The Witch Hunt

Why the animal “monsters” decorating our doors and mailboxes this Halloween are afraid of you.

October 28, 2015

Photo: Edward Peters/Flickr

Synthetic webs stretched across a doorway. Rubber bats on a string. Wolf howls from a speaker in the window. Did you ever notice how animal-centric Halloween is?

Sure, Easter has its bunny, there’s the Thanksgiving turkey, and Santa has his reindeer, but Halloween has the rights to all kinds of fanged beasts. Perhaps this is because people have been celebrating some form of All Hallow’s Eve for like 2,000 years or more—and the world was a pretty scary place back then.

In times of yore, people didn’t have the interweb to tell them which spiders were venomous, or flashlights to reveal what creature maketh that racket in the night. So when your brother-in-law keeled over for no apparent reason, it was because a witch had cursed his eternal soul, clearly.

So in honor of the season, let’s take a look at a few critters that have developed a bad reputation over the centuries—and then look deep into our magic mirrors and ask ourselves who the real monsters are.

Bats

via GIPHY

Fun fact: Only three of the world’s 1,300-plus bat species are vampire bats, the kind that actually drink blood, and they live nowhere near Transylvania. They dwell in Central and South America. It wasn’t until people like Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus started exploring the New World that the bloodsuckers were even “discovered.” By the late 1800s, the idea of bloodthirsty bats had only begun to spread through the consciousness of North Americans—probably as more of a curiosity than anything else.

But then some Irish dude who was writing a Gothic horror novel thought he’d put an image of a bat that supped on blood on the cover. His name was Bram Stoker. The book was Dracula, and bat P.R. has suffered ever since.

“All of a sudden, bats became allies and envoys of the Devil, associated with dispersing diseases, attacking humans, and sucking blood,” says Rodrigo Medellín, a bat expert at the University of Mexico. “All of these things are grossly exaggerated, of course.”

When bats eat blood, it is usually stolen without so much as a yelp from cows and chickens. But ever since Dracula, Medellín says, the belief that bats are something to fear has been tough to shake.

Actually, to bats, humans are hell’s minions. We cut down forests and slice up their habitats with our light pollution. In Mexico, Medellín says, people vandalize their roosts with gasoline and dynamite. Even the tequila industry, built around blue agave monocultures, deprives bats of their natural food sources.

In the United States, a disease called white nose syndrome is easily the most deadly problem facing bats today. Since its discovery in 2006, the fungal disease has destroyed millions of bats in 25 states and 5 Canadian provinces. In some hibernating populations, such as those of the little brown bat, the mortality rate can reach 100 percent. Research published this month predicts that even if little brown bats could somehow outmaneuver extinction, their populations wouldn’t rebound for a long, long time. Each year, this menacing fungus creeps further west and south, but evidence suggests it was first brought to the continent by—you guessed it—humans. 

Wolves

On October 31, 1589, a German man named Peter Stumpp was executed for crimes committed as a werewolf. When I say executed, I mean the authorities at the time tore his skin off in 10 places with red-hot pincers, broke his arms and legs with a blunted axhead, chopped off his head, and then burned the whole mess on a funeral pyre beside the flayed and strangled corpses of his mistresses—one of whom was Stumpp’s daughter.

Now, all those gory details just might be true. What’s less clear is whether Stumpp actually killed and ate 18 people, including his son and two pregnant women and their fetuses. Call me crazy, but confessions given while stretched across a medieval torture wheel probably aren’t all that reliable. Oh, and neither are those concerning werewolfery.

Suffice it to say, people’s fears of wolves are not always based on science. In Switzerland, women sometimes faced allegations of witchcraft because they were seen riding on the backs of wolves. The witches, cunning Devil-worshippers that they were, would then make up all sorts of fanciful tales to prove their innocence—unbelievable stories about how they were only out walking the family dog or that the wolf they were riding was, in fact, a donkey. Luckily, nobody believed them. Because witches.   

