Mad about science: arachnophobia

By Ellie Klippel
Reader Columnist

Editor’s note: This week, the East Bonner County Library’s exploration assistant and SHS student Ellie Klippel is guest writing “Mad About Science.” Regular columnist Brenden Bobby said Klippel has been a great addition to the library team, and even though he loves his dear readers very much, he was happy to take the week off.

Why are spiders scary, and should we be scared?

I have been working in a coffee shop in downtown Sandpoint and, on a recent slow day — while working in the back, baking, stocking shelves and other things of the sort — my coworker rushed into the kitchen, their hands folded into their neck and chest. When I asked them what was wrong, they proceeded to tell me that there was a spider at the front of the store. 

There, I saw a small spider sitting idle on the window. It was gray and yellow in color and had long thin, delicate legs. I grabbed a piece of paper and a cup, intending to set it free outside. However, once I set down the cup to catch the spider, one of its legs became caught and torn off. My heart couldn’t help but wilt a little for the spider, who was thrashing and squirming in what I can only imagine was excruciating agony. My coworker shared none of my sympathies.  

Still, I find it hard to understand why people are so disgusted and afraid of spiders. 

In an attempt to understand others, I have turned to psychology and science to try and understand: Why are spiders scary?

Arachnophobia is one of the biggest phobias in the U.S., and in worldwide surveys it often comes in second to the fear of snakes. Similar to the fear of snakes, arachnophobia is generally considered to stem from an ancestral, evolutionary need. Some scientists believe those of our ancestors who responded quickest to dangerous animals had higher fitness and were less likely to die — and therefore more likely to reproduce and pass on that trait to the next generation. 

This is likely an incorrect explanation. Unlike snakes, very few spiders are dangerous to humans. 

Other researchers suggest that the attitude of disgust surrounding spiders could be linked to an outdated — and also incorrect — theory that spiders were disease carriers. During the Middle Ages, spiders were thought to carry the plague, being often seen in large, impoverished and dirty places —  just like the dreaded disease. 

This theory is also most likely wrong, considering that people of European descent do not show more fear of spiders than those from other places that were not affected by the plague.

The most likely answer is that spiders just look strange to the human brain, whose “fight or flight” response is wired to trigger every time we see something that looks foreign, in an attempt to keep us out of danger. Despite being common, spiders look strange with their extremely long legs, enlarged abdomens and proportionally large fangs. However, this doesn’t answer the question of why we have this immense reaction to spiders and not toward other bugs like wasps or butterflies.

One thing separates spiders from other bugs: their cultural associations. Similar to the theory that spiders carried the plague, another reason for the fear of spiders is what people have associated with spiders. Throughout various media, spiders have been associated with death and all things mysterious and spooky. During the Victorian era, arachnophobia became linked with xenophobia through literature. 

In books like The Sign of the Spider (1896), the insect is described as “a head, as large as that of a man, black, hairy, bearing a strange resemblance to the most awful and cruel human face ever stamped with the devil’s image — whose dull, goggle eyes, fixed on the appalled ones of its discoverer, seemed to glow and burn with a truly diabolical glare.” 

Other works like this share similar depictions of non-European peoples. 

According to Scottish scholar Claire Charlotte McKechnie, spiders came to express “fears of invasion, concerns about the morality of colonialism and suspicion about the alien other in the corners of empire.” 

In that analysis, arachnophobia had become fused with xenophobia, and with anxiety about the repercussions of imperialism.

Even though there is no confirmed reason pointing to why people are scared of spiders, just like any behavior, it can be conditioned away. There are many successful therapies for those suffering with extreme arachnophobia. 

Even though a large number of people believe spiders are scary, they’re actually helpful to humans. Spiders are particularly apt at keeping down the population of insects that are actually harmful to humans, like mosquitoes. Many people don’t know this, but spiders also help pollinate flowers. 

Spider venoms are used to help make medicinal drugs — including those used in the treatment of cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure — as well as a non-addictive painkiller to replace opiates. Meanwhile, scientists in the U.K. are using silk spider webbings to make biodegradable bandages for their patients that also have an added antibiotic component.

I’m not saying that you have to love spiders, or really even like them. But maybe the next time you see a spider on your window sill, instead of crushing it with a broom, put it outside instead.

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