Headlines at Hopkins: news releases from across
university Headlines
News by Topic: news releases organized by
subject News by Topic
News by School: news releases organized by the 
university's 9 schools & divisions News by School
Events Open to the Public (campus-wide) Events Open
to the Public
Blue Jay Sports: Hopkins Athletic Center Blue Jay Sports
Search News Site Search the Site

Contacting the News Staff: directory of
press officers Contacting
News Staff
Receive News Via Email (listservs) Receive News
Via Email
Resources for Journalists Resources for Journalists

Virtually Live@Hopkins: audio and video news Virtually
Hopkins in the News: news clips about Hopkins Hopkins in
the News

Faculty Experts: searchable resource organized by 
topic Faculty Experts
Faculty and Administrator Photos Faculty and
Faculty with Homepages Faculty with Homepages

JHUNIVERSE Homepage JHUniverse Homepage
Headlines at Hopkins
News Release

Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 | Fax (410) 516-5251

October 8, 2003
CONTACT: Amy Cowles
(410) 516-7800

Halloween Symbols Unmasked
Black cats and werewolves once thought to be
witches in disguise.

Black cats are hallmarks of the playfully spooky modern celebration of Halloween. But they weren't always associated with wholesome autumn fright. Black cats and other creepy creatures were once seen as harbingers of death and disaster, according to Walter Stephens, author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief, published in paperback this month by University of Chicago Press.

Such creatures were believed to be witches' companions, or worse yet, witches who had disguised themselves as animals to inflict pain and suffering surreptitiously, Stephens says. In the 15th century, witches were widely believed to be the cause of all the bad things that happened to good people. Faced each day with a hard life in which tragedy was the norm, people needed to blame someone other than God. Accused witches became popular culprits.

How did a witch, usually a woman, allegedly wreak havoc on the unsuspecting? By masquerading as screech owls, black cats and werewolves, according to the writing of the day as researched by Stephens, a professor in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University. Today's Halloween costumes can be seen as a benign manifestation of this centuries-old popular belief in witches' maleficent shape-shifting, Stephens says.

"Disguise makes a person ghostlike, and ghosts can go where living people cannot," Stephens says.

In Italy, peasant mythology of the time evidently imagined that witches transformed themselves into cats to kill babies in their cradles. When there wasn't any sign of injury to a deceased child, it was often theorized that the child had been attacked by a cat — the wounds they make are small and demons could make them heal instantly, it was believed. Similar tales were told of witches who became wolves to attack older children and adults outdoors.

The companionship of witches and cats was also a commonplace element of English witchcraft theory. The English witch's "familiar," the domesticated demon who carried out her evil deeds, could be incarnated as a small animal. The companionship between a marginal person and her pet was often interpreted by believers in witchcraft as a relationship between human and demonic enemies of God.

"Even today, the Halloween witch has one inseparable companion: her black cat," Stephens says. "For North American children conditioned by relentless commercial culture, a hissing black cat with arched back is a primary symbol of Halloween."

Stephens welcomes opportunities to work with the media. To arrange an interview with him, contact Amy Cowles at 410-516-7160.

Johns Hopkins University news releases can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/
   Information on automatic e-mail delivery of science and medical news releases is available at the same address.

Go to Headlines@HopkinsHome Page