The name is used for three species of under genus Acherontia, all of which carry skull markings on their thorax. These three species also have similar life cycle, coloration, and size that it might be easy to confuse one from the other.
Although they look scary, these moths are not carnivorous but they are thieves, stealing honey in raids of honey bee colonies. They had gotten so adept at stealing honey that they were able to evolve so that their scent mimics that of the bees; thus, they can easily move in and out of the hives without being detected.
After observing these moths for a while, you might not be scared by its appearance any longer but their squeaks could be blood-curdling. The disturbed, these moths emit a shrieking sound from their epipharynx, an internal flap set on the proboscis.
These moths are so creepy that they have been associated as bringers of bad omen in the past. When people find one, they become afraid not just of its scream and its appearance but because they believe something terrible is about to happen. Legends have been created about these moths filled with evil spirits that bring pain and suffering to the ones they visit.
Though not proven to be true, these stories have crept in to popular culture that you might even recognize this moth on the theatrical poster of the “Silence of the Lambs”; though that one had been digitally enhanced to really show a human skull, not just a likeness.
Check out this video to hear the Death’s-head Hawkmoth screaming: