Halloween Haunts: Real Life Halloween Candymen by Sumiko Saulson
If you have read Clive Barker’s “Forbidden” or seen either of the Candyman movies, you know that one of gut-wrenching images in the story is that of razorblades buried in candy. Director Nia DaCosta uses that imagery to particularly disturbing effect in Candyman (2021), the body horror special effects masterpiece that earned her a place in history as the first Black woman director of a #1 Box Office smash.
The movie has impressive horror writing chops. DaCosta co-wrote it with Win Rosenfeld and two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Jordan Peele, who picked up the award for Best Screenplay in 2017 for Get Out and in 2019 for Us. It is based on the Forbidden, a short story in Volume 5 of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Barker is also a two-time Stoker Award Winner, having picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the Works for Young Readers for Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War in 2004.
Bloody Disgusting writer Jason Jenkins dredged up a bit of Candyman History. Barker’s short story was first published in 1985 in “Fantasy Tales,” a year before “Books of Blood Volume 5” came out in 1986. That was just a year after Ronald Clark O’Bryan, also known as “The Candyman,” or “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” was executed on death row in Texas by lethal injection. The Fantasy Tales publication showed an illustration of the nightmare character, a pale Englishman in tattered attire that looked nothing like Tony Todd – but was covered in bees, and had a hook for a hand. A second image accompanying the story was of candy containing razor blades.
Although Ronald Clark O’Bryan bore the moniker “The Candyman,” his was not the only known case of Halloween candy tampering. However, his is the only one that resulted in a death or serious injury. On Halloween 1974, he attempted to poison five children, including his own daughter, Elizabeth and son Timothy. The unfortunate eight-year-old son, Timothy O’Bryan died after eating a Pixy Stix with laced potassium cyanide. None of the other children ate poisoned candy they were given. The ungodly act was committed by a church deacon, and one of the children he attempted to poison a congregant he recognized from church. Unwitting community members joined him in mourning initially, but it soon became apparently that the unassuming man had himself had committed this dastardly deed. The motive? O’Bryan, who was more than one hundred thousand US dollars in debt, had taken out insurance policies on both of his children.
The first high profile Halloween candy tampering in North America was on Halloween 1959, when a Fremont, California dentist named William Shyne handed out little heart-shaped, sugar-coated, white aloe pills which were used as a laxative at the time. He handed out over 400 pills, and at least four kids got sick with stomach cramps and vomiting.
Another high profile case was Helen Pfeil, who handed out woolen scrub pads, bottle cap shaped ant poison traps, and dog biscuits to teenagers who she thought were too old to be trick or treating. Her name sounds similar to Helen Lyle, the central protagonist in the 1992 character.
Pfeil and Shyne both got modest sentences for their crimes. Dr. Shyne was fined, given a four month suspended jail sentence and 2-years probation. He did not lose his license to practice dentistry. Pfeil was given a suspended sentence and mental health treatment.
The vast majority of Halloween candy poisoning accusations and rumors are false, and fueled by media hysteria. Stories are printed before the facts are known, and the retractions are rarely read. Like the Candyman of the movies, these are predominantly urban legends and the strength of the belief of the public gives them life. Ronald Clark O’Bryan’s murder for insurance scheme was inspired by the sadistic madman Halloween candy killer myths, but his son’s death also feed public belief in Halloween candy killers.
Back in June 1985 – the same year The Forbidden first came out in print – Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi over at California State authored a paper entitled “The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends” about the phenomenon. The 1970s were plagued with terrifying tales of kindly old grandmothers who put razors in apples and poisoned candies which seemed to owe more to fairytales like Snow White than they did to any reality. They started before the O’Bryan murder, but after the killing they took on even more force. Soon, false statistics about hundreds of children dying or being maimed appeared in credible news outlets like Newsweek.
In the 80s, non-Halloween-related incidents like the Tylenol plant cyanide poisonings helped fuel the furor anew. It peaked in the mid-80s, but went on strong for two decades. By the 90s, carefully individually sealed candies helped to allay fears, and the craze began to die down. Still, many of us remember spending hours on Halloween night waiting for our parents to safety-check our candy before we could eat any. Healthy, fresh snacks like apples have largely gone by the wayside because of this. Hermetically sealed packages of apple slices, raisins and cheese lack the hometown appeal but ease parental minds.
But the poisoned Halloween candy stories never really goes away. The latest iteration of the folk legend involves medicinal marijuana gummy bears. Marijuana edibles are quite pricey and there are no known cases of them being distributed as Halloween candy, but that hasn’t stopped the dire warnings from being passed along to parents and distributed as memes across social media. Most of these stories are myths, but not all of them are.
