I’m very pleased to announce that my adaptation of the classic video game Legendary Wings has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming anthology The Lost Worlds of Power, edited by Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter.  My story will be one of twelve novelizations of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System™ written in, er, homage to the original Worlds of Power series, which often had little to do with the games that were being adapted.  The anthology will be available as a free eBook when it’s done: I believe I’ll be able to host it here, but I will definitely include links if not.  More information, including a release date, will be forthcoming as it develops.  I’m very excited to be included, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in the volume.  The complete announcement can be found here.

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).


Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.

Who Will Love Me As I Am? Chained for Life, Side Show, and the Cult Movie/Musical Overlap

I recently watched Chained for Life, the 1951 oddity/star vehicle featuring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969).  In the movie, the sisters star as thinly-disguised versions of themselves, Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, on trial for the murder of Dorothy’s husband-of-convenience Andre Pariseau (the story unfolds in flashback as the pair tell their side of the affair). In the film, Pariseau (played by Mario Laval) is a marksman performing in the same Vaudeville revue as the Hamilton sisters; when their manager gets the idea of staging a love affair to boost publicity, Pariseau goes along with it for an increased share of the profits, even going so far as to propose marriage (even as he continues to carry on with his assistant).  But Dorothy’s feelings are all too real, leading to conflicts between the sisters who are literally inseparable.

Chained for Life has been called an exploitation film, and if any performers can be described as exploited, surely the Hilton sisters are at the top of the list: born to an unwed mother in Brighton, England, the twins were more or less bought by the delivering midwife, who put them on display from infancy and continued to “manage” them for decades, until the sisters won their independence after a contentious trial.  Even after that, they were unprepared for the difficulties of life on their own and continued to be ill-served by subsequent handlers.  The low point, and the end of their career, came when they were unceremoniously abandoned in Birmingham, Alabama, where they took a job at a grocery store and lived until succumbing to the Hong Kong flu years later.

The term “exploitation film” often brings to mind gratuitous sex or violence, but Chained for Life is quite tame on both fronts, and like many films of the era it at least purports to be instructional; it’s more thought-provoking than edgy.  In reality, it is the audience’s curiosity and desire for titillation that are exploited, and whether through posters that resemble tabloid front pages or trailers that teasingly edit together the most shocking parts of the movie, “exploitation” is often a byword for films that promise more than they deliver.  Although more polished and coherent, Chained for Life reminded me of an Edward D. Wood production, particularly Wood’s attempt at a “message movie,” Glen or Glenda?  Chained even opens with a portentous, Criswell-like monologue from the judge in the murder trial, who invites the audience to ask themselves how they would mete out justice in such a case.  We hear from doctors on the limits of surgery and we witness the legal difficulties in procuring a marriage license (both problems the real-life sisters had experience with).  A kindly reverend makes a case for the dignity of all lives created by God, whatever form they take; and in his closing remarks, the defense attorney alludes to the bigotry, cruelty, and, yes, exploitation that the sisters faced throughout their lives.  Although the central puzzle of the film (how can the court punish the guilty twin without wrongly imprisoning or executing the innocent one?) is left unresolved, there is no question that the audience is meant to conclude that Pariseau (a smooth Latin lover type who is only in it for the money) got what he deserved.

The marriage under false pretenses calls to mind Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which also turns on the callous exploitation of an outsider’s affection by a pair of “normals” (and in which, incidentally, the Hilton sisters had also appeared, albeit as secondary characters).  The difference between the two films is striking, however: Freaks is a one-of-a-kind blend of horror, pathos and melodrama, an expressionistic fable with long wordless stretches, compelling images, and a genuinely shocking ending.  Despite a few stylistic flourishes (such as a dream sequence in which Dorothy imagines herself separated from her twin, free to dance with her beloved), Chained is content to tell its story in businesslike fashion, consistent with its courtroom setting and air of social uplift (it does, however, include the newspaper headline SIAMESE TWIN TO WED VAUDEVILLIAN, which is in my opinion in the running for Best Headline Ever).  They are essentially films of different eras: the cruelties visited on the Hamilton sisters are less overt than those depicted in the side show world of Freaks, but are no less painful for being covered by a veneer of politeness.  The level of craftsmanship is quite different as well: while the Hilton sisters had a long-running musical act, singing duets in harmony, their acting is stiff and artificial, calling attention to the staginess of their banter (their scenes really do play like something by Ed Wood). In short, Freaks is a classic; Chained for Life is a curiosity.

