The camp leader, one of the museum staff, had all of us sitting in a circle around three terrariums. There was no movement in them, and the rounded caves of oak bark and mounds of leaf litter effectively hid whatever creepy crawlies were lurking within the glass walls. Bug Camp, thought my six-year-old self, was awesome.
Unlike most of the other girls, who made it incredibly clear that bugs were nasty, gross, icky, cootie-ridden abominations created by Satan himself, I was thrilled to be there. I’d begged my parents for weeks to sign me up for the camp. Being both adorable and obnoxiously persistent, I eventually convinced them that I really did want to spend a whole week of my summer among the insect collection of the Discovery Museum. And today was the last day, and in my mind, the most important. We were finally going to get to touch some bugs.
I squirmed on the floor while the camp leader removed the lids from one habitat at a time. The first housed a long, brown millipede. It wasn’t exactly happy about being pulled from under its rock, and had curled into a tight, protective ball. We passed it from child to child until we’d all brushed our fingers over the smooth exoskeleton. The next terrarium held a group of creatures that, even then, I did not like. The noise coming from the box gave me the creeps. I let the hissing cockroaches pass by without reaching out to touch. I’d never met a roach that wasn’t a nasty critter, and big ones that made the same noise as an angry cat took nasty to a level that I simply did not want to deal with.
The critter in the next box, though, was right up my alley. The leader reached into the box and scooped up something made mostly of legs. Two fuzzy red limbs probed over the top of her hands, and the next thing I knew, she had plopped a very large, very active tarantula into my grasp. It was a Mexican Red-Kneed Tarantula, and her name was Gertrude. Gertrude was a sweetheart and docile as an elderly, well fed cat. After she investigated every crease in my hands, she started to crawl upwards. My sleeve must have looked like an excellent place to hide. Her feet tapped up my arm in a steady rhythm, tickling as they went. I giggled and hummed in time with her probing steps.
“The Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain,
And the Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the spout again.”
If you thumb through a zoology textbook, you’ll learn that spiders aren’t really bugs. Bugs belong to the Class Insecta. Spiders are in the class Arachnida. There are approximately 40,000 known species of spiders, and they are found on every continent except for Antarctica. They fill vital niches in the structure of almost every ecosystem on the planet. With the exception of one herbivorous species, Bagheera kiplingi, they are skilled predators whose prey – species by species – varies from insects and other spiders to creatures as large as birds and lizards. Some are active predators who stalk and hunt their prey. Others hide themselves and wait to ambush unsuspecting prey that wanders too close. They control pest populations and are themselves the prey of countless other organisms. Their silk, which they use to make webs, is incredibly strong and is even used in the electronics industry in optical communications. Spiders, in their way, make the world go ‘round.
More than that, spiders play an integral role in many cultures, symbolizing everything from life to death. In Greek myth, the spider was created by Athena, who turned a young and hubristic woman named Arachne into one of the eight-legged weavers. African folklore often features the spider Anansi, the trickster god. In the Lakota culture, the god Iktomi is occasionally depicted as a spider. In Japan, there are several demons and mythological figures, such as the Jorōgumo, that are based on spiders. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad and his companion were saved from an adversarial tribe in part by the web of a spider, which hid them from view. A similar tale takes place in the Jewish Torah, when King David hid in a cave concealed by a spider’s web. The spider has been immortalized in nursery rhymes and children’s songs like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “The Spider and the Fly,” and continues to appear in urban legends and scary stories told at children’s slumber parties.
The spider plays an important role in literature as well, in as broad a range of eras and genres as their appearances in myth and legend. The spider plays a role in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and spiders and spider-like creatures lurk throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Aragog is a fearsome, giant spider in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling. Charlotte’s Web is one of the most beloved children’s books and films of all time. Superheroes and Villains alike, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man, have drawn inspiration from arachnids. And what would the realm of B-grade horror films be without such terrifying creatures to inflict upon less than stellar actors?
