A scary spider adventure for Halloween

Bees are far more dangerous, yet people find spiders terrifying. Why?

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A big spider with yellow markings.

The Argiope aurantia, or yellow garden spider, living on my front porch is an inch and a half long.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Maybe I’m doing this column-writing thing all wrong.

I try to choose interesting topics. But maybe I’m dancing to music nobody hears. There are worrisome hints.

One day this month, I posted two items on Facebook. The first was an in-depth look at a hospital emergency department, written after hours spent observing, talking to doctors, nurses, patients.

Opinion bug


That column got 13 comments.

Then I posted a photo of a spider.

“Anyone able to ID this bad boy, noticed on our front porch?” I asked.

That got 78 comments,

Readers, it seems, care about spiders. 

Fine. I can do spiders.

The obvious question is: What kind of spider are we talking about? How do you go about identifying a spider?

“I love that question! It’s a great question” said Petra Sierwald, associate curator of arachnids and myriapods — spiders and centipedes — at the Field Museum.

She directed me to the Field’s online Common Spiders of the Chicago Region. I didn’t have to hunt long: my new neighbor is No. 2, Argiope aurantia, or yellow garden spider. (Won’t hurt you.)

Spiders have complicated sex lives. A male spider will wrap a fly in silk and mate with the female while she’s busy eating. If no bug is handy, he’ll wrap a pebble in silk and trick her, deceit on a near-human scale.

The worry about spiders, as with snakes, is whether they’re poisonous. Illinois’ 800 or so types of spiders are mostly benign.

“You are pretty safe,” Sierwald said. “Driving a car is far more dangerous than encountering a spider.”

Yet half the Halloween displays seem to feature huge, menacing spiders. Why are people so afraid of spiders? We should be terrified of bees instead — eight times more Americans die of bee and wasp stings than spider bites. Where does this fear come from?

“Certain things we are evolutionarily prepared to develop phobia of,” said Dr. Stewart Shankman, a professor and chief psychologist at Northwestern Medicine. The threat from spiders might be less now, but “throughout history more people get hurt by spiders than stoves.”

Fears, Shankman noted, are transmitted from parent to child; your mother screams at a spider, and you’re scared, too.

To test that theory, I talked to my mother about spiders. She was never afraid of spiders, though Ohio is crawling with the things. “I love spiders, because of ‘Charlotte’s Web,’” she said, of the classic E.B. White story. “I know how helpful they are.”

My older sister Debbie, however, put masking tape over the photo of a spider in our American Heritage Dictionary when we were kids.

“I was very afraid of spiders, growing up,” Debbie said. “I don’t know if you remember in our house in Berea; there were a lot of these little yellow spiders. They used to be on the ceiling, I was constantly afraid they were going to fall on me, crawl on me. It’s making my heart beat just to think about it.”

My mother blamed summer camp for my sister’s fear.

“I went to camp, probably 6 or 7 years old,” Debbie agreed. “I have a memory of this giant daddy longlegs with a red body and black legs crawling on my leg — daddy longlegs are not even technically spiders. But it scared me a lot. There were a lot of those things at Camp Wise. They were all over the place.”

That fear must make it hard for her to live in Texas. There are some major spiders there. The Texas brown tarantula can be four inches long.

Speaking of which.

“This was the worst experience of my life,” Debbie said. “I was in the house. We have a baby grand piano, and I see this thing. I thought it was a crumpled up piece of paper. I walk toward it to get it. Turns out to be a giant spider, five inches long. It must have been a tarantula. I went insane, let out a scream, running into the kitchen.”

She tried to call her husband. 

“I was so insanely panicked I couldn’t remember his phone number. So I ran outside, looking for anyone that I could drag in my house to help me. I would keep running back in the house to make sure I still knew where the spider was. If I didn’t get it out of my house I’d have to move. There was no way I could live in the apartment and not know.”

She finally found a stranger to help.

“It turned out the guy was cleaning carpets. He comes in, I show him where spider is. He brings in an industrial vacuum and tries to vacuum it up, but the spider was so big and so strong. It won’t go into the vacuum. He had to kick it.”

Which seems a good place to end. One last thing, though: I grew up in the same spider-infested house my sister did. I went to the same camp. I don’t mind spiders. In fact, I kinda like them. Not only did I not kill the yellow fellow on my porch, but I’ll glance over to confirm she’s still there, doing her job. People come in all kinds, a wide variety. Sort of like spiders. Maybe that’s why we’re so afraid of them. 

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