Black cats have been symbols of the occult since the dawn of English literature, the first Full-length English novel was about cats. This was William Baldwin's 15 70 horror story. Beware the Cat. It contains the line.
A cat has nine lives. That is to say, a witch may take on her a cat's body nine times. Nowadays, black cats are believed to carry bad luck with them. When one crosses your path, there is nothing you can do. You have been marked for misfortune. But what if I told you that this superstition surrounding black cats is not just a side effect of ancient folklore, but a belief created by religious propaganda nearly 800 years ago? Hi, everyone, I'm Alastair Murden, and this is Superstitions, the newest Spotify original from podcast.
Why do we balk when stepping underneath a ladder? Why does a broken mirror send shivers down our spines? Why do hotel floors skip the number 13? Belief in the supernatural does not belong to religion alone. Our world is a strange place full of unsettling patterns and idiosyncrasies we struggle to understand. It is here at the intersection of chaos and fate that we find superstitions. We'll tell stories illustrating the horror, the weirdness and the truth behind these beliefs. We'll explore how they began and what their continued existence says about the fragile human mind.
Today, we'll begin our show with the most iconic of all superstitions the black cat. Where does our cultural fear of black cats come from? And are they truly a harbinger of bad luck? A warning. This episode features dramatizations of bullying, violence and ableism. Please exercise caution for children. Under 13, you can find episodes of superstitions and all other podcast originals for free on Spotify.
We'll begin this tale of the black cat after this.
There's something undeniably spooky about a black cat, the way they blend into the night is sure to send a chill up anyone's spine, even if they aren't allergic, no matter what Halloween merchandise or witchy teen dramas would have you believe cats haven't always been a symbol for dark magic. Actually, they used to be good luck. Take this classic Welsh poem from the 19th century. A black cat I've heard it said can charm all the way and keep the house where in Sidwell's from fevers deadly sway.
Before then they were more than lucky. They were divine in ancient Egypt. They represented the goddess Bastet, whose head is that of a dark feline. And in Norse mythology, two enormous black cats pulled the chariots of Freyr, goddess of love and war. These aren't symbols of dark magic. These are figures that command respect. Over the following centuries, we've seen strange rules develop about what makes a lucky black cat encounter and what makes an unlucky one.
In Germany, it's considered bad luck if the black cat crosses your path from right to left. But good luck if going from left to right in England, the luck is determined by whether the cat is walking toward or away from you. All this begs the question where did the bad luck surrounding black cats come from? And why did any and all good luck associated with the creature vanish by the time Europeans reached America? Perhaps the answer lies in the puritanical roots of the United States.
Even today, young people might be told to cross themselves or say a prayer when they see a black cat. This is especially true for anyone attending, say, a Catholic high school. Today's story takes place in the recent past in a world where maybe there's some merit to a fear of cats, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The story actually begins with a chase deep inside the halls of Bishop Fenwick High School.
Mary Katherine Hale didn't hear the school bell ring, she didn't hear much of anything besides the dull and distant pounding of her feet against the floor, a wave of perfectly combed golden hair vanished around a corner in front of her. The owner of that hair, Haley Traina, had taken Mary's hearing aid. She rounded a corner, then another in pursuit of the thief. She was no athlete, and by the time she caught up with her pursuer, she was sweaty, red faced and shaking with rage.
Haley was sitting in her seats towards the front of class, wearing an angelic smile beside her. Her boyfriend, Dylan Smith, stifled a snigger. Everyone else had their heads bowed for the morning prayer. Mary sat at a desk across from them and waited. Finally, when their heads raised, Mary stood and walked over to Haley. She held out her hand expectantly. Haley adopted an innocent and vaguely incensed expression. What do you want, weirdo? Her silent mouth seemed to say.
Mary caught a hint of movement at Dylan's side, as if he was pocketing something. His shoulders were shaking from repressed laughter. Was it at her helplessness or as something else? Mary looked up to see if the teacher had noticed the interaction. The entire class was staring at her. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, Dylan and Hayley had done this on purpose. They knew Mary hated being the center of attention. She slunk back to her seat and sat down, admitting defeat.
