Why are we afraid of spiders? Are we born with this fear? Is it a result of evolutionary selection – that we get a distinct and uncontrollable fear response very much like that time a black bear crossed my path at camp? Is it conditioned? Are we “taught” to fear spiders from our parents/guardians? I read a very interesting paper by Graham C.L. Davey where he concludes that our fear of spiders is cultural and that our “disgust” with spiders has been handed down from the Middle Ages when diseases and their sources were unexplained and spiders were one of the unfortunate scapegoats. The paper led to many other interesting sources which tackled the same questions. Other studies took a look at spider fears across cultures and even added some methods to overcome those fears. Looking at my personal story, I cannot explain how I turned out to be on the “enjoys spiders” end of the spider attitude bell curve (page 9 of The Book of the Spider by Paul Hillyard).
Growing up, my mom was afraid of spiders and my dad was indifferent/apprehensive. If we go by the “conditioned” or “inherited” reasoning behind arachnophobia, it would make more sense that I would follow in their footsteps. It didn’t turn out that way. In an interesting twist, my own fascination with spiders actually helped my mom get over her fear. I decided to interview my mom since she had the more dramatic reaction to spiders. On a scale of one to five with five being super afraid of spiders, my mom claims to have been a three growing up. Really, Mah? That’s not what I remember. I’d say a four. On at least two occasions, I recall her running out of a bathroom holding her pants up and screaming because there was a spider in there. One of those bathrooms was an outhouse/porta potty in South Park, PA on a bright, sunny, crowded day.
So, where did her fear come from? My mom is no featherweight. As a child, I remember her having no qualms about mud, mice, or bugs in general. She would tie her hair back into a bandanna and mow the lawn uphill and re-landscape the entire backyard by herself…as long as there weren’t any spiders. She could befriend the meanest neighborhood dog and had no problem relocating snakes. Why spiders?
Okay, so if spider fears are “passed down”, where did my grandparents stand on the spider attitude scale? Mom says (and I remember this) that my grandmother, Nani, was not afraid of spiders and would say they were good luck. Mom shared her childhood home with many Pholcus phalangioides spiders whom took up residence in the rafters of the basement. Nani would name them “George” and “Charlie” and go about her daily business around them.
My next question revealed a little more. I asked what was Mom’s earliest spider memory. She said she must’ve been around five years old when a spider crawled out of one of her rubber boots as she was putting them on. The sudden appearance of the spider scared her. She says it’s the earliest fear she ever had. Mom shared another interesting story which took place in her late teens/early 20s. She had hopped out of the shower and put on her robe. A friend stopped by and my dad was greeting them in the living room. Mom came downstairs to say hello. Wrapped in her robe, (possibly with a “genie” towel wrapped on her head) she sat on the edge of the couch to chat and said she felt something brush against her neck. When she looked down, there was a spider on her robe. She jumped up, arms and legs flailing, and accidentally kicked my dad in the jewels. She bolted back up the stairs leaving her robe on the living room floor…
Fast forward about 13 years. I had some friends over and we were hanging out in my room listening to music. My room was adjacent to the bathroom. Mom went in and about 5 minutes later, we heard a muffled, “Amy….Amy, get it out of here!” I turned down the music to hear a more panicked, “AMY! ”
“What is it? Is it a rat?” my friend asked, everyone concerned. Before we could get a response, the bathroom door busted open and slammed against the wall. My mom, pants not quite up all the way, was a blur running down the hallway. I went into the bathroom expecting to see something horrific. There was nothing. In the bathtub, a small spider was trying to climb the smooth porcelain, sliding back into place with every footstep. My friends and I fell out laughing hysterically! Mom, gaining her composure, claimed that the spider was “trying to get her”.
This is the back story of my mom’s fear. A flight response, she said, was triggered by the spider’s unannounced appearance and fast movement. Over the years, her fear has waned to the point where she can pick up a spider with her bare hands. This is quite the accomplishment and I’m very proud of her! What happened? How was she able to go from one extreme to the other?
Mom was in her thirties when her fear started to drift over to curiosity. My own fascination and interest in spiders helped as I would share tidbits of what I’ve learned with her. When I began doing presentations, Mom would show up to support me, always my biggest fan, albeit at a safe distance. She gradually started to look at spiders more closely after she began to understand more of their natural history and that they weren’t chasing her. A breakthrough moment was when she removed a small jumping spider (Salticidae) from the car to the bushes. It was the first time she ever held a spider. She did it to save the spider and said she didn’t even think about it. Jumping spiders are her favorite with their big eyes and responsive movements (something that would have sent her streaking in the past, lol!).
In conclusion, this particular case study does not line up with the hypothesis of spider fears being “passed down”, at least over the span of 3 generations. If it goes deeper into ancestry, Nani and myself would have had an innate aversion to spiders, so that doesn’t fit either. It seems, in this case, that Mom’s fear was born from a frightening childhood memory which prompted anxiety whenever a spider appeared in her vicinity. If it were a mouse or a caterpillar that had crawled out of her boot, spiders may have been bypassed as the source and she would’ve had musophobia or scoleciphobia instead. Phobias, in general, can be debilitating for some people and I always respect that spiders aren’t for everyone. Research has shown that learning more about what you’re afraid of, facing your fears, essentially, reduces anxiety over time. To quote Paul Hillyard (from The Book of the Spider), “Arachnophobia is a fear of the unknown. It helps greatly to be able to predict [emphasis added] spiders’ habits on a basis of true understanding of their behavior and capabilities.” Knowledge is what helped my mom. She can identify spiders and tell ya a thing or two about them. If you ask my mom now if she’s afraid of spiders on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being super afraid, she’ll smile and tell you, “I love spiders!” That is a victory!