Life is nothing without ritual and custom, which is why you’ve probably noticed a sudden abundance of pumpkins with carved faces, plastic skeletons in windows, and, if you own a fancy dress shop, a welcome uptake in business. Yes, Halloween is nearly upon us, with its myriad themes of spookiness and macabre theatrics. Traditionally a day that marked the eve of All Saints’ Day, Halloween took on its own identity which now is much more popularly recognised. Some cultures believed that Halloween was the day of the year where the realm of the living and the dead came close together. It was said that the dead would rise and do as “danse macabre” – picture a bunch of skeletons doing a merry jig. Ceremonies would be held to honour the dead, complete with costumes and decorations. Jack-o’-lanterns were created to scare away evil spirits. At some point, the theological elements fell away, and we were left with the modern iteration, where small children put on frightening costumes and threaten to damage their neighbours’ property unless they are given sweets. Now, anything to do with themes of horror and scary stuff is associated with Halloween.
Halloween is a largely harmless tradition (apart from the aforementioned extortionate children), but there is a link to a real problem that affects animal welfare. There is a superstition linked to witches and black magic that says black cats are omens of bad luck. (In Celtic mythology, and therefore British folklore, black cats were thought to be good luck. Unfortunately, the overriding image in popular culture, that black cats are bad luck, has taken over, pushing the prejudice across the world.) This has had real word consequences, even to this day. Black cats are abandoned in higher numbers than other colours of cat, often because of the superstition. As irrational as it is, many people blame their pet black cat for a streak of bad luck in the home. Paradoxically, some animal shelters put temporary bans on adopting out black cats at this time of year, for fear that groups of Satanists will torture and kill them in some kind of blood sacrifice. Whether that fear is justified is unclear, for there is no real evidence that this has ever happened more than a handful of times, but it further demonstrates the extra hurdle that black cats go through to find a good home.
With that in mind, this time of year is a good one to talk about black cats. While the superstition angle is an interesting one, there are other factors which come into play. Some people apparently think that black cats are less interesting than other colours, and that they often don’t photograph as well. This makes people perceive them as boring, and less cute. That’s a different kind of stigma, and one much more fitting of the modern age – it’s bad for the Instagram profile. That really is scary.
Exactly what can be done to undo such a complex history of superstition, laced with unconscious prejudice and trivial presumptions, is hard to say. There are already drives to change the image, to make black cats seem cool. So, if you’re thinking of adopting a cat, consider getting a black one. And if you’ve got a black cat, show him or her off online. In 2014, the RSPCA reported that over 70% of cats in adoption shelters were black. It’s a long way to go, but with a bit of effort, perceptions can be changed, and black cats will no longer be the black sheep of the cat family.