The Death Of Halloween

It’s the Halloween season, a season adorned with pumpkins and fuzzy black cat cutouts from Beistle, pumpkin spice, comfy clothes, and healthy hijinks. I love Halloween, it’s my season, but there are some people who get awfully anxious about the holiday and everything it entails. But why? Obviously, kids trick or treating at night should wear something reflective, carry a flashlight, make sure they can see well out of their masks, and be accompanied by a responsible adult. Of course, they shouldn’t crisscross the street and gather their treats from one side at a time and they should absolutely have someone check their treats before anything gets consumed. I remember watching a PSA in school every year up until about junior high. The same little cartoon pumpkin telling us to beware of strangers (stranger danger was in full swing at that time) and not to accept fruit or baked goods while on our trick or treating tours. My father always told me to accept and that we’d throw those things away later. Even he wasn’t safe from the terror of tampered Halloween candy. But where did this fear come from and why are we still so concerned about psychopaths tainting our treats?

I remember filling pillowcases and those plastic pumpkin buckets (which equals roughly 3 lbs of sugar or 9k cal.) with treats from all over the neighborhood. We had a guy on my street who ran a vending company so he handed out nearly expired full-sized Snickers bars and cans of Pepsi to his trick or treaters. We always stopped there last, saving the best. I never once considered that my neighbor, the man who waved at us as we were walking to the bus stop at the base of the hill, would want to murder us with the treats he handed out.

History of Tricks and Treats

The custom of trick or treating didn’t catch on in the US until the 1920/30’s, but this Halloween practice has deep roots. The Celts dressed up as evil spirits to defend against the demons thought to be wandering the earth. They celebrated the New Year on Nov. 1 (All Souls Day) and they believed that those not dressed in costume would be taken by the demons wandering the earth during the time when the veil between the world of the living and the dead was thinnest. Those in costume would be mistaken for a demon themselves and the evil spirits would leave them in peace. The Catholic Church changed the pagan tradition into All Hallows Eve and All Souls’ Day and many of the Celtic traditions were adopted. Though the church encouraged people to dress as saints and angels, some still dressed as devils and goblins. In the Middle Ages, the poor would often dress up and go door to door asking for money or food in exchange for prayers. The tradition was called “souling.” A prayer for the soul offered by a visitor.

Many Halloween traditions came about during this time, including bobbing for apples, pulling candy, and roasting chestnuts. Partygoers to Ms. Marion Bostwick’s Halloween soiree in Janesville, WI in 1889 would enjoy all of the above. They also cut open apples to examine the seeds, “In apple seeds, two are said to signify an early wedding; three, a legacy; four, indicate a great wealth; five, a voyage across the sea; six, fame as a public speaker; seven, the gift most desired by the finder.” (WPR.org) They would also remove the apple’s skin in one piece and throw it over their right shoulder, believing that the shape it took when it hit the floor would be the initial of the individual you were to marry. Celebrations would often give way to vandalism and led to the adoption of a strict trick or treating schedule, but it didn’t really stick. Sugar rationing during WWII put an end to many trick or treating practices, but boomers took it up again as standard practice after the war.

Trick or treaters of today often find themselves going door to door in the afternoon when the sun is high in the sky. Still more find that trick or treating is held one or even two weeks before the actual holiday. This practice is due in part to superstition and the tendency of many people to believe the urban legends surrounding Halloween.

Let’s talk a little about a few of the reasons why Halloween has been castrated.

Cases of Poisoned Treats

Razor blades, poison, drugs, pins, and chocolate-covered laxatives… What do all of these things have in common? They’ve all been found in Halloween treat bags, cleverly disguised by a piece of candy to hide their sinister nature and having been placed there by sinister individuals looking to harm little children.

Wait…really?

Actually, there have only been a handful of cases where children legitimately found harmful substances in their Halloween candy. One child accidentally ate his parent’s heroin stash and died. The parents put some of the heroin in the kid’s Halloween candy to make it look like he’d been poisoned by tainted treats. In another instance, a dentist gave out chocolate-covered laxatives to trick or treaters causing them to become violently ill. The dentist was caught and charges were filed. No fatalities in that case. In New York, a woman handed out poison ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool as treats, something that authorities didn’t find funny even though she assured them it was just a joke and she was trying to get back at the older kids who shouldn’t be trick or treating.

