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Creatures of the Night

In most people's minds, Halloween means vampires and witches, bats, owls and spiders. Even the mere mention of these creatures sends shivers through some folks. Vampires and witches -- a fear of them is understandable. But what is it about bats, owls, and spiders that makes people associate them with evil?

One trait these creatures share is a preference for darkness. They're active mainly at night, which runs counter to our own diurnal tendencies. As a result, people tend to regard night animals as demonic.

Consider the bat, which has long been associated with the darker side of our subconscious. Because bats appear only at night and vanish during the day, it was believed that bats were the souls of sleeping people. Likewise, depictions of the devil customarily feature batlike wings and ears (angel wings, meanwhile, are birdlike). And since bats often dwell in caves, people commonly associate them with the underworld.

As for the connection between bats and vampires, experts trace it to an ancient Asian myth involving night spirits that feed upon the blood of sleeping victims. True vampire bats exist only in the American tropics and were not described in scientific literature until 1810. The first literary work in which a vampire transforms into a bat and flies at night in search of human victims was Bram Stoker's "Dracula," published in 1897.

Owls, too, are also generally associated with death and the underworld because of their nocturnal habits. The most widespread species, the Barn Owl, with its ghostly appearance and blood-curdling shriek, is considered a bad omen in cultures throughout the world. Several African cultures depict owls as spirits of the dead and as omens that foretell the death of anyone who sees them.

One notable exception is the Inuit belief that the Snowy Owl is a good omen. Perhaps the reason for this unusually positive view of an owl is that the Snowy Owl is a daytime creature. Diurnal activity is a necessity for this owl: it lives above the Arctic Circle where the period of breeding and peak prey abundance coincide with the endless daylight of Arctic summer.

Spiders are not an exclusively nocturnal group, either, though many species, especially those that hunt actively on the ground, favor darkness. These are the species most likely to hide in cupboards and clothing, which doesn't help their reputation. Perhaps the reason spiders inspire such negative responses is that they tend to be most numerous in the dark recesses of places like caves and old buildings. Also, despite the fact that most spiders are harmless to humans, poisonous species can be found on every continent.

Yet the current link between spiders and evil is not consistent with their usual treatment. Traditional myths repeatedly feature spiders as creators and omens of good fortune. The sheetweb spiders (family Linyphiidae) are known in Europe as "money spiders" because it's believed that an encounter with one means a person will soon receive some cash. Still, most haunted houses include spiders alongside the bats, owls, and witches, and these are meant to play upon our darkest fears -- or should that be our fear of the dark?

 

 

 

 

 

2007 eNature.com