Stuck with a Halloween Story? Cornell Experts Offer Some Treats

Released: 18-Oct-2012 3:00 PM EDT
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Newswise — From black cats bringing good fortune to super-sweet pumpkin crops and the history of horrifying words and imagery, several Cornell University experts are available to help you find new ways to explore this ancient holiday.

Black cat: A witch’s friend or yours?

Bruce Kornreich, a feline health specialist, veterinarian and associate director for education and outreach at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Feline Health Center, discusses the myths surrounding black cats.

Kornreich says:

“With Halloween around the corner, the ominous image of a black cat portends bad luck and sinister goings on – or does it?

“The history of how our ebony feline friends have been perceived through the ages is a tale of superstition, paranoia and perspective. In many cultures, black cats have been viewed as harbingers of good fortune, while others have considered these shadowy creatures to be messengers of bad luck and misfortune. This dichotomy tells us as much about ourselves as it does about kitties, and like our swarthy feline companions, us humans are an interesting breed indeed.”

Monsters are woven into human history and the human psyche

Kathleen Long is a professor of French in the Department of Romance Studies and an expert on monster narratives from the early modern period to the present day. She teaches a course titled, “Monsters A-X (Aristotle to the X-Files).”

Long says:

“Where did our favorite monsters come from? From the very first stories, vampires, werewolves and witches have haunted our imaginations. They have lived everywhere in the world, literally on every continent, even before the age of exploration. Something about us makes us want to be frightened.

“In literature, we see monsters that exist within the state, the family and the individual. They serve as a disruptive force that both conveys and questions the law (of nature as well as of culture).

“So, have a Happy Halloween, because monsters are everywhere – at least in our stories!”

Don’t fear creepy crawlies – eat them alive

Jason Dombroskie is a senior extension associate in the Department of Entomology. He is an avid eater of insects and bugs, and has personally tasted more than 200 different kinds – most of them live.

Dombroskie says:

“Most of the world has at least some insects in their diet, just not Westerners. It is really no different than eating seafood, which is universally accepted.

“Some moths, like the Lesser Maple Spanworm, can be quite tasty in a subtle way, and some can have a strong sweet flavor like the larvae of the Willow Pinecone Gall Midge. Most true bugs (Heteroptera) taste pretty bad, and stink bugs especially so.

“Most cultures excepting much of Europe and North America eat at least a few insects as part of their diet. I got interested in eating insects because many animals do, they are high-quality protein and abundant.

“As with eating anything that is new, you should exercise caution. Uncooked insects could transmit parasites, some insects can be toxic, and some could have high levels of pesticides in them.”

The language of Halloween is an ancient and global heritage

Wayne Harbert is a professor of linguistics, and an expert in the history of Germanic, Celtic and the English languages.

Harbert says:

“The Welsh and other Celts in the British Isles traditionally observed a two-season calendar. Nov. 1 (Calan Gaeaf—‘the winter calend’) was reckoned as the beginning of the winter half year, as well as the beginning of the month with the unsavory name of Tachwedd (literally, ‘slaughter’), or (not much cheerier) y Mis Du ‘the black month.’

“Celebrations held on the eve of the winter calend, Oct. 31 (Nos Calan Gaeaf), were imported to the New World and gave rise to the now mainly American holiday of Halloween. These traditions have virtually disappeared from the British Isles, and to the extent that the occasion is celebrated at all now it is mainly with the trappings of Halloween, reimported from America.

“Much of the traditional celebration involved predicting what would happen during the course of the year. If you threw an unbroken apple peel over your shoulder on Nos Calan Gaeaf, it would form the initial of your future lover. Or a snail found on the wall of a church would spell out that initial with its slime (perhaps because only the snails who hung out at churches were literate).

“‘Halloween’ is the Eve of All Hallows (Saints) Day (Nov. 1) – but perhaps more appropriately associated with All Souls Day (Nov. 2), when the dead are commemorated. These celebrations can perhaps be traced back to the fact that Nov. 1 was the beginning of the winter half-year in old Celtic traditions, and the eve of that day was regarded as a time when the boundary between this world and the next was particularly thin, allowing ghosts and other otherworldly beings to wander about.

