In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.
Wikipedia, that online source of all human knowledge, defines arachnophobia as “the unreasonable fear of spiders and other arachnids such as scorpions.” If there’s any controversy to be found in this definition, it’s the word “unreasonable.”
The word phobia itself refers to an irrational or exaggerated fear of something or a situation wherein the actual threat is either nonexistent or negligible. Within that framework, the use of the word “unreasonable” to describe arachnophobia seems … well, reasonable.
So, are spiders a threat or not? We’re exposed, usually unknowingly, to small spiders in our homes almost every day. The vast majority are harmless, at least to humans — flies and other prey insects might disagree.
But don’t forget, we’re essentially a tropical species, our first appearance as apelike creatures that walked upright on two legs having occurred in sub-Saharan Africa some 5-7 million years ago. The tropics are known, among other things, for having large, venomous spiders. So perhaps we evolved an instinctive aversion to spiders as a survival advantage.
The problem with this hypothesis is twofold. The first humans to reach Europe migrated from Africa around 2 million years ago, but modern Europeans seem in general to possess even stronger fears of spiders than do Africans. Why did they not lose their powerful aversion, or at least have it lessened by the lack of venomous arachnids in Europe?
And then there are the folks who eat spiders. In Cambodia, fried tarantula is considered a delicacy. Indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea regularly add spiders to other foods. Since both places boast tropical climates and large, venomous spiders — or at least ones that can give you a painful, nasty bite — one would expect an inherent fear of the eight-legged critters to be the rule there. Clearly, it’s not.
Maybe, then, arachnophobia is largely a cultural or learned phenomenon. It was certainly a painful lesson for none other than Otto Octavius, AKA Doctor Octopus. After Spider-Man’s then-partner, the Black Cat, was nearly beaten to death by Octavius in Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #76, Spidey decided to return the favor, followed by a warning to never cross paths with him again.
This left Ock with a crippling case of arachnophobia for years, afraid of not just Spider-Man, but all spiders, until Spidey allowed Octavius to beat him in hand-to-arm combat, thus resolving his “irrational” fear.
This is certainly not a typical way for someone to develop arachnophobia, or any phobia for that matter. A small child bitten by a dog might develop a fear of dogs afterward, but most phobias have no basis in either fact or experience. And the conventional method of treatment for a phobia is gradual exposure to the threatening object or situation, until greater and greater tolerance develops over time.
An arachnophobe might start by having to look at pictures of spiders for a few minutes every day until there is little or no emotional reaction, then move on to watching videos of spiders crawling about, until finally they are asked to actually touch or hold a spider. Once they can do that, then casual encounters with spiders on a day-to-day basis are not a challenge at all.
If someone were, say, unreasonably afraid of cats (ailurophobia), you certainly wouldn’t ask them to beat up a cat so that they can experience “mastery” over their fear! But Doctor Octopus did not come by his arachnophobia in the “usual” way, and it took a comic book-style “cure” to rid him of it, once and for all.
Richard Schloss is a Board-Certified psychiatrist in full-time private practice.
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