WASHINGTON—If you leave a bowl of treats outside your door Tuesday night and invite trick-or-treaters to help themselves, are you courting disaster?
Not in their experience, said virtually all of the 31 adults who told a reporter, in a small informal poll, that they had tried that approach. The result suggests that lots of kids—perhaps especially those with adults at their backs—can be trusted with Halloween temptation.
"I've left candy out for years," explained Christie Jamison, 48, a restaurant cook who often works late. "I know my neighbors, and my neighbors know me."
Lots of other adults, however, found the idea of offering unmonitored Halloween goodies almost bizarre.
"Are you kidding? I live in Washington, D.C. They'd take the whole bowl—and it'd probably be the parents," said Teresa Conway, 48, a consultant at APCO Worldwide, a government and public relations firm.
Jamison and Conway may both be right because people usually size up their neighborhoods accurately, said Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware in Newark. So pessimists may rightly mistrust their neighbors while those who leave out treats rightly trust theirs.
Then again, people who mistrust trick-or-treaters may simply be putting a human face on their anxiety about Halloween. That wouldn't be surprising, said Jennifer Lukomski, a professor of child psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
"People who don't normally let their child out unsupervised in the back yard, once a year are asked to let that same child ring the doorbells of strangers and ask for candy," said Lukomski. "They have a lot of fear and anxiety about that."
Best found some support for the exaggerated mistrust theory some years ago when he searched national criminal data from 1958 through 1984 looking for reports of tainted or toxic treats. He found 76 instances of alleged tampering, virtually all of which turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent.
Dennis McCarthy of Gaithersburg, Md., one of two adults who got burned leaving candy out, said that it happened just one time in "maybe 10" Halloweens when he did so. "Most of the time, kids were very good about it," said McCarthy, 54, a computer network technician. "One time, someone just emptied the bowl."
Another person who experimented with leaving candy out said the bowl had to be replenished so soon that she concluded that a trick-or-treater had made off with all the goods.
For its Halloween survey, McClatchy interviewed about 60 adults, most of them Washington commuters heading home. The 31 who had left candy out unmonitored said they'd done it a total of about 100 times.
Many who left treats out with a "help yourself" note said it was because they were working late, escorting their own trick-or-treaters or attending Halloween parties. Some found empty bowls when they got home but concluded that things worked out OK because no one played a trick on them.
It's a cold approach to Halloween, especially where younger children are concerned, said K. Mark Sossin, a psychology professor at Pace University in New York City.
"A good deal of young children's Halloween experience is revealing their costumed identity to their neighbors, who, if they're filling their role, will act surprised or perhaps even frightened," Sossin said. "The candy is the child's reward for putting on so good a show."
(Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)