The emotional parts of our mind dedicated to fear are among its oldest, evolutionarily. As a result, the pathways of fear run deeper in our psychology and physiology than perhaps any other sensation. Fear can bypass logic, sidestep experience, and subvert resolve.
Deep in that emotional circuitry, we hold a special, hateful fear for things that creep. Few sensations are more disconcerting that the tickle of some small creature crawling down the neck of your shirt. And among every being that creeps or crawls, few are hated more universally than spiders.
When watching monster films, I’ve often noticed that the majority of creature design seems to center on a few particular natural phenomena: clicking, slithering, and creeping. Whether it’s the Xenomorph from Alien, Aragog and the Basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, or even just the two villains in Monsters, Inc., these movements are used to scare us.
While our discomfort with slithering likely stems from snakes (which I’ll set aside for now), clicking and creeping are most commonly associated with insects, and most powerfully with spiders. Since a spider’s movements are evolutionarily programmed to elicit a fight or flight response from us, movie monsters just borrow from the things that have scared us on a smaller scale for millennia.
Now, of course, there’s a learned component to our beliefs around spiders. Much of our hatred toward them is simply the product of generations worth of this fear, teaching one another to kill this thing that potentially brings disease or danger. For many of us, our first knowledge of spiders likely came from the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet,” where an eight-legged critter frightens the titular Miss Muffet into abandoning her snack of “curds and whey.”
And yet, in contrast, many cultures revere spiders. In particular, the Akan people of present-day Ghana shared folktales of Anansi, a storytelling spirit who often takes a spider form. Stories of Anansi even spread to the American continents by the Atlantic slave trade, where he became a symbol of resistance against slave-owners through cunning and trickery.
Yet, on a biological level, we cannot get around the fact that spiders give us the shivers, so it’s not too surprising that people want to get rid of spiders the moment they see them. But people go out of their way to kill spiders, needlessly, casually, and often, vindictively. And it hurts for me to watch.
I hate killing things. I think it stems from the idea that I’ve broken something I cannot mend. In the moment before a spider is squished, it is a remarkably complex, self-sufficient creature, capable of communication, complex web weaving, and so much more. In the moment after, it’s a crushed blob.
Regardless of whether you believe spiders evolved over millions of years, or if you believe God spoke them into being, you cannot deny the incredible intricacy of a spider.
To prove this, imagine trying to synthetically construct a spider. Think about how tiny every part of their body is, how they use all eight of their legs in complex coordination to avoid threats and catch prey. Even current materials cannot match the performance of spider silk in terms of elasticity and strength on a micro scale. Not to mention the insanity of trying to program a creature to efficiently build an effective web in almost any environment. It’s a preposterous task.
I think the real reason killing spiders feels so wrong to me, though, is much deeper than just the loss of a creature. It’s the idea that when something inconveniences or frightens us, we feel justified in killing it. I don’t deny that a spider bite can be dangerous and painful, but humans are typically a bit bigger than the prey spiders are looking for, so bites are just a defense mechanism. When we kill a spider, it’s not a rational decision based on some calculation of risk, it’s an emotional one based on saying “eek.”
In so many other contexts, we praise our own ability to rise above biology and be something more than just another animal. I believe every crushed spider, on some level, represents a failure to respect and love the world we’ve been given.
So I implore you: please don’t give in to your fear. Instead, steward the beauty around you. Be grace and mercy, even in the tiniest ways and for the tiniest creatures.
Bonus Spider Facts:
Did you know that spiders don’t have muscles in the way we do? They walk by pumping fluid into their limbs, hydraulically extending and retracting in concert to scurry out of danger.
Did you know that some spiders hunt collaboratively? Some species of widow spider catch prey through teamwork, then share the food among themselves.
Did you know there are species of jumping spiders (the Portia genus) that can learn new hunting behaviors? They can perform problem-solving with brains smaller than a grain of rice.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)