(Folk) Devil's Night

The New Halloween Sadism

Me on my first Halloween. In the glasses. With the eyebrows and the facial hair. Some might call that foreshadowing.

The one thing that you soon learn, as I soon learned, working in this particular area of the law (that is, anything to do with sex and criminal justice) is this: facts don’t matter. Nor, for that matter, at least oftentimes, does the law.

Combine that lesson with the reality that Halloween is a deeply weird holiday. All our ambient anxieties about society and children and strangers and monsters and community and danger get dropped at our collective doorsteps once a year, and it shows up in different ways.

Halloween Sadism was one of the classic forms this anxiety took: the belief there were nefarious strangers lurking amongst us looking to poison children with tainted candy or razor blades in apples. Of course, as moral panics go, there was one sort-of instance of this back in 1959 which then proceeded to ruin trick-or-treating in America for the next several decades. A classic moral panic: a half-truth run through a game of telephone resulting in a wildly outsized response for years to come.

Moral panics never really go away. Rather, they become submerged and reappear later, wearing a slightly different hat, maybe a different accent. The one thing that Halloween Sadism lacked, in the classic moral panic sense, was a bad guy. A folk devil.

Fortunately, we’ve now got about a million of them in America: people who — at some point in their past — were convicted of some crime that required them to appear on public sex offense registries. A new twist on an old classic emerges.

In a word, me.

Over a decade ago, when I was on probation, my PO told me that for Halloween I’d have to make sure not to open my door if anyone came knocking. No problem, I’d say. But later that night, the police knocked at door. I knew it was the police, because they were the only ones who ever knocked like that. They demanded I open my door. Do I risk arrest by opening my door, or risk it by not opening the door?

I opened the door.

Standing before me was a police officer clad in tactical gear, for some unknown reason.

Don’t open the door tonight, he told me.

Great. Thank you.

For maybe the last decade or two, in mid to late October, the media and law enforcement rally around the notion that people who on registries are especially dangerous on Halloween, and heightened attention must be paid to them.

To that end, some places require those still on supervision to report directly to a police station and essentially be jailed for Halloween. Law enforcement in Georgia have taken the extraordinary (and unconstitutional)* steps of placing signs in the yards of people on registries warning others, and threatening them with arrest if those signs are removed. For 26 years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has executed “Operation Boo” on Halloween requiring those on registries and on probation or parole to affix a sign to their residence indicating they did not participate in trick or treat. If they were homeless, they had to affix the sign to their tent, or sleeping bag. In Tennessee, it’s Operation Blackout.

The problem of course is that this focus isn’t tethered to reality. According to researchers who study this sort of thing, children are at no greater risk on Halloween as compared with any other night of sexual victimization (and that’s true even controlling for laws and policies subjecting those on registries to enhanced scrutiny on Halloween). The greatest risk that children face is from being run over by cars (ironically, a risk that is increased to the extent police are requiring people on registries to get into their cars and come to the police station).

On the media side, few news outlets are as reliably prolific at stoking this new Halloween Sadism as much as a news organization called Patch, a sort of hyper-local news aggregator. For years now, they have been publishing links to publicly available registry data alongside warnings of danger for parents, calling them “safety maps” in the run up to Halloween.

However even on these “safety maps” Patch, to its credit, decides to include some version of the following disclaimer:

The Association for the Treatment of Sex (sic) Abusers, a nonprofit organization for clinicians, researchers, educators, law enforcement and court officials involved in sexual abuse cases, cautions that children do not face a heightened risk during the Halloween season: "There is no change in the rate of sexual crimes by non-family members during Halloween. That was true both before and after communities enacted laws to restrict the activities of registrants during Halloween. The crimes that do increase around Halloween are vandalism and property destruction, as well as theft, assault, and burglary.”

On one of these maps that Patch pushes out, they even include’s the disclaimer that people should “not go out of your way to bother sex offenders in your community. Creating a negative environment will actually increase the chance that they reoffend.” With that in mind, one wonders how Patch can square what it’s doing with public safety.

In fact, Patch’s practice has come under increased criticism recently. In an open letter that was signed by numerous individuals and organizations (including the aforementioned Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers), the National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws called for an end to the practice.

Patch, to its credit, did respond to the letter — by invoking the 1973 murder of Lisa French, which a registry would not have prevented in the first place as French’s killer, Gerald Turner, had no prior criminal record and Turner and French knew one another. In fact, the letter itself is a cavalcade of bad journalism, moral panic, and disingenuousness but — but they at least did respond, which is more than can be said for some journalists.

There is, curiously, one reason that Patch omits in its response as to why it publishes these maps that seems pretty obvious: money. Patch, like many news organizations, makes money on advertisements, and of course in order to make money from advertisements, you have to drive traffic to your site. According to Charles Hale, an investor and owner of Patch, it generates $20 million in annual ad revenue.

What better way to get people onto your site than making them afraid?

Recall that Patch’s own work here indicates that “creating a negative environment” for people on the registry actually increases the likelihood of sexual re-offense (and arguably increases the likelihood for people on the registry becoming victims themselves — as happened earlier this year).

The official purpose of both the law enforcement response and the media fear-mongering is public safety, but there is a subtext here: only certain members of the public are worth protecting. That these maps and this stoking of moral panics isn’t for the safety benefit for any of the people and children that live that these addresses. Even taking Patch at its own word, it is actively engaged in undermining public safety in exchange for advertising dollars, all while using tragedy as something not unlike a human shield. They are, it should be pointed out, doing that even over the objection of professional researchers who have been telling them that the practice is harmful.

I had wondered whether anyone would have time to engage in this annual Halloween tradition this year, what with Covid and the election and ongoing protests over police violence. It is nice, I suppose, to have some kind of familiarity in an otherwise unprecedented year.

*After I published this article, a federal trial court in Georgia essentially reversed itself in concluding that placing Halloween “safety signs” (nod nod wink wink) violated the constitution in that it was compelled speech, which is usually a no-no. Here is, by the way, what the signs look like:

After first granting a preliminary injunction in 2019 preventing a sheriff in Georgia from placing the signs, now — in 2020 — the court concluded it was not compelled speech, largely on the grounds that the people suing in the case clearly did not “endorse” the message.

If endorsement is a requirement of compelled speech, one wonders how there can ever be a compelled speech violation. If the government wanted to start branding people like cattle perhaps there would be other constitutional problems, but apparently compelled speech would not be one of them.