Having said that, Chained for Life has its rewards.  I always enjoy films that feature genuine acts of performance, whether music, dance, martial arts, or the kind of talents usually filed under “variety,” and Chained for Life’s Vaudeville setting provides numerous opportunities.  In addition to the sisters’ musical act and Pariseau’s marksmanship (including playing a pipe organ activated by rifle shots, in one of the film’s most baroque sequences), we get an accordionist tearing through the William Tell Overture, a juggler, and a clown with a trick bicycle act.

One might accuse the filmmakers of trying to pad out an already brief running time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (the trick bicyclist is pretty dull, even if you’re into old stage acts), but the performances (and many like them in movies of the era) provide a glimpse of live entertainment as it was experienced in times gone by.  A great deal of surviving footage of entertainers of the past comes from film excerpts, either from features like this or from shorts meant to accompany the longer films.  (The contrivance by which the story halts and a famous artist is invited to perform their signature act is still with us, of course, whenever an appearance by a guest star needs to be justified; staging their performance as a show within the show is an obvious solution, but not the only one.)

Chained for Life is also a cult film, a label often applied to movies so singular that they fascinate a small number of viewers, even as they drive large audiences away.  There are so many types of cult film—from trashy exploitation and low-budget amateur productions to expensive, little-loved flops and insane, auteur-driven visions—that it would be impossible to cover them all, but one thing they all have in common is the perception on the part of the audience that this movie was made for them personally: for those of us on their wavelengths, cult films speak to the weirdness in our souls.

Mulling over the show-biz milieu of Chained for Life, I wondered: are there cult operas?  Cult stage musicals?  After a moment’s thought, the short answer was yes, of course there are, and for many of the same reasons that films develop cults.  There are musicals notorious for their epic failure (like Carrie, based on the Stephen King book, which closed after only a handful of performances) or for their troubled production history (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will surely not soon be forgotten), and until recent years most flops would leave only a cast recording behind, if that.

Of course, many cult films are also musicals; in some cases they are adaptations of stage works, such as the ur-midnight movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was already a phenomenon as The Rocky Horror Show in London before being turned into the long-running film.  Little Shop of Horrors exhibits a complete life cycle, originating as a quickly-filmed Roger Corman horror comedy, being turned into a stage musical, and finally returning to film in a big budget adaptation (which replaced the original film’s and stage musical’s bleak ending with a happy one; if you haven’t seen the original ending that was scrapped after poor audience testing, it’s really something).  But many original movie musicals have cult appeal for their singular vision and the heightened qualities inherent in musical theater.

Just as original cast albums can keep Broadway shows in circulation, motion picture soundtracks can serve as advertisements for the films they come from, or take on lives of their own: to name one example, I was intrigued by the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s 1968 comedy Skidoo, in which stars from the golden age of Hollywood collided with a druggy flower power satire.  As great as that sounds, when I finally saw the movie, I found it mostly unfunny and, dare I say, square.  (Interestingly, while a straight play or movie can have the air sucked right out by the kind of “Hey, why don’t you sing us your hit song?” interruption I mentioned above, the songs are often the only places where musicals come alive.  I’m sure it’s at least partly a matter of context and expectation: if you’re watching a movie starring Elvis, you just know he’s going to pick up a guitar sooner or later.)

Musicals, like film, are a collaborative medium, and the expense involved in producing one often leads to the rough edges and idiosyncrasies being sanded down, but personal visions can still come through.  For example, the same year Chained for Life was made, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, lyricist for such hits as The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, collaborated with composer Sammy Fain on Flahooley, a satire of consumerism and conformity inspired by Harburg’s blacklisting in Hollywood (Harburg was never a Communist party member, but for his refusal to name names he was blocked from working in Hollywood from 1950 until 1962, and also had his passport revoked during that time).  Despite numerous changes made to tone down the political references (originally, the talking doll of the title was supposed to say “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing), Flahooley is truly a strange mixture, combining boardroom satire of the kind Stan Freberg specialized in; an Oriental fantasy version of Arabia, including a genie in a lamp and exotica star Yma Sumac as an Arab princess; and marionettes devised by puppeteer Bil Baird (the puppets were the American people—get it?).  Flahooley closed after forty performances on Broadway, but after reading about it, how could I not track down the soundtrack?*

Of course, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call operas and musical theater cult interests to begin with: like cult films, musical stage works attract an intensely devoted fan base that is only a small part of the larger public.  Operagoers are apt to have strong opinions about what they like and what they don’t, taking seemingly small matters very personally.  Both art forms have much in common with the films that draw cult audiences: there are outré scenarios with lurid hooks, exotic locations, larger-than-life characters, and the often-campy artifice of the stage.  How many operas include deceptive lovers or mismatched marriages as plot devices?

Even going back to its origins, opera featured personalities that would be recognizable to modern cineastes.  The divas of seventeenth-century Venetian opera had adoring fans, carefully-managed public images, and behind-the-scenes clout, much like celebrity entertainers today.  (And much like today, opera stars would demand ego-flattering changes to productions: in addition to the common practice of aria substitution, which continued until the nineteenth century, there are examples like castrato Luigi Marchesi, who insisted on entering the stage on horseback, wearing a helmet festooned with multi-colored plumes, regardless of the role.)

In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner’s operas took on a quasi-spiritual dimension, and the “cult” designation was almost literal: fans of his work were referred to as “Wagnerites,” and if they were at all able they would make the “pilgrimage” to Bayreuth, where Wagner’s work could be performed in a theater custom-built to his specifications.  Before the birth of motion pictures, it was the theatrical stage on which craftsmen perfected the arts of captivating, even manipulating, the moods and desires of audiences.

If there is a cult within the cult of musical fandom, it is probably to be found Off-Broadway, where productions can be a little more transgressive without scaring away the big crowds demanded on Broadway.  In fact there is a consistent pattern of Off-Broadway successes moving into the mainstream, beginning with The Fantasticks and including such shows as Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown, and in many cases the smaller budgets and narrower appeal of such shows allow their creators the freedom to speak more frankly than was possible in traditional Broadway.  It is intriguing to note the absorption of Off-Broadway talent into both Broadway and Hollywood musicals.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman moved from Little Shop of Horrors to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and by all accounts were instrumental in raising the level of ambition for Disney’s animated feature films at the time, leading to the early ‘90s blossoming of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death.  More recently, Robert Lopez has gone from co-creating the musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to co-writing songs for Disney’s Frozen (another story of a pair of sisters who want very different things from life).

Given the intense identification with outsiders fostered by the last few decades of musical theater (and popular culture in general) and the continued fascination with both freaks and the machinery of the entertainment industry, it should not be surprising that Daisy and Violet Hilton have been the subject of a Broadway musical.  1997’s Side Show, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, makes a useful contrast to both Freaks and Chained for Life: moving from the carnival freak show to the Vaudeville circuit, it too includes a staged marriage, but unlike its predecessors there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys.  Despite the twins’ stage appearances portraying angels, songbirds, and Egyptian princesses, they are simply human, making compromises to get through life as best they can.  There is still glamour and beauty in Side Show, but the tone is one of regret and world-weariness rather than the gothic excess of Freaks or the noir-tinged procedural of Chained for Life.  Naturally, the theme of duality is present, and some characters can be described as two-faced, but the conflict between the outgoing Daisy and retiring Violet is placed front and center.  Side Show also more closely examines the men in the twins’ lives and their difficulty in accepting what a commitment to one of them would really mean, without letting faithless or cowardly lovers off the hook.  In the show, the one man who truly loves Violet, Jake, is African-American, but he knows the world would never accept them together, dramatizing another barrier that could only be considered as subtext in the lily-white Chained for Life.

Other subtexts aren’t hard to find in either the musical or the cult film.  For the most vital, but not only, example, the identification of musical theater and being gay is so ingrained as to be a cliché, but there is truth to it.  A primary convention of the theater is its camaraderie and acceptance of everyone as they are—one of the standard tropes of show business, second only to “The show must go on,” is that the troupe is a family, no matter what—and the distancing, unreal effect of the theater has historically allowed its practitioners to express themselves in coded language, even when their love “dare not speak its name.”  This frequently came through in gay theatergoers’ identification with the divas and the idealized (heterosexual, until very recently) lovers onstage.  Outsiders frequently recognized themselves in cult films as well: whether gay or straight, it seems plausible that while the glamour of the theater may seem preferable to ordinary life for many audiences, there’s a similar identification with the monsters and misfits of the horror and science fiction films that also attract cult audiences.  Outwardly opposite, they appeal to the same impulse, intertwined in such figures as the Bride of Frankenstein and Vampira.

The goal for audiences, just as it was for the real-life Hilton sisters and their fictionalized counterparts, is acceptance: self-acceptance first, and then the acceptance of a partner, if one can be found.  Traditional happy endings often end on the latter, but sometimes the former is enough.  Consider Frozen, radical (at least for a Disney movie) for its embrace of sisterhood as the real true love, and ending without a romantic match for Elsa, the Snow Queen.  Some interpret her anthem “Let It Go” as a metaphorical coming out of the closet; it needn’t be, of course–taken at face value it’s a powerful statement of independence, comparable to singer Idina Menzel’s other big song, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked–but such an interpretation is more than tenable.  Musical theater and film continue to be powerful for the ways in which they give voice to yearnings that cannot (yet) be put into words: as Daisy and Violet sing in Side Show’s most intimate and powerful number, “Who will love me as I am?”


* Those soundtracks can keep the flame alive for underperforming shows: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins baffled audiences in its initial Broadway run, but it has gone on to be a favorite of college and regional theaters.  Away from the financial pressures of Broadway, Carrie has been revised and revived a few times, and even Flahooley has had at least one revival.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with William Wolfram, Piano: Music of Wagner, Liszt, and Bruckner

Wichita Symphony Orchestra

Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor

William Wolfram, Piano

“Hail Wichita” (Wichita State University fight song)

Richard Wagner: “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre

Franz Liszt: Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Piano, S. 124

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, “Romantic”

Here’s what I wrote in my review for The Wichita Eagle.

Trigger Warning: Spiders!

Or: How I Relaxed and Learned to Love Tolerate the Spider



The above photo was taken by my friend Dan Billingsley in June 2013 near Skiatook Lake in Oklahoma: “Hundreds scurrying across the highway by the lake, about an hour before sunset.  Cutest things ever.”  Not everyone would agree: it’s not hard to find internet message boards (or even articles) that respond to pictures like this with comments like “Kill it with fire!” or “Nightmare fuel,” or similar extreme comments.  I would have been one of them if the internet had been around when I was a kid: I had an intense, visceral fear of spiders, and while I (thankfully) never had a close encounter with anything like the Oklahoma brown tarantula pictured above, even a picture would have made me anxious and haunted my dreams.  Sensationalistic films like Kingdom of the Spiders and Arachnophobia made my skin crawl (as they were intended to), but I forced myself to sit through them, perhaps to test myself.  (However, I could never bring myself to watch Something Wicked This Way Comes, knowing there was a scene in which spiders invade a boy’s bedroom; even seeing a glimpse in the trailer was too much for me. Poking around the internet, I find this regularly listed as one of the scariest spider scenes on film; I’m glad to find it wasn’t just me being oversensitive.)

Clearly, a fear of spiders is culturally widespread: as naturalist J. H. Fabre wrote over a century ago, “The Spider has a bad name: to most of us, she represents an odious, noxious animal, which every one hastens to crush underfoot.”  The spider’s venomous bite is sometimes blamed, but the danger is frequently exaggerated.  To quote Fabre again, “there is a wide difference between killing a Midge and harming a man.  However immediate in its effects upon the insect entangled in the fatal web, the Spider’s poison is not serious for us and causes less inconvenience than a Gnat-bite.”  As Fabre acknowledges, there are a few venomous species harmful to man, but the chances of suffering serious injury, at least in North America and Europe, are quite low.

