"If you were an alien abductee, you might have memories of seeing owls in the city, or owls on the subway, or owls sitting outside your apartment window, or owls sitting INSIDE your apartment window, wearing space clothes and preparing a rectal probe."
Owls are, to put it bluntly, creepy. They just are. Perhaps it's because most of them are nocturnal or that they eat cute little mice or that they can spin their heads all the way around. It could be those (relatively) gigantic, piercing eyes. Or perhaps it's the sounds they make at night (except for the beating of their wings which are so soft and fluffy you'll never hear a thing. Bad news for rodents), in the dark, when you're in The Lost Woods.
It doesn't really matter why they are creepy, they just are. Owls have long been viewed as harbingers of disease, death, destruction, and bad luck. To the Hopi, they were a symbol of evil sorcery; to the Romans, they were funerary birds, signaling ill will in the daytime (unless you were collecting their eggs, in which case they signaled a Hideous Hangover Cure); and the Aztecgod of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often portrayed with owls. Geoffrey Chaucer also had a thing for them.
So remember: if you ever see an owl, clutch your Tootsie Roll Pops tightly and run in the other direction.
Owls are, of course, also assholes.
On the other hand, owl was a symbol of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, and generally one of the most human-friendly of the Olympians. Thus as long as it's not just there to scare you, the owl can be a symbol of wisdom. This of course may lead to the softer version of the trope that owls tend to be pompously intellectual and annoying.
To many, owls seem like cats as birds. Whether this makes them better or worse is up to you.
Also, everyone is fond of owls, as the hit count and comments on Lovely Owl Molla demonstrate. Possibly because an owl's face superficially resembles a human face, with the beak where a human nose would be. How this is relevant, God only knows.
See also Feathered Fiend for other types of creepy, creepy birds. Contrast The Owl Knowing One.
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Anime & Manga
In One Piece, every member of CP 9 has an animal motif, and the creepiest one is definitely Fukuro who is based off of an owl. Among other things, his mouth has a zipper on it that he has to unzip if he wants to talk.
There is yet another Fukuro among the assassin group Trinity Raven in Fairy Tail, who is also noticeably creepy. He has a man's body but an owl's head (also two missiles on his back with the word "JUSTICE" printed on it), and one of his abilities is to swallow his opponents whole and use their magic until they digest fully. It's worth noting that "Fukuro" is Japanese for "owl."
The Wolfs Rain anime series had a creepy owl that made appearances at times, most likely as a symbol for death.
In the zoo chapter of Yotsubato, Yotsuba is utterly terrified of the owl. She ends up trying to scare it (so that it stops staring at her)... and then it spreads its wings and hoots. Cut to her hiding behind her dad's legs.
In Cyborg 009, a mother owl and her babies actually live in an abandoned castle in Germany where Albert/004 fights a robot with his same looks and powers. During the fight, the nest gets knocked off its site and out of reflex 004 shields the owls with his own body... which saves his life, as the robot couldn't predict his human reaction and its programmed strategies are all screwed.
In Sora No Wo To, an owl is both the unit's pet, Shuko, and their insignia. Shuko is a Northern White-faced Owl, the "evil transformer owl" with its own entry in the Real Life folder below.
Kouichi from Nabari No Ou is actually an owl with a human heart. His partially transformed form after being shot in the heart is more than a little creepy.
Mukuro from Katekyo Hitman Reborn! has a Snowy Owl as his box animal. Not so creepy until you see it with his red/blue heterochromia. Unsurprisingly, the owl is named Mukurou.
Though the name might come from the fact that the Owl was the body Mukurou used for an extended period of time (and thus, was in fact Mukurou) before he got his own body back. That and the box technically belongs to Chrome, not Mukuro.
In the Alara block of Magic: The Gathering, strixes are kept as pets in the bio-mechanical realm of Esper. As the name might suggest to any Latin scholars, they're venomous or parasitic evil clockwork owls.
Winnie the Pooh 's Owl appears in the Kingdom Hearts Collectible Card Game. Seeing how the game focuses a lot on Magic/Friends(Summons, in the first game, which ran on magic), such as Simba, Tinkerbell, Bambi, etc, playing an Owl card can cause a lot of grief, as he prevents them from being played. He can also be played at any time, and is a pain to get rid of.
A horror comic had a short story called "Hooters" where evil owls killed buxom women on a camping trip.
In Usagi Yojimbo, the comic reflects the Japanese idea that the Owl is a symbol of death. In one story, Usagi and Gen spot one perched near a hut. When they looked inside and found their old friend, Zato-Ino, in a hut and gravely wounded, that bird was a bad omen. However, they are able to successfully treat the pig and Gen spitefully goes out to taunt the bird and drive it away. Later the Owl is diving for a cute little lizard, but the little guy is saved by an attacking Tokage who tackles the Owl and eats it.