On top of their alleged association with Satan’s harem and their unholy depictions by the Brothers Grimm, wolves also occasionally snatched up a sheep or two, bringing them into conflict with farmers. The cursed creatures didn’t stand a chance.   

Once abundant across North America, wolves can only now seek sanctuary in a few regions where both habitat and laws to protect them exist. In just over a century, hunters and farmers in the Lower 48 reduced the gray wolf’s population to fewer than 6,000 animals, and some humans are still out for blood. Worldwide, there may be as few as 400,000 wolves remaining. Not only are the canids exceedingly rare, but so are wolf attacks on people—unless, of course, you try to ride on one’s back.

Spiders

Photo: Edward Peters/Flickr

When I was little, my mom would hide big plastic spiders in my sandwiches. So I’ve never really understood arachnophobics. (“Yeah, that’s right. I’m bad.”) Spiders are mostly tiny and easily squished. They’re also usually perfectly content to leave humans alone.

Of course, most of us no longer sleep on the ground, where our innate fear of spiders and other arthropods most likely kicked in. Some research even suggests that arachnophobia is coded into our DNA, because detecting and avoiding spiders helped our early ancestors survive in the wild. 

Nowadays our interactions with the eight-legged set are mostly limited to the harmless varieties inhabiting our laundry rooms and garages.

Even black widows and brown recluse spiders, the only spiders in North America capable of seriously harming humans, “are very shy and hesitant to bite,” says Catherine Scott, an arachnologist and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “And even when these spiders do bite, most bites are non-life-threatening.”

Unfortunately, “spider bite” is often a catchall diagnosis for every mysterious swelling, lesion, or pock despite a near total lack of evidence. (Spiders are the new witches!)

According to Scott, spiders have no earthly reason to sink their fangs into you while you sleep. “There are a lot of different kinds of arthropods that like to bite humans, because they rely on blood as a food source,” she says. “These include mosquitoes, bedbugs, mites, lice, and fleas,” many of which our spider friends love to exterminate for us.

This is further proof that spiders aren’t scary—they’re just misunderstood.

Cats

Photo: Dave/Flickr

Putting on this list an animal that about a third of American households consider part of the family may seem weird, but the black cat is an essential member of the Halloween gang of ghouls.

Like bats and wolves, cats are in mythical cahoots with witches and the Devil. Also like bats and wolves, the reasons for this are as thin as they are diverse. Some say it was because old women who fit the witch profile also cared for cats. Some folks even thought witches could turn into cats. In Scotland, fear of felines seems to have emerged around a giant, evil black cat with a white spot on its chest that prowled the bogs and highlands. Sounds plausible, except for the evil part.

Even today, the perception that certain cults will sacrifice all-black or all-white cats on or around Halloween has led to at least one shelter in Chicago suspending adoptions of the animals for a few days each October.

The only real reason one should fear kitty cats is if one is a backyard bird, chipmunk, or vole. One study, conducted by scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that nationwide, free-ranging cats kill up to 4 billion birds and 22 billion small mammals annually. Another study holds feral cats accountable for 14 percent of global bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions on islands.

Even if you’re a cat fancier, those numbers are disturbing. Which is why it’s good news that researchers at the California Institute of Technology may be on their way to developing a one-and-done sterilization shot. If it works, the shot could cut down on the costs and invasive surgeries involved in controlling feral feline populations. And remember, reducing the number of stray cats strutting around wouldn’t just benefit birdies—U.S. shelters are inundated with around 3.4 million kitties each year, about 1.4 million of which end up being euthanized.

* * *

So this Halloween, let’s give the creatures we love to fear a break. Allow a spider to take up residence in a lonely corner. Give a howl for the conservation of wolves. Get your cat fixed and keep it inside (for the sake of the cat as well as everything else that flaps or scurries through the night). And speaking of bats, ask your local bartender for a shot of bat-friendly mezcal to celebrate the season, and get a little freaky yourself. 


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