I screamed, and then winced in embarrassed apology.
It was roughly 7 a.m. in a single-family home neighborhood in north Seattle adjacent to my multi-family complex. There are few proper sidewalks, mostly unpaved tracks between the road, a ditch of flora that occasionally obscures raccoons and fencing around houses where Rin, my dog, and I walk every morning and evening.
Come the fall, those spaces around the trees and between the fence and the walkway are prime places for orb weaver spiders to spin their delicate, circular webs. Rin couldn’t care less — his focus is on the bunnies, squirrels and occasional cat that cross his path, not to mention the chickens that so many of my neighbors have acquired.
I, however, jump out of my skin every time I see the spindly legs, swelling abdomens and sticky webs that proliferate on our morning walks, when it seems as though I’m the first human to disturb their patient work. When I’m taken by surprise, it’s often accompanied by an undignified squeak.
I know my fear is unjustified. The vast majority of spiders are not dangerous, especially in the Pacific Northwest. This region doesn’t see many of the spiders that can do real damage, such as the brown recluse, the “hobo” spider or the black widow (although they do exist). Objectively, I should be more afraid of dogs like Rin, who cause as many as 800,000 hospital visits every year in the U.S., than poor Charlotte, who’s just weaving her web, eating pests and letting the world go by.
But arachnophobia — the fear of spiders — is one of the most common phobias, in both its weak and genuinely pathological forms.
And so, my neighbors are subjected to my illogical yet perhaps relatable shrieks. Dispassionate knowledge has nothing on ingrained terror.
Humanity’s relationship with spiders is complicated. On the one hand, it is normal to fear them, though the root cause of that reaction is debated. On the other, we’re dependent; our ecosystem would collapse without them. It’s clear we’ve been grappling with that dichotomy on some level: Representations of spiders in literature and mythology across cultures vary from the creature who created the world to the trickster who brought us knowledge and stories.
So why are so many of us so afraid?
That fear has real roots, said Michele Bedard-Gilligan, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington.
“It actually makes sense to have a fear and a disgust reaction to spiders,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “Some of them are actually dangerous. Most are not, but at one time there were probably more dangerous species than there are now, and we had less protections against them.”
Spiders have the misfortune of existing in the center of the Venn diagram of “potentially dangerous” and “very surprising.” Unlike the ubiquitous orb weaver, which is the hallmark of Seattle’s trademark “spider season,” many spiders are good at hiding, weaving their webs in out-of-the-way places and causing a start when we happen upon them.
When you go out into the woods, you may not be totally surprised to encounter a bear, Bedard-Gilligan said. Spiders are everywhere but startling, perhaps because their relative small size means we don’t notice them until up close — and most people don’t know which ones are dangerous and which ones aren’t.
Some evidence suggests that this reaction to spiders is innate, based on an “ancestral” fear.
Swedish researchers studied 6-month-old humans by showing them images of spiders and flowers and then snakes and fish while they sat on their parents’ laps. The adults were blindfolded to avoid involuntary tensing or other reactions that might influence the children’s reactions.
Researchers gauged the babies’ reaction to the image by measuring the dilation of their pupils — wider pupils meant a greater stimulus caused by the image. While the children didn’t have a huge difference in reaction to the snake and the fish, they did show a marked difference between the spider and the flower.
“Results support an evolved preparedness for developing fear of these ancestral threats,” the researchers wrote.
Rod Crawford does not share such a fear.
Crawford studies spiders and has for decades. He divvied Washington state into 2,400 parcels, each one-tenth of a degree by longitude and latitude, and travels with a volunteer to each one he can, armed with a special net that can withstand thorns and other such impediments and a screen sifter to get spiders out of leaf litter and thick moss. Areas are selected based on weather — not too wet, not too cold — and accessibility (it can be hard to get a permit for a national forest, for instance).
His main volunteer has put more than 100,000 miles on her car, and he’s only gotten to 650 of the parcels. Crawford doesn’t expect to finish his work within his lifetime.
Crawford groaned theatrically when this reporter asked him one of the two obnoxious questions that he is subjected to every time someone calls about spiders (and he is always the one on the other end of the call — Crawford is the only professional spider researcher in the state of Washington).
How did he come to study spiders?
“I was always going to be a scientist,” he said, after a moment. “It was accidents and random chance that diverted me into spiders.”
If you’re wondering, the other obnoxious question is “What’s your favorite spider?” Dear reader, you will live in mystery because I was too embarrassed to ask.
Crawford is well aware that people think spiders are icky, but after many presentations on the subject to young children, he theorizes that the fear is more learned than anything else. There’s always “some creepy kid” who will toss a spider at their unsuspecting classmates, Crawford said.
I am fairly sure that I have always been afraid of spiders. Growing up in Texas, it was my job to clean the plastic-lined lap pool in our backyard with a long vacuum and dump out the water filter that was inevitably full of leaves, muck and unlucky creatures. Freeing garden snakes? No problem. But the spiders, which would fall into the pool and seem to hold their breath for half an hour, climbing up the aluminum shaft of the vacuum? No ma’am.
