WASHINGTON – In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, a new breed of Halloween horror stories is popping up, warning of anthrax-tainted candy and Oct. 31 terrorist attacks.
But the only threat that police see is that people may believe the stories and panic, forcing officers to spend “a whole lot of time chasing ghosts,” in the words of one FBI official.
Fears of an overwrought public have lead some police departments to urge extra precautions with candy, and at least two departments are telling parents to stick to trick-or-treating only with people they know.
But most are like the FBI, which said the threats appear to be little more than that — threats.
“We have no indication that things are going to happen on Halloween,” said Peter Gulotta, an FBI spokesman for the Maryland and Delaware district. “The one thing that we want to do is encourage people to do things that we would normally do. You cannot believe (just) anything you read on the Internet.”
Gulotta said the FBI has already determined that Internet-spread rumors of a Halloween terrorist attack on shopping malls is not a credible threat. The FBI also downplays fears that men buying more than $35,000 of candy were terrorists.
But that has not stopped persistent stories that anthrax-tainted candy may show up this year. Experts on urban legends say it is simply a modern twist on a perennial Halloween story, that needles or razor blades will be slipped into candy bars.
Hospitals used to X-ray candy for foreign objects, but stopped years ago. The Association of Maryland Hospitals and Health Systems said its members will not be X-raying or taking any special precautions this Halloween.
But the stories are prevalent enough that Howard County Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay recommended that parents only let children get candy from close friends and family.
Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said the county has been inundated with 911 calls from people with anthrax concerns, and Livesay said anyone playing terrorism-related pranks will be arrested. The department’s concern is that parents would find “unwrapped candy or spilled Pixy Stix,” and panic, Llewellyn said.
Livesay also asked merchants in the county not to give out candy on Halloween, which led to the end of a 30-year trick-or-treat tradition at The Mall in Columbia. The mall instead will hold a community Halloween party, said Karen Geary, vice president and general manager of the mall.
Geary said the party would have entertainment and activities for families, “but nothing edible.”
Montgomery County Police have not asked merchants to stop giving out candy, but they have urged parents to be vigilant this Halloween and to only let children visit houses in their neighborhood.
“We understand that some families may be concerned because of the Sept 11 tragedies and anthrax incidents, but at long as they follow common sense, they should not have problems,” said Lucille Baur, a Montgomery police spokeswoman.
“We don’t recommend that parents put their kids in the car and drive them to another neighborhood that has a lot of houses close together so they can get more candy,” she said.
Baur said Montgomery County has always issued standard safety precautions for Halloween, but she thinks that more people will listen this year.
“In years past, I think people just sort of took safety for granted,” Baur said. “But I think people are a little more sensitized to safety right now. We have witnessed events that we have never witnessed before.”
She said families that do not feel comfortable should not trick-or-treat. But the county is not recommending against celebrating the tradition. Baur said the bottom line is to be careful, but not paranoid.
“We don’t want to put any extra fear into Halloween,” she said. “It should be a fun holiday.”