Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from the perspective of a true crime enthusiast. So here I am writing scary stories, both local and national, and true ones at that. Be forewarned, the pieces published in this column will contain descriptions of violent crimes or crime scenes. Thank you for reading.
“The only thing we have to fear . . . is fear itself,” goes the entirely overused quote from the 1933 inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While overused, it is an appropriate quote for the topic that I’ll be discussing this week. Hysteria, as defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is “a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychogenic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions.” It is also defined as “behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess.” The latter is what I’ll be focusing on, as it can usually be seen around widely-circulated, blown-out-of-proportion, and just generally scary events.
Most recently, we’ve experienced hysteria in the phenomenon of “Scary Momo,” an internet phenomenon where people claim that if you text a certain number, or watch a certain video, an entity named Momo will encourage that person to complete dangerous tasks that lead to the penultimate task: Momo tells you to commit suicide. This warning has been particularly marketed to the parents of young children, and parents have been warned to not let their child venture onto the internet alone.
This sounds terrifying. I would be terrified too; I have eight nieces and nephews that I love dearly, and they all have access to the internet. The thing is, there really is nothing to worry about. One, Momo has been proven to be a hoax, according to multiple news outlets such as NBC and NPR, and two, these types of hoaxes can be identified from miles away. And through the power of history, I’m going to show you how easy it is to identify them with this magical thing I call critical thinking.
Most Americans have some knowledge — whether through our parents telling us or through urban myth — to check our Halloween candy for various harmful substances. Creeps are putting razor blades into our Kit-Kats or stoners are putting drugs into our Dum-Dums. (What stoner would waste money and drugs on dosing children? I mean, come on, people.) However, this phenomenon of tampered candy has only been proven to have happened once — the murder of Timothy O’Bryan by his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, in 1974.
O’Bryan took Timothy and other children out trick-or-treating that Halloween, and after they had moved on from an empty house, O’Bryan decided that he would try the house again without the rest of the group. He returned from the house apparently successful, with five Pixy Stix in hand, which he handed out to each child. Later that night, Timothy ate the Pixy Stix his father had gotten him, immediately complained of stomach pain, and then died shortly after.
Police did not initially suspect O’Bryan of the crime, and parents in the community began returning their children’s Halloween candy en masse. However, police soon realized the truth: O’Bryan poisoned his own son. The candy that Timothy ate was revealed to have been dosed with a lethal amount of potassium cyanide; the rest of the Pixy Stix handed out by O’Bryan all were dosed with cyanide, and none of the homes that the group visited handed out Pixy Stix. O’Bryan was over $100,000 in debt, and he hoped that the life insurance policy on his son would get him out of his money troubles.
Before this crime, Halloween candy poisoning was a well-known urban legend, and it seems that O’Bryan was trying to use this established myth to cover up the murder of his own son. Though it didn’t work, his crime only added fuel to the gossip fire. The fear of poisoned Halloween candy has remained prevalent in culture to this day; what if madmen want to poison your children?
The thing is, beyond the isolated case of Timothy O’Bryan, there have literally been zero documented cases of intentionally poisoned Halloween candy since then, with extremely rare cases of foreign objects found in candy according to Snopes. In a 1993 Washington Post article on tampered Halloween candy, they state: “In the ten years the National Confectioners Association has run its Halloween Hotline, the group has yet to verify an instance of tampering . . . These myths become truisms.”
This kind of parental concern — verging on hysteria — can be seen in concerns that are less mundane in nature as well. I’m sure most of my readers have heard the term “Satanic Panic,” the late-1900s phenomenon that revolved around the public’s fear of Satanic cults and Satanic cult murders. This panic was particularly fueled by one case: The McMartin Preschool Trial in 1983.
This case began with the concerns of one mother who believed that her son was being assaulted at the McMartin preschool. The mother, Judy Johnson, claimed that her son had been sodomized at the school because the boy had complained of painful bowel movements. This claim, and the subsequent police investigation, led to claims that the McMartin Preschool was home to a Satanic cult that used children as sexual and mortal sacrifices.
The main reasons that this escalation happened were due to the media latching on to the sensationalism of it and the mishandling of the case by police — who sent out letters to parents of potential victims instructing them on how to interview their child, creating an inherently biased interview result.
Professor Margo Kaatz, Esq., who teaches Forensic Psychology at WC, uses the McMartin Preschool case in her classes. “The media played a huge role in the panic and sweeping fears of preschools as seen with the McMartin Preschool . . . Who is supposed to be more truthful than the police and the media?” Professor Kaatz told me, “ . . . The greatest responsibility most parents feel is ensuring the safety of their children. The increase of women going into the workforce led to the growth of daycare centers. As such, any story of abuse spread like wildfire, as it stoked people’s greatest fear.”
The terror of your child being the victim of Satanic sacrifice, coupled with the media almost never seriously questioning the allegations, turned it into a fiasco that fueled an irrational fear of Satan being around every corner, waiting to murder your children. But this, like the Halloween poisonings, was proven to not be what it seemed. Judy Johnson, the mother who originally made the claims, was tragically revealed to be a schizophrenic, who later died of alcoholism before the preliminary hearing of the trial concluded, which puts her testimony into question. The owners of the preschool were acquitted on most of their charges — one was acquitted of all, while the other served five years in prison. Since then, the Department of Defense has thoroughly debunked Satanic ritual murders.
So, what does this have to do with “Scary Momo?” All three of these cases are rooted in two things: unsubstantiated claims and wide-spread, parental panic. According to Vox, rumors of “Scary Momo” originated from Argentina, claiming that a suicide game was making its way around the internet. It began catching the attention of press and police in the U.S., and it made its way across social media, where Kim Kardashian implored her millions of followers to beware of the “Scary Momo” challenge. The image of Momo seems to predate the alleged challenge as well; it’s actually a statue called “Mother Bird,” created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa.
While the image is remarkably creepy, and the story certainly panic worthy, it only takes reading past the clickbait-y headlines to see that most of the claims surrounding the Momo challenge are entirely unsubstantiated and have now been proven to be a hoax.
YouTube clarified that they saw no evidence of the supposed Momo videos that were circling around the web, and it has merely turned into a widely-circulated rumor that evolved into widespread panic. “Any chance of such a negative outcome alone,” Professor Kaatz said, “may be enough to reinforce the fear even after the ‘fear’ has been proven to be false or a single, isolated event.”
I’m not trying to tell parents or guardians not to protect their children. I think, especially when you believe your child’s life is at risk, it is appropriate to want to protect and care for them. However, parents shouldn’t be teaching their children to fear the ‘boogie-man,’ in a sense.
Instead of fearing the unseen forces, teach your children critical thinking skills. Obviously their mental capacities are not fully developed, but children do have some ability to think for themselves. Don’t put blinders on them to block them from all the bad things in the world. Those bad things won’t stop existing. Instead of the fear-mongering that the media has time and time again latched onto, get them to the point where, even if there is a scary-looking woman telling them to do things, they can confidently and bravely say, “This isn’t real.”