In Hellboy: The Corpse, when the Fairy King makes his first appearance, he has an owl perched on his arm.
B.P.R.D. 1946 and 1947 feature a vampire count who shapeshifts into an owl. Sometimes he does it to make murdering Nazis easier and sometimes he does it to get around faster. It's just his thing.
The reason why he was so named is because owls prey on bats.
Another Batman example is the vilainous organisation The Court of Owls introduced in Scott Snyder's run on Batman Volume 2. They're a clandestine society who have apparently secretly controlled Gotham for centuries, and the "owls prey on bats" imagery has been played up for all it's worth.
Macduff, a wooden doll in form of an owl that formerly was the pet of Gepetto, recently joined Jack Frost in his adventures.
The appearance of Jareth, the goblin king, in Labyrinth (and his departure at the end) involved his becoming an owl... actually, Labyrinth's entire opening shot is a (for the time) impressive CG sequence of said owl flying around the opening credit shots and eventually becoming a real owl with a carefully executed editing sweep shot into the first scene.
The movie The Adventures Of Milo And Otis, a story about a lost kitten and a puppy, has a scene in the treetops at nighttime where the kitten talks with a horned owl with glowing eyes who pops out of nowhere. Though he is friendly, he is, needless to say, quite terrifying for younger children.
In Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, Lord Sepulchrave is driven mad by the destruction of his library, starts believing he is 'The Death Owl' and eventually commits suicide by allowing himself to be eaten by owls.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: "I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and underdeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all [men] have."
Neil Gaiman: "Daughter of Owls," wherein a baby girl foundling is superstitiously thought to be, yes, born of owls and thus the townfolk will not raise her, only giving her food.
In Bless Me Ultima, owls are a sign that a bruja (or evil witch) is around. It seems to be the same concept as Western witches' familiars, but I'm not terribly familiar with the mythology surrounding brujeria.
It's also a subversion, as the main owl in the story is connected to Ultima herself, who is a curandera rather than a bruja (playing on the Latino Catholic stereotype of indigenous healers being witches). In fact, when the owl is killed, Ultima dies not long after as a consequence.
Owls are pretty nasty in Kenneth Oppel's Silverwing series, where their job is to keep bats from seeing the sun, and kill those that do - even going so far as to burn down a colony of females and children to take their revenge. Nothing compared to the real villains of the series: giant cannibal bats that worship an evil human-sacrifice-accepting god. In the later books, the owls get increasingly sympathetic.
Stephen Bauer's fantasy novel Satyrday centers on the attempts of the protagonists - an orphaned boy, the satyr who raised him, a fox-spirit, and a sympathetic raven - to combat a malevolent owl and his plot to kidnap the Moon (who is a character in her own right). The owl is tyrannical and very cruel, a prime example of this trope.
At one point in The Bible, Job complains that in the extremity of his misfortune, he has become "a brother to dragons and a companion to owls." Though some translations render it as "a companion to ostriches," which somehow reads as slightly less eerie.
In Jincy Willet's short story "Justine Laughs at Death," an extended parallel is drawn between the Serial Killer (and rapist and torturer) Ripley and an owl he sees outside his window, with the owl's menace and predatory nature initially reminding Ripley comfortingly of himself (once the metaphor is extended, it gets... less comforting).
You could dress up a pigeon in a tiny suit of evening clothes and put a tiny silk hat on his head and a tiny gold-headed cane under his wing and send him walking into my room at night. It would make no impression on me. I would not shout, "Good God Almighty, the birds are in charge!" But you could send an owl into my room, dressed only in the feathers it was born with, and no monkey business, and I would pull the covers over my head and scream.
In the story "The Ghost Car" in Chris Woodyard's book Haunted Ohio II, the deaths of a certain family's members are heralded by a number of owls that fly away one by one until none are left. This occurs after a man muffled in a coat knocks on the family's door before vanishing. This happens on winter nights for two years in a row. When the knock comes on the third year, the family does not open the door, at which the knocker chuckles and says, "Soon no one will occupy this farm but the owls."
she falls into this mediaeval vein of description (the italics are ours): "The banner unfurled it at the sound, and shook its guardian wing above, while the startled owl flapped her in the ivy; the firmament looking down through her 'argus eyes,'-
Discworld makes fun of this trope (As it does virtually every trope in existence). The Epebian goddess of wisdom was supposed to have an owl as her signature animal. Unfortunately, due to her church hiring a sculptor who wasn't very good at doing birds for her statue, she ended up with a penguin.