Spiders have been embedded in human culture for centuries, and only become more entrenched with time. They are mascots and adversaries, benevolent beings and feared harbingers of death. The World Wide Web invokes the image of interconnected strands of spider’s silk carrying information to and fro between the thousands of internet users in a constant stream. They appear in film and in games, in literature and in bed time stories, in the wild and in the old shoebox in the back of our closets. Spiders have been part of the human experience for a long time, and unlike Little Miss Muffet, we aren’t going to be able to run away from them any time soon.
This was definitely not normal. My leg was an angry, pulsing red from mid-thigh to knee, and what I had thought was a mere mosquito bite sat in the middle, aching and itching and turning an incredibly unsettling shade of grayish-purple. I glared up at my parents and grouched, “I told you this wasn’t normal. It’s just a mosquito bite you said. Stop scratching and it’ll go away you said. Well, my knee is the size of a freaking football, so can we go get a doctor to look at it now?” My mother rolled her eyes, but being gracious and tolerant of my seventh-grade melodrama, left it at that and helped me out to the car.
By the time we got to the emergency room, the center of the bite had opened, leaving a small hole ringed by dark tissue. The triage nurse looked a little shocked and sent me straight to a doctor. The doctor took one look and said, “Well… have you been around any graveyards lately, young lady? Any cravings for brains? Because this looks like you may be becoming a zombie.” I blinked at him, trying to decide if his sense of humor was really that bad or if he was just an idiot.
He laughed, unfazed by my lack of amusement. “It would appear that you have been bitten by a spider.” He turned to my parents, “I’m going to prescribe her an antibiotic and a steroid pill. The antibiotic will help keep the wound from getting infected. Since she’s experiencing necrosis of the tissues here, the last thing she need is to develop an infection on top of that. The steroid will help with the swelling. Other than that, Ibuprofen should take care of any pain she may be having. I recommend that you go to your regular pediatrician and have them drain the wound. You folks can head home now.”
The next day, we went to the pediatrician’s office. I’d only had this doctor for a short time. She’d seen me only once before, but she had kind brown eyes and gentle hands. That didn’t stop the next part from topping off the list of things I never want to do again.
I gripped the edges of the bed and clenched my teeth as a nurse squeezed the wound as the doctor probed it with a pair of tweezers. Her brow knit as she dug around in my leg. Finally, she seemed to have found what she was looking for. She nodded at the nurse, who casually leaned on my lower legs. Then, she pulled something out of the hole in my knee. It was larger than it should have been. The yellowed blob of necrotized tissue had about the same diameter of a quarter. It should not, by rights, have been able to come out of that hole. Not in one mass like that anyway. But come out it did, with a distressing noise and an even more distressing sensation of squelching nastiness.
As unpleasant as the whole experience was, the persistent ache that had been with me for days finally, blissfully, started to fade. The doctor patted my shoulder, wrapped some bandages around my knee, complimented me on my ability not to scare the other kiddies by screaming bloody murder, and sent me on my way with assurances that – if I drained the bite twice a day or so – my knee would heal up just fine. As I limped out to the car, I looked over at my mom and said, “I hate spiders.”
Species Loxoceles reclusa (Brown Recluse)
Arkansas summers are very, very hot. They can drive even the most devoted of denim wearers to khaki shorts. Mine were paint spattered and frayed at the hems, and they revealed the shiny, pink circle of scar tissue on my knee. It was still tender to the touch, and whenever I accidentally bumped it against something cold, electric ice zinged from my knee to my hip. But in the three months that had passed since my hospital visit, it had healed up just as well as my doctor had assured me it would. As I jumped off the front porch and followed my mom to the car, I realized that even the tight, new skin had finally stopped pulling with each movement. I grinned and climbed into the front passenger seat. It seemed like I was almost completely over my ordeal with the Brown Recluse. See some spider get me again, I thought.
Mom started the car and we backed out of the driveway. The shadows from the tree branches and the car frame slid over my legs. A fine thread glinted in the sunlight. I went cross-eyed, suddenly face to face with a spider hanging two inches from my nose. Apparently, it had crawled into the door frame to escape the murderous heat, and now that the air conditioning had been turned on, the front seat seemed like an even more hospitable habitat. I screamed.
