Spiders, Fear, and the Abject

Everyone has their own list of fears, anxieties, and worries.  At the top of mine (following only death) are spiders.  To say arachnids would be inaccurate since it doesn’t include scorpions, though I probably wouldn’t want to meet one in close proximity; it is unmistakably spiders.

I remember in 3rd grade trying to overcome my fears by immersing myself in books and images of spiders.  I distinctly remember some of the pictures in those books, which were beautiful.  One in particular that sticks in my mind is a tunnel made of web.  It was a close-up photo of the inside, extending into the distance.  Particularly intriguing to me were the spiders who made underground nests and would have trap doors to emerge and catch prey.  Despite learning more about spiders, it didn’t help me any with my fear.

Neither did being in environments where there were great numbers and variety of spiders.  As a kid I was in Boy Scouts.  I never did much in terms of earning merit badges or general do-gooding.  It was a way for me to hang out with some cool people (they introduced me to punk music and I remember first hearing Operation Ivy and Nirvana with them) outside of those I knew at school or through sports.  I loved the outdoors, something that hasn’t remained as strong with me, probably related to this single growing fear.  Despite the problems with the Boy Scouts organization, growing up I was unaware of these issues and never encountered any visible intolerance.  In camping and being outside as much as we were, I obviously ran into spiders quite a bit.  I remember the canvas tents of the June Norcross Webster Scout Reservation were lined with all sorts.  I would scour the tents searching for the one that seemed the least infested and based on these preliminary observations would make my selection.  Looking back now I realize my anxiety has gotten much worse concerning these creatures.  I don’t know if I could even peer in one of these tents now and certainly couldn’t even entertain the idea of sleeping in one.

As I’ve thought about my fear, I’ve learned more about it and realized it has mutated, or recently has more to do with, a fear of their legs and unpredictable movement.  There’s some science that confirms this and I realize I’m far from alone in fearing spiders, legs, or anything else.  I think fears are interesting and it led me to consider my reaction and feelings to spiders in a theoretical way when I encountered Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror and the notion of the abject.

It’s a theory a bit too involved to explain in a brief way in this post, but it involves a strong physical reaction (for instance, vomiting or nausea) that is induced psychologically by crossing into the Real.  According to Jacques Lacan, the Real is a place we only occupy in a fetal state, with no differentiation between ourselves and the outside world.  We are occupying another body where there is no sense of differentiation.  It is the space we dwell before entering a world of language and meaning that forever takes us out of this realm into the symbolic order to create ego and individuality.  Confronting the abject, which can take a variety of forms (vomit, feces, a wound, etc.), causes us to abruptly confront the Real and, now armed with our meaning created by the symbolic order, we are unable to rectify its appearance given our ideas of Self/Other and subject/object.  It reminds us of our materiality, our bodies and their inevitable death.  Maybe spiders and death actually occupy the same position on my list of fears.  In Kristeva’s words the abject “disturbs identity, system, order.”   The abject “does not respect borders, positions, rules.”  I’m not sure if spiders would traditionally be considered abject, but I feel my reaction and my sense of the world is upset in such a significant way that it qualifies.

I’ve also taken a more traditional psychological approach to overcoming or dealing with my fear.  I’ve looked back for some sources of where my fears may have developed from in my childhood.  I can remember a few distinct examples that probably had a lot to do with it.


The spider of The Cobweb Hotel “clipping” the wings of his guest.

One was the Fleischer Studios cartoon, The Cobweb Hotel (USA, 1936).  It follows newlywed flies who spend the night in the Cobweb Hotel, run by a spider who traps his guests on beds made of his spun web.  I wonder now if part of this is why I’m fascinated by H.H. Holmes and the book, The Devil in the White City.  Holmes built a “murder castle” during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where he lured an unknown number of victims.  Anyway, this cartoon was part of a VHS tape we had growing up featuring Casper and some other cartoons, but this one always stuck with me.  The runner-up cartoon is the Casper cartoon, There’s Good Boos To-Night, where the ghost befriends a fox, Ferdie, who meets an untimely end from a hunter.  Casper bemoans the loss of the “only friend he ever had his whole life.”  Casper buries Ferdie next to his own grave and the tone quickly changes when he is reunited with Ferdie as the fox returns as a ghost.  This has disturbed me in other countless ways, and probably furthers that link between spiders and death, but let us concentrate on spiders for the time being.


The beds of The Cobweb Hotel. For whatever reason, I have trouble sleeping to this day.

The other childhood example is Bride of Boogedy (USA, 1987), a Disney film that aired as part of a regular television series.  The beginning of the film features a family who are excited with the coming of Halloween and frighten a visitor to their home by chanting “beware the spider” before dropping a large (fake) spider on the guest’s head.  It’s worth mentioning that the title character, Boogedy, is a horrifying pilgrim and possibly explains my aversion to early American history.


Hello, Mr. Boogedy. Goodbye desire to learn anything about pilgrims.

And before anyone asks, I’ve seen Arachnophobia (USA, 1990) and I’d like to thank whoever came up with the spider in the toilet for additional nightmares.

I wonder what is left for someone who has a fear that persists after they’ve encountered it, learned about it, delved into reasons for its creation and yet it continues to get worse.

It’s not something I’m able to get away from easily.  There are obviously always spiders about.  Our home is no exception.  We live in a condo complex where spiders adorn the windows and doors.  Despite my appreciation for the limited amount of bugs we have invading our home, they make themselves quite visible.

I also have some friends on Facebook who regularly post things about spiders.  The latest include spiders that make community webs (my fears of these creatures conspiring are all true) and how urbanization is affecting the evolution of spiders, namely how they’re getting bigger (I wonder why I can’t sleep).  One article did discuss having a portion of the brain removed to eliminate the fear, which seems appealing, but I’ve seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so we know how that will go.

I think the only thing that remains is to completely rethink my associations with the fear.  This happened recently when I watched Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (Canada, 2013).  The film is complex and deserves its own analysis at a later time, but it uses spiders as a beautiful motif and metaphor throughout related to femininity, trust, identity and the other themes that populate the film.  The film opens with a graphic depiction of a tarantula (we watch it walk; this is graphic to me).  Spiders appear in a few other key moments in the film.  I think for me watching this, despite my horror and desire to recoil (or turn the film off), I began to think about spiders less as an object of fear or the presence of the abject, and as something that possesses other meaning, at least in the context of the film.  Some of my correlations between my mind and spiders have been formed or reinforced by media representations so it seems fair that the reverse effect could be feasible.

Maybe this is one way to consider dealing with fears.  It should not be an attempt to eliminate or mitigate them, but keep them and make them into something new, perhaps still to be feared, but one that can at least produce thoughts in the mind other than an instant shudder and shutdown of logical processes.  There has been a spider hanging in the window for the past few weeks now and despite my inclination to open it armed with a vacuum or pass on the hit to Heidi, I’ve let it remain.  It continues to do its job of preventing all manner of bug and insect life into the house, but it also makes me think of Enemy.  Then I get to thinking about deeper questions and I let it spin a tunnel of thought into my mind that weaves a bridge to more comfortable grounds.  That or I move to Antarctica.  It’s the only continent without spiders.  Yes, I’ve looked into this.

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