It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.
Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.
Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the United Kingdom actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!
Making Them Scary (Sort of)
The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.
The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).
In many cases, ancient straw men also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)
Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.
A New Era
Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Straw man figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.
So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.
- Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
- Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
- Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals.” JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
- Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
- Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas,” 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
- Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management.” Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.