How did a horrific health threat change Halloween as we know it?
We’ve noted before that Halloween has shifted from a holiday for kids when I was young to one for adults. It’s a billion-dollar industry now, with teens and 20-somethings – and older people too – vying to see who can wear the grisliest or sexiest costume.
Above is a detail from a 1981 costume catalog from Collegeville, a Pennsylvania company that started out in the early 1900s as a manufacturer of flags but ended up being second only to Ben Cooper as the store-bought costume supplier to generations of kids.
But a 1989 article in The New York Times profiling Collegeville put a twist on Halloween trends that I’ve near heard before.
That’s the year that someone tampered with Tylenol capsules, secreting cyanide in the over-the-counter medicine and causing the deaths of seven people.
The Times – this is in 1989, remember – theorizes that the resulting scare might have prompted parents to keep kids home from trick-or-treating, years after the first rumors of razor blades in Halloween apples couldn’t kill the holiday.
But The Times maintains it also sparked interest in at-home Halloween parties, which prompted interest in more elaborate costumes for kids, which led to more costumes for adults, who had to be on hand for the party.
Here’s how The Times reported it, back in 1989:
When people in the Halloween business explain why, they quickly get around to a key date – the fall of 1982. That was when the chilling news broke that seven people had died from Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. The infamous Tylenol scare almost completely destroyed Halloween. Some towns outlawed trick-or-treating that year, and parents everywhere kept their kids from venturing into the streets.
As a result, costume makers were devastated. But then some bizarre events began to unfold.
Children wanted to do something on Halloween. So if they couldn’t go asking strangers for bags of sweets, then they were going to party. Partying became much more popular. At the same time, parents got fussier about what their children wore. ”When they went door to door, the kids could wear a costume that you just get by with,” Mr. Cornish said. ”But when you went to a party with all your friends, you had to start dressing up a little more.”
As parents watched their children go to parties, they got envious. They wanted to dress up as the grim reaper or Yosemite Sam, too. So the morbid events of that year turned out, in the long run, to have been just about the best thing to happen to costume makers since Halloween was invented. As Bob Cooper, the president of Ben Cooper Inc., a Brooklyn-based costume maker, put it, ”There’s been a change in the way that the holiday is celebrated.”
I’m going to extrapolate here and suggest that since 1982, people have mostly gotten over their fear of tampered treats, so that’s no longer affecting Halloween.
But an entire generation of people born after the Tylenol tampering case are very accustomed to teen and adult Halloween parties now. They’ve been high school students, college students, members of the workforce and now, more than 30 years later, they’re parents.
And elaborate costumes for kids and adults, along with parties and trick-or-treating, are the norm for them.
So perhaps something fun and good came from something horrible.
(Image from plaidstallions.com)