Haunted house attractions and ghost tours can be a lot of fun. But some things are naturally spooky, with no fake blood or recorded howls required.
If you relish the notion of getting your thrills and chills without Hollywood special effects, check out the world’s largest urban bat colony in Austin, Texas; immerse yourself in the webby world of spiders at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles; or take a trip to Palermo, Sicily, where the Capuchin Catacombs display skeletons and mummified corpses, some dressed in their Sunday best.
North America’s largest urban bat colony
Fluttering over head then out to the darkening sky beyond, Mexican free-tail bats emerge in downtown Austin at dusk each night from late March until November.
They take flight en masse, a dark moving stream. It’s an eerie sight to some but a delight to scores of bat fans who gather at the Congress Avenue bridge to witness the movement of the 1.5 million mammals on their nightly journey to forage for food.
These bridge bats are considered to be the largest urban bat colony in North America, according to Bat Conservation International. They’re also a tourist attraction for Austin. Visitors and locals alike gather on the bridge, on the banks of Lady Bird Lake below, at nearby bars and restaurants and even on boats. Capital Cruises – http://www.capitalcruises.com – and Lonestar Riverboat – http://www.lonestarriverboat.com – offer bat-watching boat trips.
Far from a nuisance, the Austin bats are a prized attraction in this city that prides itself on being “weird.” There’s a bat festival one weekend in the summer to celebrate the colony. Bat observers can call a bat hot line throughout the season for information on the nightly flights, courtesy of the Austin American-Statesman (512-416-5700, ext. 3636).
Bat Conservation International educates the public about the bats, most of which migrate to Mexico for the winter. In Austin they make their home in the crevices beneath the bridge. When they go out to eat at night, they help with pest control by devouring from 4,500 to 9,000 kilograms of insects, according to the organization.
These city bats aren’t the only ones visitors come to see in the region, though they may be the most easily accessible for out-of-towners. Several large bat colonies can be found in caves in the nearby Hill Country, like the privately owned Bracken Cave near San Antonio, with its concentration of more than 20 million bats.
Near Fredericksburg – a historic town 105 kilometres west of Austin – as many as three million bats emerge on summer evenings from an abandoned narrow railroad tunnel managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; details at http://tinyurl.com/49t24h.
More recently, bat watchers have gathered along Interstate 35 near Round Rock to see one million bats come out from beneath an overpass at sunset.
Rosalia Lombardo still looks like a two-year-old baby taking a nap, her peaceful features framed by curly blond hair and a cute yellow ribbon.
But the toddler nicknamed “sleeping beauty” by Italians has been dead for nearly a century, and is one of the best-preserved mummies among thousands lining the catacombs beneath the Capuchin convent in Palermo, Sicily.
Lombardo’s was the last body to be placed in the underground cemetery that was dug in the late 16th century, initially to house deceased monks and later opened to the general populace.
Some 8,000 mummies are openly exposed, stacked ceiling-high in the corridors of the catacombs, lying in open niches or propped up in a standing position, many still dressed in their original clothes.
Monks wearing dark frocks, priests in sacred vestments, aristocrats in their best Sunday dress and the poor in rags as well as young children resting in their cribs were all buried in the catacombs to await Judgment Day.
While Lombardo’s body was embalmed by a doctor, most of the mummies were treated by the monks and preserved by the dry environment, leaving smartly dressed desiccated corpses that stare down with empty eyes at visitors walking through the vaulted corridors.
The 16th century monks who built the convent outside the city walls soon realized the tufa stone in the ground helped preserve the bodies of the dead. They enhanced the process by leaving the bodies to dry for months before treating them with vinegar, lime or arsenic.
Today, the mummies may give visitors the creeps or encourage sobering reflections on mortality but, in the cemetery’s heyday, they were a comforting presence for relatives and friends who could easily visit their loved ones, pray by their side and care for the body.
The cemetery was also appreciated by locals because the Capuchins, an order dedicated to the care of the poor, also took in bodies of those who otherwise could not have afforded such a burial.
Over the centuries, the underground complex was enlarged to reach about 4,300 square feet. It stopped being used in the second half of the 19th century, though some exceptions were made, including Palermo’s “sleeping beauty,” who died of a disease in 1920.
The catacombs are located Piazza Cappuccini, 1, Palermo, and are open daily, 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.-6 p.m. Entrance fee is three euros.
Spider Pavilion, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Los Angeles, California
Hundreds of free-roaming spiders are spinning their webs in this walk-through landscaped exhibit. Visitors can watch spider feedings and learn about the webs’ intricate architecture and engineering. Fifteen local and exotic species are on display, including the large golden silk spiders of the Nephila genus and the golden orb weavers of the Argiope genus, which are known for their yellow and black markings. Each spins a unique web, some of which are several feet wide.
Unlike a butterfly pavilion where free-flying butterflies sometimes land on visitors, here the spiders stick to their webs along the sides of the pavilion. Humans are not permitted to touch them.
While some visitors may experience an involuntary shudder or a touch of arachnophobia in the presence of all these eight-legged creatures, the museum says that the goal of the exhibit is to “convey how harmless and gentle these animals are and how important they are to our ecosystem.”
Several times a day, visitors get to watch the spiders being fed live crickets by museum staff. The spiders rapidly immobilize their prey inside sticky venomous silk before consuming them.
Outside the pavilion, other species like tarantulas are on display in terrariums, with museum entomologists on hand to answer questions.
The Spider Pavilion is open through Nov. 8, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tickets are US$3 for adults and $1 for children 5-12 in addition to the admission price for the museum, which is $9 for adults and $6.50 for children. Because spiders are most active in the dark, the museum is also hosting special Halloween-themed flashlight tours where visitors can watch them at night, on Oct. 10, 17 and 30, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. The museum is located at 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, http://www.nhm.org.