Who could be scared of a face like that? Photo by rigel on Unsplash

A Pop Cultural History of Bats

Rachel Wayne

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Rabies-bearing terrors that infest your attic? Bloodthirsty familiars for witches and vampires? Or whimsical flying mammals with an ultrasonic superpower?

Bats are a fearful animal for many people, yet they’re also an immensely diverse and unique group of creatures. They are the second-most numerous group of mammals, comprising 20% of all mammal species. With an incredible variety of diets (no, not just blood!), social behaviors, and physiology, bats are definitely much more than the typical Halloween cut-out shape suggests!

The fear of bats is called Chiroptophobia, but in my opinion, this phobia stems from a misunderstanding of these amazing creatures. And if pop culture is any indication, bats have far more potency as a cultural symbol than as a source of fear.

Among his many forms, Oldman’s terrifying portrayal of Dracula includes a humanoid bat appearance.

Dracula’s shapeshifting power

Virtually every portrayal of Dracula, from Buffy’s broody emo version to Gary Oldman’s lavish scenery-chewing portrayal of Dracula in Coppola’s film of the same name, features a bat as one of the iconic monster’s shapeshifting forms.

Although there are only 3 species of blood-drinking bats out of 1,000 total bat species, bats have long been associated with vampires. This is largely due to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, in which he describes the titular character as a bat-like man who can also become a bat. Stoker drew upon prevailing European ideas about bats being devilish. These nocturnal, leathery creatures were in striking contrast to feathered birds, commonly associated with angels and goodness. (But anyone who’s spent time around birds knows that’s far from accurate.)

Vampires were also deeply associated with shapeshifter myths. Indeed, mythologies and cryptozoological traditions around the world have conflated bloodsuckers with shapeshifters. Consider Ghana’s asanbosam, a batlike humanoid entity that sated their hunger with human blood. Most of the “were-” creatures that populate European, Asian, and American mythology (e.g. werewolves, weretigers) also combine bloodthirstiness with shapeshifting abilities.

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Rachel Wayne

Artist/anthropologist/activist writing about art, media, culture, health, science, enterprise, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP