CREATURES OF THE NIGHT

No bats, no margaritas: the story behind Halloween’s ultimate spooky symbols

When it comes to Halloween mascots, bats rank right up there with ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump in the night. But much like the brooding Gotham superhero they inspired, bats are the misunderstood protectors of society.

These winged mammals have unfairly come to embody all that is creepy for reasons rooted in both mythology and biology. For one thing, bats seem scary to humans because they exist in a sort of uncanny valley of the animal world, according to Andrea Dugall, senior bat keeper at the Oakland Zoo.

“Bats don’t fit with what people are used to seeing in the sky throughout the day,” she said. The human brain associates flight with generally harmless avians. When we see something other than what we expect, it creates a cognitive dissonance leading to psychological discomfort.

As creatures of the night, bats also fit in well with werewolves and other Halloween bogeymen that never seem to run amok during daylight hours. And of course, their preferred roosting spots in scary locations like caves and old, abandoned houses hasn’t done their public image any favors.

The connection between bats and Halloween is also seasonal, according to Nate Fuller, a graduate student and soon-to-be PhD in Boston University’s bat biology program. Fuller theorizes that late October has traditionally been the best time in the US to witness the fall swarming—when bats flood the skies while making preparations for hibernation. Thus as Irish and Scottish immigrants came stateside in the mid-1800s, bats’ roosting behavior became intertwined with the traditions of Samhain, the Celtic holiday that was Halloween’s predecessor.

Pop culture has perpetuated the mythology that bats are evil, particularly by linking them with vampires. Credit for that goes to Bram Stoker’s 1897 book Dracula, which cast both creatures as blood-sucking predators bent on draining the life-force from humans in the dead of night.

vampire bat
A white-winged vampire bat pup. (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf)

 Even if you do have a run-in with a vampire bat, exsanguination is unlikely. But while it’s true that blood-sucking bats do exist, you’re pretty unlikely to meet one.

“There are 1200 species of bat and only three of them drink blood,” Dugall said.

Even if you do have a run-in with a vampire bat, found in Mexico, Central America and South America, exsanguination is unlikely. With bodies that weigh just two ounces, or 57 grams, they’re can’t drain enough blood to hurt their hosts.

“Most people don’t realize how small vampire bats are,” Dugall said. “The larger bats like to eat fruit, flowers, leaves—they don’t eat people. I offered one an insect once, and he looked at me like I was crazy.”

 “I offered a bat an insect once, and he looked at me like I was crazy.” The fact that bats are associated with rabies has also contributed to their scary reputation. But “only 3-5% of bats that have been tested for rabies come back as positive,” Fuller said. Many people also worry that bats will swoop down and get tangled up in their hair—another pretty unlikely event, unless you happen to have traveled back in time to the Victoria era.

“Supposedly in Victorian times, women would wear their hair up in these big tall buns,” Fuller explained. “Those buns would be held up by nets, and people didn’t take very many shower. So they would smell bad, and bugs would congregate around smelly people, then bats would come down to eat the bugs and end up caught in the hair nets.”

That said, no one’s encouraging you to get cuddly with a bat. Avoid touching them, and seek medical attention if you’ve made any physical contact with one.

“They’re so small you may not feel if they bite you, and rabies is passed through saliva,” Dugall said.

With all this talk of rabies and blood-sucking, it may seem like bats are pretty worthy mascots for Halloween. But they actually help humans in many ways.

Australia Grey Headed Flying Fox
Just look how nurturing they are. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

For one thing, bats everywhere consume “literal tons of bugs,” according to Dugall, who’s personally appreciative of their mosquito-eating habits. Tequila fans will also be happy to learn that in Mexico, bats are imperative to pollinating agave plants. In other words: no bats, no margaritas.

Bats are also important for farmers, according to Rob Mies, founder and executive director for the Organization of Bat Conservation.

“Annually over a billion dollars is saved by corn farmers because bats eat so many corn earworm moths,” he said. “That’s just one insect that causes massive ecological damage.”

 Some experts speculate that bats could eventually help humans figure out how to live longer. Bats are also helpful to humans in the realm of medicine. Enzymes from vampire bat saliva have led to the creation of an anti-coagulant that could be imperative in the treatment of stroke victims. And some experts speculate that bats could eventually help humans figure out how to live longer.

“Bats don’t show signs of age,” Mies said. “They can live to 40 years old. They’re the longest-living mammals on earth for their size, so there are anti-aging discoveries that are potentially out there.”

Despite their valuable contributions to the world, bats face an uncertain fate: 86% of all bat species are at some level of risk for extinction, according to the nonprofit Bat Conservation International.

 Bats typically give birth to only one pup annually. That threat is being hastened by a recent epidemic known as white-nose syndrome that’s been wreaking havoc on North American brown bat colonies since 2006. And fungal infections aren’t the only factor threatening bats. Up to 800,000 bat lives are claimed by US wind farms each year, and tens of thousands of fruit bats can be hunted annually in Australia to protect orchards.

Because bats typically give birth to only one pup annually, of which only 10% reach one year old, rebuilding these colonies will take time—if it can be done at all.

Bat enthusiasts are trying to boost conservation efforts by rehabilitating their public image. Mies’ organization has been hard at work with a#SaveTheBats campaign that arms people with resources to support bat ecology.

And a close (but supervised) encounter with a bat can turn a person around on the fear factor, according to Fuller.

“I’ve gone from people going ‘I need to get rid of bats’ to ‘I don’t want you to handle the bats anymore because I don’t want them to be harmed,’” he said. “It’s the face, really. They’re adorable.”

Perhaps in Halloweens of the future, bats will be celebrated for altogether different reasons.

We welcome your ideas at ideas@qz.com.

Portrait of the author (right) as a young bat.
Portrait of the author (right) as a young bat.
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