Meet Our Favorite Creatures of the Night
When people think of Halloween, they usually picture pumpkins, bags bursting with candy, and hordes of kids roaming the streets in cute costumes. They also imagine witches, ghosts, ghouls, and all manner of creepy, crawly things guaranteed to make one’s hair stand on end.
This darker side of Halloween stems from its earliest pagan roots, particularly the ancient Celtic festival of Samain. That word in Old Irish literally means “summer’s end,” the season which ushers in the darker half of the year, with its longer, colder nights and gray, lifeless landscapes. For our pagan ancestors, this was a transitional time of year, full of magic and mystery, when the boundary between the world of the living and that of the fearful spirit world was at its thinnest. Thus, occasionally, those creatures of the gloomy Otherworld—deities and demons, ghosts and fairies—would more easily be able to cross over and dwell among us.
Over the centuries other folklores and superstitions attached themselves to present-day Halloween customs, so that now we have quite a menagerie of seemingly monstrous beings to contend with when October 31 rolls around—including certain real-world animals.
Granted, all animals are beautiful in their own way. However, the appearance and behavior of some of these animals lend themselves perfectly to the eerie atmosphere that Halloween inspires. Here are the most popular ones, with a little explanation as to why and how they became associated with Halloween.
What would All Hallows’s Eve be without cats—in particular, black cats? Not without reason, during Medieval times those inscrutable felines were considered the “familiars” of witches: their constant companions, protectors, and assistants in the practice of magic. In the West, black has often been associated with evil, and so a cat with a pelt black as pitch would be looked upon as especially inauspicious and malevolent.
And what feline-lover hasn’t stared into the eyes of a cat and not felt bewitched?!
Highly adaptable, the black rat (Rattus rattus) easily habituates itself to human settlements and can be found—sometimes swarming in frighteningly great numbers—almost anywhere that people have established cities. Largely nocturnal creatures, they are sneaky and secretive, favoring dark, out-of-the-way places, yet thrive right under our very noses: lurking in filthy alleyways, scurrying through dank subway tunnels, and nesting inside the drywall of our homes. It goes without saying that they seem to be partial to graveyards and crypts as well!
Worst of all, their blood can contain a large number of infectious bacteria and viruses. Thus, rats have been known—and rightfully feared—since antiquity for their ability to spread lethal diseases (including rat-bite fever and leptospirosis) and to cause deadly epidemics such as bubonic plague.
If there is an Underworld, surely the rat would be its mascot.
Often characterized (unfairly) as “rats with wings,” bats are by nature nocturnal creatures. Thanks to movies and our own imaginations, everything about them screams, “Vampire!” They sleep during the day in dark caves and belfries, they forage at night, and some species even feed on the blood of livestock. And even though a bite from one won’t turn you into an actual vampire, it can conceivably give you rabies, which is almost as bad.
In truth, bats are beneficial creatures within most ecosystems, in that some species help control the insect pests that make up their primary food source and others aid in plant pollination. So if you see one, just admire it and leave it alone.
Except on Halloween night. Then you should flee for your life!
A once widespread member of the dog family, the wolf is another animal that has gotten a bad rap in part because of the “Hollywood treatment.” Like the werewolf of countless horror films, the wolf in the wild is a powerful and skilled hunter, and hearing it howl on a moonlit night would no doubt strike fear in the heart of someone wandering the woods alone.
Indeed, up until the 20th century, savage wolf attacks on humans in Europe did occasionally occur. It is doubtless from such incidents that the Medieval folklore surrounding lycanthropy (shape-shifting into canine form) may have arisen. In reality, wolves are apex predators and, as such, play a key ecological role in controlling populations of deer, coyotes, and other animals. Nowadays they pose little danger to humans, however; on the contrary, they go out of their way to avoid human contact.
The West has always been a little ambivalent about owls. Synonymous with wisdom in classical Greek times, the owl was revered as one of the symbols of the “enlightened” city-state of Athens. Yet in ancient Rome it was regarded as a bird of ill omen. By the Middle Ages this nocturnal predator had come to represent all things funereal, a monster of the night and an abomination to be feared. Like black cats, owls were considered witches’ familiars, or sometimes even witches in disguise.
Whatever the case, is there anything creepier than hearing the hooting of an owl in the dead of night?
In the Halloween mythos, these distinctive birds present a curious case. Corvids have long been recognized as among the most intelligent of birds. With their beady, knowing eyes, glistening black feathers, and raucous caw, it would be hard to imagine a more infernal-seeming creature. Add to that their reputation as scavengers, feasting on carrion and known to frequent graveyards and battlefields, and you have the perfect embodiment of otherworldly horror.
And yet in Greco-Roman antiquity they were regarded as symbols of good luck. In Norse mythology, the god Odin is often depicted as being flanked by two ravens. Tales of saints from the Middle Ages are replete with stories of ravens protecting the holy. To this day, six captive ravens reside within the Tower of London; and, according to legend, the Kingdom of England will fall if those ravens are ever removed.
All in all, ravens appear for most of history to have been auspicious symbols. So how did they become associated with Halloween?
Perhaps we can blame it on Edgar Allan Poe. His eponymous poem has surely cemented in our mind’s eye the reputation of the raven as a harbinger of existential dread:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
And perhaps we can blame Shakespeare a little for the way we regard toads at Halloween time:
Round about the cauldron go:
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweated venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
—“Song of the Witches” from Macbeth (Act IV, Scene I)
Sure, they’re warty and sort of ugly; and the skin of some species certainly contains toxins. For this reason, from antiquity through the Middle Ages, toads have been used in black magic spells and as poisoning agents. Thus, their association with sorcery and other nefarious activities remains in our consciousness to the present day.
Arachnophobes can tell you exactly why spiders are to be feared: with their eight long legs and multiple eyes, they stand as the very epitome of “creepy and crawly.” No haunted house is complete without a colony of spiders—preferably the poisonous kind—weaving sticky webs in every dingy corner of the abandoned home to snare their prey, wrap the victims in silk, and devour them alive.
Perhaps, too, the general fear of spiders has something to do with our concept of the human condition: like spiders spinning their webs, the Fates in western tradition are mythological deities (e.g., the Greek Moirai and Roman Parcae) who are often depicted as weavers implacably spinning the threads that determine the individual destinies of men and women.
Whatever our beliefs or station in life, consciousness of mortality is the one fate that unites all of humanity and separates us from our fellow creatures. But at least we can all enjoy the ride in the meantime—especially on October 31.