“You’re living in Australia?!?!” But like… aren’t there giant bugs and spiders there???”
Since arriving in Tasmania, I’ve seen hundreds of birds, a few rabbits, a kangaroo, wallabies, wombats, and plenty of pademelons. But, to my dismay, I haven’t seen a spider the size of my head or any creepy crawlies worthy of a horror movie.
You see, I don’t mind bugs and spiders. In fact, I think they’re cool.
Growing up, my mom always used to say, “if you wish to live and thrive, let the spider walk alive.” If I threw a fuss, she’d say, “Katie, they are way more afraid of you then you are of them!” And if I killed one, I could expect a scolding. She successfully made me a friend rather than foe to bugs (good job mom!), and I’ll always be the first to scoop the suckers up and free them outside.
Ironically, the bugs and spiders people tend to be afraid of aren’t the ones that pose a threat.
If you want to freak out over a bug, please freak over over mosquitos! These buzzing pests have been carrying deadly diseases for centuries, namely malaria, that are responsible for one million deaths every year. Also, be weary of ticks. While they aren’t particularly lethal, they can cause some pretty unpleasant medical conditions. For a full list of diseases transmitted by insects, click HERE.
Most people just bat away mosquitos in an annoyed manner, but fly to the other side of a room at the sight of spiders. Why?
First things first, do spiders pose a threat and should we be afraid?:
For a good dose of perspective, there are around 400,000 homicides around the world A YEAR! Protect yourself. Run away from humans, not spiders!
Spiders are more or less harmless to humans, but they pose a huge threat to insects, making them an essential component of our ecosystem. Disease spreading and crop eating pests such as mosquitos, cockroaches, and fleas are a spider’s feast. Without our arachnid heroes, such pests would be free to run amok eating our tomatoes and carrying around malaria.
Okay so spiders aren’t too dangerous and they are essential to the ecosystem, so why are so many people deathly afraid?
One possible explanation is childhood trauma.
A study from the University of Maastricht called Common childhood fears and their origins found that a traumatic encounter with an 8 legged creature at a young age may leave lasting impressions. While you may forget the exact incident, the fear was imbedded.
Or perhaps it’s genetic.
Research by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and the Uppsala University, Sweden, found a fear of spiders and snakes (I’ll tackle snakes another time) in infants as young as 6 months. The participants were shown various images, and when they looked at a spider vs flower or a snake vs flower, their eyes would dilate significantly more at the spider and snake. Dilated pupils can be a response to norepinephrine, a flight or fight chemical that floods the system when stressed. Click HERE for the study!
It’s important to note that similar research methods didn’t reveal the same reaction to other threats such as rhinos and bears.
It’s not outlandish to think that natural selection has pushed homo sapiens to be spider-wary, and it makes sense that early humans would be perturbed by leggy, quick creatures that could deliver a painful bite. For all we know, spiders that crawled this earth 50,000 years ago DID pose a threat.
Graham Davey, a professor at the University of Sussex, brings up another imbedded human trait to consider: disgust. “Disgust” is a useful emotional reaction that protects us from disease and illness. Spit, feces, vomit and mucus all have the potential to spread pathogens, and being disgusted by it means we will likely feel sick at the site of feces in the street as oppose to flinging it at each other. Disgust often goes hand in hand with animals that can spread disease, such as bats (too soon?) leeches, rats, and cockroaches. (Click HERE for the article)
But what about spiders? Our leggy friends don’t start plagues or world wild pandemics.
Perhaps being afraid of spiders is related to culture.
In the Middle Ages, spiders got caught in a web of rumors. People said they DID spread disease, and that a spider bite would lead to hysteria and going completely bonkers. This culturally induced a “disgust” feeling.
Not all cultures have the same feelings of horror and disgust. In fact, some even see spiders as symbols as good and are eaten as delicacies.
My Two Cents…
If there’s a blog post without a healthy dose of personal opinion with no sources, is it really a blog post?
Humans should be afraid of potentially lethal animals. It makes sense for natural selection to favor those who run away from venomous spiders, bugs, and snakes as oppose to sweeping them into a playful embrace. But then why do we marvel at “cute” animals like cheetahs and lions that could easily rip us to shreds?