Subverted in the Young Adult novel Hoot. While burrowing owls are tiny and adorable, their existence on a construction site spells doom for the pancake house that is supposed to be built on it.
Completely averted in Katherine Lasky's The Guardians of Ga'Hoole, where the cast consists almost entirely of owls, the odd snake and seagull aside. That is, averted as long as you're talking about the protagonists; their enemies, The Pure Ones, can be a pretty nasty bunch.
Justified in Poppy, since most of the cast are mice. However the mice and the owl, Mr. Ocax, have an odd relationship in which the mice are forced to pretend that Mr. Ocax is their kindly ruler/landlord.
In the Warrior Cats series, owls are often thought of as ill omens. Justified, since an owl seems quite large to a cat, and owls have been known to carry off kits. However, ThunderClan does occasionally look for owls at night, because if it's windy and they're having trouble scenting prey, they can follow an owl and find prey that way.
Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore has an owl. Not a major plot point, but a running sidearc.
Night closed in. The Limberlost stirred gently, then shook herself, growled, and awoke around him. There seemed to be a great owl hooting from every hollow tree, and a little one screeching from every knothole.
Live Action TV
Owls in Twin Peaks are supposed to be the eyes of BOB and/or the Black Lodge, but their significance is never really explained. Then again, neither is anything else of consequence to the series' overall plot.
John Oliver once noted on Mock the Week that owls can kill tigers, because they have the high ground.
A couple of Lindsey Stirling's videos, e.g. her Zelda medly, use owl hoots to set the scene and make it seem scary.
Original references to vampires turning into flying creatures had them become owls, not bats.
This may be because the Middle Eastern Lilith/Lilitu was often symbolized as an owl, and often took the form of an owl.
The Cahuilla Indian god of death, Muut, was represented by an owl.
The demon Andras, is a man with the head and wings of an owl.
There's the saying Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere (when owl hoots, an American Indian dies).
Most Native cultures in Mexico and the American Southwest consider owls ill-omened — many of them believed hearing an owl hoot is an omen of death. Though Old Man Owl occasionally does some good in Navajo legends, most owls one might meet are probably shape-shifted ghosts”the related Apache tribe wear owl feathers to keep ghosts away. Even when Old Man Owl does his good deed, it's creepy, considering what he says when given a deer-liver as thanks: "Turn your back, my grandchild, I allow nobody to see me feed."
Owls also were the symbol of Mictlantehuatl, god of death and ruler of the Underworld in Aztec Mythology.
Speaking of owls and the Aztecs, the Aztecs feared owls: hearing the hooting of an owl was an omen of misfortune, hearing the scream of a screech owl was an omen of your own death, and seeing a horned owl was the beginning of one's own spiritual corruption and doom.
The Aztec god Tlacolotl was a patron of evil doers, sorcerers and darkness. He is similar to Tezcatlipoca, though, unlike the Smoking mirror, who is the dark half of the Light and cultivates evil so it can be exposed and dealt with, Tlacolotl cultivates wickedness for the sake of wickedness. In the Codex Cospiano, Tlacolotl is represented as a horned owl nesting in a temple as the blind sorcerer god of obstacles, ice and immobility, Itzlacoluihqui. sometimes described as a negative counterpart to Tezcatlipoca, makes an offering of blood and burning incense, apparently in an attempt to blot out the sun. [http://www.kunst-fuer-alle.de/english/art/artist/image/mexican-school/8713/16/index.htm#]
In some parts of Medieval Europe, it's thought only owls could abide the presence of ghosts, so an owl nesting near a house is a sign that it's haunted.
On the one hand, owls are considered a death omen in Japanese mythology. On the other, they're also considered to be really stupid.
Stolas/Stolos, a demon and prince of hell in the Ars Goetia, is represented as an owl. Also an example of The Owl Knowing One since he is presented as a tutor, albeit one who teaches poisons and other demonic knowledge.
In several African tribal beliefs, particularly in the Congo, owls were and are considered evil beings that eat the souls of humans.
3.5 Monster Manual also describes a giant owl, which is a subversion as it is usually Neutral Good. The evergreen Owlbear on the other hand...
Subverted with the grim, a 2nd Edition good-aligned monster that often took the form of an owl. It hung around cursed graveyards and other creepy locales, but did so to help keep evil forces from escaping such places.
Vampire: The Requiem (and its historical setting, "Requiem for Rome") has the Strix: strange, ghostly owl-like beings who may be responsible for, among other things, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the creation, followed by subsequent destruction, of a Clan of vampires. They possess corpses, and sleeping vampires, and walk about causing mischief. Needless to say, they're the bad guys and the boogeymen. They're also based on an actual Roman myth.
