A key element of Halloween is honoring the darkness and the mysteries held therein. Originally Halloween was celebrated by the ancient Celts and their Druid priest class as Samhain, “summer’s end,” marking the death of the old year and birth of the new year and the transition from the seasons of light — spring and summer — to the seasons of darkness — fall and winter. It’s perhaps inevitable that bats, furtive, winged, nocturnal mammals that roost upside down in creepy caves, decrepit barns, and moldering crypts would become a symbol of the dark holiday.
But there’s even more to the Halloween-bat connection. In the Samhain days, Halloween meant huge bonfires, which lit up the night with an eerie orangey glow and served as a beacon for the souls of friends and family, a threat to evil spirits who meant to harm the living, a salute to the dying sun, preparation of harvest feasts, and warmth against the chill night air. What else do large fires draw besides the friendly dead? Mosquitoes and moths, which would in turn draw bats for a feeding frenzy. So bats were a common sight during Samhain festivals and later Halloween celebrations.
The connection between bats and Halloween is also seasonal, according to Nate Fuller, of Boston University’s bat biology program. Fuller theorizes that late October is the best time to witness the fall swarming—when bats flood the skies while making preparations for hibernation. So release the bats for Halloween!
By the Middle Ages, bats were associated with witches, who were assumed to be aided by demons and evil spirits that took the form of animals, called “familiars,” including black cats and bats. Witches also commonly used bat parts and blood in spells, potions, curses, and their notorious flying ointment. And then they started burning witches, which in turn drew moths, mosquitoes and… bats.
Eventually, vampire legends made their way into Halloween folklore, further reinforcing the bat as Halloween symbol. By the time Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, a cornerstone of vampire lore was that they could turn into bats, an association brought on by darkness, winged mobility, and the reality of vampire bats, which feed on only blood with their nasty little fangs.
More Halloween Reading:
by Gerina Dunwich [Adams Media]
by Silver RavenWolf [Llewellyn Publications]
by Edna Barth [HMH Books for Young Readers]
by Leg Avenue [Leg Avenue Costumes]
by Merlin Tuttle [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]