Official movie poster for the 1979 horror film Nosferatu the Vampyre (© Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/20th Century Fox – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
A few weeks ago, I finally found time to watch a horror film that I had long been planning to see. Directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski in spellbinding form as the title character, the film in question was Nosferatu the Vampyre, the very stylish 1979 West German art-house remake of the cult 1922 German silent movie Nosferatu (starring Max Schreck), which in turn was loosely based upon Bram Stoker's classic epistolary vampire novel Dracula.
Little did I think while viewing it that only a short time later I would be investigating a fascinating but hitherto-obscure cryptozoological conundrum tucked away within the pages of the selfsame famous novel that had inspired this film – but that is precisely what happened, providing further confirmation for what I have always known, especially when dealing with mystery animals. Always expect the unexpected, and you will never be disappointed.
So here is that recent investigation of mine, presented here as a ShukerNature exclusive – the ever-curious case of Dracula, Van Helsing, and Giant Spiders in the Cathedral.
Many years ago, while reading Stoker's Dracula, which was originally published in 1897, I was intrigued by the following short but memorable aside spoken by the eminent vampire hunter Prof. Abraham Van Helsing to his former student Dr John Seward:
Can you tell me why, when other spiders die small and soon, that one great spider lived for centuries in the tower of the old Spanish church and grew and grew, till, on descending, he could drink the oil of all the church lamps?
At the time of reading it, however, I simply assumed that this extraordinary statement was nothing more than the product of Stoker's very fertile, and febrile, imagination. Consequently, I swiftly dismissed it from my mind, never considering for a moment that it may actually have been inspired by reality.
And then, just a few days ago, I received a fascinating email from a correspondent that has incited me to revisit this brief passage from Dracula and reassess it in a much more enlightened manner.
Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing in the 2004 Universal Pictures movie Van Helsing (© Universal Pictures, included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Received by me on 27 June 2017, the illuminating email in question was from James Nicholls of Perth, Australia, who very kindly informed me that in 1821 two separate periodicals, the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany (vol. 88, July-December, p. 268) and The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines (vol. 9, April-October, p. 485), had published the following short but fascinating account (referred to hereafter in this ShukerNature blog article of mine as the 1821 account), concerning giant oil-drinking spiders lurking amid the shadows of two major European edifices of religious worship:
The sexton of the church of St Eustace, at Paris, amazed to find frequently a particular lamp extinct early, and yet the oil consumed only, sat up several nights to perceive the cause. At length he discovered that a spider of surprising size came down the cord to drink the oil. A still more extraordinary instance of the same kind occurred during the year 1751, in the Cathedral of Milan. A vast spider was observed there, which fed on the oil of the lamps. M. Morland, of the Academy of Sciences, has described this spider, and furnished a drawing of it. It weighed four pounds, and was sent to the Emperor of Austria, and is now in the Imperial Museum at Vienna.
Needless to say, reading through this remarkable account, one is irresistibly reminded of Van Helsing's comment as penned by Stoker in Dracula – so much so, in fact, that surely there can be little if any doubt that this was indeed Stoker's source of inspiration for that comment, especially as this account was published 76 years before Stoker's novel first appeared in print.
Presumably, Stoker either misremembered the locations given for these stupendous spiders in the account, or he purposefully changed them in order to make it look as if Van Helsing had only retained a hazy, incompletely accurate memory of the account. Both of these possibilities could satisfactorily explain why he cited a Spanish church rather than either the French one or Milan Cathedral as named in the account.
Exquisite 19th-Century illustration of Milan Cathedral, capturing very effectively its immense size – big enough, surely, to conceal even the most monstrous of spiders amid the shadows embracing its upper regions during the hours of daylight? (public domain)
But might there be any factual substance to the above account, or was it too merely a work of fiction? Initially, the concept of any kind of oil-drinking spider, irrespective of body size considerations for the time being, seemed ludicrous. After all, kerosene would surely be toxic to such creatures. But when I began to research the account, I began to wonder.
For I discovered that back when it was published, during the early 1800s, and especially during the even earlier time period named by it during which the giant cathedral spider of Milan was reportedly discovered, i.e. during the early 1750s, the oil commonly used in lamps was derived from whale blubber or rendered animal fat, and therefore could conceivably be nutritious for spiders.
Moreover, spiders typically imbibe their sustenance in liquid form anyway; on account of the narrowness of their gut, they cannot digest solid food, so after immobilising or killing their prey with injected venom or enshrouding silk, they pump digestive enzymes into it from their midgut, then suck the prey's now-liquefied tissues into their gut. So the oil-drinking proclivity attributed to these great spiders is not as implausible as one might otherwise assume.
My book Mirabilis (© Dr Karl Shuker)
But what about their prodigious magnitude? My book Mirabilis; A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013) contains an exceedingly comprehensive chapter documenting a varied array of giant spider reports originating from all over the world. Within that chapter (as well as within a ShukerNature blog article on giant spiders excerpted and expanded from it - click here), I discussed as follows the crucial physiological flaw inherent in all speculation concerning the plausibility (or otherwise) of such creatures:
The fundamental problem when considering giant spiders is not one of zoogeography but rather one of physiology. Their tracheal respiratory system (consisting of a network of minute tubes carrying oxygen to every cell in the body) prevents insects from attaining huge sizes in the modern world, because the tracheae could not transport oxygen efficiently enough inside insects of giant stature. During the late Carboniferous and early Permian Periods, 300 million years ago, huge dragonflies existed, but back in those primeval ages the atmosphere's oxygen level was far greater than it is today, thereby compensating for the tracheal system's inefficiency.
