It's been more than a year since The A.V. Club last ventured into our local dollar stores in search of foods that strike us as grotesque, profane, and appealingly inexpensive. But with Halloween around the corner, we realized that penurious homeowners everywhere must be wondering how to avoid tricks while not spending too much on treats. Below are some of the cheapest (and most horrifying, in various ways) candies we could find, all ready for unsuspecting and soon-to-be-traumatized neighborhood kids.
Pumpkin Decoder With Pumpkin Candies
The mystery factor makes the Pumpkin Decoder jump off the shelf: What the hell is there about a pumpkin that might need decoding? Turns out it's just sort of a twisty puzzle in which you line up the pumpkin face to reveal a treat. The packaging doesn't really grasp the concept of secrecy, though: It says, "Pull top of pumpkin head. Surprise! Pumpkin candies inside." Thanks for spoiling the surprise, candy-making asshole.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Modified potato starch."
Worth the price: No. The fun is lost immediately, and the no-surprise pumpkin candies are the equivalent of Runts, just pumpkin-shaped, not flavored. On the plus side, stoners could hide Halloween "treats" in here.
MilkMaid Caramel Apple Candy Corn
America, what is your obsession with combining flavors? Have you no patience, or even a need for simplicity? Candy corn is supposed to taste and feel like candy corn, that non-specific, extremely specific flavor that comes just once a year. Brachs, which may have gotten bored at the top of the candy-corn game, has introduced caramel-apple-flavored candy corn, which adds a new non-taste to the canon. It's strange, and just not right. And not very good. And super-sweet.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Made with real milk."
Worth the price: Well, it's cheap, so maybe just for the experience. It tastes like nothing else—not candy corn, not caramel apples, not real apples, not A-1 sauce. Non-specific, buttery, and strange.
Spinning Pumpkin/Grim Reaper Toy/Candy Combo
These two time-killing contraptions contain a handful of ghost- and pumpkin-shaped candies beneath a plastic head with a face that spins when a button on the head is pressed. The device and candy are both nameless, though the former is a lot like what a slot machine would be like if the same thing came up every time you pulled the arm. The latter… well, the latter tastes like wax.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Vegetable wax."
Worth the price? When your kids won't stop jabbering at you for one goddamn minute, anything that will shut 'em up is worth a dollar.
Fact: kids of a certain age are drawn to gross stuff. Fact: kids of about the same age will eat anything sweet, no matter how cheap and crappy. Put those facts together and you have the perfect excuse for products like "Critter Goo," a line of palm-sized, highly detailed plastic bugs full of sugary slime. Just rip the bug's head off and suck out the innards, which come in four varieties. Who knew flies have grape-flavored guts, ants taste like green apples, tarantulas are strawberry-flavored, and rhinoceros beetles have lemony innards? More to the point, who knew that a candy manufacturer was willing to put this much work into detailing the tiny veins on a fly's wings, the hairs on a spider's abdomen, or the little forks at the end of an ant's legs, all in order to better sell some creamy goop that looks like hair conditioner and tastes like Kool-Aid made with 20 times the recommended amount of powder mix? (That same odd precision went into determining the nutritional value; the packaging proclaims that each plastic insect contains precisely 60.8 calories worth of ick.)
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Sodium citrate."
Worth the price? Once the slime is gone, these become reasonably well-executed toys. Of course, if you don't properly suck out all the guts, these bugs might start attracting their smaller, living cousins. Just make sure your kids understand that slurping the insides out of that second wave of insects isn't a great idea.
Make Your Own Gummy Pizza
The rush to find ever more exciting and innovative presentation forms for the gummi medium is clearly reaching new levels of ambition with the "make your own" series, which invites gourmet gummi consumers to choose the form of their destruction by placing various candies on a gummi base. This all-candy Lunchables kit includes a supposed gummi "crust" that looks more like a spongy marshmallow surface; reckless consumers are supposed to pile it high with liquid-candy "sauce," powdered-candy "cheese," and sugar-crystaled gummi "toppings" before eating it. (No, The A.V. Club will not stop saying "gummi" so much.) While it's sort of impressive to see a single product hit the entire trifecta of modern-candy trends—powdered, liquid, and gummi—that doesn't change the fact that pizza sauce shouldn't be strawberry-pink and translucent, or that this product can rot kids' teeth right out of their heads from 15 feet away.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Agar-agar."
