Mr Bunches makes me have one because he is oddly fascinated by watching me pour sugar into my mouth.")
That story bugged me all week because (a) I really have very little control over what my mind does and when it is supposed to be doing things like "preparing briefs" or "remembering to put gas in the car" it is instead thinking "I wonder where it began, this idea that candy got tainted?" and (b) I don't really have a (b), although I did when I started that expression.
I mean, everyone knows by now that there really hasn't ever been an actual incident of poisoning on Halloween; even the recent pot-laced candy story isn't all that new: stories about pot-laced candy go back to at least 2006 when the feds - -in a crackdown aimed at breaking up the California medicinal marijuana trade -- busted a guy who was making such "clever" pot-laced candy-knockoffs as Buddahfinger, proving again that stoner "humor" is not funny.
Except for this:
Anyway, the feds continue to crack down on everything from pot-laced pretzels to "Cheeba Chews" snuck into town in a Ninja Turtle backpack, and even a lawsuit by Hershey's alleging trademark infringement didn't seem to put an end to the practice. (My favorite part about that last link is not the story; it's the fact that the story about a trademark lawsuit against an imprisoned drug dealer was reported on "Fantasy Football Cafe Forum." Your home for news!) And even earlier, a clever attempt to smuggle marijuana by putting it in mini-Snickers' bar wrappers was foiled when the bag ended up at the dead letter office and was taken home by a postal worker, which has to be every bit as against the rules as using your government position to encourage a woman to get freaky with her sex toy, but not as good a lead for Gawker.
And even though none of those stories had to do with Halloween, that doesn't stop authorities from warning parents not to let their kids inadvertently go as Cheech & Chong this year.
But where, I wondered, does the story come from? How did it become taken for granted that Halloween candy could be tainted? How, in short, does an urban legend start?
Once upon a time, in America, candy was even more evil than it is today.
So I went looking for the answer to how this particular urban legend began, doing so during an insomniatic Friday night while I watched Sports Center and wondered how I could get that job, and I am now able to report to you that the actual inception of the tainted Halloween candy story is...
... I don't know.
The reports of tainted candy appear to have coalesced from three stories: The dad who poisoned his son using Pixy Sticks to collect on life insurance, a boy who accidentally overdosed on his uncle's heroin and the family tried to cover it up by sprinkling heroin on his Halloween candy, and the poisoned Tylenol capsules in the early 1980s, according to Mental Floss, which goes on to note that as early as 1959 there were reports of sharp objects in candy but the first documented instance of that wasn't until 2000 -- which makes it seem like the guy got the idea from the rumors, not the other way around.
But poison candy goes back way farther than just the halcyon days of the 1950s, when Ward would come home from his job at the Corporation (which back then was benign, and not yet a person!) and laugh over a hearty 37-course dinner with the boys before sneaking off to the lodge to slip razor blades into apples. In World War I, reports surfaced that the Germans, or, as they were called back then, "Hessians," (I know they weren't called that, but it's fun to say Hessian, and anyway, whatever happened to Hessians?) were poisoning candy and dropping it on French villages, and back at the turn of the century, in 1899, parents began blaming poisoned candy for their children dropping dead. Doctors, or, as they were called back then, "people who had no particular training but who were allowed, for some reason, to operate on other people" blamed not poisoned candy but meningitis. In reality, the likely cause of death was probably "living in 1899."
Even parents in 1899 were repeating an old myth -- that same article says that in 1874 the "National Confectioners Association" had commissioned a report to debunk myths that candy caused kids to die-- and if they did so in 1874, you know that the rumors had to have been flying around via that 1800s' version of the internet (Pamphlets. Seriously) for a long time.
The article where I got a lot of that information makes a significant point: People back then blamed candy for everyone dropping dead because the things that really were making them drop dead (again: living in 1899) were harder to deal with, those problems being things like poverty, rot, slime, gas leaks, robber barons, and the fact that most "medical schools" prior to 1930 were diploma mills that provided no practical education and didn't require you to go to college before attending them.
In short: blaming candy was easier than fixing society, which may be why the single biggest news out of the White House this week was that Michelle Obama wrote a book about vegetables.
So there's this guy, and he keeps running into the Devil...
Since I don't know exactly where the rumor that all candy will instantly kill you if you take it from your neighbor's hand started, let's (a) blame it on the Hessians, and (b) move on to other Halloween history that raises important questions like "Why would someone actually try to get into Hell?"
That's the question I asked myself after I decided to look into the secret origin of the Jack O'Lantern and learned that Jack O' Lantern's exist because of "Stingy Jack," a guy who got his name because, apparently, he was stingy. Although being stingy had nothing to do with why we still know about Jack and his O'Lantern; his nickname was irrelevant to the fact that he tricked the Devil into something or other.
