Trigger Warning: Spiders!

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

Billingsley.tarantula

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.”

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2 Comments

  1. Perhaps all of those unexplained “phantom” spider bites were really caused by… invisible spiders! Yeah, that ought to keep some people up at night 🙂

    Seriously, this was a very interesting, informative piece. I don’t think I am as bothered by spiders as most people. Besides, having a few around might just save on having to hire an exterminator to deal with any pest problems.

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