Worth the price? The old saw about how even bad pizza and bad sex are still pretty good has clearly just been proven wrong.
Mr. Yummy Skeleton Pops
Inside a nearly impossible-to-open coffin-shaped bag—hint: have your car keys at the ready for jabbing and ripping—rest five smaller bags, each containing a flimsy plastic skeleton with a skull-shaped sucker head. The sucker actually isn't bad—it's Jolly Rancher-like in consistency, if not in flavor—but the skeleton is far more detailed than a sucker-stick needs to be. Whatever anatomist Mr. Yummy hired to get the rib structure just right left him with a candy that sways back and forth, thrown off-balance by a skull five times the weight of the bones supporting it.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: None, but we are urged to check out the website "imagine-global.com," which currently features scary organ music and a skeleton running back and forth behind what looks to be a vampire worm. Pretty scary.
Worth the price? It says right there on the package: "fun candy." Why would you doubt Mr. Yummy?
Ice Breakers Sours Pumpkins
No, that isn't a misprint. This candy is part of the "Ice Breakers Sours" line, and it's shaped like pumpkins, so forget any dreams of a long-awaited new candy flavor: sour pumpkin. Instead, try to think of this as Ice Breakers' attempt at a new family-friendly curse. ("You don't want to clean your room? Well sour pumpkins, missy!") In the meantime, be aware that if you gobble down enough of these extremely acidic orange- and mango-tinged breath-fresheners, your mouth will smell like a mopped-down public restroom. Don't like it? Sour pumpkins, pal.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Medium chain triglycerides."
Worth the price? Before deciding, consider what's written in tiny print on the back of the box: "Careful: Sour level may cause irritation to the mouth." Adjust your snacking hopes accordingly.
Jones Candy Corn Soda
Jones can always be counted on to come up with horrendous soda flavors around the holidays—they're famous for Thanksgiving "treats" like Turkey, Brussels Sprouts, and—ugh, The A.V. Club is sick just thinking about last year's set. For Halloween, Jones is staying pretty pedestrian—flavors like Gruesome Grape and Spider Cider sound utterly drinkable. But Candy Corn soda… that one crosses the line. It tastes a bit like buttered-popcorn-flavored Jelly Bellys, and leaves a sickly aftertaste. The cans are tiny, but you won't want to drink them all.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: None. But the front says "Candy Corn Soda," so that's something.
Worth the price: If only to play that Jones Soda game, "This is gross! Try it!" with your friends. Or to annoy those rascally neighborhood kids. Then again, they might like it.
Oh Rats! Blue Raspberry Flavored Gummy Rat
This thing is huge. No one should really eat this much gummi-stuff in one sitting. On the other hand, the prospect of saving half a chewed rat for later is fairly gross. Maybe you can pretend you're a devoted kitty-cat, and leave the half-eaten rodent in the shoes or on the bathmat of someone you love.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Glycerol."
Worth the price? Not really. Though the same company also makes a giant gummi bat for those who like pretending to be Ozzy Osbourne.
Eyeball Candy Rings
What's so scary about eyeballs? Why do Halloween candy manufacturers keep returning to eyeballs as a design theme? And what makes them think they can pass off a Ring Pop rip-off wrapped in veiny-eyeball-imprinted cellophane as "eyeball candy"? (Especially when the ring itself is shaped like a daisy.) The scariest part of the Eyeball Candy Ring is how when the cellophane comes off, the actual candy looks like a molten plastic prune.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Titanium dioxide."
Worth the price? The rings come 12 to a bag, which is a lot for a buck, but they have an expiration date of July 2008, and it would be hard for anyone to eat 12 of these sticky, semi-sweet hard-candy lumps in less than a year.
