Bats show up everywhere at Halloween. Often they are playing a bit part, in the background of decorations and advertising as a kind of mascot for the holiday. But they do show up in their major role in horror movies and television programs, as the dreaded vampire transforms into a bat and flies away. The idea of bats as scary creatures of the night is part of the fun of Halloween, but naturalists would like us to see the positive side of bats as well, as many bat species are at risk and they are a much-needed insect-eaters and pollinators.
Western European traditions of old, as well as modern popular media, have often perpetuated a horror of bats and beliefs about the terrible consequences of encountering one. Many species of bats make their home in caves, giving them an association with the underworld and death. Many species, but not all, are active in the night and sleep in the daytime, further adding to their mystery.
There is an association of bats with other underworld creatures so depictions of devilish monsters sometimes have bat-like wings. Gargoyles that have wings, for example, often have bat wings to make them scary. Ariel, a spirit of the night, a fallen angel, or a daemon, depending on the context or interpretation, was often depicted riding on or in the company of a bat. She or he was not always scary, and was one of Prospero’s magical servants in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
These ideas about bats were brought to North America by European settlers. Folklorist Frank C. Brown collected many beliefs in the early twentieth century, especially in North Carolina, but also noting traditional beliefs as he found them in other parts of the country. Bats, it seems, could cause death or illness through any sort of contact. Sometimes the idea of the consequences of contact with bats was not expressed, so people would say that, for example, if a bat enters the house it will bring bad luck. But underlying this was a belief that a bat that came into the house foretold a death in that house. If it touched a person, excreted waste onto a person, or got into someone’s hair it would result in that person’s death. They were messengers from the underworld that either brought the foretelling of death or directly caused it. But if an experience with a bat did not kill you, it might still do harm. Contact with a bat was also said to cause disease in the part of the body contacted. So if a bat touched your head it might cause debilitating headaches. A bat touching a limb was said to cause that limb to wither.
Blood-eating bats were not known at in Europe until sixteenth century explorers brought back news of them in South America. The term of “vampire bats” to describe a species was not used until the 1700s. This first identification of a “vampire bat” was in error, and the common vampire bat was not identified and described until 1810.
Vampire bats bite animals to make a tiny cut and lap up the resulting blood — no sucking is involved. The large tubed fangs vampire bats are thought to have and the large two-holed wound on the neck are part of fantasy literature. Vampire bats do have specialized teeth to make a cut with. These are tiny animals weigh only a couple of ounces, so they can’t drain an animal of blood. Despite the fact that blood-eating bats are tropical and not normally found north of southern Mexico, many North Americans fear that bats will bite them. In fact, most bats are only interested in eating insects. A modernized version of the belief that bats cause death is the belief that they are commonly rabid. Bats can carry rabies just as any other mammal can, but humans vary rarely contract rabies from bats. Nevertheless it is not a good idea to pick up an injured or sick bat with your bare hands, as, like any distressed animal, they may bite.
Before the nineteenth century, the idea of vampires had various different forms. A common European idea of a vampire (known by various names) was a dead person who’s earth-bound spirit left their dead body at night to sap the life force or the blood from living relatives. Folklorist Michael E. Bell has made an extensive study of the ways this set of beliefs led to burial practices in New England from the colonial period to the early twentieth century. He found that vampirism was sometimes an explanation for wasting diseases, especially tuberculosis. Tuberculosis sometimes runs in families, as a susceptibility to the virus may be inherited. Before this was known, the deaths of many family members from the disease over time seemed mysterious. Vampires were usually thought to be local monsters, preying on those close to them. It is not clear exactly when the bat and the vampire became associated with each other. It may have been during the period when popular literature began to be published in the later 1700s and 1800s. Bats were sometimes associated with sorcerers before this. It was in the nineteenth century that a truly romantic vampire became part of popular fiction. John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in London in 1819 is said to be the source of the modern literary vampire. In 1897, Bram Stoker published his novel, Dracula, in which vampires could shape-shift into wolves or bats. Many of the popular ideas of vampires we have today are rooted in the emergence of the romantic vampire in fiction.
But bats are not always sinister, or symbols of death. In the United States, one of our most positive images of bats comes from the superhero Batman, from comic books, television, and films. Batman goes out at night to fight criminals, and his hideout is called a “bat cave.” But the bat symbolism also refers to a dark side to this hero, who is sometimes suspected to be a criminal rather than an ally by law enforcement. But if children see bats as the good guys, it may often be because of this hero.
Sometimes bats show up in children’s lore and literature as funny or interesting animals. This children’s song, “Bat Bat Come Under My Hat,” is from England, to be sung when a bat is sighted. Here it is explained and sung by Mary Jane Roberts, of Riviera, Florida (formerly from the Bahamas) and recorded by Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cook in 1940. Sung to a tune Americans would call “Yankee Doodle,” the lyrics are:
Bat, Bat come under my hat
I’ll give you a slice of bacon.
I’ll bake you a cake, next time I bake,
If I am not mistaken.
(In Florida Folklife in WPA Collections, 1937-1942.)