Some of the largest known spiders also utilise a tracheal respiratory system, whereas smaller spiders employ flattened organs of passive respiration called book lungs. Yet neither system is sufficiently competent to enable spiders to attain enormous sizes, based upon current knowledge at least. So if a giant spider does thrive…it must have evolved a radically different, much more advanced respiratory system, not just a greatly enlarged body.
Also, giant spiders are very much the embodiment of primeval bogey beasts, created both consciously, by parents to playfully scare their children and to make them aware of the potential danger posed by various real but highly venomous species, and unconsciously, by the human imagination working overtime in relation to creatures whose potential danger is buried very deep within the fundamental human psyche. Surely it can be no coincidence that giant spiders, almost invariably of evil intent, appear in the traditional folklore and mythology of very different cultures all around the world.
Then again, outrageous journalistic hokum was extremely common in the West during much of the 19th Century, i.e. when the 1821 account was published, so perhaps that is all that it ever was, with no basis whatsoever in fact. After all, elsewhere on ShukerNature I have already documented such arachnological absurdities as the deadly giant siren-singing spider of Paris, France (click here), and the giant flying tomb spider of Rome, Italy (click here), both of which debuted in highly-suspect 19th-Century newspaper reports.
Since receiving the 1821 account from James Nicholls, I have conducted some appreciable online research in a quest for supplementary details appertaining to its contents, and have uncovered a few additional coverages of it, some back in the 1820s and others from modern times. However, all of them confine themselves almost exclusively to the details already provided in the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany and The Atheneum.
Indeed, the most informative version that I have accessed so far, entitled 'The King of the Spiders', remains the one that appeared in The Atheneum, so here it is in full:
'The King of the Spiders' article from Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines (public domain)
As can be seen, in addition to the standard details present in other versions, it also actually contains Morand's own verbal description (in French) of the giant Milan Cathedral spider. This translates into English as:
The body, the colour of soot, rounded, terminated in a point, with the back and the limbs hairy, weighed four pounds.
Two of the most notable 20th-Century publications to include mention of it are English spider authority W.S. Bristowe's A Book of Spiders (1947), and eminent British zoologist Prof. John L. Cloudsley-Thompson's authoritative work Spiders, Scorpions, Centipedes and Mites: The Ecology and Natural History of Woodlice, Myriapods, and Arachnids (1958). Worth noting is Bristowe's line of delightfully tongue-in-cheek speculation that he pursued in his coverage of the events detailed in the 1821 account:
I suspect the sexton [of St Eustace's Church in Paris] was under grave suspicion of borrowing the oil himself until he reported seeing [the giant spider stealing it].
Although he never stated it overtly, to my mind Bristowe's wording indicates that he entertained the possibility that the sexton had invented the entire giant spider story in order to conceal the fact that it was he who was stealing the oil. Who knows – perhaps the sexton had been aware of the report of the great spider from Milan Cathedral, and so was inspired by it to create a version of his own in order to hide his nefarious involvement in the oil's disappearance in his own place of worship.
Retitled as Spiders, reprint of W.S. Bristowe's A Book of Spiders (© King Penguin Books, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Sadly, the 1821 account tantalises rather than teaches its readers, by offering more questions than answers. Who, for instance, was Morland (or Morand, as so named in The Atheneum's version of events), who produced a drawing of the great spider of Milan Cathedral from 1751, and where is that drawing today? Does it still survive? I wonder if Morland (or Morand) could have been the English animal artist George Morland (1763-1804). And which museum is being referred to in the 1821 account as 'the Imperial Museum at Vienna'? However, it may well be Austria's Imperial Treasury Museum, which is housed at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, and contains many secular and ecclesiastical items spanning more than a millennium in European history.
In any event, I deem it highly unlikely that a preserved 4-lb spider exists in any museum collection within Austria – after all, as Bristowe pithily observed in his own coverage, it would be as big as a pekingese dog! Having said that, I would love to be proved wrong, so if anyone reading this article has knowledge of where such a specimen might be held today if it ever did once exist, I would greatly welcome details.
Nevertheless, having reported two separate specimens of giant spider means that the 1821 account is guaranteed to be of very appreciable interest and importance to cryptid seekers anyway. This makes it all the more surprising that (at least as far as I'm aware) its documentation in this present ShukerNature blog article of mine is the very first time that it has ever appeared in any strictly cryptozoological context.
Now that it has very belatedly done so, however, let us hope that it elicits further details concerning those spiders of stature documented within it, and perhaps concerning additional specimens too.
I wish to offer my most sincere and grateful thanks to James Nicholls for kindly bringing the 1821 account to my attention.
Finally: how could any article inspired by Stoker's Gothic literary masterpiece be considered at an end without having included at least one appearance from a member of the undead fanged fraternity – so here it is:
A vampire from the modern school of bloodsuckers, complete with fashionably-unkempt rock star looks, locks, and designer stubble, but clearly retaining the old school's fangs, ferocity, and mainstream malevolence – not a sparkle, shimmer, or outbreak of whimpering fangless adolescent angst to be seen anywhere here! (© David de la Luz/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)