~ ~ With All Due Respect to Ralph ~ ~
  By Johannah Hughes Turner, Literary Editor

The very word strikes terror into the hearts of millions. 

According to scholars, this reaction occurs only Western European society.  In many other cultures, the spider symbolizes good luck and prosperity.  The fear, therefore, is not inborn in humans, regardless of eons of uncomfortable cohabitation with the crawlies of creation. 

Scholars note that in the Middle Ages, spiders were associated with contamination of food and water and with infection.  Spiders inhabited, in great numbers, the same kinds of places rats did, but it was the rats' fleas that vectored the Plague epidemics.  Yet, in spite of the original erroneous perception, the habit of fearing spiders was handed down through the generation and persists in western culture.

Hereís another intriguing theory to explain our fear of spiders. . Citing Savory (1964), Don Meehan of Washington State University suggests that the fear of insects is a result of their rapid movements leading to retinal image movements similar to those involved in falling.  Adrenaline release and an increase in muscle tone follow, and these are the factors which lead the brain to interpret `fright'.

Arachnophobia, the word:  In Greek mythology, Athena taught Arachne, a beautiful maiden, how to weave.  Arachne surpassed Athena in skill and achievement. The outraged Athena slew Arachne, but then in remorse brought her back to life as a spider so that she could continue her weaving.

Spider symbolism is woven into our culture.  We all learned to recite, as children:  O what a tangled web we weave / when first we practice to deceive.  Nowadays, the premium software for constructing World Wide "Web" sites is called DreamWeaver.

Some divide arachnophobes into two categories:  Monitors (who enter a room, search for spiders, and if they spot one, keep an eye on it) and Blunters (who will do anything not to see a spider that's standing right there in plain sight). 

I have a nephew who moves from room to room all night, from bed to couch, in flight from spiders he can actually hear walking on the wall or the ceiling.  Yes, in his house these spiders are all too real and they're big.

I remember taking a very plump spider from a web in an upper corner of my mother's doorway and casting it back into the wild, across the lawn.  Damned if that stubborn thing didn't use its eight legs to hike all the way back to the house and build a new web in the same spot. 

Then there was the time that I heroically didn't run from the huge orange spider walking around on a beam over my head because I'd been charged with saving the lives of baby pigs who were likely to be crushed against the pen by their mother without my intervention. 

I had a dream about a spider that grew bigger and bigger before my eyes, to where it was bulging from the wall, two or three feet wide.  I was terrified but for once in my whole life stood my ground.  While I sprayed it with lysol and anything else that would come out of a pressurized can, I told it that no matter what it looked like it couldn't be real and it wasn't going to fool me.  I told it that if it was alive it had to die of the poison. It finally crumpled, and I awakened victorious and free.

One night in the Missouri Ozarks I allowed a wild hunting tarantula to walk up and down my arms.  It was weightless and had those little clingy/pinchy things on its legs that made it pleasantly feel like a Japanese beetle.  On that same trip I held a couple of brown recluses (found behind a picture on the wall) in my hand.  The latter was probably a foolhardy act but I didn't get bitten by any of them.

As you may have guessed by now, I am a recovered, self-cured arachnophobe.

As a psychiatric disorder, arachnophobia can cause people to suffer not just irrational crippling fear but also delusional states.  Somehow the idea that spiders are dirty or germy gets into the personís psyche and transforms itself into fear and disgust relating to filth, insect infestation, sexual penetration, or incest. 

The current trend is to eschew expensive, long-term, elusive, and sometimes dangerous psychiatric treatment, the kind that involves plumbing the psyche for the meaning of the phobia to the individual and for the early-childhood event/association that may have triggered the phobia, in favor of more practical approaches involving gradual desensitization.  

The latest and most promising method makes use of virtual reality.  You wear a helmet and goggles.  Your virtual hand is in a virtual glove on a virtual table and the virtual spider gradually comes closer until such time as you can allow it to walk on your glove and "feel" it.  Arachnophobic children go willingly into this otherwise scary treatment because they're fascinating by the equipment. 

OK, so you think there aren't any black widows or brown recluses, nor even tarantulas, in your immediate environment.  All the same, look out for the Aggressive House Spider (Tegenaria agrestis).  It is large and a fast runner.  It will bite when threatened, and the bite will cause blisters that ooze and take months to heal and cause scarring.  You can distinguish the Aggressive House Spider from its relatives by looking for a chevron pattern on its abdomen.  [Thanks again to Don Meehan, cited above]

What to do if you're sitting on your tuffet eating your curds and whey, just minding your own bidness, and along comes a spider?   Don't call Ghostbusters.  Reach for your trusty Spider Catcher!

Please email Johannah with your comments about Spider!

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