As the latest Candyman film demonstrates, the visceral, mind-scaring image of razors in candy just as terrifying today as it was when it John Stewart’s illustration for Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” graced the pages of Fantasy Tales thirty-five years ago. As recently as Halloween 2019, there was an incident in Waterbury, Connecticut where loose razor blades found in candy baskets – but not in the actual candy. The suspect, Jason Racz claimed it was an accident. He was charged with reckless endangerment>.
No one was injured in that incident, but the same Halloween, two people in a Cincinnati, Ohio suburb found razor blades in their candy in their candy. One of them cut their finger on a razor. The person who tampered with the candy was never identified.
Sumiko Saulson Biography
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust 1 and 2, Black Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”
Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour” and the HWA’s Social Media Manager.
Find hir online at www.SumikoSaulson.com
Sumiko Saulson is giving away a signed copy of hir 2012 novel “Warmth” (edited by Valjeanne Jeffers). Comment below or email email@example.com with the subject title “HH Contest Entry” for a chance to win.
Warmth by Sumiko Saulson (Sample)
Prelude: Adolfo and Lazaro
It was dark outside, and far too damp. She didn’t like it one bit.
The girl… a very young woman, really, had been living in the ruins of an old cemetery a long way out of town for what seemed to her to be a very long time. She was beginning to think it was about time to move on.
Her name was Sera, and she was cold all the time. It wasn’t the loneliness of the place that bothered her, as in fact she enjoyed her solitude, and even if she hadn’t, the further away from town she stayed the safer she’d be. They were rounding up people who looked like her lately, and when they disappeared out of their homes or off of the street, often they were never seen again. Best to be unseen to begin with, she though.
She disguised herself as a monk. The ankle-length, shapeless brown woolen hooded robe she wore, cinched at the waist with a rope, obscured her appearance entirely, including her gender. It was also very warm, and she wore a long woman’s dress beneath it. She was often leaning against a gnarled walking stick she did not require for walking, because it made her seem ancient and also made a decent weapon.
Still, she shivered.
Sera propped herself up against a tall tree with a single hand, and bent over to vomit. She took care to miss her clothing… which smelled badly enough already. She slept in it, and she rarely bathed. Debris from a pile of fall leaves she’d slept under the night before still stuck to the parts she hadn’t seen or felt while brushing herself off after rising that morning. No one ever saw her anyway, so she wondered why she was even concerned?
Usually no one saw her… but at that very moment, she heard the sound of hooves beating off, still too far for seeing. She inhaled deeply… then doubled over coughing. She didn’t know why she was so perpetually sickly, and had no time to care. She scampered up the tree before they could spot her and hid.
She’d grown adept at disguising herself over the years. An unwelcome memory surfaced… of fleeing a crowd of angry men in the desert. The one at the front of the pack shouted “ghūl!” as he struck her. She couldn’t risk being cornered, being identified. She held stock still waiting for them to pass below.
Overhearing the conversation, she was able to learn that they were brothers, Spanish Moors, Moriscos from Valencia. The younger was calling himself Lazaro, and the older Adolpho, although she heard Lazaro allude to the fact that these were not their given names. Like Sera, they left to escape the Spanish Inquisitors. It sounded as though in her absence, things had gotten worse.
Lazaro was the name of the old gravedigger; a man Sera knew to be dead.
Sera left Valencia a few years back, but the brothers stayed, believing the best. She thought it was because they were young, perhaps 20 or 30. She already knew much of mankind and could conceive of the many ways in which things could go terribly badly.
And she was very old.
She was not older than the wizened tree whose branches concealed her, but she was older than the wizened monk whose robes she’d acquired in Valencia. That made her old enough to remember the Medieval Inquisitions. She was also older than Fadrique, the traveling phlebotomist who during their dalliances provided her with life-sustaining blood. He provided bits of gossip from a patient or two of his in high enough social standing to be in the presence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. “Patient” was a bit of a misnomer: he drained their blood and drank it, and they paid him for the privilege of being his milk cows. From this clever teller of tales she learned early of the royal couple’s plans to unite Spain under Catholicism.
Fadrique told her many things…he was a barber, not a surgeon, but he knew enough of medicine to disturb her with his particularly unpleasing notion of what might be causing her nausea, vomiting and the bloating of her belly. She tried hard not to think of it.
He also told her of the planned voyage of Columbus. Judging by the chatter of the men below, it had been an unimaginable success: the Nina and the Pinta had returned from a new place they called Hispanola. A second journey would leave soon with even more ships. They dreamed of stowing away and escaping the horrible place Spain had become…and above in the trees, Sera dreamed with them.