In 2018, Erin Blakemore wrote an article for History.com addressing some of the reasons why Americans are antsy about Halloween and trick or treating. According to Blakemore,

“When they [sociologists and criminal justice experts Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi] conducted an extensive study on so-called “Halloween sadism,” or crimes specifically committed using Halloween treats or customs, they concluded that the threat is greatly exaggerated. Though both parents and kids are taught to be on the alert for tampered-with sweets, most of the cases the researchers analyzed were either overstated or could not be linked to Halloween itself.”

Best and Joriuchi say that many (read most) reports of Halloween sadism are of “questionable authenticity” but Snopes.com will tell you that much.

The fourth and final instance of candy tampering is likely the most disturbing.

The Candyman

On a cloudy Halloween night in Pasadena, TX, Ronald Clarke O’Bryan, his son Timothy (8), and daughter Elizabeth (5) pile into the car to meet a friend from church. O’Bryan had arranged with the fellow parishioner that he and his two kids would join him and his children in their upscale neighborhood in Houston, TX to trick or treat. It’s a damp night and it’s begun to drizzle, but the rain doesn’t ruin their fun. The children run from house to house knocking on doors and laughing. At one house, the porch light is out. The kids knock anyway and O’Bryan, who had been following the children to the doors while the other father waited on the sidewalk, decided to wait for a response while the kids went to the next house. A few minutes later, O’Bryan returns with five 21” Pixy stix. He says something to the other father about the rich people who live in the neighborhood and the “premium treats” being handed out. The stix are too long to fit in the kid’s Halloween bags and buckets, so O’Bryan offers to carry them while they gather the rest of their treats.

Later, once everyone has returned to his house, O’Bryan hands out the Pixy Stix to the kids. He’s still got one left, but he says he’ll eat that one himself. A few minutes later, a group of kids knock on O’Bryan’s door including Whitney Parker, a boy O’Bryan knows from his church. He gives the Pixy stick to the boy.

Once the other kids have left, after all the excitement of the evening has died down, Timothy removes his Planet of the Apes costume and gets ready for bed. He asks his father if he can have some of his Halloween candy. O’Bryan tells him he can only have one, so Timothy chooses the Pixy Stick. The candy is clumped together and Timothy can’t get the candy out. O’Bryan helps to break it up, rolling the stick between his hands, and pours the candy down his son’s throat. Shortly thereafter, Timothy becomes violently ill, vomiting and convulsing. An ambulance is called and Timothy is rushed to the hospital, but it’s too late. Timothy is dead.

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Timothy O’Bryan (farthest right) Photo from https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a39329/halloween-photo-story/

Pasadena police begin going from house to house, waiting with bated breath as the parents, having been awakened at around 3 in the morning, groggily go check on their children. The police find 4 more Pixy Stix, all laced with cyanide. The candy was unopened.

Kids often make up stories about their Halloween candy being tampered with. I did it myself. I put a piece of plastic in a Mars bar and nearly gave my grandmother a heart attack, but it was funny as hell. Of course, the trick backfired and my grandmother threw out all of the candy I’d collected for fear that ALL the candy was tainted. Parents do it, too. There have been multiple instances where parents have actually inserted razor blades and other inanimate or dangerous objects into candy in order to prove a point. I can personally think of a dozen other ways to prove the point that kids should have their parents check candy prior to consumption so that’s quite the trick in my book. No kids have been harmed by this particular trick. But Timothy wasn’t the victim of a trick gone wrong.