Bats are considered by many cultures to be something in between a bird and a mammal, setting them apart from other animals. This status of existing at a boundary between two things is called “liminal” by folklorists and anthropologists. While Europeans see the bats that fly out of caves as associated with death and the underworld, bats may be seen as associated with reincarnation and birth in parts of Asia. In China bats are considered lucky, and so encountering one is a sign of good fortune to come. This was also true in Japan until, in the twentieth century, bats started taking on a sinister appearance in popular media. This may be due to influences of western popular culture. Some species of bats in Japan are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss, as is true in many parts of the world. So there are efforts by Japanese conservationists to restore bats to their former good standing with events such as bat festivals and lectures. Fruit bats in Southeast Asia are eaten in some cultures, and this, together with habitat loss, puts pressure on bat populations with some species currently endangered. So conservationists are working to end this practice.
Among Native Americans there are a few stories of bats, in some stories the bat is frightening and associated with death, while in others bats are shown in a more positive light. In some stories there is an argument as to whether the bat is a bird or a mammal and it is rejected by one group or another. A myth told among several eastern Indian peoples concerns a ball game between the mammals and the birds (this would have been a version of lacrosse). The story tell of two small animals that are rejected as too small to play with the mammals. The birds decide to make flying animals out of these mammals, the flying squirrel and the bat. They make wings for the bat out of leather and stretch the skin of the flying squirrel between its fore legs and hind legs. These tiny animals help the birds to win the game. The story teaches that size is not the measure of skill, and that being different can be an advantage. An example of this story is available on the online Native news site, Indian Time: “The Great Ball Game between the Winged Birds and the Four Legged Animals” submitted by the Native North American Travelling College, 2015.
In the American Folklife Center’s archive there is a Seminole song about the bat. This is eight-year-old Lura May Jumper singing a traditional children’s song, “Chish-hi-you-bung-gay,” the bat song, recorded by Carita Doggett Corse and Robert Cornwall on the Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida in 1940 (In Florida Folklife in WPA Collections, 1937-1942. Unfortunately the sound quality is poor). We do not have a translation of this song at this time.
Biology meets belief as conservationists try to address declining bat populations. On the east coast of North America and inland to the central states, bats are suffering a crisis. A fungus that attacks the bat’s nose and skin called white-nose syndrome has caused a population collapse and at least one species has become endangered. The fungus is in caves where bats hibernate. This disease has recently shown up in Washington State and it is feared that it may spread to other western states as well. Public education about bats is seen as one part of addressing the situation.
Conservationists are calling upon the public to support efforts to help bats as scientists look for ways to combat this disease. Bat houses, whether purchased or home-made, may help to provide clean, dry housing for bat colonies and increase their numbers. Even regions where the fungal disease is not a problem, bat houses can help bat populations under pressure due to habitat loss.
The negative image of bats is a problem in trying to promote bat conservation. So understanding that having a bat house can be as interesting and educational as having a bird house is an idea that needs some help to overcome negative images of bats. Bat Conservation International promotes facts about bats during Halloween week, which they call “Bat Week.” The site includes instructions for building and mounting bat houses (another set of instructions for building a bat house can be found on the National Wildlife Federation site).
After the zika virus was found in Miami, Florida, some states in the South began promoting the building of bat houses to combat mosquitoes. But, unfortunately, claims that bats eat over 1,000 mosquitoes per night are based on an out-dated study that provided bats with mosquitoes in a confined space. More studies of the diets of bats in the wild are needed, but current studies of the brown bat don’t indicate that they eat large quantities of mosquitoes.
The belief that bats eat great quantities of mosquitoes was inspiration for a municipal bat house in San Antonio, Texas in the early twentieth century when the spread of malaria was the concern. But methods such as eliminating standing water where mosquitoes breed were eventually shown to be more effective. A lasting positive impact of the early campaign for bats in Texas is that some communities developed a fondness for their bats. On pleasant nights between March and November in Austin, Texas, people gather on or near the Congress Avenue Bridge to view the cloud of millions of bats emerge from under the bridge where they sleep during the day. It is the largest urban bat colony in the United States, and the bats have become an important tourist attraction in the city.
Even if mosquitoes are only a small part of the diet of insect-eating bat species, bats are consumers of a wide variety of insects, including agricultural pests, and help to maintain a balance in the insect population. In tropical and desert climates there are also bats that are important pollinators. Bananas, guavas, and mangoes are examples of tropical fruit trees pollinated by bats. Two bat species in the southwestern United States that are pollinators, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat, are endangered. So there are many good reasons to support bat conservation.
So Halloween, when the spooky bat is prominent, can become a time for learning about the real lives of bats, for supporting bat conservation, and for putting up bat houses.
- White, Newman Ivey, general editor, 1964. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. See volumes VI and VII, edited by Wayland Hand. Bats may be found in the index in volume VII. See especially, 844, p. 122 and 1511, p. 206 in Volume VI; and 5184, p. 47 in Volume VII. An electronic version is available via the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary entry on “vampire,” the first use of the term related to bats was 1790 by George Shaw, “The Vampyre Bat.” in the Speculum Linnæanum, London, 1790. This species was misidentified, and does not feed on blood. The common vampire bat was first identified and described by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1810. But we can guess that people began to think about the blood-eating bats of South and Central America in connection with the monster at least by the end of the eighteenth century.
- Bell, Michael E., 2001. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Reissued in 2011. Wesleyan Press.
- An example of the Cherokee version of this origin myth was given in the American Anthropologist in 1890, v. 3 #2, pp. 105-132, and is available online: “Cherokee Ball Play,” by James Mooney (PDF). The myth is on pp. 108-109. Made available by the Wiley Online Library.
- See the USGS National Wildlife Health Center for more information on white-nose syndrome.
- See, for example, the American Mosquito Control Association’s FAQ “Do bats serve as an effective mosquito control?“