In recent years, the infamous black widow has given way to the brown recluse as the most feared species, especially here in the Midwest.  Unlike the flashy black widow, the brown recluse is drab and unexceptional in appearance and tends to hide in dark crevices, hence its common name.  The brown recluse is frequently blamed for mysterious lesions and sores, even if no spider is found in the act of biting or afterward (and even in areas without recluse populations).  According to Rod Crawford of the Burke Museum, the “phantom” spider bite is an urban legend, reinforced by physicians misdiagnosing other conditions (I myself have a small scar from a sore which I have long blamed on an unseen spider, but reading about this subject has forced me to reconsider that assumption).  In the words of Rick Vetter of the University of California, Riverside,

One should not call something a spider bite unless a spider was removed from one’s skin in the act of biting, seen biting flesh and then running off, found crushed in the remains of clothing near the bite site or if a person with necrotic wounds lives in a house that is infested with violin spiders [the family to which the brown recluse belongs]. You need to have the “smoking gun”. Otherwise, it is baseless speculation. If the spider was on trial, it would never get convicted with most of the “evidence” that people could produce. But many folks don’t like the answer of “I don’t know” for the cause of their necrotic wound and instead are very determined to pin it on the brown recluse. They want to blame something concrete and the brown recluse is the scapegoat for their desires. Yes, indeed, necrotic wounds are occurring but it probably is not a spider doing it.

Having said that, I wouldn’t go as far as the “dangerous spider handler” who doubts that spider bites occur at all: Crawford and Vetter acknowledge genuine bites in the medical literature, but insist that they are nowhere near as common or dangerous as they are often made out to be.


This is all very reassuring, but it doesn’t answer the question: why do spiders inspire such fear in the first place? It seems very likely that the numerous myths and misconceptions surrounding spiders are triggered by that fear, rather than the other way around.  As a kid, I knew intellectually that tarantulas and other spiders weren’t dangerous, but my reaction against them couldn’t be reasoned with: it was an atavistic revulsion, an intense loathing of the animal’s shape, its way of moving, not just a fear of being bitten.  Even now, as I’ve come to see them as interesting and captivating creatures for study, I have no desire to touch one or to be in close proximity without glass between us.  I’m afraid there are limits to my dispassion.

The source of arachnophobia has been of great interest to both arachnologists (who would like to see the cloud of ignorance and prejudice lifted from their subject) and psychiatrists (who have sought to alleviate their patients’ unreasonable fears through therapy and other treatments).  Theories range widely, from the Freudian (a link between a repressed fear of sexuality and the spider’s hairy legs, for example) to the mundane (a fright during the impressionable period of infancy or early childhood, carried into later life).  Hollywood itself may be partly to blame: as Crawford points out, the tarantula is—despite its intimidating size—both harmless and easily handled, so it is a natural subject whenever a “killer spider” is needed for filming.

Some have posited that the spider threatens the patriarchal view of the natural order, as it is one of the few animals in nature in which the female is significantly larger than the male, and it is well known that the male must approach the female very carefully or else be killed after mating. (This is apparently true of only some spider species, but of course it takes on huge importance in the folklore of spiders, leading back to the fear of sex; note that Fabre refers to the Spider as feminine in the excerpt quoted above!)

Others have taken this idea even further, placing importance on mankind’s own divided mind: researcher Stan Gooch held that the spider was spiritually important to the (matriarchal, left-handed, moon-worshipping) Neanderthals; Gooch was ahead of the scientific curve in his belief that (patriarchal, right-handed, sun-worshipping) Cro-Magnon man, rather than wiping out the Neanderthals, had interbred with them.  Thus human societies, but also each individual, carried conflicting instincts, resulting in both internal and external struggles between the “left hand” and “right hand” paths.  Although the Cro-Magnon outlook came to dominate, the traces of Neanderthal heritage left their mark in the association of spiders with witchcraft and the occult: despised and feared, but heavy with symbolic importance.  For Gooch, the fear of spiders was deeply ingrained but still cultural in essence.

An interesting if unlikely theory was put forward by British zoologist Theodore Savory, whose career over the course of the twentieth century saw the growth of arachnology from a poor relation of entomology (the study of insects) in the observational style of Fabre and other naturalist-collectors to a data-driven and fully scientific discipline.  Despite spending most of his career at smaller colleges (“a zoologist, not attached to a University but living in the isolation of the provinces and working in his own private laboratory,” as Savory described himself in 1935), Savory was a prominent writer whose textbook Arachnida went through three editions (1935, 1964, and 1977).*  Savory’s argument is worth quoting at length (from the 1935 edition):

