A woodcut from 1512 of an attacking werewolf by the German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum).
Our demons have their origins in our dread of death and the unknown.
Halloween, is a time for costuming ourselves and confronting those fears (and, most importantly, for outsized consumption of sweets).
For those of us celebrating Halloween disguised as vampires, werewolves and zombies, we owe a great debt to one of the world’s deadliest and most feared zoonotic viruses, rabies.
I have written about the fascinating microbial origins of some of our most enduring humanoid monsters in “The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires.”
An unrecognizable family member demonically possessed by some unfathomable but instantly recognizable animal instinct.
The frothing at the mouth, the lucid madness, the lost humanity: it’s all here and stems from our ancient, tragic history with rabies and canines.
To be human is a sacred and inviolable thing; rabies infection breaches that principal.
The animal bite and the transmission of disease represent a moment of transgressive contact between animal mouth and human flesh, the possibility of losing one’s humanity and regressing to an animal state.
Our horror stories capitalise on this lurid fear.
Rabies, that bestial virus, that grand transmogrifier, has terrified generations with its guarantee of “a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise.”
Its inescapable death sentence and dreadful, transformative effects in the infected have seared itself in our public imaginations while infiltrating our literature and cinemas.
Plate 67 from Ernst Haeckel’s visually dazzling Kunstformen der Natur, (Art Forms of Nature), published in 1904.
With the assistance of Jena artist-lithographer Adolf Giltsch, Haeckel produced one hundred plates depicting the forms of animal life.
With this book Haeckel wanted to create an “aesthetics of nature” and to show how the incessant struggle for existence he had learnt from Darwin was in fact producing an endless beauty and variety of forms – Darwin and Humboldt combined together.
Focusing mainly on marine animals, the bat is one of the only mammals featured in the book, but the page of surprisingly cute “chiroptera” is certainly one of the book’s most striking offerings.
The full line up is:
1-2: Brown Long-eared Bat 3: Lesser Long-eared Bat 4: Lesser False Vampire Bat 5: Big-eared Woolly Bat 6-7: Tomes’s Sword-nosed Bat 8: Mexican Funnel-eared Bat 9: Antillean Ghost-faced Bat 10: Flower-faced Bat 11: Greater Spear-nosed Bat 12: Thumbless Bat 13: Greater Horseshoe Bat 14: Wrinkle-faced Bat 15: Spectral Bat
Read more about Kunstformen der Natur and how it relates to Haeckel’s philosophy of “monoism” in our essay “Ernst Haeckel and the Unity of Culture” by Dr Mario A. Di Gregorio; and read more about Haeckel’s role in one of science’s great controversies in our essay “Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution” by Nick Hopwood.
Of all the inventors on this list, this guy may be the one who most deserved to die at the hand of his own invention.
Perillos was a bronze worker who designed a device called the Brazen Bull to be used to painfully execute criminals.
The Brazen Bull was a hollow bull. Prisoners were locked inside and roasted to death by a fire underneath.
The device was even designed to channel the screams of the burning prisoner out of its nose to sound like a bull. Perillos pitched his invention to Phalaris, a tyrant lord of Acragas in Sicily.
After Perillos showed Phalaris the bull, the inventor was put inside and a fire was lit underneath him.
History isn’t clear about if Perillos was pulled out before dying, only to be thrown off a cliff by Phalaris’ men, or if he expired within the bull. Either way, the bull did him in.
It’s almost that time of year when young kids get into costume and traipse around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and begging for treats
The practice began with the Celtic tradition of celebrating the end of the year by dressing up as evil spirits. The Celts believed that, as we moved from one year to the next, the dead and the living would overlap, and demons would roam the earth again.
So dressing up as demons was a defense mechanism. If you encountered a real demon roaming the Earth, they would think you were one of them.
Fast forward to when the Catholic Church was stealing everybody’s holidays and trying to convert them. They turned the demon dress-up party into “All Hallows Eve,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints Day” and had people dress up as saints, angels and still a few demons.
As for the trick or treating, or “guising” (from “disguising”), traditions, beginning in the Middle-Ages, children and sometimes poor adults would dress up in the aforementioned costumes and go around door to door during Hallowmas begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead.
This was called “souling” and the children were called “soulers”.
You might think that this practice then simply migrated along with Europeans to the United States.
But trick or treating didn’t re-emerge until the 1920s and 1930s. It paused for a bit during World War II because of sugar rations, and it’s now back in full force.
The term “trick or treat” dates back to 1927. Today I Found Out explains:
The earliest known reference to “trick or treat”, printed in the November 4, 1927 edition of the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald, talks of this,
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.