Mom slammed on the brakes and gawked at me as if I’d been abducted and replaced with a particularly obstreperous alien. The spider swayed towards the windshield as I scrabbled at the seat belt release. The eight-legged pendulum was swinging back towards my face just as I untangled myself from the belt and bailed out of the car into the middle of 3rd street, shrieking all the way. I stumbled my way back into the front yard and half sat, half collapsed onto the front steps. Close to hyperventilating and thoroughly disgusted with myself, I dropped my head into my shaking hands and realized that there were tears running down my face.
As I sat on the steps and berated myself for behaving like a complete and utter nincompoop, my mom rushed over and asked me what had happened and if I was OK. I got a grip on myself and offered her a wobbly smile. “I guess ‘hate’ is a little mild for my feelings towards spiders these days.”
Arachnophobia, the severe, irrational fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias in the world. Though the evolutionary roots of this phobia remain undetermined, some evolutionary psychologists argue that arachnophobes, who go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the spaces they inhabit are spider-free, are products of a natural aversion to poisonous creatures. The fear is an evolutionary response to a known danger. Others take the exact opposite approach. Citing the inclusion of spiders in the traditional foods of several South American cultures – including, but not limited to those in Paraguay, Peru, Guyana, and Suriname – arachnophobia could be characterized as a condition that would limit a person’s chance of survival. The phobia, then, would be more likely to be culturally constructed than a genetically inherited trait.
Indeed, arachnophobia is much more prevalent in western society, where the spider is vilified in film and literature. In the western world, there are estimates that over half of all women and almost a fifth of all men are afflicted to some degree by arachnophobia. An arachnophobe may experience extreme anxiety if they come in contact with an area near spiders or their webs. Symptoms range from screaming and crying to full blown panic attacks and heart trouble. For an unfortunate few, symptoms can even be triggered by a particularly realistic drawing of a spider. Some people go so far as to vacuum-seal all of their clothing, clean obsessively, and douse their homes and yards in pesticides to lessen their chances of coming face to face with a spider of any kind.
Treatment for arachnophobia is the same as for any other phobic disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a systematic and goal-oriented approach, as well as medications have been used to treat those who suffer from this phobia. For some, time and a conscious analysis of behavioral responses can ease the effects. Many people can make significant progress towards overcoming the terror that spiders create in them. Others live their entire lives in near perpetual anxiety and fear over the thoughts of being confronted with a spider.
In the subtropics, the little creepy crawlies we’re surrounded with grow to be not so little. Within a few months of moving to New Orleans for school, I’d seen several species of bugs big enough to have their own health bars. In a climate designed for the mass production of mosquitos, flies, and other insects, spiders thrive. Fortunately, they don’t tend to show themselves in the dorms very often. They’re plenty happy with the smorgasbord of bugs available to them in the great outdoors. Every once in a while, though, one wanders inside.
Presumably to escape the August heat and humidity levels high enough to make the air feel closer akin to soup than anything actually breathable, a wolf spider had found its way into my medicine cabinet. He sat on top of my toothbrush and waved his little front legs at me as if to say “Good morning, human!”
Polite as that was of him, the only response I could muster was a high pitched squeak as I jumped across the room in a flailing of limbs and fluffy bunny-slipper ears. I bruised my shins on the chair and knocked all my dishes off their shelf. The spider just sat there waving his legs and moving his little mouth pieces. The pain of rapping my shins on the chair distracted me from the fright that seeing the spider had caused, and as I looked at him, I realized he was kinda cute. That and his favorite snack wasn’t me, but mosquitos.
I fished around in the scattered dishes and grabbed a plastic cup. I sidled back up to the medicine cabinet and held the cup under the edge. With much squeaking and heart fluttering, I managed to knock the spider off my toothbrush and into the confines of the cup. I ran over to the door, flung it open, and unceremoniously dumped the spider off the balcony and into the tangle of tree branches. I leaned against the door frame and took a deep breath. It was the first time I’d managed to rid myself of a spider without enlisting the help of another person or a can of Raid since the seventh grade. It wasn’t quite playing with a tarantula, but it’s the little victories that get you through the day.
I went back to the medicine cabinet and threw away my toothbrush.