Halloween Hysteria: Phantom Fears and Sex Offenders

Across the country, the big question for children at Halloween is that of picking the right costume: ghost, Spider-Man, witch, princess or pirate?

For many parents and police, the question is more difficult: how to protect children from sex offenders.

This concern is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ten years ago the old tainted candy scare (a discredited but resilient myth) was the primary perceived "stranger danger" threat on Halloween.

This year, in New Jersey, thousands of convicted sex offenders will be on a curfew, told to stay in their homes after 7 p.m. Halloween night and not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters come by. Other states have given offenders signs reading, "No Candy at this Residence" to be placed on their front doors, and told not to put up any decorations. Some offenders have been required to report to jail overnight.

While children's safety is important, the concern far outweighs the real danger. There is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

These measures are popular and well-intentioned—but ultimately ineffective—publicity stunts offered by police and politicians to placate parents. They provide a false sense of security, since there is no evidence that the policies actually make children any safer. Any opportunistic sexual predators who would attack children will simply wait until the next day.

Ironically, a group of children dressed in costume at a sex offender's doorway are probably safer than at many other places they could be, including their own homes. This is because, contrary to popular belief, most released sex offenders do not re-offend, and because most attacks on children occur in their own home by someone they know.

Furthermore, the simple logistics of trick-or-treating make an assault very unlikely. A sex offender would have great difficultly molesting a child who is in costume, outside his or her front door, and in front of other people and witnesses.

Of course, the knowledge that such an attack has never happened and is very unlikely to ever occur won't calm the hysterical concern. Those in charge of Halloween sex offender policies admit that the danger is slight, but defend the measures as being proactive. It's always better to prevent a crime from occurring than to deal with its aftermath, but proactive policies need to be logical and proportional to the real likelihood of the threat.

Police are busy making sure they know where sex offenders are on Oct. 31, but each week across America, over a dozen children are drowned, burned, or beaten to death by a parent or caregiver. If police, parents and politicians are truly concerned about children's safety, the resources spent enforcing curfews and handing out "No Candy Here" signs would do far more good in efforts to prevent parental abuse.

The real threat to children on Halloween isn't sex offenders; it’s being hit by a car crossing a dark street or wearing a flammable costume. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and have little to fear from strangers. Scaring kids with phantom fears isn't nice, nor helpful. Happy Halloween.

Benjamin Radford is LiveScience's Bad Science columnist. He wrote about sex offender panics in Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.