On our first night in the lake house, while brushing my teeth, I knew someone was watching. Reflected in the bathroom mirror, I counted half a dozen black spots on the wall behind me. T-shirt clad, toothbrush in mouth, armed with a Nike flip-flop, I sprung into action. I struck again and again, and then some more. Arachnophobia had turned me into a mass murderer.
After all these years, I know the symptoms very well — eardrums and temples throbbing to the accelerated pace of my heartbeat, drops of sweat pearling on every inch of my skin, and cold shivers running up and down my spine. Reason vanishes. Panic takes over. I scream like a little girl, jump off the trail and run away, stomp to kill, rush to the closet and fumble for the bug spray, grab the nearest shoe or makeshift weapon. I must escape the foe or exterminate it; there is no other alternative. Any grown man should know better. I don’t.
In the United States on average 6.6 people die from spiders every year, compared with 20 from horses, 53 from bees or wasps, and a whopping 15,000 from homicide. Yet cases of hoplophobia (fear of guns) remain unheard of, while a quarter of the men and half the women in the U.S. are confessed arachnophobes. For us, phobia trumps logic.
When I embarked on a yearlong road trip in Latin America I knew that sooner or later, willingly or not, I would confront my nemesis. In fact, I secretly hoped an extended journey in spider habitat would help me get over the fear. Yet here I was, in this mansion in Guatemala planted right above the sapphire waters of Lake Atitlán, overlooking an ancient volcano… decimating entire families of innocent spiders in order to brush my teeth in peace.
How did it come to this? I had to find out. Maybe understanding the roots of my fear would clear a path to overcoming it.
One night, in deep sleep after a full day playing at the beach with other ten-year old kids, I sensed a threat. I woke myself up. Still adjusting to the pitch-dark room, my eyes instinctively honed in on a large spider crawling on the ceiling, straight above my head. I jumped out of bed, panicked, and ran to my teenage brother Marc for protection.
“Do you know why it came above you?” he asked with a grin.
I shook my head, too overwhelmed too speak.
“Spiders get on the ceiling to sneak up on their victims without being seen,” Marc continued. “They jump from above to catch you by surprise.”
“You just wanna scare me,” I said, not even convincing myself.
“Fine, don’t believe me, but it’s true. One day the priest showed up at Sunday school with the corner of his lip swollen like a strawberry. A spider bit him during the night. You should have seen his face, it was really ugly.”
“How do you know it was a spider and not a mosquito?”
“There were two bite marks. Only spiders do that.” Marc curled his thumb and index finger then joined their tips, mimicking the pinch of the bite. “The space between the two marks shows how big the spider was.”
Mortified, I sat on my brother’s bed for a few minutes before gathering the strength to stand up. Slowly I walked back to my own bed and stood in front of it, inspecting the ceiling – nothing in sight. What if Marc was right? What if the spider dropped onto the bed like he said? Using only the tips of my fingers, I pulled the sheets delicately, dreading what I might find inside. Hidden between the folds, there it was – black and shiny, a body shaped like a figure 8 with short beefy legs sticking on the sides. It bolted. So did I.
As it turns out, spiders don’t really drop on people intentionally. They may, however, lose their grip when moving against gravity – like on a ceiling – and simply fall. Spiders too make mistakes. Sometimes, when threatened, they may also decide to let go and drop down in order to escape a predator. Come to think of it, by suddenly jumping out of bed I probably scared the spider into tumbling down the equivalent of a fifty-story building without a parachute. No wonder it hid under the covers to recover from the shock.
But Marc’s spooky story convinced my young mind easily, for the seed of fear had been sown in me long ago.
A five-year old boy sitting in front of the TV, I screamed to warn my hero, but Sandokan could not hear me. He did not notice the tarantula sliding down from the trees above; neither did he feel its hairy legs landing on his own hairy arm – the good-hearted pirate was too busy spying on the villains who kidnapped his beloved lady Marianne. The spider bit and disappeared.
Sandokan almost died. An orange-sized lump grew on his arm as the venom started paralyzing his body, threatening to stop his heart. Fearless, he chopped the lump off with his scimitar, bandaged the wound with shreds of his tunic, and single-handedly rescued Lady Marianne from the villains. I cheered for my hero.
Some get arachnophobia from the trauma of a painful spider bite, others from watching a French-Italian TV series from the seventies with a cheap tarantula puppet for special effects.