They also appear in the Hunter The Vigil sourcebook on taking on vampires. They make a guy murder his girlfriend so they can ride the corpse.
Also Lilith, a traumatized, horrifically powerful owl-totemed Lunar martial-arts master.
In Bunnies And Burrows, owls are seen as something along the lines of dragons for their formidable wisdom and awesome rabbit-killing abilities.
The owl-like Goetic demon Stolas appears in Age Of Aquarius Second Edition, in a piece of narrative text about the Utopists. Played for Laughs in that they summon him only to pick a feather from his tail, turning him comically angry.
In Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, the symbol for military research company IDS (and thus, by extension Caulder/Stolos) is an owl. His European/Japanese name is a reference to the Ars Goetia demon (see Mythology).
Hoothoot and Noctowl from Pokémon straddle the fine line between this and The Owl Knowing One. For one thing, they aren't Dark/Flying type (That was reserved for the Murkrow line). However, they CAN learn a lot of good Psychic-type moves, may have as an ability either Insomnia (prevents sleep) or Keen Eye (prevents lowering of accuracy), and have two immunities. Ghost-types beware!
The iPad/Mac game Lechuza seems to hinge on this trope, doing its best to illustrate owls as evil.
The Peepsta Hoo dream eater in Kingdom Hearts 3 D. It tends to be little more then an annoyance at first, simply throwing weak, homing feather shurikens at you and trying to perform an Enemy Scan on you. Should it complete the scan, however, it'll start blasting you with high tier magic and evading your attacks. The creepiness mostly applies to its Nightmare version, thanks to its soulless red eyes and sinister color scheme.
El Goonish Shive used owls as a Running Gag. Moperville North high school has a mural warning "Read, or the Owl will Eat You". A big owl appears as RTFM enforcer in Goonmanji arc out of continuity. Then in a guest comic the owls make good on their threat, devouring an Analfabets Anonymous meeting (well, not really, but close 'nuff).
Subverted with Hedge, whose dramatic moments are always ruined by owls getting in the way.
Space Owls show up twice as of April 2012 in Questionable Content. They knock people unconscious, at least according to Faye, who is telling the story to cover up her own handiwork. However, it's not to be evil or creepy.
Averted in Daisy Owl, in which Mr. Owl is a benevolent single parent trying to raise a pair of human foundlings.
Mephilas is a Devil Bird pretty clearly based off Stolas mentioned above. Mephilas dramatically increases the intelligence of its master, but overexposure to him can induce existential horror and depression. Inducing this in victims is also Mephilas' signature attack.
Subverted by Owlowiscious in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Spike feels that way about him for supposedly stealing his place as "Twilight Sparkle's number 1 assistant" (he also thinks Owlowiscious' 180 degrees head rotation looks creepy). However otherwise Owlowiscious falls pretty squarely into The Owl Knowing One.
Averted in Franklin. Mr. Owl is their teacher, and he is always kind and helpful...and though intelligent, never pompously so.
In Kung Fu Panda Legends Of Awesomeness, we learn that the owl Feng Huang, formerly the most powerful member of the previous Furious Five, was corrupted by her power, and turned evil.
Phineas and Ferb had an episode where Candace dreamed that she was in The Wizard of Oz: When Candace and co. make it to the forest, one of the things that startles them is an owl...but not just any owl; it's actually a whacked-out version of an owl with Stacy's head... See for yourself.◊
In the South Park episode "Insheeption," Mr. Mackey is revealed to have a hoarding problem stemming from a childhood incident when he was molested by a Woodsy Owl mascot ("Give a hoot, don't pollute!"). When Mr. Mackey faces up to this traumatic memory in a dream, the owl mascot turns into a monstrous embodiment of Mr. Mackey's trauma. Eventually, believe it or not, the other people in the dream have to bring in Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street to stop the owl.
Owls are suspected as the source for several reported ghost hauntings or sightings of aliens.
OwlCam, which caused the creation of some very unsettling GIFs on Something Awful. One of them featured four or five young barn owls - one crouched low and weaving from side to side, one breathing rapidly, and one gulping down a rodent half its own size. One Goon found horror in the fact that the barn owls resembled the equally creepy masked Jabber Wockeez dance crew.
Assuming the clip hasn't been taken down, this slow-motion footage is probably the last thing a mouse ever sees. To get the shot, they hung a piece of bait under the camera.
Art scholars believe the owls in Hieronymous Bosch' paintings represent madness.
One kind of owl can camouflage itself that makes it look more evil when not in its proper enviroment.
Much of the mythology regarding owls as omens of death could have its roots in the fact that they would frequently appear in old times when someone was ill. If a vigil was kept at night there would be lights burning, the light would attract insects, the insects would attract mice and the mice would attract owls.