It turns out that O’Bryan had taken out life insurance policies on his kids and made up the entire story of the Pixy Stix in order to cover his tracks. With Timothy’s death, O’Bryan stood to gain $100,000. Unfortunately for him, his plan backfired. The individual he accused of giving him the treats, he pointed to the house that had the porch light off that night, was working as an air traffic controller and had over 200 witnesses to corroborate his story. The police quickly honed in on O’Bryan, the man who had openly wept at his son’s funeral and accepted the condolences of attendees. The boy had ingested a lethal dose of potassium cyanide. According to a pathologist, the candy Timothy had ingested contained enough cyanide to kill two adults while the other four candies contained dosages that could kill three to four adults. O’Bryan denied he had anything to do with the poisoning, but it was discovered that he had actually gone to several lab supply companies asking to buy cyanide. O’Bryan was arrested and charged with capital murder and the attempted murder of his daughter and the other children he’d given poisoned candy to on November 5, 1974. His wife immediately divorced him. In prison, child killer O’Bryan was shunned by the other inmates and was said to be entirely friendless. The other inmates even petitioned to hold an organized demonstration on his execution date to express their hatred of him. Phil Donahue (you remember the talk show Donahue, right?) interviewed O’Bryan on death row. When Donahue tells O’Bryan that people have accused him of ruining Halloween for everyone, O’Bryan laughs, gives a peaceful smile, and says, “That’s a matter of opinion.”

O’Bryan was put to death (after several stays of execution) on March 31, 1984, at the age of 39 in Huntsville, TX. His final statement was simple. “I forgive all – and I do mean all – those who have been involved in my death. God bless you all, and may God’s best blessings be always yours.”  O’Bryan never admitted to poisoning his son. Ronald Clark O’Bryan, a seemingly mild-mannered optician, would forever be known as The Candyman or The Man Who Killed Halloween.

 

Halloween PSA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC2NMHMvzZ0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcfkNr9R-T8

Urban legend Halloween candy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRobZovwvkM

Ronald Clark O’Bryan

https://www.history.com/news/how-americans-became-convinced-their-halloween-candy-was-poisoned

https://www.wpr.org/trick-or-treating-newer-halloween-tradition-us

S4 Ep. 8: Laughin’ ’til I’m Coffin

New Episode Available!
S4 Ep. 8: Laughin’ ‘til I’m Coffin
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This week, Katie discusses the strange phenomenon of stairs to nowhere. Janine introduces us to The Man Who Killed Halloween, Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
This episode contains randomly appearing (and disappearing) staircases in random wooded areas, a sprinkle of true crime, a sadistic nanny named Agatha (who we’re pretty sure doesn’t exist), and some Halloween history.
c9db4418b05efb818a64fec89ecd197b
Timothy O’Bryan (farthest right) Photo from https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a39329/halloween-photo-story/

 

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Werewolves: Myths and Legends

One of my favorite films is American Werewolf in London. It’s essentially a movie about two college dudes who go on a walkabout in Britain and are attacked by a werewolf that nobody they encounter will admit exists. It’s written and directed by John Landis and contains some pretty fantastic makeup and prosthetic work. It took an average of 5 hours to get it applied. My father tried to make me a werewolf for Halloween one year and I looked like I’d run into a wig shop covered in crazy glue. Trust me, it was bad. Think more along the lines of Cousin Itt. And the Spirit Gum…oh! It was awful…but anyway, here’s a brief synopsis that writer John Vogel did for IMDB.

“Two American college students are on a walking tour of Britain and are attacked by a werewolf. One is killed, the other is mauled. The werewolf is killed but reverts to its human form, and the local townspeople are unwilling to acknowledge its existence. The surviving student begins to have nightmares of hunting on four feet at first but then finds that his friend and other recent victims appear to him, demanding that he commit suicide to release them from their curse, being trapped between worlds because of their unnatural deaths.”

I was little more than 7 months old when the movie hit the theaters in August of 1981 and it grossed over 30 million worldwide. Clearly, audiences were interested in werewolves, their lore, and their tortured lives. But stories about werewolves didn’t originate with American Werewolf in London. They actually originated in one of the oldest known pieces of Western prose The Epic of Gilgamesh when Gilgamesh jilts a potential lover because she’d turned her previous mate into a wolf. A total deal-breaker for ‘ol Gilge. In Greek mythology, we are presented with the Legend of Lycaon (Lycan is a term you might have heard used in the Underworld movies, but it’s far older than that) who “angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves.” Werewolves are also spoken about in Nordic folklore in the Saga of the Volsungs. The story tells of “a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers.” (history.com)

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Serial Killer or Werewolf?