I think it comes down to an imbedded weariness of “scary” traits like multiple legs, quick sporadic movements, creepy crawliness, and ugliness in combination with cultural influences. If your parents and older siblings screamed in a panic over bugs during your childhood, you subconsciously learned to be afraid of the “predators” too. Not to mention, spiders, bugs, and snakes are almost always the villains in movies ranging from possessed children vomiting out insects to giant spiders causing havoc. Thus, while spiders might not pose a real threat, it makes sense to be afraid.
That concludes my exploration into the fear of creepy crawlies and now begins a story of the only time in my life I’ve experienced what it’s like to be afraid of a bug….
Katie vs Cockroach: The Ultimate Showdown
I woke up and groggily putzed around, making coffee and opening up my computer to get the day started. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blob on the wall. My brain caught up with my eyes as I realized it was a massive bug the size of my hand.
I instantly assumed it was a cicada. Every 17 years, cicadas emerge from their slumber to mate, an occurrence that was due to sweep through the south in 2020. Big ugly bugs crawling out of the ground and causing havok on the streets would have been quite fitting given the drama that has ensued with 2020.
Obviously I posted a video on my Instagram because I’m a millennial, and 10 people responded, “that’s not a cicada……”
Turns out it was a big, fat cockroach.
Usually, I’m calm cool and collected when spiders and insects make an appearance, but not this time.
The hair raised on my arms, a pit formed in my stomach, and I felt panicked. I didn’t understand. Why was my heart beating so fast? Why did I feel stuck in one place? Why was I so sweaty?
Was I finally experiencing what it’s like to be afraid of bugs?!?
I rang up Jeremy on facetime for moral support as I grabbed a broom to smash the sucker. I swung the broom and, in classic Katie fashion, I missed. I never excelled in sports. The roach tumbled down behind the mini fridge. Shit.
My only option was to head to the couch and carry on with my life.
The cockroach must have sensed that I was forgetting about it, and suddenly it flew across the room with a loud buzz. I screamed as all those foreign feelings of fear pounded with my elevated heart rate. I ran to my room, shut the door, and put a towel along the bottom for good measure. I admittedly was ashamed, but not ashamed enough to face the beast.
An hour later, I sneaked past the living room to go to work. It was out of sight, but far from out of mind. A conversation with my coworker didn’t help. Jose, an older man with a halo of white hair and smiling eyes, listened to me patiently and let out a big belly laugh when I got to the part about hiding in my room. He kindly informed me to be sure to wash my face before going to sleep. Cockroaches are known to feast on any tasty leftovers lingering on your lips. Great.
I got home at 10pm. No cockroach.
I told myself it had made its way out into the world. At this point in the summer, Hamilton Heights was absolute filth with garbage lining the streets due to cuts in funding for city waste management and park cleanup services. Surely the cockroach would find a better meal outside than in my humble abode.
Three days later we met again.
I headed to the shower after a long day at work and BAM, there it was, resting on the shower wall with it’s long antenna moving about every which way. He may have been winning the battle, but I was going to win the war.
I grabbed the can of roach spray, took a deep breath, and sprayed him down well until he stopped moving. I made the rookie mistake of not opening a window beforehand, and I began to get lightheaded as the chemicals hit my brain. In a slightly loopy state, I finished out the deed by locking the carcass up in tupperware, putting it in the garbage, and taking the garbage to the curb.
I was equally confused as I was ashamed by my reaction.
It’s just a bug! Sure cockroaches are bottom feeders that can spread disease, but I was riding the New York subway every single day in the height of COVID. That cockroach was nothing compared to the A train!
I can easily rationalize through all the reasons I shouldn’t have been afraid, but a clear mind couldn’t stop the pounding heart.
Then it hit me:
this is how people feel about bugs all the time.
I’ve never been able to comprehend when people freak out over bugs and spiders. In fact, I have heaped on loads of criticism citing my mom’s quote “if you wish to live and thrive, let the *insert bug here* walk alive.
This big roach taught me a good lesson of empathy.
If and when I ever see a giant spider or insect in Australia, I romanticize the idea that I’ll be calm, cool, and collected. Or perhaps I’ll scream, run into my room, and block the door with at towel…. Stay tuned!