The tonic reflexes which maintain equilibrium respond to tactile impulses from the soles of the feet, to impulses of pressure from the semicircular canals of the ear and to visual impulses from the retinas of the eyes.  With the last of these alone are we concerned here.  From it there arises a tendency to keep the images of moving bodies on the same place in the retina, a tendency well developed in lower animals.  It results in an orientation and movement of their bodies described as rheotropism.  It is clear that if the body is moved or the eye is turned so as to keep the image of a moving object more or less stationary on the retina, the images of the background and surroundings must at the same time be passing across the retina.  This is exactly what happens during an unexpected fall and the primitive response is a secretion of adrenalin to fit the body to meet the sudden change in circumstances.  This is fear.  Just as, according to the James-Lange theory of emotions, “we feel sorry because we cry,” so do we feel frightened because of the physical changes in blood-pressure and muscle tension.

In this view, it is the rapid motion of spiders (and related arachnids such as scorpions) that induces fear as a by-product of this physical reaction, the eye tricking the body into thinking it is falling.  Still pictures do not produce the same reaction, according to Savory.

As may be expected, not everyone was able to accept this purely mechanistic reasoning.  Although Savory repeated it in subsequent editions, he acknowledged the criticism he received and gave space for other theories, and more importantly spoke with sufferers of arachnophobia, getting their side of things.  “[T]here was unmistakably a general agreement that colour, size and [long-]legginess are all contributory causes, and that most certainly movement cannot be discounted,” he wrote in the 1964 edition.

By 1977, psychiatry had given much greater attention to the problems of phobias in general, and Savory had a wealth of research to draw on (including, it should be said, inquiries and surveys he conducted himself over several years).  Extreme arachnophobia undoubtedly has psychological dimensions and cannot be explained only by reference to physical reactions:

One self-confessed sufferer has written, “I couldn’t even write the word spider.  I daren’t put my handbag on the floor in case a spider crawled over it. . . . I couldn’t go into a room until someone had made sure there were no spiders in it.”  This last limitation is one of the commonest to be reported.

Possible treatments included relaxation techniques and gradual exposure in controlled enviornments; for myself, education and exposure have been helpful.  The answer in 1977 was no more definitive than it is now, but a look at Savory’s changing perspective over three editions of his book reveals fascinating changes, not just within the field of arachnology, but within psychology and psychiatry as well.


From a spider’s perspective, 2013 was a very good year in my area (and presumably in Oklahoma as well): a wet spring followed by a mild summer led to an explosion of mosquitoes and other insects, providing ample support for a booming spider population.  By the end of summer, everyone I know in Wichita had large webs in their yards and gardens and around their houses.  As I said, I’m less freaked out by spiders than I used to be, so I didn’t go out of my way to tear down garden spider webs unless they were blocking paths or otherwise in the way.

I reached my limit, however, when I found a black widow perched right outside my front door, and several more under rocks in my front yard.  They had to go.  Through a discussion on Facebook, I found I wasn’t the only one dealing with them.  Brian Cortus (a former student of mine who still lives in Wichita) said,

There’s been a lot more black widows in the wichita area over the last few yrs. My in-laws have them every summer. As dangerous as they are; they don’t really mess w/ humans too much. I’ve been snapping pics of them left & right, while getting (probably too close), but they definitely seem way more afraid of me than vice versa (in which case, i think i’m maybe 1 in 15 ppl on the entire planet not afraid of spiders!) . . . When my in-laws call me over to “kill” them (both are terrified of spiders), i always tell them that i killed them, but in reality, i round them up w/ toilet paper rolls & dump in the neighbor’s yard! They have a lot of trees & bushes w/ no children or pets. There’s probably a black widow city over there by now! BTW, the neighbor’s don’t know either…sshhh!

Hopefully, they’re not reading this blog.

Thanks to Dan and Brian for allowing me the use of their words and pictures.

* Despite his prominence within arachnology, Savory always considered himself an amateur.  The 1935 edition faced criticism from specialists in the field; later arachnologists often found his lack of detail frustrating.  Nonetheless, Savory’s Arachnida was the first textbook of its kind, and his interest in the subject was lifelong: according to a short biography of Savory published in Scientific American,

His interest was kindled when he was 16 and “contemplating the idea of specializing in some sort of animal.” One day he was reading outdoors when a spider dropped from an oak tree onto his book.  Savory “said to [his] companion, casually, ‘What about spiders?’ ‘Why not?’ replied he, and so it was.”