In the early 1500s, a time when flicking a Bic lighter would have sent the average townsperson into a panicked frenzy, two men, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, were accused of being werewolves. It all began when Burgot was assailed by three men in black who told him that if he didn’t denounce God they would do something terrible to him. If he did denounce God, they guaranteed the safety of the flock of sheep he was transporting and riches beyond his wildest imaginings. Of course, Burgot agreed because why not. When Verdun (one of the men in black—no not THOSE men in black) told Burgot that they would go together to meet a group of warlocks, things start to get a little weird. Verdun tells Bergot that he should strip down naked and the two began applying some sort of salve or mixture all over their bodies. Burgot and Verdun (according to Burgot) began to immediately grow coarse fur and their hands and feet became clawed. The two then took to the French countryside to murder and eat small children. You know, just a guy’s night out.

Of course, Burgot and Verdun’s rampages came to an end when they were found guilty of mass murder and burned alive (one of the only ways that were considered logical to kill a werewolf in the 1500s.) The witch trials were in full swing during this time so burning at the stake was pretty much a catchall punishment for ungodly acts. Verdun and Burgot are seen by some as serial killers who preyed on the most innocent of humanity while others still believe that the men were indeed werewolves. (https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burgot-pierre-d-1521)

Another man by the name of Peter Stubbe who was a fifteenth-century farmer in Bedburg, Germany was supposedly a werewolf. Folklore tales tell of Stubbe transforming into a wolf-like creature and devouring any poor villager who might cross his path. Stubbe was cornered one evening by a group of hunters who claimed to have seen him transform from human to wolf and Stubbe confessed to the crimes. He was subjected to gruesome torture for his crimes. He claimed under duress that he owned a belt that was enchanted with the power to turn him into a wolf, but the belt was never found. Some believe that Stubbe was the victim of a witch hunt, but at this point in history there were fears of such creatures and it would have been difficult to find a person who did not believe that werewolves were on the prowl.

There are many logical explanations for werewolf lore and the visage/behaviors that go along with it. For example, lycanthropy is a rare psychological condition that causes people to believe they’re changing into a wolf or some other animal. Rabies can cause even the most “normal” of individuals to go batty. Hypertrichosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes excessive hair growth, could be another affliction that could cause panic. The ingestion of hallucinogenic herbs could be to blame. There are absolutely reasonable explanations out there to explain away the werewolf and its wolfy-ness, but perhaps it’s just more fun to believe that there is more to this world we live in than meets the eye.

 

Shapeshifting

In many cultures, it is believed that a human being can shapeshift into the form of a wolf because a curse has been placed upon that person. Perhaps they’ve been bitten or scratched by a wolf, another cursed human who is doomed to stalk the earth as a creature of the night. Folklore tells us that enchanted sashes, cloaks, or belts are to blame. In many werewolf stories, the person only turns into a wolf when the moon is full.

Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.

You might recognize this poem from the 1941 film The Wolf Man featuring Lon Cheney Jr. It seems like every time someone brings up the subject of werewolves, the townspeople chime in with this little rhyme. This Wolfman is the image that many people associate with film representations of werewolves. But this is not the case in every culture. In Navajo culture, tales of Skinwalkers are often told. Translated, yee naaldooshii translates to “by means of it, it goes on all fours.” From Wikipedia,

“Animals associated with witchcraft usually include tricksters such as the coyote, but can include other creatures, usually those associated with death or bad omens. They might also possess living animals or people and walk around in their bodies by locking eyes with them. Skin-walkers may be male or female. Skin-walker stories told among Navajo children may be complete life and death struggles that end in either skin-walker or Navajo killing the other or partial encounter stories that end in a stalemate. Encounter stories may be composed as Navajo victory stories, with the skin-walkers approaching a Hogan (the traditional dwelling of Navajo people) and being scared away

Non-Native interpretations of skin-walker stories typically take the form of partial encounter stories on the road, where the protagonist is temporarily vulnerable, but then escapes from the skin-walker in a way not traditionally seen in Navajo stories that take place away from home. Sometimes Navajo children take European folk stories and substitute skin-walkers for generic killers like The Hook. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin-walker)

These creatures will knock on windows and bang on walls in an effort to lure their victims outside. Skinwalkers have the ability to steal the faces of people you know and, if you accidentally lock eyes with one, they have the ability to absorb themselves into your body and take control of you. Most Skinwalkers are said to resemble “hollowed out dogs” (not sure what that means, but it sure as hell sounds horrifying) and you can apparently defeat a Skinwalker if you call them by their true (human) name.

