A Deep Dive Into Arachnophobia (+ Just Maybe, How to Overcome It)

Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

If that mentality could guide her to pioneer cancer treatments and radioactivity research, then surely any of us can channel it into beating our personal fears–right?

For as long as I could remember, spiders have been at the top of the list of my greatest fears. In that, I know I’m not alone. Fear Factor had a recurring segment featuring spiders. Miss Moffet abandoned her curds and whey to escape one. And who could forget Ron Weasley’s uncontrollable panting in the Forbidden Forrest as Harry tried to reason with Aragog and his extended 8-legged family?

The facts and figures about arachnophobia make it clear. It’s estimated that 100 million Americans live with arachnophobia. But is there good reason to be so freaked out? Is this fear heightened or suppressed in places where exposure is increased?

Before I could comb through how to beat the fear, I had to understand why it’s so prevalent in the first place.

Ancient Arachnophobia

There’s a widespread belief in some psychology camps that arachnophobia is conditioned into us, and it happens early on. All it takes is witnessing someone scream at the sight of a spider and the programming is set: you see spider, you scream and run. Learning this to be the correct response essentially ingrains meeting a spider as a “traumatic experience,” and we go through our lives purposefully trying to avoid it.

Rachel Green’s father had spiders while she was growing up, so she didn’t develop a fear of them.

But for this to be true, for someone older and more influential to instill in us this fear, then it means that they had to have picked it up somewhere along the line. If it is so that the fear of spiders is passed down through generations, it still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter of why.

Like all mysteries of life, the deep-seated fear of spiders inspired people across the ages to construct reasons as to why we abhor the arachnids. Take, for instance, the Italians of the Renaissance. For over two centuries, they carried on the belief that spiders carried not only the black plague but also “tarantism“–a form of hysteria that could only be cured by dancing.

Of course, the black plague came with its own widespread fear. And for some reason, the black wolf spiders of Southern Italy, called tarantulas, were easy to blame. Blaming them for happy feet is a little more questionable, but at least we got the tarantella out of the deal.

But the argument in favor of spiders being to blame for disease does hold some logic. The spread of disease would have been astronomically worse in the days before food and health regulations, so the fact that pests, including spiders, could contaminate water and food supplies makes it reasonable to detest them.

Still, it leaves question: if it were the sole case for our fear, then why wouldn’t things like flies, a sign of decay, instil as much fear in us? Perhaps it’s because spiders are not only pests, but they’re poisonous.

What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” -Morticia Addams

Death itself is high on the list of what people fear, so it only makes sense that spiders which carry the threat of death in their fangs are also a source of fear. Considering how much true trauma might have been experienced by our ancient ancestors after a spider bite, it would make sense why this fear was systemically passed down throughout millennia.

Today, not so much. In the modern world, less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s species of spiders are responsible for human death. On average, more people die taking selfies than they do from spider bites. With most reason to disbelieve a spider is a threat to our life, why fear them?

As an arachnophobe-in-reform, this answer seems to boil down to one thing: the freak factor. I mean, have you seen those things? They move at lightning speed on eight legs balancing a bulbous body. Venomous or not, they have threatening pincers and most of them shoot silk from their ass. It is well within sane reason to call these creatures borderline unnatural.

And, in comparison to our own evolutionary progression, they kind of are…

The Origins of Spiders

Arachnids were one of the very first creatures to ever walk on earth, predating dinosaurs by 150 million years. Like all creatures, their survival depended on their ability to adapt and thrive in their environment. For them to still be here now–and in such great numbers, quantities, and varieties–they have clearly been doing something right.

Billie Eilish deserves the crown for actively campaigning against a fear of spiders. 

Knowledge of ancient arachnids got its legs with the discovery of a megarachne fossil–which loosely translates to ‘massive f*cking spider.’ This fossil dated back to 300 million years ago and, aside from a tail that they lost along the way, this relic is remarkably similar to spiders of today, except for one behavioural difference: what they used silk for.

Freak Fact: the term arachnid is not unique to spiders, but also includes scorpions, ticks, and horseshoe crabs.

