True Bugs

Insecta Inspecta World


Special Inspecta Investigation

     When people today hear the word, "Arachnophobia", they think of a preposterous Hollywood movie, but arachnophobia is a very real, serious problem for many people. It can become an obsession, affecting their everyday lives in unimaginable ways. There are historical and cultural reasons for their fear. Treatment methods are evolving from the traditional therapies to newer virtual reality simulations.


     A phobia is an irrational, persistent fear of things or situations. The source of the fear can create a strong anxiety reaction such as sweating, heart palpitations, or trouble breathing. After a while, just thinking or seeing the cause of the fear can provoke anxiety. Many people have mild phobias that do not need treatment, but some people's phobias interfere with their lives and require treatment. "Arachnophobia" comes from the Greek words, "arachne", meaning "spider", and "phobos", meaning "a fear". Arachne was a beautiful Greek maiden.

     She studied weaving under Athena, and had extraordinary skill. When her skills were later recognized, she denied any training given by Athena. Athena turned herself into a bitter, old lady. She approached Arachne, and tricked her into a weaving contest. Arachne wove portraits of the gods performing evil deeds. Athena and Arachne finished their weaving in an extremely short amount of time, but Arachne's work was much finer than Athena's. Athena was furious that a mere mortal had beaten her in a weaving contest and had portrayed the gods in a disrespectful way. Overcome with rage, she beat Arachne to the ground. Arachne was so upset, she hanged herself. Athena realized what she had done, regretted her actions, and sprinkled a magic liquid onto Arachne, turning her into a spider, so she could keep her weaving skills.


     Arachnophobia has historical and cultural causes. According to Graham C. L. Davey of the City University, London, " in most of Europe during the Middle Ages spiders were considered a source of contamination that absorbed poisons in their environment (e.g. from plants). Any food which had come into contact with a spider was considered infected. Similarly, if a spider fell into water, that water was then held to be poisoned (Renner, 1990)." Spiders were believed to be messengers of the Black Plague and death. Europeans believed spiders were "poisonous", meaning their bites caused many diseases. Although their bites caused discomfort, they were not a deadly threat. Fear of the plague clouded their perception, and their fear and disgust of spiders made it easy to believe that spiders were the cause of the plague. In fact, most of these diseases were caused by completely different sources than spiders. Spiders were found in great numbers in the same areas of the house where rats lived. The fleas on these rats were actually the carriers of the plague. Non-European cultures believe spiders were symbols of good luck or wisdom.

     According to Graham C. L. Davey, "Recent studies of spider phobia indicate that fear of spiders is closely associated with the disease-avoidance response of disgust. It is not immediately clear how spiders might have become associated with this response, although examination of the relevant historical literature does indicate a close association between spiders and illness in European cultures from tenth century onward. The development of this association between spiders and illness appears to be closely linked to the many devastating and, at the time, inexplicable epidemics that crossed Europe from the Middle Ages onwards. In many areas of Europe, the spider appears to have been a suitable target for the displaced anxieties caused by these constant epidemics; in other cases, its proximity to the real causes of the epidemics may have fostered opportunistic associations between spiders and disease."

     "The tendency of Europeans and their descendants to be fearful of spiders does not seem to be shared by people in many non-European cultures, and this is not consistent with those evolutionary accounts of spider fear which suggest that spider fear should be a common feature of the human gene pool regardless of culture (e.g. Seligman, 1971). However, it is consistent with the present thesis which argues that spider fear developed as a result of the association between spiders and disease in Europe after the tenth century." In other words, arachnophobia began as misplaced fear during the plague (having historical basis), then was passed down through European families adding a cultural basis.


     Professor Martin Antony of the University of Toronto Psychiatry Department classifies arachnophobics in two categories: "monitors" and "blunters". When a "monitor" enters a room, he searches the entire room for a spider. When he finds one, he not only makes sure he knows where it is but he continues to follow or monitor it. A "blunter" does the exact opposite: he does everything in his power to keep from seeing a spider in a room. He will distract himself, even talking to himself to avoid seeing the spider.


     Traditional treatment of arachnophobia is called "systematic desensitization". The arachnophobic writes down the situations with spiders that scare them then categorize them from least frightening to most frightening. They learn relaxation techniques to help deal with these situations. They imagine having to cope with the least frightening situation, and gradually work their way up the list until they are able to cope with the most frightening situation. They then move on to real situations, accompanied by a therapist. They again work their way up from the least threatening to most threatening situation, exposing themselves to real spiders. When they are able to hold a live spider without feeling anxious, they have conquered their phobia.


     Technology has added a new dimension to treatment of arachnophobia. Studies are being performed in the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, using virtual reality simulators to treat arachnophobics. Patients wear a VR helmet or glasses and a virtual reality glove. A computer-generated spider moves across the screen, and the patient sees it as a three-dimensional spider. The patient moves the VR glove closer and closer to the spider during the therapy sessions until the patient is able to "feel" it crawl across his hand. The Norwegian project uses spiders because it is relatively simple to generate a realistic computer image of a spider. The Washington project also uses a small machine toy spider so patients actually feel resistance to the glove.

     One patient in the Washington project, "Miss Muffet", was so fearful of spiders, she scrubbed her car twice a day and left a burning cigarette in the car's ashtray because she believed the smoke would keep spiders away. She examined her room thoroughly every night, would duct tape her windows shut, and stick a towel in the crack under her door before she would go to sleep. She washed her clothes and immediately ironed them and put them in Ziplock bags to make sure there were no spiders in her clothing. After 12 one-hour sessions in the virtual reality SpiderWorld, "Miss Muffet" conquered her fear and is now able to go backpacking alone.

     Exposing phobics to the real source of their fear can be very expensive and sometimes dangerous for the therapist. Using virtual reality, the doctor can control the intensity of the encounter and stop the experience immediately if the patient becomes overwhelmed. Also, reluctant patients can be persuaded into therapy because they are fascinated with the virtual reality helmet, glove, and computer.

     Arachnophobia remains a large problem for people of European origin. It has an interesting history in the development of European culture. The advances currently being made in virtual reality treatment may cause arachnophobia to become a thing of the past. If only the movie "Arachnophobia" could be forgotten as easily!

Inspecta: Sean Terbeek