In an odd case, a vehicle in Ottawa, Canada, was the source of some suspicious calls to police. The red, windowless van had the words “free candy” emblazoned on the side in what appears to be ducktape. Photos were posted on Facebook and Reddit, and they quickly circulated. While some found it funny, others were genuinely concerned that the van was involved in a kidnapping scheme.
According to the Ottawa Citizen, these fears have no basis in reality. After tracking down the owner, law enforcement determined that the graffiti was not done by the registered owner of the van. It was likely done as a cruel prank on the owner, or placed there as a joke. While the jab is in bad taste, the van and its owner pose no threat to the public.
“At this time, there is no concern for public safety and the investigations are closed,” Ottawa police said in a statement.
If this situation sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Parents frequently tell their children about dangerous strangers that lure children with candy or pets, and drag them into dark vans. While it started as a valid concern, it morphed into a spooky urban legend — and later, a dark-humored joke.
— The Province (@theprovince) September 2, 2018
Coincidentally, dark humor runs rampant on the internet. Jokes making light of terrible things are common, and “free candy” has become an online meme over the years. According to its page on KnowYourMeme, the legacy of the “Free Candy Van” stretches back as far as 2006. The original van was vandalized as a joke, and the 16-year-old driver found it funny and continued driving the vehicle to and from school. He posted pictures to the internet, and the joke took root.
Some people even began taking random pictures of vans and photo-shopping the words “Free Candy” onto them before posting them online. It is unknown whether or not the Ottowa vehicle is an example of this meme.
However, there is more than one real “Free Candy Van” driving around, and it’s equally harmless.
In 2016, BBC covered the story of Ron Jacobs, a 28-year-old Australian man who drove a white, windowless van with “Free Candy” painted across the side. The red paint and bloody handprints accentuated the creepiness, but Jacobs drove it as a joke.
While it sounds sinister, Jacobs understood the implications of his vehicle, and decided to play into the stereotype in a more friendly way. He handed out free candy and became a local legend — even selling the van and its legacy for $100,000.
So, while we shouldn’t trust every van owner claiming to have free candy, the joke is a well-documented one. There’s nothing to be afraid of — mostly.