She wouldn’t leave for the Americas for several years. When she did it would only be because she finally found Fadrique again. A strange man with a stranger profession, Fadrique had connections among the wealthy but ill who were ever interested in a good bleeding.
The brothers, it turned out, were impersonating the nephews of the old gravedigger, who had no children. The dead man was named Lazaro, and he owned the graveyard, which had fallen into disarray when he passed on without an heir. No one wanted it. It was failing. No one claimed it, but the brothers knew of it through an actual nephew, Lazaro, who for a small price provided them with keys. Adolfo produced the keys from a pouch and opened the old cottage the man lived in, while Lazaro went off to find wood for a fire. They planned to stay there and hide while they made plans to leave the country.
Seeing her chance to be indoors, and warm, she leapt from the tree and began to walk casually towards the graveyard along the path the two men had just come along. Leaning into her stick, she walked very slowly, bowing her legs. She took her time, hoping to time her appearance in the graveyard with the young man’s return. As it happened she didn’t have to wait that long: he had sharp ears and heard her approach. He walked up to her on the road.
“What are you doing out here alone, old one?” he asked.
She gestured soundlessly. She dare not speak and reveal herself, but she hoped with this charade to convince him that the old man could not… or would not speak.
She stepped back a little, afraid. “No, no!” he said much too loudly, “you can write it,” handing her a paper and pen. Apparently, he’d decided she was deaf as well as mute, or at least very hard of hearing. She snatched it quickly and scrawled one word on the paper.
He looked at it curiously. In large block letters, she’d written “COLD” in Spanish.
“Come inside, follow me,” he beckoned, waving her toward the cottage. It was all she could to not to pick up her artificially stunted pace just to get there faster. She shivered.
“Go there,” he told her, pointing at the cabin, “I’ll get some wood.” With that, he left.
As soon as he was far away enough that she imagined he couldn’t see her, she sprinted. Sera flew through past the window so fast that when Adolfo looked up, it seemed a sprawl of wind and darkness – some sort of sudden dust storm in the night.
Then, quickly, she stopped and stood beside the cabin, and inhaled deeply. Something was wrong. Something SMELLED wrong. And she knew that putrid, rotting stench.
She didn’t believe she’d frightened him. It wasn’t a cry of fear. It was the raw, involuntary throat-searing bellow of a man in unbelievable pain. He yowled so loud and hard that his throat would be sore from it… if he lived. And he began to swear, loudly.
“You’re dead!” he screamed, “you’re dead, get off me, you’re dead! You’re dead!”
Lazaro heard and came running to rescue his brother. “What have you done to him, old man? What have you done?” Sera ran up to him and punched him hard in the face. He crumpled to the ground. “Stay there,” she muttered, turning again toward the door. She lifted her walking stick from the ground and shoved up a cloth cap from its bottom.
The once-hidden end of the staff was sharpened.
She flew into the front door of the cottage, where the cause of Adolfo’s suffering became immediately apparent. The original Lazaro… the old gravedigger, had him pinned against the wall, and had bitten deeply into the flesh of his cheek, chewing it… eating it. Rotted clothes hung from the rail-thin frame of Lazaro, and in places, purplish, bruised flesh showed through. The whites of his eyes were the color of pus, and the ends of his fingers still caked with thick, wet grave dirt.
A maggot dangled like snot from his nose, writhing there.
The dead man leaned again and tore the flesh of Adolfo’s mouth with his teeth… making a loud, knocking sound when teeth struck teeth. He tore away the top of the man’s lip. Sera grunted, and the thing turned around.
“I hate the dead,” she said under her breath, running towards it with her stick. She shoved the sharpened end of it through the creature’s eye, pinning it to the wall. Lifting the robe and the long skirts below it, she revealed her leg up to the knee – a small axe was strapped to the outside of her calf in a leather holster. She pulled it out and whacked repeatedly at the thing’s neck, until she’d severed its head.
“And now, stay dead,” she said bitterly, delivering the final whack that severed it’s spine. The body hit the ground with a thud. Finally, she could attend to Adolfo, whose whimpering could be heard from the corner.
She turned to him, and stared. For a long time, she said nothing.
Finally, the man began to speak to her through his bleeding, ruined mouth. “Please, don’t hurt me,” he mewled pitifully, although it was hard for her to understand his words, it was not impossible. It seemed he had kept his tongue.
Finally, she let out a deep sigh. “You may live… if you are lucky,” she said, sitting on an uncomfortable bench. She heard the younger brother, the fake Lazaro, stirring outside. He was regaining consciousness. If she didn’t think she’d terrify him, she’d have gone out to help him start the fire, just to bring what she craved so to life… the warmth.