“English is eclectic in its vocabulary for these wanderers, as in most things. The first goblin was a sprite named, appropriately enough, Gobelin, who appeared in France in the 12th century. Zombies came to us from the Caribbean, and ultimately from zumbi ‘departed spirit’ in the Bantu language Kimbundu. Poltergeists hail from Germany, and are so called because they make noises (poltern in German.). Warlocks are home-grown, the word coming from the Old English waerloga ‘oath breaker.’

Spiders – rarely trouble, and worth our weight in pest removal

Linda Rayor is a professor of entomology, one of the science hosts of the Science Channel series “Monster Bug Wars,” and has taught Cornell’s spider biology class – in which students obtain a pet tarantula to study through the semester – for more than 15 years.

Rayor says:

“There are only four groups of spiders in the United States that have a venom which affects humans – black widows, brown recluses, yellow sac spiders, and (maybe) hobo spiders. The only venomous spiders common in New York state are the yellow sac spiders, which are considered to be moderately venomous. Their bites kill tissue and cause itchy blisters.”

Here’s a few other spider facts from Rayor:

• You are more likely to be hit by lightning than bitten by a poisonous spider.
• Many more people die from bee stings than from spider bites every year.
• Fifty percent of the time, spiders don’t inject venom when they bite.
• The marbled orb weaving spider starts out the summer tan, but close to Halloween their color changes to a bright orange and they look like small pumpkins in webs.
• Spiders eat more insects than the weight of all the humans on the planet every year.

Witch imagery has its roots in ancient fashions and fears

Katherine Howe, a lecturer on American Studies at Cornell and a relative of accused Salem witches Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe. Her New York Times bestselling book, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,” is set in both contemporary times and the Salem witch trials.

Howe says:

“Why do witches look the way they do?

“Halloween witch costumes look nothing like what 17th Century Puritans imagined witches to be, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have historical valence. The pointy hat is a combination of two Medieval styles of middle class women’s headgear, the wimple and the hennin. The black cat comes from the belief that witches had a ‘familiar spirit’ to do their evil bidding, but it wasn’t always a cat – witch trial records list yellow birds, small dogs and snakes too. The broom shows up in Medieval woodcuts as the way that witches flew to their Sabbaths. Harry Potter gets it wrong, though – the broom is ridden with the straws facing forward, with a candle melted in the straws to light the way.

“What about ‘sexy’ Halloween witches? Where did that come from?

“Colonial-era witches wouldn’t have worn high heels and mini-skirts, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t sexy. Witch trial testimony sometimes features men testifying that the accused came in at the window and sat on the men’s chests while they were sleeping. Even more scandalous, the notorious witch-hunting manual the Malleus Maleficarum describes how witches copulate with Devils, talks about how they ‘obstruct the venereal act,’ and asks ‘Whether Witches may work some Prestidigatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body.’

“Why do we associate witches with Halloween?

“Historians debate the origin of All Hallow’s Eve, and whether it’s pagan or Christian. But Halloween does fall on Samhain every year, a harvest festival observed by modern-day pagans as the official end of summer. Like Halloween itself, witches also occupy a mysterious gray area between the pagan and the Christian, which is why they will be forever linked in popular culture.”

Control the candy consumption with just a hint of gift giving

David Just, co-director of the Cornell University Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition and an expert on marketing and food choices, offers his suggestions for controlling kids’ candy intake without ruining the party.

Just says:

“One easy way to limit the amount of sugar kids take in – without playing Scrooge – is by giving away small plastic toys instead. Kids eat just over half as much in a given sitting when they have a simple toy like those that come in a kids meal at a fast food restaurant. They get distracted by the toy and ignore the food.”

Forget wine, 2012 is the year of the super pumpkin crop

Stephen Reiner is a professor of horticulture who works throughout New York to help enhance the profitability and sustainability of the state’s vegetable farmers.

Reiner says:

“People talk about vintage years for wine, but the pumpkin crop in New York has never been better.

“Hot, dry weather stressed the plants a bit and may have caused some to be slightly smaller than we see in wet years. But timely rains and irrigations resulted in a near perfect crop with little disease, eye-popping color and the ideal shape.

“For those grown for making into pies, all that sun created the sweetest crop in years. New York also is a big producer of Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins, and in the past two years has lead the nation in the value of the crop.

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