Of all the phobias, arachnophobia is arguably the most common. And yet, while a fear of airplanes or confined spaces is recognized as debilitating, the fear of spiders is generally mocked. Indeed, many of us have teased an arachnophobe at some point. Men in particular tend to be ashamed of their phobia, considering it childish and pathetic. But arachnophobia, though not the worst of phobias, still affects the victim's life.
The world is full of nasty, ugly little creatures that bite and sting. So why do spiders, of all animals, instill such fear? Out of the 40,000 types, only four are known to be poisonous. In spite of this, almost everyone knows an arachnophobe; but who has ever met someone terrified of beetles or caterpillars?! You are more likely to be stung by a wasp than bitten by a spider, and yet, though many dislike and fear wasps, they do not make their skin crawl as spiders do.
One possible explanation is their speed. Beetles and caterpillars are slow, but spiders dart across the room in a sudden rush. To make it worse, their movements are both aggressive and unpredictable. Spiders seem to rush towards you, in a zigzag pattern, pausing and then suddenly moving again.
Another explanation is their hideous appearance. Then again, lots of creatures are ugly – have you ever seen a bat close up? But while the average person is unperturbed by a bat swooping above them, they would cross the room merely to avoid a spider's web. Spiders look so alien. A tiger or bear is far more dangerous, and yet they fascinate and even attract us.
Perhaps it is the creature's way of life that revolts us. Spiders form a web and then lay in wait. That alone disturbs our imagination. Indeed, vile or predatory people are often described as having "lain in wait like a spider."
Explanations tend to be divided into the evolutionary and the cultural. Those who look to evolution argue that our ancestors spent thousands of years avoiding any poisonous little black thing that scurried about in their cave. It would have been to our advantage to do so. In other words, natural selection left us with this fear. For a long spell in our past we lived among poisonous or dangerous spiders; those who feared them avoided them, were thus not bitten, lived longer, and so passed on their fear.
Critics of this view point out that the fear of spiders is far from universal. In Cambodia and Costa Rica, for example, some people eat them. And in many tribal societies little fear is shown in their presence. In some Native American cultures, the spider is even celebrated as a bringer of good luck and symbol of wisdom.
If we do not inherit the fear – if it is not hardwired in other words – that suggests it can be overcome. Around a thousand years ago, Europeans came to believe that spiders cause or spread disease. Though no one now believes this, the fear persists. After all, people often fear something even when they have forgotten why. The child sees his mother scream when a spider runs across the room and so learns to fear it.
For convenience sake, arachnophobes are divided into monitors and avoiders. The monitor reacts to a spider as others react to a gruesome accident: the sight disgusts and horrifies them, but they cannot turn away. And they will search for spiders everywhere. They claim to do so in order to avoid them, but when they find one they stand there hypnotised. In other words, they are also masochists, tormenting themselves with the very thing they hate.
The avoider, on the other hand, avoids the creature at all costs. Some even avoid the word itself, literally shivering with disgust when they hear it spoken or see it written. And when they do encounter one, or see a web, they look away, shielding their eyes with their hand.
If you suffer from arachnophobia, you are not alone. Halle Berry, for example, is an arachnophobe, as is Rupert Grint, star of the Harry Potter movies. So bad is Grint's fear that he checks his shoes several times before putting them on and even avoided visiting Australia because he knew the spiders there were much larger than in his native England.
First, there is the rational approach. C. S. Lewis, who loathed bugs and insects of any kind, once remarked that he found scientific knowledge to be the best cure. Find out what you can, Lewis advised, and the knowledge will have a cleansing effect.
In spite of their bizarre appearance, spiders were not created in a laboratory by some evil genius. They are a product of evolution, like every other living thing. And as such they can be classified. Spiders are arachnids, meaning they have eight legs, and they belong to the order "Araneae." Of the 30,000 different species, most grow no larger than a few centimeters. They are also oviparous, laying eggs which the female encloses in a silken bag.
It is especially important to be rational about their predatory habits, since this seems to disturb people most. A spider doesn't kill for fun. It doesn't even know it's weaving a web and hunting prey, not in the way you know something. A spider blindly acts out patterns of behavior set down by evolution. Humans may kill for fun, but spiders do so in order to survive and reproduce.
Arachnophobes often project human thought, behavior and attitude onto spiders. The great 19th century English art critic John Ruskin called this a "pathetic fallacy," and disliked the way poets, for example, describe clouds as "sullen" or larks as "joyful." For Ruskin this was not only a mistake but a misleading one. The psychoanalysts were also interested in projection and wrote about it a great deal.
The spider doesn't know it is a spider. It has no self-awareness, no language, no sense of good and evil. It doesn't plan to kill its victim as a serial killer plans his crime. And it doesn't take pleasure in the act. Phobics seem to think of spiders as deranged criminals or psychopaths. Again, this is mere projection. Withdraw these projections and you will feel better.
Another possible explanation is the sterile, alienated way we live. The average inhabitant of a city like London or New York lives in a house or apartment with air conditioning and central heating. Few people chop their own wood, let alone hunt or grow their own food. Instead, their working day is spent indoors, often sat before a flickering screen. In other words, they are sealed away in a bubble.
Now compare this to the lives lived by our ancestors. Throughout most of human evolution, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in close contact with other animals, which we hunted and killed – and were killed by. Other animals were not strange to us. And we accepted killing and eating as the way of things. Until very recently, the vast majority of people also lived and worked on the land, which again brought them into close contact with creatures like spiders and snakes.
Of course, no one is suggesting that the arachnophobe ought to move back to the African savannah or live like a medieval peasant, but the closer you are to nature the less sensitive and squeamish you will be. You could also de-sensitize yourself through exposure. When you do, however, do so slowly. In other words, do not force yourself to pick up a friend's pet tarantula!
Begin with a picture book of some kind. Look at the small and harmless spiders first, then move on to the larger and more ferocious specimens. Ask someone to flick through the book and make a note of the pages containing the mildest images. Eventually, you should be able to look at close-ups, or at images of spiders seizing their prey.
Next, get hold of a nature documentary about bugs and insects. Again, ask someone to note down the point at which the spiders appear. Even watching images of beetles and slugs would be a start. Then build towards footage of spiders going about their business: spinning webs, mating, reproducing and killing.
As you do this, remind yourself of what you have learnt. The more you know about the creature's evolution, how its body works, and so on – in other words, the more you see it as a machine produced by evolution rather than an evil monster out to inflict harm – the easier you will find it to deal with them. Gradually, you should try to observe one in a zoo, then be alone with one, and finally hold one.
Arachnophobes may be ridiculed, but their fear is genuine and intense. And yet, like any phobia, arachnophobia can be treated and overcome.