The celebration of Halloween originates in Celtic culture, and over generations, has been adopted by American culture as a holiday of costumes, ghosts, goblins and scary critters. Black cats, bats, large spiders, wolves, owls and other spineless, creepy crawlers all have come to be associated with this special night of horrors.
Although each of these animal groupings has come to be associated with Halloween for various reasons, I would suggest that common features may be the reason why. They all are top-of-the-food-chain predators or hunters; and they most often successfully perform their predation skills during low light and nighttime adventures.
Black cats possess reflective, shiny yellow or white eyes that penetrate the evening darkness in startling fashion. Prominent fangs and needle-sharp claws, along with their high-pitched shrieks, further encourage us to fear them. But, of course, these physical and behavioral features allow them to be the very successful night hunters that they are. Throughout many European countries, black cats are considered symbols of prosperity and good luck; while here in the U.S., they represent just the opposite. A black cat that crosses your path is considered an omen. Further, more recent history suggests that witches frequently transform into black cats, permitting them to move among us without notice. Scary, indeed.
We all remember Bela Lugosi transforming from a pointed-eared, fanged, taloned vampire to a bat as a means to escape—or as he would appear out of the dark, at the foot of a beautiful damsel’s bed, ready for his blood meal. While there are more than 1,200 bat species identified globally, only three of those species are true blood-feeders, or vampire bats. About 20 percent of bats are fruit-eaters and the remaining ones feed on insects. It is recorded that a single, small brown bat of Missouri can capture and consume as many as 600-plus mosquitoes in one hour of flight. Can you imagine a more efficient insect killer? Bats are critically essential to our ecosystem, not only as insect predators, but as ‘plant pollinators,’ assuring that plants are able to successfully reproduce across a broad range of forest settings. Today, our bat populations are wrought with fungal disease that is rapidly killing them off. To lose this critically unique and needed group of mammals will prove devastating to many worldwide ecosystems. Finally, bats are notorious for harboring the rabies virus throughout their lifetime, without illness to them. Nonetheless, humans and other mammalian species can be infected through the bite of a bat, and be infected with the deadly rabies virus.
Owls are the next critter of interest, with their large, reflective eyes that pierce the blackness of the evening. Again, their attributes assigned to successful predation or hunting are the same features that encourage fear and mistrust. They too, appear suddenly in the night, seemingly from nowhere. Their flight is muted by a specialized feather system lining their wings and nullifying the sound of their flight, allowing them to be very successful hunting machines. Human cultures have long associated owls as creatures that swooped down to eat the souls of the dying. Their characteristic ‘hooting’ vocalizations are unique to this group of birds and offer an eerie penetration of the nighttime quiet. This feature, along with their ability to position their head in what appears to be a 360-degree rotatory motion, further adds to the mystique associated with owls. They fit perfectly in the collection of strange, night creatures of Halloween.
Ah, spiders! How I love spiders—and particularly tarantulas, the monsters of the spider world. If you see a spider on Halloween, cultures often assume it could be the spirit of a dead loved one who is watching you, so be cautious not to squash them. I personally collected and bred tarantulas—at one time housing more than 4,000 individual animals representing some 34 species—in my home. Tarantulas are high-end predators; and in my own experience, they act behaviorally like many carnivorous mammals. They have fangs and hairy bodies, and the movement they make using their eight legs make them scary critters, to say the least. They use their prominent fangs both in social interactions during mating or as a protective mechanism against other animals attempting to prey upon them. If they lose a leg, it will be replaced in the course of the next moult process. Although male tarantulas often are eaten by their mates immediately after breeding (watch out, guys), the females can live up to and more than 20 years. They often hide in-waiting before pouncing on their prey; again, evoking a sense of fear through this behavioral hunting practice.
Other critters of Halloween include slimy, weird insects like centipedes and millipedes, or mammals to include wolves, rats and more. Crows are one other animal often associated with ghouls, goblins and witches. If we think about it, the dark coat of many of these animal types also plays a role in creating fear and mistrust, as it allows them to blend into the darkness of Halloween night.
So, as you enjoy the haunting festivities of Halloween, be aware of all those special critters who are peering from the shadows, watching your each and every move. Have fun and be careful!