by Taylor Leonard
For all its frightful sights, gruesome garb, and all-around eerie atmosphere, Halloween is ultimately about having a good time. Unfortunately for some this is not always the case. True life terror can spring on us at any moment, on any day; death does not mind the calendar. In this sense, and as the following cases show, Halloween is just like any other day of the year – real horror is bound to manifest itself somewhere at some point:
The Death of Harry Houdini
When he wasn’t performing elegant illusions or escaping from elaborate restraints Harry Houdini liked to spend his time debunking so-called spiritualists claiming to communicate with the dead. It was a dark twist of fate, then, when Houdini succumbed to the toxic effects of a ruptured appendix on Halloween, 1926. An especially agonizing cause of death, Houdini’s acute appendicitis and resulting peritonitis were initially attributed to the uncouth actions of a man who, days earlier, had punched the escape artist several times in the abdomen to test whether Houdini was as impervious to such assaults as he claimed. This direct link to Houdini’s death has since been debunked but new theories suggest the pain from the attack masked the underlying symptoms of appendicitis and contributed to the illusionist refusing to seek medical attention in a timely manner.
The Disappearance of Patricia Spencer and Pamela Hobley
The last time someone saw Patricia Spencer and Pamela Hobley it was Halloween, 1969, and the two teenage girls were walking with one another after apparently skipping school together. This is despite the fact that the two were not considered friends at the time. Though over the years numerous leads point to double murder, after Spencer and Hobley hitched a ride with unknown individuals on Halloween night, no remains have ever been recovered and no suspects have ever been named. The case remains unsolved.
The All-Too-Real Holiday “Decor”
Come every Halloween season there’s bound to be a few ghoulish displays and macabre demonstrations in any given city or small town. Some are so convincing it’s hard not to believe they’re real. In more than one instance, passersby of seemingly impressive Halloween setups were horrified to discover the ostensible fakery was in fact true death before their eyes.
On October 26, 2005, a woman decided to hang herself from a tree facing a busy street and row of houses in Frederica, Delaware. Several hours passed before residents realized it wasn’t a seasonal decoration but an actual body swinging from the branches. In October 2009 the body of an elderly man who committed suicide while sitting on the third-floor balcony of his apartment in Marina del Rey, California was left alone for days after neighbors assumed it was part of a display for the upcoming holiday.
The Fate of EgyptAir Flight 990
The crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 en route from New York City to Cairo on October 31st, 1999 was not the only commercial aviation disaster to occur on Halloween. However, it was the most deadly, with 217 lives lost. It was also the only Halloween plane crash to be attributed to the deliberate actions of someone in the cockpit and thus an act of mass murder.
Relief First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti, who hours earlier had been demoted by a superior officer riding on board, was able to talk his way to the co-pilot’s seat shortly after take-off despite it being against normal procedure. From there he waited until the pilot left the cockpit to use the restroom, at which point Al-Batouti turned off the autopilot and plunged the aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean killing everyone on board. Hard to imagine a more terrifying end.
The Poisoning of Timothy O’Bryan
If you’re a parent then there’s a good chance your worst Halloween fear is for your son or daughter to be given tampered candy that could cause them harm. This iconic concern of parenting always assumes the potential culprit is a stranger with a desire to kill children anonymously, a situation which has never been documented in the history of Halloween.
Parents may be both relieved and horrified to learn that this classic fear stems from a single case – the poisoning death of eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan on Halloween 1974 at the hands of his father Ronald Clark O’Bryan. Ronald Clark’s plot involved mixing cyanide into Pixy Stix straws and handing them out to his son and daughter plus some of their friends.
By poisoning more than just his own children Ronald Clark hoped to deflect suspicion as he sought to claim several life insurance policies taken out on Timothy and his sister. The police were not fooled. Neither was a jury, who on June 3 1975 found Ronald Clark O’Bryan, dubbed “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to death and executed nine years later.
Halloween is a day where we try and confront death and mortality with laughter and joy. Despite the spooky music and haunted houses it’s all meant to be fun and games. Sometimes, however, the horrors of Halloween can become all too real. Though chances are overwhelmingly, astronomically in favor of readers having a safe albeit scary Halloween this year, never take the frightful festivities for granted.