With October 31 rolling around, tales of Halloween horrors cannot be far behind. While I am not an expert on this subject, I know enough to point out that the vast majority of these horror stories (which usually involve candy being poisoned or apples with pins or razor blades inserted into them - the latter famously depicted in a scene of a young trick-or-treater going to an emergency room in 1981's Halloween II, seen at top) are urban legends.
To be clear, the fact that something is a legend does not mean it has no basis in reality. (For example, King Arthur is a legendary figure, but he probably existed, even if he didn't do all the things described by Thomas Mallory and T.H. White.) According to Jan Brunvand, who popularized the notion of "urban legends" with his books on the subject, a legend is a story that is repeated as fact, with variations.
Tales of poisoned candy and razor blade-apples are told all across the country as having happened to different people in different places at different times, but a search through newspapers and Internet databases will reveal few if any examples to back up these stories.
Your best online source to get to the bottom of these tales is www.snopes.com, which has a section devoted to Halloween. The two key entries that interest us here are the ones on poisonings and tampering.
Basically, the bottom line conclusion drawn by Barbara Mikkelson at Snopes is: "I've yet to find evidence of a genuine Halloween poisoning," by which she means randomly handing out poisoned treats to trick-or-treaters. Unfortunately, there has been at least one case wherein a father poisoned his son and tried to blame it on Halloween candy.
Mikkelson comes to a slightly different conclusion regarding tampering (i.e., inserting painful objects into apples or other treats). This has happened on some occasions; apparently, however, in the vast majority of cases the alleged victim was actually the perpetrator. In other words, a kid shows a half-eaten apple to his parents, with a razor blade sticking out; the parents go ballistic, thinking some sicko is trying to harm the neighborhood children; then it turns out the kid himself put the razor blade into the apple as a prank to scare his parents.
Mikkelson makes one other important distinction: pranks like pins and needles are meant to scare and even harm, but they are not meant to kill. Despite frequent reports of this kind of tampering, actual injuries seldom occur. The few injuries that have been reported seldom require medical attention; the most Mikkelson can turn up (second-hand) is one woman who needed a few stitches.
Again, to re-emphasize my point at the beginning of this post, the fact that these stories are often exaggerated does not mean they are always false. But it is important to keep in mind that when we think of "Halloween being ruined by evil pranksters," what's really happened is that a handful of incidents has been blown up by the media until it appears like a nationwide epidemic.
Pranks, sometimes wicked ones (like pretending to have received a razor blade from a neighbor), are part of Halloween. Attempts to murder innocent trick-or-treaters at random are practically non-existent.