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It's One of the UK's Biggest Fears, But We Find Out Why Spiders Aren't All That Bad...

1 June 22 words: George White
illustrations: Leosaysays

Spiders - they’re pretty creepy, right? Without a doubt. But they’re also remarkably smart, they play a vital role in our ecosystems, and they are mostly harmless here in the UK. So is it time to start looking at spiders in a different light? Dr Christopher Terrell-Nield, a Biosciences expert at Nottingham Trent University, certainly thinks so…

Think of a fear, and chances are you’ll think of spiders. The eight-legged freaks (as Ellory Elkayem’s 2002 masterpiece kindly referred to them) strike terror into the hearts of countless people across the country - with many of us arming ourselves with a slipper and leaping onto a sofa at the mere sight of one. In fact, almost half of the British public are at least “a little” scared of spiders, according to a YouGov survey, making arachnophobia one of the most common fears in the UK. 

Yet, at least on these mild-mannered shores, spiders are almost always perfectly harmless. And, as much as you might not want to hear it, they’re actually incredibly intelligent creatures, playing a key role in ecosystems across the country. So why are so many of us so frightful of the little critters? Is it our protective human nature keeping us from harm, is it passed on by friends and family members who are already terrified of them, or is it a wider trend in society? Well, according to Dr Christopher Terrell-Nield, Undergraduate Courses Manager for Biosciences at Nottingham Trent University, it could be a mix of all three. 

“There are lots of theories as to why arachnophobia might happen,” he explains. “There’s one that says it could be an inherited issue, a genetic predisposition of the fear of the unusual as a defensive kind of behaviour. There might also be a cultural element behind it. Some people come from parts of the world where there are spiders that are genuinely dangerous, and they train their children to avoid the same sort of issues, as it’s part of their belief system that this is an animal that should be avoided. 

“I think it often starts with an early experience. It’s probably many parents’ fault, in a way. They are often weary and protective of their children, so when this strange creature comes into their house, which they’ve heard might be quite dangerous - it could bite them, or cause problems - they will do the same kind of actions that they’d do for any sort of danger, saying, ‘Keep away from that, it might hurt you.’” 

A danger seen is much less threatening than a danger that’s just disappeared

As influential as our childhood can be, though, our experiences in later life can add to our phobia. Movies, in particular, have a part to play in exacerbating apprehensions and misconceptions around spiders - from The Lord of the Rings to Arachnophobia, Them to Big Ass Spider! (yes, it is a real film), the critters are often used as an angst-inducing source of horror on the big screen, with directors exploiting viewers’ anxieties to get under their skin. 

“Basically, anything in the natural world - even if it’s relatively harmless - can, in the science-fiction world, be scaled up to something which is: A, physiologically impossible; and B, genuinely frightening,” muses Dr Terrell-Nield. “You think of something like Starship Troopers, for example, and the giant insects in that - if people see enough of that thing, some become desensitised, but others end up feeling a stronger reaction than is justified.” 

But are films or our family fully to blame for our fears? Aren’t the creatures themselves just a little creepy? In truth, yes. Through their unpredictable behaviour and ability to sneak into our homes, our safe spaces, without being noticed, there are very rational reasons behind why grown adults become afraid of the tiny creatures, even if they know full well they are not a real threat. 

As Nottingham’s spider expert admits, “Behaviour can be quite a strong component. Spiders have a tendency to come out from under your TV, then stay completely still - then you’ll look away, look back and they’re gone. This is part of a spider’s natural behaviour, because it’s how to avoid being seen by prey, but you often can’t see the stimulus for that, so you can’t predict what it’s going to do. And that’s what frightens people - because a danger seen is much less threatening than a danger that’s just disappeared.” 

From The Lord of the Rings to Arachnophobia, spiders are often used as an angst-inducing source of horror on the big screen

Yet while there are rational explanations for what is often described as an ‘irrational’ fear, there is still a strong argument that we should try to tackle our terror, if we can. After all, spiders are friends, not freaks - remarkably advanced beings that are essential to the health of our natural environment. “They are really, really important,” as Dr Terrell-Nield explains. “They consume millions of tonnes of insects in the world every year, which helps to manage the food chain, control pests and support ecosystems. They, themselves, are also the prey of other animals that eat invertebrates, so their role is a very good one.”

While it’s all well and good knowing the benefits of these beasts, though, tackling a phobia is, of course, no easy task. But through doing the unthinkable - coming face-to-furry face with spiders - Dr Terrell-Nield believes it is at least a possibility. Much like with managing heights or social anxiety, progressive, controlled exposure can lead to a positive response for some. “When I do talks and I show the audience a picture of a spider, there will almost always be a reaction. We do get some very worried people, so I may use exposure, like pictures, then a video, then showing them a live spider in a box, to prove that there’s nothing to worry about. Then we can talk about their experiences and find out if there’s a reason behind their fears. Desensitisation therapy is definitely a way that you can overcome these worries.”  

So before taking a slipper to a spider, try to look them in one of their eight eyes (okay, reminding you that many have eight eyes probably isn’t helpful) and power through the fear. You never know, you might find that your feelings change when you do. But, hey, if you can’t, that’s fine too - phobias are pretty scary, after all. 

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