Is the Candy Witch Coming to Your House?

When I was a kid, I wondered why the legend of The Great Pumpkin never caught on. Halloween was my favorite holiday, even though you didn't get the day off. It seemed like Halloween ought to have its own mystical being, like Christmas had Santa Claus and Easter had the Easter Bunny. I suppose Halloween had ghosts – but ghosts lacked specificity. So when I first watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," I figured the whole neighborhood would start buzzing about The Great Pumpkin, debating whether he was real. I figured we'd all be secretly on the lookout on Halloween night for The Great Pumpkin to rise into the sky, even as we pretended not to believe in him. Maybe we'd stay up all night, hoping to spot him, the same way we wanted to catch a glimpse of Santa coming down the chimney.

As a neighborhood, I'd generally say we were prone to be believers, or at least we enjoyed considering their believability. We were afraid of vampires, mummies, werewolves and aliens, and often pretended to go looking for them just as Linus went looking for The Great Pumpkin.

But even though every kid in my neighborhood watched the annual Peanuts special, The Great Pumpkin never crossed over – he never became more than a mythical being that Linus believed in. The Great Pumpkin never captured the neighborhood's hearts and minds.

And I always wondered why.

Well, believe it or not, there's actually a science to all this – a science of what makes some fantastical beings more believable than others. It's the specialty of a scholar at the University of Texas, Dr. Jaqueline Woolley. Woolley has analyzed why so many kids believe in Santa, and not so many believe in dragons, ghosts, or fairies. Surprisingly, almost as many kids believe in the Easter Bunny as believe in Santa – and a fairly high proportion also believe in the Tooth Fairy.

According to Woolley's metrics, The Great Pumpkin had a lot going for it as a mythical fantasy figure – he arrived timed to holidays. That was the #1 criteria. The #2 criteria was that he gave something to the kids – according to Linus, The Great Pumpkin carried a bag of toys for all the children, just as the Easter Bunny left candy, Santa left gifts, and the Tooth Fairy left money.

But he lacked a couple other important attributes. For instance, he lacked necessary inherent contradictions between the human and the fantastical. Santa, for instance, had total omniscience – he knew whether we'd been bad or good – yet he couldn't appear and disappear, he had to actually travel, by flying sleigh – and yet he still managed to hit every house in the world. These contradictions, apparently, get kids talking, thinking – and keep the fantasy figure alive in their minds. The Tooth Fairy, meanwhile, could magically appear, yet dealt in real human money.

Also, parents never seemed to really help along The Great Pumpkin legend.

Knowing all this, Woolley decided to put her metrics to a test: could she create an original, fantastical being that really captured kids' imaginations?

What she came up with was called The Candy Witch.

Each year, on Halloween Night, after a child has come home from trick-or-treating or a party, he can look through his candy. If there is candy that he doesn't like, he can collect all the unwanted pieces and set them aside. Then his parents can telephone the Candy Witch, and tell her about the leftover treats. The Candy Witch is a very kind, friendly (not scary at all!) witch. And after the children are all asleep, snug in their beds, the Candy Witch will fly from house to house, collecting all the unwanted treats. Whenever she takes some candy, the Candy Witch always leaves the child a toy in exchange.

The story in place, one week before Halloween, Woolley sent a researcher into five different preschool classrooms to talk the kids about Halloween. Of course, the researcher would be "surprised" to learn that the three to five year old children had never heard of the Candy Witch, so she was happy to tell the children all about the friendly witch. The researcher even had a photograph of a Candy Witch doll to show the children – so that they could picture her all rosy-cheeked and smiling.

Then, a day before Halloween, another researcher came into the classrooms to lead the children in a special art project: they made Candy Witch puppets.

All of the parents gave Woolley permission for the kids to learn about the Candy Witch. But some of them also agreed to talk about the Candy Witch with their preschoolers. And on Halloween night, these parents called Candy Witch, telling her to come to their homes for their extra candy. Which she apparently did, because when the children woke up the next morning, the candy was gone, and there were toys in its place.

After Halloween, Woolley's team returned to the preschool, to find out how many of the children believed that the Candy Witch was real or fantasy. It was clear that the kids understood the idea of what was real and what was pretend. They knew that their teacher was real, and a cat was, too. Ghosts weren't real. Most kids thought that dragons and fairies were pretend, too. But Santa was real.

And so, for the most part, was the Candy Witch. There were some doubters, but, in fact, more kids were believed in the Candy Witch than the Easter Bunny. "The Candy Witch left me a toy – she must be real!" said one child to her parents.

A year later, Woolley's team returned to the preschool to see if the children still remembered the Candy Witch, and, if they did, did they believe in her?

The children did indeed remember the Candy Witch. And surprisingly, some of the kids who didn't believe in her the first year, said they did believe in her when the scholars had returned.

Perhaps not surprisingly, if the kids believed in all sorts of magical creatures, they were more like to believe in the Candy Witch. But what was surprising was the kids who had active fantasy lives tended to remember less. It was the kids who were a bit more skeptical who seemed more enamored with the details about her story.

What was perhaps the most counterintuitive of Woolley's findings is that we'd expect it was the youngest children who believed in the Candy Witch the most, and that the skeptics were the older children. It turned out to be the exact opposite. The oldest kids in the preschool – the four and five year olds – were more likely to believe in her than the three year-olds.

Why this was so, the scientists weren't sure. But the findings flew against the idea that little kids are simply gullible – that they will swallow whole any story an adult tells them but will become less skeptical as they mature. Instead, the older kids seemed more accepting. The Candy Witch fit into a network of other beliefs that the older kids had developed. And that these beliefs were tied into things that the kids loved – were highly motivated by (candy, new toys).

Besides laughing over how the preschoolers' parents may have inadvertently committed themselves to making phone calls to the Candy Witch for years to come, we've always been really taken with this experiment. Because it does say something about how children understand the world. What makes it magical. And how the magical makes sense.