Bats, Belfrys, and Implied Insanity

As a person who writes a lot of horror, psychology is an important part of what I do. If I can’t get into the mind of the damaged, the seemingly evil, or the very, very afraid, truthiness would invariably escape me. As the great Stephen King says “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Writers can make up any crazy thing they want. If readers are given a reason to, they’ll believe the writer. They’ll follow the writer pretty much anywhere if their need for closure is great enough. But if the characters are not real, nobody will be interested—nor should they be. So…I read a lot about psychology, sociology, true crime, you know…the usual places people go to learn about why horror happens in real life.

I’m also kind of a nerd about English. It’s a pretty ridiculous language, a hodgepodgical conglomerate of every language that has ever touched it—and that is a LOT of influence.

I’ve also been thinking about the lowly bat. When the average American thinks of bats, they think of one of two things: Batman, or Halloween. In the current vernacular, are several expressions that we use to describe insanity that feature the bat. The oldest, so far as I know, is “Bats in the Belfry.” Much like “toys in the attic,” it’s a phrase that implies that something has been left to its own devices for far too long. Bats will not nest in an active belfry. Their hearing is far too acute to abide being around ringing bells. So if your belfry has bats, it can only be because it’s old, unused, and not-quite-right-in-the-head; or perhaps that you’ve got nothing going on “upstairs.”

Later, this evolved into the shortened, more direct “Batty,” meaning “Crazy.” Today, hip kids are more likely to use the phrase “Batshit Crazy” to denote someone whose belfry is SO batty, that it is literally covered with guano.

In the Kingdom of Tonga, the bat is sacred as one of several manifestations of what is called “the separable soul.” The concept that a human soul can leave its bodily shell and exist in the body of an animal finds its way into Vampire lore, werewolf legend, and even milieus of ghosts or astral projection. It’s pretty widespread—though of course other cultures find the very idea of a separable soul somewhere between preposterous and blasphemous. This dichotomy plays out by creating a thin line between the supernaturally glorious, and the batshit crazy.

Some cultures consider bats lucky, while others do not find their blood drinking and disease spreading particularly desirable. Of course, most bats eat fruit as opposed to blood drinking, but try telling that to the tribe that has just lost a herd of livestock.

Bats come out at night, like the moon. The moon has long been thought to incite insanity, hence the word lunacy. It would make sense to primitive people that the erratic flying style of the bat is indicative of an inner craziness. The link between bats and insanity remains today. Even a hero like Batman is not without his own struggle with mental illness, and he generally flies in a straight line.

So when you see a bat—either in a belfry or flying around, try to remember that it probably isn’t insane. It’s unlikely to want your blood, and probably isn’t a vampire at all. But that’s no reason not to say hello.

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