Gushing Gooey Eyes
Next on the list of "eyes are totally scary" Halloween-themed candy products: another generic treat rendered mildly creepy via its packaging. But strip away the little plastic envelope with the iris and veins on it, and Gushing Gooey Eyes are just generic flat marshmallows with a little fruity gel inside. Neither particularly gushing nor particularly gooey, they are at least a little slimy, but no more so than any other marshmallow.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Carrageenan."
Worth the price? At 24 for a buck, in three fruit flavors—strawberry, raspberry, and lemon—they're a pretty good deal for marshmallow-treat fans, though a lousy one for sickos who actually like eating eyes, or anything that approximates them.
Not to be confused with all those boring, standard one- and two-dimensional gums crowding the market, 3D Gum comes in a package that will teach children all about the wonderful world of bait-and-switch. A window at the top of the Shrek The Third-themed packaging exposes a surprisingly detailed, large piece of plastic-like gum shaped and colored like a Shrek character. It also promises "four pieces of gum." But the concealed other three pieces are smaller, crudely shaped, monochromatic lumps that look like they came out of a knockoff Play-Doh shape press. The mystical third dimension is the dimension of rip-off.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Flavors." Mmm, gum flavored with… something. To taste like… something. Presumably Shrek.
Worth the price? Four pieces of gum for a buck wouldn't be particularly worth it even if it were good gum.
Test Tubes Powder Candy
These flavored-sugar delivery devices come from the makers of Eyeball Candy Rings, and share the same cartoon mad scientist as a mascot—which makes more sense for test tubes. The individual containers house sub-Pixy Stick sour dust, which doesn't flow onto the tongue so much as it falls out in clumps, prompting alarmed consumers to spit clouds of blue raspberry all over their shirts.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: None, though like the Eyeball Candy Rings, the test tubes have an expiration date. Prior to July 2008? Tasty treat. After July 2008? Deadly poison.
Worth the price? No. Everything about this candy is more trouble than it's worth, from the intractable outer package to the inevitable visit from Homeland Security when a neighbor sees these lying around in your kitchen.
Buggin' Glow Pop
The disturbing thing about the Buggin' Glow Pop isn't the kinda cute blue raspberry insect lollipop inside, or even the tiny light bulb inside of it, which takes up a lot of candy space but does make the lollipop glow when you press a button. No, the disturbing bit is the little jar it comes in, which proudly proclaims "Reusable bug jar!" and shows a cartoon picture of a jar full of fireflies. Leaving aside the mild ick factor of rushing through your lollipop so you can go cram some struggling insects into your still-sticky food container, it's worth noting that the "air holes" in the top of the jar don't actually go all the way through. But hey, the little light bulb will totally illuminate your suffocated, desiccated bug corpses for you later on.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: None; it's all sugar, corn syrup, and dyes. Which is scary enough on its own.
Worth the price? A non-bug-themed lollipop and a Mason jar with actual real holes poked in the top would be cheaper, more traditional, and easier on those poor fireflies.
Creepy Crawling Snakes Candy
This Target-branded package was irresistible because it's so incredibly boring. A generic black-and-orange cardboard back holds four gummi-looking snakes, each individually wrapped. They don't look appetizing or fun, really. The back is taken up mostly by nutritional information, plus a stern "FOR AGES 3 & UP!"
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Candy made in China," which is listed under the ingredients. If it made it this far and costs only 99 cents, who wants to eat it?
Worth the price: Definitely not. Turns out these aren't even gummis—they're like little lollipops. The painted-on eyes are a nice touch, though.
What's scarier than disembodied eyes and plastic bugs? A hearty helping of "mallow fries," a yellow-dyed collection of plasticky marshmallows shaped and packaged to look like French fries. And they even come with "kandy ketchup" for that extra shudder of horror. Why not just have some real French fries? They're about as fattening, and even stale, cold fries are a lot less disconcertingly spongy and stretchy than this.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: "Cirtic Acid." Nothing less tasty than a typo.
Worth the price? It'd be worth a lot more than a dollar just to ensure a life in which the words "kandy ketchup" never featured ever again.