I found one particularly horrifying encounter with a Skinwalker on Thought Catalogue. There is a bunch to look through there.

THEY RAN AWAY ON THEIR BACK LEGS

“So this happened about twelve years ago. My family owns a farm in the heart of an Indian reservation. One Winter I was home for Christmas taking care of the farm while my parents were away Christmas shopping. As I was home by myself, way late in the night and I hear all our cows freaking out. I knew it had to be the wild dogs that are rampant in the area. So I throw on some boots, grab a shotgun, load it up, and head out to the field. This was a perfect scenario for a horror movie, it was cloudy but there was a full moon, and it was breaking through the clouds just right to light up all the snow.

I ran out into the middle of the field, and just in time I see two dogs, they were standing up facing each other and fighting. I think “perfect two for one.” So I pump a shell into the chamber of Mr. 12 gauge and then it happened. The two dogs heard the rack, they both stopped, looked over at me, and ran away, ON THEIR BACK LEGS. Immediately I froze, and every ghost story about Skinwalkers and all the other Native legends I grew up with flew through my mind. Keep in mind I am a white guy, and up until then, these were all just boogie man stories the Native kids like to tell to scare us. That night, they became real to me.” (https://thoughtcatalog.com/jacob-geers/2016/10/14-facts-about-skinwalkers-that-will-100-scare-the-shit-out-of-you/)

American Werewolf in London, The Wolf Man, Skinwalkers…these are all just fantastical tales that tickle the imagination and serve to creep us out, right? All I can say is, if you hop in your car and drive to Holy Hill Road in Washington County, WI, and hang out for a bit, you might see something you can’t explain. Reports of werewolf sightings in that area go back to the 1930s and they show no signs of slowing down. Steve Krueger, a DNR worker, has encountered a werewolf first hand. When picking up carcasses in the Holy Hill area, Krueger claims he saw a beast that had pointed ears on top of its head. It was stocky, covered in coarse hair, and came in at roughly 6 to 7’ in height. Apparently, there have been many sightings over the years of giant wolves stalking the area. Linda Godfrey, an author, and journalist, has been stalking the werewolf legend in that area for 17 years. She lives in Elkhorn and has received hundreds of reports of sightings, many just miles from her home. A documentary, The Beast of Bray Road is available on Amazon Prime for those of you with access and there are some pretty spooky tales about these creatures. Godfrey has written eight books about The Beast and now she’s getting stories of encounters from all over the world. In an interview with NBC15, Godfrey said, “Whatever it is, there is more than one. It seems to be more of a scavenger that wants to frighten people. Maybe it’s territorial. It seems to want people to leave it alone.” (https://www.nbc15.com/home/headlines/70005732.html)

Godfrey believes it might be a timber wolf that has evolved or adapted to walk on its hind legs, but she’s not ready to rule out the supernatural.

Cures

According to livescience.com (https://www.livescience.com/24412-werewolves.html), there are several ways in which an individual could be purged of the werewolf curse. You see, lycanthropy was often seen as a curse and the afflicted was often seen as a monster AND a victim.  Ian Woodward, the author of The Werewolf Delusion, states that werewolves could be cured medicinally and surgically. The afflicted might be exorcized or shot with a silver bullet. For “medicinal and surgical cures” please read “bloodletting, forced vomiting, and vinegar drinking.” At least the “cures” didn’t involve poop as they most often did way back when. I can’t make this stuff up. And luckily, I don’t have to because it’s all written down in historical medical texts! Of course, many victims who were suspected of or believed themselves to be werewolves died while trying these “cures.”

New Episode!

S4 Ep. 7: He’ll rip your throat out, Jim!

Oddentitypod.podbean.com

This week, Janine’s howlin’ about werewolves and the myths and legends that surround these fascinating creatures. Katie discusses Pagan traditions that center around Autumn/Halloween and talks a little bit about what the season means to her.

This episode contains a werewolf confession, a wolfy salve and a guy’s night out, everything autumn, and a discussion of Pagan holidays.

Our next episode will drop on October 28th!

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