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Television’s Annual Halloween War Against the Outdoors

Children are no more at risk, no matter what 'Law & Order: SVU' says.

Every year around this time, television leans into seasonal programming with special Halloween episodes. Data shows that crime procedurals, the CSIs and Law & Orders and Criminal Minds of the world, get into the spirit of the holiday by heavying up on stories about all the murderers and molesters emerging from hiding to hurt children. This makes sense on some level, Halloween celebrations often take the form of a morbid twist on the everyday — are we as safe as we think? — but the annual tradition of scaring the crap out of parents has real negative side effects for kids.

“The fusion of candy poisoning and serial murder forms an enduring urban legend framing the perils facing children journeying into public spaces on Halloween,”  Lindsay Steenberg of Oxford Brookes University wrote in a recent study, published in the Journal of Popular Television. “This is the Halloween propagated on crime TV – an urban legend steeped in forensic realism.”

The idea of people poisoning Halloween candy was debunked by University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best in the early 1990s, but the fear of children being at a great risk on the spookiest day of the year has lingered despite overwhelming research suggesting otherwise. One 2009 study, which examined crime report data from 1997 through 2005 and 67,045 non-familial sex crimes committed against children ages 12 and under, found zero evidence that children are at an increased risk during the spooky season.

“We almost called this paper, ‘Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year,’ because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day,” study co-author Elizabeth Letourneau told the Wall Street Journal of the research. However, that would make for a pretty short and boring CSI episode. And short and boring is not what makes CSI popular.  Steenberg analyzed Halloween episodes from 2000 to 2015, along with Criminal Minds from 2005 to present, and Bones from 2005 to present. Her findings suggested that these shows present Halloween as both a motive for crimes against children and a means of getting away with it. Put another way, these “ripped from the headlines” stories are fear-mongering fictions.

True crime shows leading up to Halloween drive this idea that the only people moms and dads can trust are their spouses (and sometimes they can’t even do that), forcing kids into constant supervision, or worse, isolation.

“Halloween is a time where we test market our fears,” Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free-Range Kids and President of the nonprofit Let Grow, explained to Fatherly. Skenazy, who made headlines in 2008 for allowing her 9-year-old son to take the subway home (and who wrote the aforementioned WSJ article), argues that this fear-forward approach to popular entertainment sends a bad message to children as well as adults. “You’ve told them they’re living in a hell hole filled with psychopaths who want to kill them,” she laughs. “Happy Halloween!”

Halloween happens to occur when days are getting shorter and evenings are getting darker, adding to parents concerns. This means that TV is well positioned to reinforce the idea that kids should be inside watching TV. And that’s exactly what networks spend the Halloween season doing.  

“The less kids are outside, the more weird it is when you see one, the more angry you get at the parents, the more dangerous you think it must be,” Skenazy says. “Suddenly no parents are letting their kids play or go outside.” Networks know this and will ultimately exploit it for the reason commercial holidays like Halloween exist in the first place: to make money.

family watching tv on halloween night

When fear is driving the narrative, it doesn’t matter what the research says. It’s an inaccurate and manipulative way to generate ratings, but that doesn’t change the fact that it works. The more moms and dads are scared out of letting their kids go out unsupervised, the more families are home, on the couch, generating more ratings. While that may seem safer, it may put kids more at risk by taking away their opportunity to learn what do when life gets dark, scary, or unfamiliar, Skenazy says. To her, that’s what Halloween should be about — letting kids practice being adults within the safety of their neighborhoods, among their peers.

“What keeps kids safe is community — having people who know each other and watch out for each other.”