Balloon Boy, Trick-Or-Treat & The Evaporation of Reason

By Christopher Byrne

Halloween is just over two weeks away, and already I’m hearing from parents who are afraid to let their children trick-or-treat. They are convinced, absolutely convinced, that their kids are going to get poisoned from candy or find a razor blade in their apples.

As my friend Lenore Skenazy points out in her wonderful book: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts from Worry,” there have been no recorded incidents of poisoned candy, and there has never been a razor blade in an apple. You can also read about it on her blog, Free-Range Kids.

These things are urban legends. Surely we all remember the stories about kids who got poisoned apples and candy when we were kids. But you remember how it was never anyone you directly knew. It was always a friend of a friend of a friend. It was and is a great spooky story that we could scare ourselves with. Why would we do that? Because it was fun. It was fun when we were bigger kids to frighten the little kids—just as we had been frightened in our day. It’s like reading Edgar Allen Poe or watching a horror movie. It’s not true, but it adds a little bit of thrill to walking around familiar streets after dark, dressed weird and asking for candy.

So, how did so many parents become convinced this was true? I have no idea, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that so much fear is being driven by the news media. There are so many companies that get PR for themselves by talking about making a “safe” Halloween. Of course, there are precautions you should taken, such as making sure costumes don’t have trailing strings and watching crossing the street, particularly after dark. This is common sense.

What’s not common sense is thinking that the neighbors you see everyday (or, tragically, may not) are suddenly going to turn into crazed monsters bent on harming children one night a year. It makes no sense.

So, what does this have to do with the kid who was supposed to have flown off in a weather balloon last week, which we now find out was a publicity stunt by a family trying to get on a reality show?

Common sense again. It was impossible that the child was ever in the balloon. Look at it this way: A cubic foot of helium can lift one ounce from ground level. If the child was about 70 pounds, that’s about 1,100 cubic feet of helium, just to get him off the ground. That’s the size of an average bedroom—10-feet by 10-feet by 10-feet. And that doesn’t count the weight of the balloon. That’s a heck of a lot of a helium.

And you know what? This isn’t brain surgery, this is EIGHTH GRADE EARTH SCIENCE. Plus, if you watch “Mythbusters,” they’re already busted this myth about three times.

So, how did the news media, the military and the country get so hysterical? It made a good story—kind of like razor blades in apples.

As a culture, we are afflicted with a mania right now that thrives on the dramatic, the dangerous and the “risk” we’re all in–even when statistically these things either don’t happen or are so rare that the chance of them ever happening to you or me is infinitesimal-to-none.

I hate to break it to you, but real life, day-to-day life isn’t all that dramatic. That’s why when something out of the ordinary happens, it’s news. Yes, our hearts go out to victims of tragedies, and we do what we can to prepare our kids to take care of themselves, but we shouldn’t assume that danger lurks in every corner and every trick-or-treated Hershey bar. Because that’s not the case, and it’s been proven again and again.

It’s precisely because life is not a horror movie that it’s fun for kids like to spice up trick-or-treating with ghost stories and tall tales. When adults start believing them and reacting as though they are true, though all evidence show they are not; that’s not fun. In fact, it’s downright scary.

Here’s wishing you and yours happy Halloween. I know it will be safe.

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