As Halloween approaches, the entire world transforms into an eerie mindset focused on caricatures of the dead, famous movie icons, and spooky monsters. The celebration of the Day of the Dead, another name for this mysterious practice, goes back many centuries and has its roots in Celtic lore. All Hallow Even, as it dates back through pre-Christian eras (known to this religion as the eve of All Saints’ Day), was known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in) in Irish cultures. It was, and still is, a luminal time of year when the autumn equinox begins its transition into the winter one.
Samhain is also when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is at its thinnest. This is why Halloween is called the Day of the Dead, because on this day it is the easiest time of the year for those who have crossed over death’s doorstep to be able to come back into the world of the living. Samhain might also be the day of the Zombie Apocalypse…who really knows?
“In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural. In Celtic lore, winter was the dark time of the year when ‘nature is asleep, summer has returned to the underworld, and the earth is desolate and inhospitable.’” (Rogers, 20)
The dark Samhain celebration is also tied to a plethora of supernatural creatures and monsters that rise up from the pages of mythology. Ghosts, goblins, faeries, elves, sprites, and a myriad of other spirits and entities come out to greet and interact with the living. During this dark season it is as if the doors of heaven, hell, purgatory, and every realm in between were opened up for every being and entity to roam free once a year:
“Samhain was a time of divine couplings and dark omens, a time when malignant birds emerged from the caves of Crogham to prey upon mankind, led by one monstrous three-headed vulture whose foul breath withered the crops.” (Rogers, 20)
During this period of upheaval and desolation, the fears of the common folk were brought to new heights as word spread that the dead were coming to life and walking the earth once again. Creatures were being vomited up from the bowels of the Earth and set free to wreak havoc on townspeople and drive fear like wooden stakes into their hearts. Witches and warlocks gained new confidence during Samhain, as pagan practices grew more widespread throughout the Celtic landscapes and spectral forests . One group of robed men, deeply enshrouded in magic and the supernatural realm, were especially active during this season – Druid priests.
The Druids are inextricably tied to Stonehenge and the mysteries behind this mysterious English landmark. They were very adept at their religious practices and were known to capitalize on the season of Samhain. Many times their intent was to drive fear into people, and so the Druids played upon superstitions to solidify their power. Sacrifices were demanded as retribution for the evil spirits who were responsible for bringing on the cold weather and shorter hours of daylight. Although horses were known to be sacrificed, black cats tended to be their preference because it was believed that these felines were shapeshifting evil spirits.
The power of influence over belief can have a very strong impact with groups of people causing a social contagion, or mass hysteria, in regards to supernatural traditions like Samhain. This contagion, alive and well when the Druids were still in existence, is also very active within the world of cryptozoology. Over 2,000 years ago, when the Celtic hooded priests were in their prime, black cats may have looked very different than they do today. The small, domesticated kitty you may be thinking of right now may very well have been a creature resembling the size of a small horse. One of the many mysteries behind cryptozoological animals is that it is theorized that some of these prehistoric-type creatures who lived long ago, can still exist today. The list of possible creatures runs quite the gamut, from the Adjule in North Africa to the Zuiyō-maru creature in New Zealand. Interestingly enough and beautifully in line with the holiday season of Samhain, cats and feline-like creatures fall into this category as well.
Illinois, in my opinion, is really the cryptozoology capital of the country. There have been more species of cryptids sighted in this state than anywhere else in the United States. Thunderbirds have been more prevalent here than anywhere else in the world. And, yes, this state has seen its share of mysterious black cats. In April 1999, a Clarksdale, Illinois couple, Mike and Bev Ray, claimed that a giant black cat walked across their yard. They said it was about 1½ times bigger than their largest Rottweiler and that it left a footprint in the mud 4 inches wide. The Rays think that the cat is either a panther or a black mountain lion and they have tried to capture it with a cage, but have had no luck. Despite the harsh criticism from the locals and experts, they firmly believe they have some sort of cryptid stalking the woods around their home. And they are not alone.
“There are black panther sightings throughout Central and Southern Illinois and over in Indiana, where they are known as ‘Varmints’”. – Loren Coleman, expert cryptozoologist
These cats have been spotted since 1917 and it has been documented dozens of times over the years, notably in 1955 and in 1976. Could these mysterious cats be the manifestations of evil spirits, destined to roam the Illinois forests just as they may have in the early days of Samhain?
One of the oddest cryptid stories happened on April 25, 1973 in the town of Enfield, Illinois. This sighting became known as the Enfield Monster because the furry creature is quite bizarre and is an aberration of the traditional black cat in nearly every way. A man named Henry McDaniel was at home when he heard something scratching on his door. When he opened the door, he saw a hideous creature that looked like something from a nightmare or a monster from the dark depths of Samhain.
“[T]he weird creature [was] about five feet tall, with a flat body, grayish in color… a strange appearing head at least twelve inches across… [having] three legs and two pink eyes the size of flashlight lenses.” (Miller 132)
Mr. McDaniel fired a pistol shot at it, causing the cryptid to hiss “like a wildcat” from the impact of the bullet. He then called Illinois state police to report the incident. His story not only made the local newspapers, but was broadcast over the radio station WWKI in Indiana. Mr. McDaniel, a sober man of rational character, also claims to have found the creature’s footprints leaving from his home, “shaped like a dog’s, but having six toe pads.” Shortly after he filed the police report, nearly 75 people converged on his property. Mr. McDaniel also “received approximately 250 phone calls… including a call from a ‘government representative’ who told him that the incident was similar to others occurring since 1967, and that these incidents had been associated with UFO sightings.” (Miller 133)
In many cryptid cases like the Druid black cats and the Enfield Monster, hundreds, even thousands of people have either “seen” the reported creatures or they adamantly state that they believe the claims to be true. Often, simply having a “seed”, like the myths of Halloween, planted into the minds of a group of people will increase sightings of cryptids. It has also been theorized that the harsh economic conditions and the effects of the Vietnam War stirred up mass sightings as a way to take American minds off of their troubles. This “seed planting” theory has been tested on paranormal tour groups and has shown the same results with more members feeling cold spots or seeing shadow movement.
The effects of social contagion can be seen as far back as the Celtic tradition of Samhain. Black cats, very common images of Halloween, were perhaps some of the first cryptid-like creatures to instill fear and dark curiosity within general society. The Day of the Dead may very well be more than just the lowering of the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds. It might also be the one time of year that the dividing barrier between sanity and insanity, along with reason and fear, are at their thinnest.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. 2002 Oxford University Press. Page 20.
Miller, David L., et al. “A Critical Examination of the Social Contagion Image of Collective Behavior: The Case of the Enfield Monster”. The Sociological Quarterly Vol. 19. Winter 1978. Pp. 129-140.