Ancient arachnids are believed to have used their silk to wrap and protect eggs. As time moved on, many of them evolved a spinneret and learned to build webs, making way for the era of spiders we know today.

Have you ever watched a spider build a web? It’s surprisingly meditative, and may actually be a helpful tool for beating arachnophobia. For one, it’s incredibly reassuring to know its busy on something else and not in the least bit interested in crawling into your brain. Because that’s one of the scariest things about spiders: that they may be lurking and preparing to strike. But the more understanding you have, the easier it is to grasp that it’s really not the case.

Like all creatures, spiders need to eat. That’s the entire point of their webs, and if they’re eating good, they’re doing you a favour. Flies, mosquitos, moths; all the things that we actually spend money to try to control on a daily basis are the welcome grand prize for spiders. In denying spiders a good dinner, we’re only making our lives more difficult.

The enemy of my enemy is a friend.

Even spiders who don’t build webs, like the terrifying Australian huntsman, are doing us a favour by furthering their own agenda. The way they live–lurking beneath treebank, squeezing into tight spaces–give them almost no redeemable traits until you learn of when of their favourite foods: cockroaches. And personally, save for leeches, there truly is nothing I find truly more repulsive than cockroaches. With that, against all odds, even the huntsman has scored a redeeming quality.

How to Overcome the Fear of Spiders

Australia has somewhat of a worldwide reputation for being a hotspot for spiders, and it’s not completely unfounded. When I up and left to come here, many close friends were concerned for me based on this fact alone.

Although I’ve seen my fair share, many of which were, in fact, big and scary, Australia is nowhere near the hellscape that I braced for. And, after a few meetings with the terrifying (albeit “harmless”) huntsman spiders, I learned to be a bit more tolerant of the smaller ones. Get this: I even let them live in the windows of my home.

If you can get past the stupefying body build of a spider, you can start to reason with what they have to offer. They keep relatively still during the day, staying tucked out of your eyesight and more or less inactive. In the evenings, they get busy building their webs and waiting for fresh food–something I watch them do from behind the glass, and quietly, safely, admire just how incredible they are.

Watch a spider intently and you’ll see the meticulous movements of their limbs stretching and weaving their self-made silk. The silk in itself is a masterpiece. After millions of years of evolving, spider silk has a strength that approaches steel.

Yes, the webs are works of art, but as much as I admired this work, I still couldn’t control the drop in my stomach I feel when one appears out of no where. This is frustrating when you’re really trying to whack out a fear, so I knew then that if I was going to beat it, I had to go deeper.

Channeling the Spider

It was a quiet night in during our trip to Tasmania, so I took the chance to get into a yoga flow. I may or may not have had a few beers and a joint, so I was certainly feeling f l u i d. After some stretching of my limbs upwards and outward into warrior and mountain poses, I returned to my hands and knees for some cat-cow. This movement (for the unaware) relies on moving your abdomen up and down while keeping your other four limbs on the ground.

That’s when the thought crawled into me: this would be so much easier with an extra set of in-between legs, sprouted from both sides of my ribcage. And when I realised that, I turned a corner of appreciation for the brilliance of spiders.

I may have long detested spiders, but Spiderman remains perhaps my favourite superhero movie. According to some research, watching it may help beat arachnophobia.

All of the things spiders did to evolve is what makes them so brilliant–and undoubtedly so misunderstood. Humans spent our evolution developing different skillsets. We worked on elevating our brains and standing on two legs. But spiders, who always had a penchant for other insects as opposed to low-hanging fruit, optimised their experience on the ground with balance and speed. It’s because they perfected it that it has such an unsettling effect.

As Marie Curie alluded to, it’s natural to fear the unknown. Something that evolved with such different strengths to ours is a confronting manifestation of existence that we just don’t understand. But if you really want to beat your arachnophobia, you have to try to understand why you have it. Get on your hands and knees, or let yourself watch what they do with an open mind, and you’ll start to grasp that we do share something with spiders after all: the need to eat, to create, and to survive.

One comment

  1. great article! strong facts supported by a quality Morticia Adams quote – your 8 legged friends would be proud

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