The two students laughed silently, a silver crucifix bouncing up and down on Dylan's chest. Mary buried her face in her textbook, tears swimming in her eyes. She knew the hearing aid would eventually find its way back to her. The bullies wouldn't keep it because it was too fun to keep stealing it over and over. They toyed with her like a cat plays with a mouse.
As expected, Mary got her hearing aid back by the end of the day after suffering through six classes taught by adults who never learned ASL. She took the long way home that night from the bus stop.
She didn't want her father to see how miserable she looked.
With each step, a vision of her tormentors returned to her mind. Haylee, with her impeccable makeup and pearly whites, smile. Dylan, with his chiseled jaw and tussled hair, flawless children of flawless parents going to church every Sunday and serving as readers during school mass.
Mary thought it was funny how exterior perfection often hid rotten hearts. The sun had completely set by then, the shadows growing longer and deeper all around them. Mary only really noticed when one of them seemed to detach itself and slunk toward the sidewalk.
It was a cat, very clearly a stray. Its fur was wild and it had no collar. Mary wiped her eyes and knelt down to the cat's eye level, holding out her hand. The cat approached yellow eyes glinting in the gloom. She could almost see something behind it, slit pupils, a strange kind of recognition like it knew her.
But then its claws were out and it struck down.
It could only reach her hand, but that was enough. Its talons scored across her fingers, causing small flecks of blood to splatter the pavement. Mary pulled her hand back in shock.
The cat just stood there, staring as if it had done nothing wrong. Mary grit her teeth and closed her eyes, trying to wait until the stinging subsided.
Then she felt a rough tongue slide across her forehead when she looked up. The cat was gone.
When Mary arrived home, she went right for the attic. She couldn't count on her father for comfort after his busy day of work. Instead, she found comfort in a ghost.
Mary's mother had left without explanation six months earlier, just after a huge fight with her father about sending her to a Catholic school.
Mary felt most safe among the possessions she left behind packed away in cardboard boxes.
Much of her mother's stuff didn't make sense to her old books, weird herbs and indecipherable recipes.
But there was comfort in their familiar strangeness. As she dozed off, she thought she heard a familiar purring sound deep in the recesses of the attic.
The next day, a school promised to be another day of torment, Mary's first period was social studies, which she shared with all of her least favorite classmates. But there was a surprise waiting for her when she arrived in class for the first time all year. Hayley seat was empty when class began. Dylan shot Mary a dirty look as she entered, but he didn't do anything. There was no fun in tormenting her alone. For once, it seemed like Mary was going to be spared.
But then the door cracked open. A figure entered walking with a strange, pained gait, a gasp spread through the class as one by one they realized it was Hayley trainer, her converse's squeaks strangely as they shuffled across the floor.
Her perfect hair was knotted and wet, red rivulets running down her face and across her school approved polo shirt from head to toe. She looked like the victim of a minor car accident. Their teacher screened, Dylan rushed forward to his bloody mess of a girlfriend. Mary gaped, Haley ignored Dylan and shuffled straight for Mary's desk. She stared through her bloody hair at Mary, eyes burning with rage. Soon, she was close enough that Mary could see the scars that criss crossed her face.
In groups of three, her left ear lobe had been sliced off, taking her earring with it. Haley snarled at Mary, but her words were directed at the entire classroom. The death which did this to me. Up next, the cat comes back tirelessness, I'm so excited to introduce you to the newest Spotify original from podcast called Blind Dating, hosted by YouTube Terror. Michelle blind dating is a fun twist on a classic set up. Strangers are introduced, conversation commences and sparks either fly or fizzle.
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Now back to the story. Mary stood before Mr Putin's desk hanging her head, the principal was in the midst of a confused yet furious rant.
They didn't have mauling incidents at Bishop Fenwick High School.
And when a student was cut to ribbons shortly into first period, he had a right to know who, what, when, where, why and how. Only Mary Katherine couldn't help him there. It wasn't hard to figure out how Hayley had been mauled, someone or something had slashed her a number of times across the face. Mary's heart stopped. She looked down at her fingers, bandaids covid a series of cat scratches she had received the night before. Haley's wounds looked like cat scratches as well, only they were far deeper.
