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How the Halloween Cat Got to Be So Scary

Back arched, fur on end, eyes glittering, claws unsheathed, ready to pounce, hissing and spitting on the first human to cross its path: The Halloween cat is as scary a symbol as there is in the mythology of childhood.

The reputation of the Halloween cat’s historical ancestor is no better: boiled in oil or burned at the stake, the black cat – and her fellow traveler, the witch – was thought to be a companion of the devil. They were blamed for most of the wrongs of the medieval world, from impiety to plague.

The animal’s habits and grace – prized today – didn’t help her image either. Moving silently along, merging seamlessly into the gloom of night, the cat seemed to appear and disappear at will. While most people feared the darkness, the animal, with her natural nocturnal habits, seemed to seek it out. Her unearthly yowlings in the dark only added to her fearsome reputation.

In the Middle Ages, cats were held to be demonic. The reason probably lies in the monumental superstition of the times: disease, storms, famine – the causes of all were unfathomable and available explanations improbable at best.

The Cult of the Cat

Sailors, whose lives were thought to rest on the vagaries of feline fancy, especially promoted the cult of the cat, believing that they forecast the weather and the hardships of upcoming voyages. For example, it was said, a loudly meowing cat meant a dangerous trip; a playful one, easy sailing. If a cat licked her fur against the grain, hailstorms were likely; if she sneezed, there would be rain. Storms were started through magic stored in the animals’ tails. Good luck was guaranteed if a cat ran ahead of a sailor; but if she chanced to cross his path, disaster was sure to follow.

While the creatures no doubt made the men nervous, no one was willing to risk the consequences of doing away with them. According to tradition, if you drowned a cat, you would shortly follow her into the drink. Aboard ship, the most egregious crime was tossing a cat overboard. Punishment, so the sailors said, was swift and sure: Killer storms that would send the vessel to the bottom.

On dry land, cats were just as fearsome. In what passed for science, they were said to help out sorcerers and midwives with their herbal magic, adding to their reputation as witches’ helpers. On rare occasions, though, they gave their lives for medicine. In the American colonies, a sure cure for tuberculosis was a broth made from a boiled black cat. The problem was killing the cat in the first place; few dared risk the bad luck that would surely dog the murderer all his days, so cures were few and far between.

Witches Morphed Into Cats

Accused witches were usually single women – often widows – who probably kept the animals more for companionship than anything else. But village gossip made the relationship far more ominous. Witches changed their shapes, transforming themselves into cats. In a witch trial in Scotland, one supposed witch explained how the women managed this trick, saying that her coven assembled in human form to work their spells. As they gathered, the Devil appeared among them, shaking his hands above their heads and turning them into snarling four-legged beasts.

Across the Atlantic, the transformation theory was taken up during the Salem witch trials. As the local hysteria heated up, Sarah, the 7-year-old daughter of accused witch Martha Carrier, testified that “a cat, identifying herself as Martha Carrier, had carried her along to afflict people while her mother was in prison.” Ultimately, Martha was convicted; along with four others, she was hanged on August 19, 1692.

The Halloween Cat — The Ultimate Scapegoat

Damned if she did, damned if she didn’t, the Halloween cat was the ultimate scapegoat. If a black cat chanced to cross someone’s path and through some trick of fate nothing happened to him, that, too, was a sure sign of the cat’s complicity with the devil. That person was clearly protected by the King of Darkness.

But for all the trouble cats were said to cause, there are a few cases of lucky cats. You could cure a sty by rubbing it with the tail of a black cat or find a lover by dreaming of a tortoiseshell cat. In France, it was thought black cats were particularly good at sniffing out buried treasure. All you had to do was take a cat to an intersection where five roads connected. Then, you turned the cat loose and moseyed along behind her until she found you a fortune.