It was long, long ago in the year 2011 that I first wrote a post asking why Death's Head Moths, genus Acherontia, weren't already a common Halloween icon. By 2019, I had begun to see them in Halloween merchandise just every so often, but still not nearly as commonly as you might expect.
Whether or not I had any hypothetical influence over this, I'm proud to say that as of 2023, the world's most menacing looking adult Lepidoptera have become such a frequent member of the Halloween animal club, I've been in retail stores with more Acherontia Halloween items than black cat or owl items. No joke!
And like all Halloween fauna, these creatures vary splendidly in their degree of exaggeration! Some are scientifically accurate - sometimes direct copies of scientific illustrations on a framed print or a throw pillow - but more often than not, their finer details and especially their wing patterns are more imaginative, sometimes incorporating eyespots or even astrological symbols.
Most common, however, is the wonderful embellishment that their "death's heads" are no longer mere markings at all, but actual humanlike skulls sprouting from the insect's thorax, or in rarer cases, serving as the creature's entire head!
It's official, then: we haven't just elevated Acherontia to the sacred status of holiday mascot, but the status of a relatively brand new kind of monster, even without my help! How else can you even categorize an insect with any part of a human skeleton growing out of its back? That's far beyond mere "stylization" or "artistic license." That's pure horror fantasy!
Besides their dashing looks though, what's the deal with these precious little angels? How do they compare to their natural inspiration? What could they do as supernatural monsters?
First, we should take a refresher on the attributes of the real thing: there are just three species of Acherontia: A. lachesis, A. atropos, and A. styx. They are fairly large members of the hawk moths or "sphinx" moths, the Sphingidae, which also include the hummingbird moths. All members of this group are exceptionally strong, fast and sleek fliers among moths, with one species of Acherontia having a nearly five inch wingspan, the largest moth in the British isles!
Acherontia are also among the only moths capable of emitting sound audible to humans, squeaking almost like mice when upset, and do so partially by passing air through a thick, strong feeding apparatus that evolved originally to drink honey! All three death's heads are actually honey thieves, each targeting a different honeybee species and imitating the host bee's scent.
When it comes to supernatural lore, death's head moths have been seen as dark omens and evil spirits all around the world, and in several cases, as a form specifically taken by vampires! It's in none other than Romania, birthplace of our most famous vampire and werewolf tales, where the soul of a slain vampire or other evil spirit may reincarnate as one of these ominous insects. It's worth noting that the other hawkmoths also include the only known blood-drinking moths as well, and several species of moth that feed on vertebrate tears!
"Death's head moth" is admittedly a bit of a bit of a mouthful to specify every single time, and it's already the name of the real animal. I have, however, already seen the Halloween versions sold under the name "Skull Moth," which is as good a term as any. "Death Moth" and "Grave Moth" feel just as appropriate, too, especially if not all of them necessarily incorporate the skull. Obviously they should be able to suck blood like a few of their natural cousins, and we can't ignore the idea that they act as physical vessels for malevolent souls, but we don't want that to be their only context, do we? They deserve to be creatures in their own right, too, not just some temporary disguise taken by something else entirely!
I'm going to say that moths, for whatever reason, happen to be an ideal vehicle for any disembodied spirit that knows how to summon one, at which point the otherwise normal, harmless creature begins to take on this more ghoulish appearance and an appetite for hemoglobin. The next question is why a warlock or a wight or a werewolf would want to ride around in a fluffy little insect, and I think the answer to that lies in the bloodsucking part. Just as a tick or a mosquito can transmit infection, the bite of a Skullmoth might just be one of the easiest ways for the dead to get themselves back into a new body.