Monster of the Week: Spiders

close up of a huge spider

I keep a file with short reactions to books I’ve read. It’s not complete, but when I remember I try to put down something that will jog my memory. Like this gem that I skimmed past yesterday:

didn’t like it. but there was that funny scene where he’s having sex but he’s internally panicking because there’s a spider over them

…and that is, apparently, the only scene that matters in Jack Kerouac’s beatnik classic On the Road.

Yeah, yeah, okay, line up to argue with me about Kerouac’s literary merits if you like, but I’m here to focus on something much more important. Something, dare I say, that’s universal to the human condition:

Spiders.

Fear of spiders.

LOOK THEY’RE REALLY CREEPY ALRIGHT

Now, listen. I’ve actually spent the last couple of years getting in touch with my inner Hufflepuff and trying to coexist with the spiders around me.

It’s a work in progress.

But a decade ago, just the sight of a spider would send me into a blind panic. It got to the point that I was notorious for the bizarre “weapons” I grabbed in my frenzies:

Shaving cream.  Glue. A hair dryer. Foot-Odor-B-Gone spray deodorant.

(Yes, the foot deodorant was right next to the shoes and I WAS IN A PANIC OKAY.)

Even at the time I felt bad about it. It’s not a great way to go. If there is a god, and if that god is an arachnid, then I’m in some big trouble.

The point is that I had a mighty fear of spiders, one that took years (and many spider-themed gag gifts) to overcome. This uneasy tolerance was hard earned, damnit.

Why?

Why are so many of us afraid of something so small? We’re thousands of times their size. We’ve invented H-bombs, for Shelob’s sake, and thick-soled shoes, which are nearly as good! Cobblers have been on the front lines of the Great Arachnid War for centuries.

But who started this war, us or them?

EVOLUTION

We’ve evolved to fear spiders, some studies say. It may be that most ancient humans weren’t afraid of things like spiders because, hello, they’re tiny! But they all died of toxic murder-spider bites, and the arachnophobes lived on to sire our noble forebears.

Well done, ancestors. Congratulations for being terrified of a thing you could step on. Seriously, though. I might not exist if you were braver.

That’s just one theory, but either way we’ve wound up with a whole bunch of humans who live in deathly fear of tiny bugs. That goes far beyond venom—just the sight of a spider can scare some people.

SIZE MATTERS NOT

As noted, spiders are tiny. This makes them appear less threatening, but that actually makes them scarier, because: 1) they could be hiding anywhere, and 2) dangerous things that appear harmless are ten times scarier than things that are obviously harmful. It’s why evil children in horror movies creep us out so much.

Little things are supposed to be cute! We’re biologically wired to respond to tiny humans, and marketing executives have exploited this fact past the point of absurdity. We like mini things! Mini cupcakes, mini poodles, Mini Coopers? Aww, yay! Take my money! TAKE IT ALL!

Mini eight-legged venom monster? Nnnghhhhh ahhhh nooo it’s a trap I don’t like it.

BONUS TO SWARMS

Spiders’ small size lends itself to another scary inversion. One spider may seem like a small problem, but if you’ve ever seen baby spiders hatch that small problem gets real big real fast. A large group of spiders is scary because

  • It looks like an army—is an army—and if an army doesn’t scare you then you’re either very brave or very stupid.
  • It’s mobile and unpredictable. A huge mass of tiny things flows over obstacles like liquid. You can escape some, but can you escape all of them?
  • A single small thing just transformed into a large gestalt of many tiny things, and our brains like to group things. Effectively, a tiny thing got huge, which is both unexpected and scary.

A STICKY SITUATION

A spiderweb undermines the most sacred of our ‘fraidy-cat instincts, the fight or flight reaction. Get stuck in a sticky web and you can’t do either.

Now, you may say that’s a stupid thing to worry about if we’re dealing with realistic, tiny spiders. But think about how many fantasies involve giant spiders or heroes who are somehow shrunk down to spider size. It’s not a stretch to say we’re preoccupied. That anxiety comes from somewhere—being trapped is a very visceral fear.

But even without the threat of a giant web trapping us in place, nobody likes getting a regular-sized spider web stuck to them because uh, gross. Chances are it’s full of dead insects. Dead things and insects both trigger an instinctive revulsion tied to disease. Double whammy!

OH SO LEGGY

Eight legs. Twitching. Skittering. Possibly the creepiest of all.

My theory is that the more legs a thing has, the creepier it is. Example: Centipede? Creepy. Pogo-stick? Not creepy. That’s science, folks.

There’s a definite threshold around the four-leg mark. We’re used to four-legged animals because we coexist with so many of them—cats, dogs, livestock—and even if we don’t walk on all of them, we’ve got four limbs too. Six legs get sketchy. Most insects don’t creep us out the way spiders do, but that’s hit or miss by the person and by the insect. Eight legs is really pushing it, but most importantly, it affects the spider’s motion.

DANCE THE TARANTULA, UH I MEAN TARANTELLA 

I’m a big believer in motion as a source of horror. Movements that are too fast, too slow, too jerky, defy our sense of how joints should behave, or even the lack of movement can make our skin crawl. I’ve talked about a so-called motor uncanny valley before, and this definitely holds true for spiders.

We’re just not used to it. Look at all of those legs! How does it keep track of them all? Their steps are kind of halting, too, and it’s odd the way their bodies are suspended—the way they bob and sway with each step. There’s a precariousness to a spider’s gait that puts you on edge. It looks like it could change track at any moment, and it has eight ways to choose from.

Not to mention they are speedy little bastards.

So, fellow arachnophobes, I hope this has helped you understand your fear a little better. Maybe even made you feel a little braver. And if you’re one of the ones who would have died of venomous bites back in the stone age—er, I mean, one of the brave ones—then I hope you’ve found some sympathy for the rest of us.

Prompt: Pick a few of the elements above—venom, size, flocking, inability to escape, unexpected arrangement or amount of limbs, or unusual motion—and use them as the basis for your own creepy monster.

Extra credit if you share in the comments! Actually, I won’t know that you’ve made one if you don’t share, so NO CREDIT unless you comment. *thwacks slide rule on the chalkboard*

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