Are bats getting a better reputation in pop culture?
By Paul Hormick
Dia de los Muertos and Halloween—the holidays when friends and neighbors parade around as skeletons, when black cats and gravestones adorn yards and front porches, and when folks are in the mood for a frightfully good time—these are the holidays for bats. Bats are everywhere during these spooky times, from schoolrooms to Starbucks. Kids can even overindulge with bat candy like gummy bats, chocolate bat lollipops, and bat suckers.
Scientists know that bats eat insects and pollinate flowers, but in our popular imagination these harbingers of the night evoke fear and creepiness. When most folks see a bat, they imagine it to be a vampire, eager to suck their blood.
For decades, Hollywood relied on bats as fodder for some of their spookiest movies. Vampires like Dracula transformed themselves into bats as they searched for their next victims. Before Fay Wray became King Kong’s heartthrob, she was one of many terrorized by a bloodsucking fiend in The Vampire Bat.
In 1940, Hollywood’s main man for horror classics, Bela Lugosi, portrayed a disgruntled employee in The Devil Bat. Mayhem ensues as the mad scientist unleashes the creation of his spooky laboratory, huge bats, on his wealthy employers. If you take Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, change all the birds to bats and add a lot more screaming, you have the formula for the 1999 horror thriller The Bats.
In 1939, Detective Comics added Batman to its roster of superheroes. While Superman fought crime in broad daylight, Batman relied on the stealth of the night to foil the evil schemes of such evildoers as the Joker and the Riddler. Batman’s superhero colleagues achieved their feats with super strength or giant spidery webs, but Batman proved he was the baddest of them all, needing only a costume, a utility belt, and a sidekick named Robin.
By the 1960s, Batman’s grave enigma gave way to high camp when the Caped Crusader starred in his own TV show. A celebration of sixties pop kitsch, families tuned in every week—same bat time, same bat station—for the show’s broad humor and cast of colorful criminals. Batman movies hit it big afterward. Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and other actors took their turns portraying the protector of Gotham City. George Clooney also donned the suit of the Dark Knight, only to find his effort listed as the worst movie of all time.
Before the internet, people relied on what were called tabloids as a source of misinformation. Prominently displayed at supermarket checkout stands, these publications featured lurid covers and zesty celebrity gossip. Some included fantastical tales like alien visitations and time travel. The most popular of these bizarre stories was that of Bat Boy.
From the time he was found two miles underground in a remote West Virginia cave, the half human/half bat and very weird looking youngster graced the covers of the Weekly World News and entertained readers with increasingly outlandish stories. Bat Boy was captured and escaped from the FBI. He joined the Marines and was instrumental in the defeat of Saddam Hussein. The bald boy with the funny teeth even became a presidential candidate. Bat Boy’s story served as the basis of a Bat Boy Broadway musical. He even ranked a reference on The Simpsons, and a move is afoot to honor him with a national holiday.
Bats have been associated with a loose grip on reality. Believe the alien stories in the supermarket tabloids? Then you’re batty or have bats in your belfry. Believe the aliens are coming after you? Then you’re batshit crazy. Or maybe you drive like a bat out of hell. And who can forget Colonel “Bat” Guano? The paranoid commander in Stanley Kubrick’s scathing dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove, is more concerned about a Coca-Cola vending machine than nuclear annihilation.
Lots of video games are filled with bats, from the benign bats in Minecraft and aggressive Keese of the Zelda franchise, to the robot bats that patrol the forests in Mega Man. Dragon Quest is absolutely loaded with bats. There is Bone Bat, Vampire Bat, and Fat Bat. And then there are all the Batatouille.
From creepy to crazy, bats have gotten a pretty bad rap. In lots of children’s books, however, bats are furry and friendly, like the little child in Little Bat Up All Day, whose adventure unfolds as he and his squirrel friend try to find out what happens during daylight hours. A big children’s favorite is Stellaluna. In classic ugly duckling fashion, the baby is raised like a bird after falling into a nest; she then searches for and finds her real bat mommy.
There will always be Batman, and Bat Boy will go on forever. But there may be hope for the younger generation’s appreciation of our nocturnal flying friends with these new stories of less scary and friendlier bats.