It couldn't be a coincidence. Mary was suspended pending an investigation, the principal couldn't determine her involvement, but Haley's accusation had to be taken seriously. Mary's father was not happy and told Mary so as he drove her home, she didn't listen to him. They'd had this kind of talk before. Her father was always more concerned with how they looked than what she actually did not like her mother, who didn't give a hoot about what anyone else thought. No wonder she left him.
Mary went to bed early, but did not sleep through the night, she awoke to a dark and silent room. A shadow loomed in her window, tall as an adult with hair made of dark clouds.
Mary would recognize that silhouette anywhere. Her mother turned toward her, but she could not hear her speak. By the time she put her hearing aids in, she only caught three words. Come with me. The window was empty when she looked back, she felt soft weight, pressing down on her bed.
She switched a lamp on to see the black cat laying something on her covers. It was a mother of Pearl Earring with the lobe still attached. Haleys the cat had mauled her bully for her.
It's hard to put into words just how Mary felt in this very moment. She was delighted to have a protector, but the violence she had seen earlier that day terrified her.
And the Shadows statement sounded more like a command than a request, one that could not be ignored. Come with me.
She already knew where this cat where her mother was going to take her. Dylan's house was only a short walk away after all, and her father slept soundly, Dylan's bedroom window was not hard to locate, even from the St to Mary's surprise. The lights were still on. Dylan stood in side, pumping waits with headphones over his ears. Mary wondered if he couldn't sleep because of what had happened to Hayley earlier. She looked at the cat. It stared back expectantly.
Her heart leapt to her throat. It wanted to be let in. She shook her head. The cat raised a poor and rubbed an ear, as if to say, Remember what they did yesterday.
Maybe, Mary reasoned, a little scare would be good for Dylan. This God fearing schoolboy needed a lesson.
But still, her hands shook as she opened the window. The cat slid in silently and she waited for some sound from within, she heard it a soft slice like a pair of scissors clipping a plant.
The shriek that followed was unmistakable. It struck Dylan three times.
Once stinging his heels, the weights hit the floor with a thud twice, his hands thrice on his chest, slashing through his white tank top and into his skin. The silver cross clink to the floor, its chain broken by the cat's claws, Dylan fell soon afterwards, scrambling to put his back up against the wall. And then he saw her rage flash through his eyes. And Mary couldn't help but feel a flicker of fear. Dylan reached down and hefted one of the weights it had the number 35 on the side.
Mary ducked just as it smashed through the window, shattering glass shards and bits of wood through her hair. Mary turned and fled out into the dark suburbs of Haverhill, not caring if the cat followed. She knew there was no way Dylan could convince the school that she'd ordered the black cat to maul him.
But she still felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for letting it in. She never prayed before in her life, but now she prayed that her bullies would be too scared to seek revenge. Deep down, she knew this wouldn't help. Nothing happened until a month later, it was Spirit Week, five blissful days when the school didn't force them to wear ugly polo shirts. The freshman class theme was freaky freshmen. Some chose to interpret this as an invitation to wear party clothes and test the limits of the dress code.
Others chose to read the theme as intended and get spooky using some of her mother's old wardrobe. Mary dressed up as Drucilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and was quite proud of her costume. The entire school filed their way into the gym, each class ready to shout over each other in the name of school spirit. The noise forced Mary to turn her hearing aids off as she entered. She had no warning when they grabbed her. The pair of rough hands carried her down into the labyrinthine hallways by the locker room and P.E. classrooms, she was thrown forcefully into one of the empty classrooms, her head banged against the blackboard, smudging the abstinence lessons written on its surface.
When she turned world spinning, she was unsurprised to see Dylan looming over her. He wore a black shirt with a single tab of white on the collar. Perhaps he was dressed as the protagonist from The Exorcist. Haley wore no costume. Faint lines of scar tissue ran across her deathly calm expression. A cluster of their friends surrounded them. Mary was too dizzy to tell how many. She raised a shaky hand to her ear and flicked on her hearing aid.
