As nighttime falls, the creeping, slithering, stalking world arises, watched intently by a pale-faced moon. In the dead of night you may hear the sounds of this underworld stirring … or you may not.
But they are still there.
With Halloween slinking up on us, we may notice the noise of animals more – our pets or the wildlife just outside the window. We delight in sparking the feelings of dread and fear in the stories of blood-sucking vampire bats, lurking wolves, crawly spiders, and of course the ever-present black cat.
Certain animals are tailor-made for delicious fear, like the vampire bat and the wolf. But as we explore the world of the scary, it's important to keep it all in perspective. We make up these stories about animals to entertain ourselves. They shouldn't be harmed because of our own, largely manufactured, fears.
Of course, that doesn't mean they're not lurking, just outside your window …
The Vampire Bat
Few things are more chilling that the thought of a night creature that subsists on the living blood of another organism. The vampire bat has lived in our haunted imaginations for thousands of years.
Even before Bram Stoker's book, Dracula, our fear of blood-sucking animals was common, and many cultures from different periods have their own version of the story. The ancient Hebrews wrote of a woman that transformed into an owl, killing newborn babies and pregnant women. The ancient Greeks also believed in monsters that roamed the night, drinking blood and eating children. In India, ancient lore tells of a monster that hangs upside down during the day, like a bat. This creature is empty of its own blood and must drink the blood of others to live.
The idea of an animal living off the life force of another makes good copy, but the real bat is a lot more innocuous. Most subsist on insects. Of the hundreds of species of bats, only three actually drink blood, and only one drinks blood from mammals.
The year was 1591. In the countryside around the German town of Cologne, villagers found the grisly remains of half-eaten human limbs and farm animals. They set out after what they believed to be the culprit – the wolf.
The villagers eventually cornered the wolf. As they attacked the animal with spears and sharp sticks, the wolf stood on his hind legs and his shape melted into that of a middle-aged man – someone they all knew from town. This is the tale vividly described in a pamphlet from the period. The legend of the werewolf was born.
Wolves have inspired fear and awe for their predatory nature. Their howls at the moon chill the blood, as if they are calling to all the demons in the darkness. Although admired for hunting, they have been regarded as evil instruments of the devil. Perhaps this is because wolves competed with early man for food, or perhaps because they have attacked our livestock with such cunning efficiency.
Wolves, in fact, usually try to avoid humans and are naturally timid. But as their natural habitat disappears, they have come into conflict with people, often around farms. With a vanishing food source, wolves have attacked farm animals, prompting angry people to go after the wolf. The North American wolf population, as a consequence, is almost extinct.
Wolf and Werewolf Facts
Any self-respecting haunted house will be festooned with cobwebs, populated by spiders lying in wait for some hapless prey. It wouldn't hurt the house's reputation if a few hairy tarantulas scurried hither and yon on the floor. It's almost as if zoning laws required that all haunted houses contain spiders and their webs.
Why the link? Well, think of the spider in detail – eight legs, eight eyes and a face only its mother could love. The spider's method of dining sends shivers up the spine. From the victim's point of view, you're trapped, mired helplessly in a sticky web, while this large, multi-legged, many-eyed creature crawls slowly toward you. Spiders are in fact one of the most feared creatures on earth for these reasons. Arachnophobia is alive and well in many people.
The tarantula is the most frightening of spiders. It's large enough to eat a small bird or rodent, and is very hairy. But though frightening, they are also becoming very popular as pets because they can be tamed to a degree.
Like spiders, snakes have the dubious distinction of being one of the more universally feared animals. Slithering stealthily on the ground, the snake represents an agent of evil to many people. It was, after all, a serpent that got Adam and Eve thrown out of Eden. For his art of persuasion, the serpent was sentenced to slither on the ground, despised by all of earth's creatures.
A far more practical reason why people fear snakes is that a few are dangerous to us. Venomous snakes sink their teeth into skin, injecting venom. Others suffocate their prey and swallow them whole.
Snakes have been worshiped and reviled, but in the pet world they are a source of endless fascination. Others may admire the 2,700 species in the world – so long as they don't have to pet them.