I’m 26-years-old. Once or twice a month, I wake up gasping and shuddering in bed. There are many variations to the nightmare: I’m being chased by a spider, or about to be eaten by one, or being forced to eat one. A particularly vivid version involved a masked man lowering a tarantula onto my arm while I lay paralyzed in bed. I screamed the moment the bristly legs touched me—and not just in my dream.
The thing is, I wasn’t always afraid of spiders. When I was a kid, my grandfather and I would catch some in the vacant lot behind our house. We would part the tall grass or peer into the tops of trees as if hunting for treasure. And when he caught one, he’d present it to me like a subject bearing gifts for his prince: a speckled topaz, a marbled amber.
But then I saw Arachnophobia. Before, spiders were just colorful bugs to me. In this movie, hapless townspeople dropped dead within seconds of being bitten by a spider—the very thing I enjoyed collecting and playing with. I could never look at them the same way after that. Frank Marshall did for spiders what Alfred Hitchcock did for shower curtains.
Bigger In Your Head
When I was a college sophomore, I lived alone in a studio apartment. One day, as I was coming out of the bathroom, I saw a brown, palm-sized spider on the adjacent wall. Before I knew it, I was curled up in a far away corner of the apartment, naked save for my towel. When I finally rallied the courage to unfurl myself and pick up a broom, I found myself unable to swat the spider. Even the idea of my broom touching it revolted me. I resorted to bug spray but soon stopped when I realized I’d pass out from the fumes long before the spider would. My mom ended up commuting two hours to my apartment to squish the bugger for me.
So yeah, my fear might be a tad exaggerated considering I picked it up from a B-movie I saw as a kid. After all, I’ve never been bitten by a spider but I have been bitten by practically every dog we’ve owned. Around 55,000 people die from rabies each year, aside from the growing number of fatalities from dog attacks.Yet as I type “death from spider bites” into Google with averted eyes and clammy hands, you’d think spiders caused double that. In truth it’s fewer than seven deaths per year in the U.S., most involving young children. In Australia? Zero since 1979.
Evolutionary psychologists think that harboring fears can increase the likelihood of survival, evolution’s equivalent to looking left and right—then left again—before crossing the street. Ancient humans knew that spiders could be fatally venomous and developed an aversion to them, an instinctive fear that went on to become arachnophobia. But spiders are hardly your typical predators: very few are large, less than one per cent are venomous to man, and none hunt large animals for prey. In contrast, saber-toothed cats, giant crocodiles, and even fellow primates regularly snacked on our ancestors. This is why some experts reject the evolutionary basis of arachnophobia: spiders just weren’t that big a threat to force evolution’s hand.
I’m no expert, but allow me to float a theory of my own: we hate spiders because they look nothing like us. We have four limbs, they have eight; we have two eyes, they have six. Whatever it is we have, they seem to have one (or four) too many. We’re cool with animals that have two eyes, one nose, two ears and four limbs like we do. Look at dogs—we’ve been best pals with them for the last 15,000 years. And Walt Disney built his castle on the back of one very anthropomorphic mouse. But snakes? They don’t even have limbs!
I suppose this highlights a less obvious survival instinct: our leeriness for the “others.” By nature or necessity, we have a knack for singling out the different from the similar. Remember when black people were deemed second-class citizens by white people?
Or how Christians, Muslims and Jews were slaughtered for practicing a minority religion? Ghosts, vampires, werewolves and zombies are as popular as ever. Their appeal—and their horror—lies in the fact that they were human once, but now they’re something else. And that’s a deeper fear than grotesque monsters or aliens can evoke.
Still Not A Fan
It’s ironic that Arachnophobia turns out to be a horror-comedy flick, something I only recently found out. Not that this changes anything; to any four-year-old kid, it’s still a movie about spiders killing people. But I misunderstood this movie much like I misunderstood spiders for most of my life. Granted, they’re not the cutest animals, but we probably look as hideous to them as they are to us. We basically scare the heck out of each other. As an arachnophobe, I take comfort in this knowledge.