I'm not being lazy there; I'm being accurate and there's a difference: People don't agree on what Stingy Jack, who really should be called something like Tricky Jack but I didn't make him up, so I didn't get a vote in the matter, did to trick the Devil, but they do agree that he tricked the Devil. Some say he tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, a story that needs a little fleshing out: Why did he want the Devil to climb the apple tree? Why was he talking to the Devil in the first place? Why an apple tree? Is that a biblical reference? Is that why we give out apples on Halloween? Does anyone really give out apples on Halloween? Those people suck.
Also: No. We give out apples on Halloween because they were symbols of immortality (that star you see if you cut the apple in half the right way) and because if you peeled an apple in front of a mirror in candlelight, you would see an image of your future spouse, which I would go try but it's the middle of the night as I write this and I'm easily freaked out. (Once, when I watched Jeepers Creepers by myself late at night I couldn't go to sleep until I watched Disney's Hercules.)(True story.)
(People disagree about the mystical powers of apples vis a vis future spouses. This site says you have to slice the apple and eat it by candlelight to see Future Ms. Right, and then peel the whole peel in one slice and throw it over your shoulder to learn her initial, and also that if you put an apple under your pillow you will dream of your future husband, to which I'll add "And your wife will probably say 'What, exactly, are you doing with an apple under your pillow?")
A different version of the Stingy Jack story has Jack inviting the Devil to have a drink with him, but not wanting to pay for the drink -- always buy the first round, the party never gets smaller -- so he tricked the Devil into becoming a coin, (and then didn't pay anyway, keeping the coin in his pocket)(Is that the Devil in your pocket or are you just... what? It really IS the Devil? I'm out of here!) only to later trick the Devil into climbing a tree, the Devil not having learned his lesson the first time around.
All of the Stingy Jack legends end the same way: Jack eventually dies and goes up to Heaven where, despite his obvious skill in tricking the Devil, he's not wanted on account of his general meanness, so he goes down to Hell to try to get let in even though whole point of all this trickery was to avoid Hell, but the Devil, who's the kind of person who carries a grudge (but you'd guess that about him, wouldn't you?) won't let him in, and so Jack wanders the Earth, with naught but a piece of Hellfire to light his way -- that piece of Hellfire having been given to him by the Devil, who's really not such a bad guy after all in the end.
I mean, Heaven didn't give Jack a flashlight or even one of those reflective strips of tape to put on his costume.
Jack carried his Hellfire in a turnip (or, as they're known now, "pomegranate") and that's why we now put candles in pumpkins and if you think I skipped a step there, you're right, but so does every other source; nobody says why turnips ended up being pumpkins, so there must be some sort of transitive property of foods nobody really eats that says turnips = pumpkins.
Does the story of a guy who so doesn't want to pay his bills that he repeatedly consorts with the Prince of Darkness and eventually is banned from Heaven and doomed to walk the earth in misery carrying a Hellfire-bearing turnip sound like the kind of play you'd want to put on for middle schoolers? Stanford Middle School thought so, which is why those plucky youngsters put on a show entitled "Watch Your Back For Stingy Jack!" But this play takes a uniquely American, no-doubt-Tea-Party inspired look at this heartwarming family story:
On a present-day Halloween night, Laura and her friends gather around Laura's dad, Bill, to hear the mysterious origin of the Jack-o'-Lantern. Through Bill's narrative, the girls learn about the ghost of Stingy Jack, a mean tax collector from old colonial America who haunts the town after being robbed of his fortune. With horrifying twists surrounding lost treasure and curses, audiences will leave with one thing in mind: never let the light go out! A rollicking introduction into the folklore that inspired the Jack-o'-Lantern.
See? You didn't know that taxes were actually collected by a tool of the devil. But now you do, so never ever pay taxes again.
And now onto something more wholesome: Asphyxiation!
Speaking of heart-warming traditions and future spouses, how about choking to death to find out if you'll get married that year? That is the horrifying story behind apple-bobbing. Apples apparently have a long tradition of being associated with romance, going way back to when Hippomenes tricked Atalanta into marrying him by beating her in a footrace; he only outran her by tricking her along the way with three golden apples, proving that woman can not resist an apple.
According to a book written by an actual Wiccan Priest -- the book is Halloween, the priest is Silver Ravenwolf, which I'm pretty sure was the author's D&D character's name as a kid -- the custom of bobbing for apples began as a New Year's tradition in which people would try to get apples and the first one to choke on one would be married that year. Oh, the single life!