Dylan snuggled into her face. You might act all innocent, but none of us buy it. Mr. Lutin doesn't buy it. Haley held out a hand and didn't press something into it. Mary shook her head, trying to focus.
It had looked like a ruler. When her vision sharpened, she realized she was only half right. It was a ruler, but it had been broken off at the end, leaving an edge of jagged plastic.
Mary pleaded with them. Please, I didn't do anything. I just want to be left alone. I can't control it, Dylan grinned. So you do know about the cat? That's as good as a confession. Then a soft sound drifted from the corner. A familiar meow. The cat had found them. Mary tried one last time to beg the other students to leave her alone, but it was too late. The attack came swiftly. The bullies fell into a panic, trying to kick at the creature, striking at their heels as soon as their eyes were off her.
Mary bolted for the door. She wanted no part of the violence. This time, the dungeon like gym hallways passed by in a blur walls, locker walls, office or flying by her like a VCR on Fastforward.
Finally, she collapsed in an exhausted heap in the band room. The quiet lasted for what felt like ages. Finally, a familiar shadow entered the room, though its fur was torn and its claws were bloody, Mary recognized the cat right away. It limped towards her and she could feel the vibrations of pounding feet in the halls outside. At that moment, she didn't know which she feared more. The cat walked up to her and rubbed its head against her.
This creature had done horrible things, but it was a cat. After all, violence was part of its nature. It could teach her how to survive in a world full of enemies who picked on and scorned her, how to escape from the judgment of the ignorant. Like her mother before her, her bullies called her a witch, and maybe that's what she was always destined to become. Hayley and Dylan never found Mary. They searched high and low until the final bell rang.
They never saw the two black cats slinking away from campus, purring at each other as they went.
Let's return to the original question I asked at the start of this episode, why did Katz switch from being seen as an almost divine figure to being a symbol of black magic and witchcraft?
It turns out the culprits of this demonic association happens to be a pope in the early 12 30. See, Pope Gregory the 9th issued a papal decree called the Volks in Rama, declaring a crusade on various heretical practices. The document reads like a horror story in itself, describing satanic rituals that likely never took place. One of the rituals describes a black cat statue coming to life to be worshipped as a symbol of the devil. Translated, it reads, A black cat descends backwards with its tail erect.
First the novice, next the master. Then each one of the order who are worthy and perfect kiss the cat on its buttocks.
So yes, we fear black cats because a pope claimed that Satanists were required to kiss a black cat. But and as ridiculous as that sounds, it gets worse. Some claim that there were so many cats killed for being symbols of Lucifer that it worsened the spread of the black plague a century later and the cat persecution didn't stop.
Their cities in Europe had annual festivals flinging cats from local belfry towers or burning clusters of cats and bonfires during midsummer celebrations. By the 17th century, people treated it as a folk medicine. They drank a black cat's blood to restore their health, make a gravy of the poor creatures to cure consumption, or even use a powdered cat's head to cure failing eyesight. Even stories of lucky black cats from this time and poorly. King Charles, the first of England, owned a black cat of his own, who he insisted was to be guarded round the clock when the feline expired.
The King reportedly declared that his luck had run out. As the story goes, the very next day he was arrested by Oliver Cromwell soldiers and executed a couple of years later in sixteen forty nine. The pact between humans and black cats always seems to be a tenuous one.
Today, it's widely believed that black cats are the least adopted pets in pet shelters. Even though recent studies have cast doubt on this claim, it has shown no signs of stopping. We're so used to looking at these creatures as enigmatic outsiders that it makes sense to us they'd have trouble finding a home because the black cat is no longer an animal. Per say, it has become a symbol of bad luck itself. Belief in witchcraft, curses and black magic may fade, but the impulse that inspired those beliefs still exists, and that is stirred every time we see a black cat.
Thanks again for listening to superstitions. We'll be back Wednesday with a new episode, you can find more episodes of superstitions and all of the podcast originals for free on Spotify until next time, be wary of the things you cannot explain. Superstitions was created by Max Cutler and his Apakan Studio's original. It is executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Kenny Hobbs with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Superstitions was written by Robert C.M.A with Writing Assistants by Greg Castro and Dru Cole.
I'm Alastair Murden.
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