Was this truly the origin of my fear? I had doubts. If a TV show did this to me, an entire generation of French and Italian kids should have been traumatized. There had to be something else.
“The fear of spiders expresses dread of mother-incest and horror of the female genitals” Sigmund Freud once said. So children abused by their mother can develop arachnophobia, and the same goes for those nosy kids who walk in on their parents having sex. My memories lack any abuse or recollection of catching my parents in the act, but in Freudian logic this does not prove anything.
Phobias act as a vehicle to express the fear caused by something that the conscious mind finds too shocking to remember. In other words, if a traumatic event caused the phobia, it cannot be remembered, because if it were remembered there would be no phobia. The logic is as flawless as it is useless.
Fortunately vaginas do not frighten me, Sigmund, spiders do. So it seems arachnophobia is one thing I cannot blame on my mother. Another dead-end.
“Say your name out loud three times,” asked RZ, my spiritual teacher and therapist, when I phoned her for guidance. Neither childhood memories nor Freudian psychology had quenched my thirst for reasons, and I was ready to expand my horizon to different dimensions. RZ had looked into my past lives before; I knew the drill.
She remained silent for a short while, travelling through space and time, opening and closing invisible folders, seeking truth.
“It happened in a jungle,” she said, “probably in Central or South America. I don’t know exactly when, but it was centuries ago. You betrayed your tribe.”
“What did I do, exactly?” I asked.
“You gave information to the tribe’s enemies, and your people found out. So they beat you up and tied you to a tree. Then they brought the tarantulas. The last thing you saw was a set of red eyes before a spider ate your face.” RZ paused while her words sunk in.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” she said cheerfully. Then she burst in hilarity, her way of dissipating the tension.
A wave or relief washed over me. When your fears lurk in a deep pit of darkness, even the most horrible image is an improvement. I laughed with RZ. Humor heals.
Luis, our nature guide in the Amazon rainforest, bends down, grabs a piece of stick and rubs it against his sweaty forehead. “I put the smell of my flesh on the stick,” he explains, “to give it the taste of meat.” We gringos just walked past the spider hole without a second look, but Luis does not miss anything. This jungle is his turf.
Since we left Guatemala to continue our journey southbound there has been no memorable spider encounter, so the adventurer in me couldn’t pass the opportunity to spend a few days in the rainforest. I flew from the city of Quito, high up in the Andes, to Coca, a port town in the heart of the jungle, then took a river boat, and finally stepped into a small paddle canoe, the only means of transportation in the deep jungle of the Amazon basin. Indiana Jones would approve.
On our first day here I told Luis that I was afraid of spiders and I hoped to conquer my fear by seeing real tarantulas. The zealous guide took this request at heart. Once upon a time, long before jungle expeditions became eco-tourism, Luis lead an Englishman and his camera crew deep into the rainforest, searching for wild birds. The man’s name was David Attenborough. And now, during our jungle hike, Luis is determined to make a giant spider come out of its hole in order to fulfill my own wish. What the hell was I thinking?
“Goliath tarantulas,” he explains, “hunt birds, rodents and other small animals. They jump on their prey, strangle it, and bite to paralyze it with their venom. Then they drag the victim into their hole and eat it in their own time.”
Luis asks me to get closer and point my flashlight inside the hunter’s hide. Then he rubs the stick on his forearm for an extra dose of human meat flavoring. Meanwhile I am having a heated argument with myself.
“Only 7 types of spiders out of 40,000 species in the world are considered dangerous to humans,” says my left brain, “and most of them are small. Larger spiders, including the bird-eating Goliath tarantula, are usually incapable of causing harm to humans.”
“Bullshit!” replies my right brain. “What if the spider jumps out of the hole onto the stick, then gets angry when it discovers the trick, and attacks the nearest fool nearby? Apart from Luis, I’m the nearest fool. Don’t spiders prefer the soft flesh of gringos? Mosquitos do.”
“Luis wouldn’t risk losing his tip,” says left brain. “Clearly, there is no danger.”
Two furry pedipalps appear, shutting off the chatter in my head and turning my blood to pure adrenalin. The feeling is excruciatingly familiar, yet something is different. Fear still oozes from every pore in my skin, I can still smell its acrid perfume and taste its bitterness, but it no longer controls me. I can breathe.
The Goliath tarantula won’t come out.
Cedric, April 2013.