There are many stereotypes about the Lone Star State, but one that I swear is true is this: Everything is bigger in Texas. The mall in my town was measured in football fields. Parking lots required a shuttle. There’s something about having that much open space that inspires people to fill it.
Spiders must share this urge.
That was what I discovered on a day that will forever be seared into my brain. I was taking a shower when the biggest, fuzziest spider I’d ever seen leapt from the shower nozzle onto my shoulder. My mother must have thought I was being murdered, given my screams — she was suddenly there like a guardian angel, ready to smite whatever it was that had inspired such caterwauling.
When she smacked it, we discovered that the spider had recently become a parent itself. The creature exploded into a dizzying number of baby spiders that had been clinging to its fur, scattering them to every corner of the bathroom.
When Crawford heard this story and subsequent tales of spidery terror, he patiently began the long process of debunking my childhood.
No, that wasn’t a wolf spider. The woman who discovered a black widow behind her ear? Urban legend. Yes, spiders do weave webs in outhouses because that’s where the flies are, but you probably don’t have to check every toilet seat as I had for years.
Moreover, it’s not just that people don’t need to be afraid of most spiders. We couldn’t live without them. If arachnophobes could wave a magic wand and rid the world of spiders, society would collapse, Crawford said.
“The whole agricultural system could be in deep, deep trouble one of these days, because spiders are the major control on plant-feeding insects.”
Bees get all of the love and attention when it comes to agriculture, but spiders do their fair share keeping the world as we know it spinning.
Spiders and humans have actually evolved together. According to Crawford, there is a big difference between house spiders and those we encounter outside: 95 percent of the spiders we encounter in our homes are not outside interlopers but were born inside.
“That’s one thing that naïve people never realize — is that house spiders and outside spiders are different species from one another,” Crawford said.
So, apologies to the well-intentioned people who pick spiders up and put them outside: You’re evicting your roommate.
“We know from early accounts in ancient literature that house spiders started adapting to buildings since human beings started making buildings,” Crawford said.
Perhaps it’s the fact that we grew together, but there is something about spiders that clings to people’s imagination. We’ve been memorializing these creatures in oral and written traditions for as long as such things have existed. Some Indigenous cultures passed on stories about Grandmother Spider who spun the Earth into existence, a figure of creation and reverence. We derive the term “arachnid” from the story of Arachne, a weaver whose talents rivaled the Grecian goddess Athena and who was transformed into a spider for her efforts.
In West African traditions, Anansi the Spider — a trickster character — managed to win all of the world’s stories from the sky god, inspiring the word “anansesem,” which refers to stories in certain African traditions. Anansi was also an inspirational figure for enslaved people because of his ability to triumph over those more powerful, based solely on his wits.
Anansi and other trickster characters allow us to look at the world with fresh eyes and interrogate our own cultures, said Matthew H. Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who teaches courses on African media and oral traditions.
“The idea is that this position they occupy on the margins of society is what allows them to comment on society and also be disrupters that help change social norms,” Brown said.
Anansi straddles the divide between what Brown calls the “profane” and “divine” trickster — he deals with gods, but he is not one. He is a solitary philosopher, a character who achieves his ends through deception and flattery, whose stories inspire people to imagine different versions of themselves, Brown said.
While Anansi is a sometimes-heroic figure, Western European cultures swing back and forth on their imaginings of spiders.
Charlotte of the eponymous web is a deeply beloved childhood figure whose tragic end looms large in our imaginings of love and friendship. Compare that to Shelob, the demon that takes on the body of a giant spider in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” or the cold demeanor of Aragog in the Harry Potter series, modeled after tarantulas, whose venom is good for potions. In China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station,” it is the extra-dimensional spider figure, The Weaver, beyond the comprehension of the other characters, who intervenes to save them from the slake moths — also creatures that exist in multiple dimensions and feed on people’s consciousnesses.
And yet, spiders are also a symbol of power and autonomy and a reclamation of personhood within the feminist movement, as inspired by European pagan culture.
“We are the flow, we are the ebb / We are the weavers (and), we are the web,” goes a pagan chant that was taken on by some members of the lesbian movement in the 1960s and 1970s. “Spinsters,” an historically dismissive term for single women at a time where a woman’s value was based in her marriage prospects, took on a meaning both new and old.
Power and fear are so often linked. Spiders occupy a place in the stories of almost every culture, be they vampiric, powerful figures for good and evil or cold, extra-ordinary beings that influence the world.
There are 46,000 named spiders and more than 50,000 types in existence, by Crawford’s reckoning. Some are deadly; most are not. Some weave those circular webs; many do not.
I used this opportunity to study them selfishly — they had nothing to do with the coronavirus, they occupied a large amount of my headspace rent-free and part of me hoped that learning about them would liberate me from my irrational fear.
Alas, no. My apologies to my neighbors the next time they hear me scream.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2020 issue.