When I catch a possum in my backyard, we eye each other warily, but neither of us really wants to tangle. When I found a lizard in my apartment, I tried to shoo him out with a Tupperware container; he made it out minus his tail, which he shed on my front stoop, where it wiggled for another ten minutes. But when I see a spider somewhere I think it shouldn’t be — the upper corner of the shower, or spinning a web between my dresser and the bedroom wall — I gather a wad of paper towels and kill the motherfucker.
I can admit this isn’t entirely rational. Spiders eat other household pests and don’t bother humans. In some cultural traditions, they are even considered good luck. It’s only the superficial aspects of spiderhood—the too-many eyes and finger-like legs and weird excretion of a tensile silk that sticks to your face when you walk through it—that activate my prejudice. And I’ve begun to suspect there’s something gendered in this response. Vacationing in a Lake Tahoe cabin, I wanted to squish a massive arachnid hanging out on the bathroom ceiling, but my girlfriend wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t understand this.
“Leave it alone!” Madeline said. “It’s chilling. What do you think it’s going to do to you?”
“What if I get up to pee in the middle of the night and it falls on me?” I asked.
In the end, common sense prevailed, and the spider had disappeared by morning. (I can’t say I liked the idea of it hiding elsewhere in the house, though I tried to put this out of my mind.) Somehow, though Madeline typically yells for me to come destroy a cockroach or any similar insect intruder, she makes an exception for the noble spider that I’ve long struggled to adopt. Perhaps I watched the 1990 horror flick Arachnophobia, starring Jeff Daniels as a fearful man up against a horde of deadly Venezuelan buggers, too often as a kid. I know I believed the urban legend that we swallow eight spiders a year in our sleep way longer than a reasonable person would. Even the end of Charlotte’s Web, where hundreds of baby spiders hatch from her egg sac, is enough to make me recoil.
I’m convinced I’m not alone in this, and that it is a uniquely male problem, because with suspicious regularity, we read the same absurd local news story: “Man burns down his California apartment trying to kill ‘huge wolf spider’ with fire” (January 8, 2018). “Man suspected of starting fire after using propane torch to kill spiders” (October 17, 2017). “Man starts gas station blaze trying to kill spider with lighter” (September 25, 2015). “Man accidentally starts house fire using ‘blowtorch’ to kill spider” (July 18, 2014).
These incidents go viral because the dudes involved are overreacting to a disastrous degree. For some reason it is not enough to flatten the dreaded bugs; annihilation must be total, even at the cost of one’s own safety and property. The elemental solution of fire brings a whiff of caveman machismo back into the proceedings — this way the men aren’t “afraid,” just in thrall to destructive power wielded irresponsibly. Is it any coincidence that Jeff Daniels relied on flames to destroy the king spider and its pulsating nest at the end of Arachnophobia, all without damaging his beloved wine cellar? I’m telling you: It is not.
The science on my theory is mixed. While one informal survey concluded that six out of 10 men fear spiders, compared to fewer than half of women (it also showed that “45 percent of men are afraid to clear a spider’s web away ‘in case a spider came out,’ compared with only 29 percent of women”), other studies posit that up to 90 percent of arachnophobes are women. There was also a 2009 experiment that suggested baby girls are genetically predisposed to this sense of terror, while boys have a more or less neutral response to images of spiders. However, the takeaway from that analysis also held that “aversion to spiders may help women avoid dangerous animals, but in men evolution seems to have favored more risk-taking behavior for successful hunting.”
Could it be the case, then, that men are no more alarmed by the uncanny, “seemingly erratic movements” of spiders than women, and simply take an idiotic approach to dealing with the largely harmless creepy-crawlers? Compared to just letting a spider be, attempting to set it ablaze with a homemade flamethrower does seem like fairly significant “risk-taking behavior.” Only when men assimilate their instincts and understand their fright as baseless can they avoid a spider-related catastrophe. Take a cue from your girlfriends, guys: An arachnid ignored is another fluke arson avoided.