Which brings us to trick-or-treating, and if you think I skipped a step there, I did, again. Trick-or-treating, many sources will tell you, began as a combination of the custom of souling, in which poor people would go around and sing for the dead souls of people in exchange for food. According to what is a no-doubt reliable source on this subject (the website "Things That Go Boooo!" ),
The American tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives.
The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for the returning spirits on Halloween night. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.
So, if you are keeping score, in England, where many of our ancestors came from, kids could go around on Halloween and get beer and money. In America, where many of our ancestors came to, people try to stop trick-or-treating by claiming candy causes meningitis.
(That's in case you needed proof that perhaps the best-and-brightest were not the ones who left. Proof beyond "also, many of our ancestors settled in Minnesota," I mean.)
Trick-or-treating is, of course, not an American invention -- the meningitis, remember -- and has been around long enough to have been written about in that godawful Olde Englishe that Chaucer also used and which for some reason schools insist on making kids read. In his poem Hallowe'en, Robert Burns wrote about trick-or-treating:
The lasses feat, and cleanly neat,
Mair braw than when they're fine;
Their faces blithe, fu' sweetly kythe,
Hearts leal, and warm, and kin';
The lads sae trig, wi' wooer-babs,
Weel knotted on their garten,
Some unco blate, and some wi' gabs,
Gar lasses' hearts gang startin'
Whiles fast at night.
Then, first and foremost, through the kail,
Their stocks maun a' be sought ance;
They steek their een, and graip and wale,
For muckle anes and straught anes.
Poor hav'rel Will fell aff the drift,
And wander'd through the bow-kail,
And pou't, for want o' better shift,
A runt was like a sow-tail,
Sae bow't that night.
Or at least, I'm told he mentions trick-or-treating. I can't understand a single word of that. And there's like 37 more stanzas. The poem is no less comprehensible when translated into Belorussian, which it has been.
Here in America, trick-or-treating was originally called guising, according to St Nicholas magazine, which is rapidly becoming my go-to source for information, and, according to Wikipedia, the term "trick or treat" wasn't used in America until 1934, when the Helena Independent broke this story:
Pretty Boy John Doe rang the door bells and his gang waited his signal. It was his plan to proceed cautiously at first and give a citizen every opportunity to comply with his demands before pulling any rough stuff. "Madam, we are here for the usual purpose, 'trick or treat.'" This is the old demand of the little people who go out to have some innocent fun. Many women have some apples, cookies or doughnuts for them, but they call rather early and the "treat" is given out gladly.
I'm sure that august local paper went on to warn parents that the "treat" (or, as it was sometimes called "Hessian Pomegranate") was likely laced with marijuana and razors.
Why did trick-or-treating get so popular, given that Americans were 100% certain that candy, and not stagnant sewage water in the streets, was killing their kids? It probably had something to do with stopping kids from blowing up churches and corpse-stealing -- the spoilsports!
Early Hallowe'en efforts had focused more on the "trick" end of the spectrum, and the tricks ranged from pipe bombs to blocking railroad tracks to stealing corpses from a medical school to hang in front of a butcher shop. Adults fought back with all the restraint adults have traditionally shown in dealing with kids: Two children were shot, one for tapping on a window and one for soaping another window.
Surprisingly, having the death penalty for minor pranks didn't stop them -- that same website notes that the "pranks" escalated to killing cops and cross-burning, and
Extreme pranking incited extreme measures on the part of the police. It was normal in the 1920s for a city like LA to add 800-900 extra men for the night or to post one hundred men on the LA rails to guard the tracks against Halloween mayhem. It wasn't a huge leap from this large-scale defensive position to an offensive one. In 1942, for example, the Chicago City Council voted to simply abolish Halloween.
See where I got the headline from? Again, surprisingly, an overwhelming show of force didn't manage to quell the unrest, and so America got tricky and decided to bribe the little monsters via trick or treat, the theory being: give them candy, and they'll stop killing our police officers and toting corpses around, probably because they'll die of meningitis.
Trick or treating still wasn't immediately popular. Again, from that site:
Some homeowners were downright hostile: a woman in Miami (1950) gave red-hot coins to a gang of kids who demanded money. Police in Greensboro, NC rode around on Halloween night with 5,000 packages of cookies to give to gangs of kids in hopes they wouldn't bang on homeowner's doors. There were angry pieces in the newspaper claiming it was extortion; even some of the kids themselves protested: the 1948 Madison Sq. Boys' Club parade featured signs saying, "American boys don't beg."
Hmmm. You see where this is going: There will be stories next year that kids are being handed out red-hot coins laced with marijuana.
In any event, in these troubled times, it's nice to think back to a those golden days of our country, when people were more innocent, and America was a nicer place where neighbors said hello, people never locked their doors, and police were sent out to bribe pipe-bomb carrying hooligans before they could riot. Happy Halloween!