It felt as though for all of her very long life, she had been seeking it.
Slowly, she lowered her hood, so the man could see her face. “If you are lucky, you will live like I do. You will live slowly, and long, with a face many would not care to look upon.”
The woman had one eye. Where the eye was missing there were scars… the scars of teeth, Adolfo thought, like the teeth that had stolen most of his upper lip and part of his cheek. The rest of her skin was also pitted, but with scars he had seen before…she’d had the pox, once, and lived through it. Still, he could see that she might have been pretty once.
“If you live, you might grow a beard,” she said, laughing. Beneath her own laughter, she heard the footsteps of the brother entering from behind. “Bring in the wood,” she called out to him, “while your brother still lives!”
“She has saved me,” Adolfo said weakly, his voice distorted by blood.
“Quickly,” she snapped, “before he dies of bleeding too much.”
Lazaro turned back to get the wood.
“If you do die,” she said ominously, “you will be come like that.” She waved casually toward the head pinned to the wall and the body crumpled on the floor. The mouth of the head continued to
move in silence. Then she turned angrily and spat on the body where it lay. “Can you imagine?” she added forcefully, “can you imagine THAT eating it’s way out of your belly? THAT…that thing!”
She looked very sad after her outburst.
“If you die,” she continued, “or when you die… when I die, you will become like that. And if your brother is near, you will devour him. You will eat any living thing near, and all you will know is hunger. And only taking your head from your body will stop it from moving without any soul in it. And that…” she pointed to the head on the wall, “will take days to die. And when it does die, it will only be because it will starve because it can not eat anymore.”
Adolfo said nothing. Neither did Lazaro, who had entered in the middle of her rant, and silently started a fire in the fireplace. “Move,” she ordered Lazaro, “I will stop his bleeding now.”
Lazaro stepped out of the way, and a blur of motion blew in beside him. He followed it with his eyes as it headed towards his brother, and then Adolfo began screaming again. Lazaro leaped up and headed over…but by the time he made it to Adolfo, the woman was gone.
She’d burned the hole in Adolfo’s cheek and mouth. It looked terrible, but the bleeding had stopped. The unburned skin on his brother’s face looked quite normal, healthy… and he was relieved to see, alive.
Then he saw something strange. Adolfo’s tongue shot out his mouth and he began licking the blood from his face. He raised his fingers up and began wiping his face with them… transferring the blood from the fingers to the mouth.
Lazaro shrieked. “Demon!” He ran out of the cottage and fled to his horse, leaving his deranged, damaged brother behind.
Adolfo stood, “Brother?” he asked plaintively.
“He’s gone,” the woman said, reappearing near the fire.
“So cold,” Adolfo whispered, shaking, “so very cold.”
“I know,” the woman told him, dumping half of a pile of blankets she held in her arms on his lap, “You are cold, and you will always feel cold, although if one who is not ill were to touch you, you would be told your skin is hot, like one with a fever, and you do have a fever, and it will never end.”
She pulled the uncomfortable chair she’d been in before very close to the fire, and spread the remaining blankets over her legs and shoulders.
“My name is Sera,” she told him, “and I am not dead. I will stay with you tonight, and tell you what I do know. And tomorrow, when it is warm outside, I will leave. And if you do not die, you will leave. Or you should.”
“Why?” he asked, “why not stay?”
“Because your brother believes you are a demon,” she said patiently, as if to a child, “and when he comes back, it will be with others, who will destroy you.”
“He won’t,” Adolfo protested, “he is too afraid of Inquisitors. And we were headed away from this country and all of its death.” Sera didn’t answer. She stood up, dropping her blankets to the floor, plucked the still-moving head from the wall and tossed it into the fire. “It kept looking at me,” she told Adolfo by way of explanation, “and fire will also destroy them.”
“What are they?” Adolfo asked her.
“Well,” she began, “I think they are what we would be, if we were without a soul. They are dead. They rot, and they stink. And I have seen one of us die and become that, more than once, so when we die, we become it.”
Suddenly, she chuckled a bit, and said, “Can you imagine that in some country I have been to, they thought they could kill us, with a stake through the heart? And all they did was kill us, and make a lot of those, until some bright one began also cutting of the heads.”
“Why is that funny?” he asked.
“Because they could have just cut the heads off to begin with,” she laughed.
They sat the rest of the night in silence, sometimes barely sleeping, others being barely awake. In the morning Adolfo was still living.
“Good bye,” Sera said, standing straight up without warning.
“Where are you going?” he asked, “Will I see you again?”
“I am going some place warmer,” she answered, “and no, I don’t think you will”
Then she disappeared. And no, he never did see her again.