Lots of common “irrational” fears look reasonable to me. Dying in a plane crash: terrifying. Poisonous snakes and spiders: Why wouldn’t you be afraid of them? Public speaking: Yeah, you might piss your pants in front of a hundred co-workers. Yet I cannot locate even a kernel of justification in my strangest of terrors — the humble moth.
Whatever trauma I suffered at the antennae of moths is lost to me now, but for as long as I can recall, the winged insects have haunted me. Where others might see nocturnal butterflies, I see insidious ghosts. I made a plague of moths into an unsettling and uncanny portent of doom in my first novel, Ivyland. I can still recall a night more than a decade ago, when, after noticing that a moth had gotten into my room, I resolved to let it be and go to sleep — only to startle awake an hour later when it LANDED ON MY FACE. I spent another hour with all the lights on, hunting the fluttery intruder and finally walloping it into mush with a shoe. There could be no peace between me and it.
Because I also have an irrational fear of doctors, this moth issue has gone unexamined by a therapist or anyone else qualified to explain what the fuck is wrong with me. I simply strive to avoid moths and get on with life as best I can. But this past summer, a friend who actually likes moths and raises exotic species of them — a hobby I shuddered to contemplate — shared a meme from what turned out to be a Facebook page devoted to moth content. It’s called, appropriately enough, “I Fucking Love Moths.” Much to my own surprise, I was tickled by the post, and more surprising still, I joined the group.
As I scrolled through the page, my aversion to moths began to fade rather abruptly — though many of the memes traded on moths’ essential creepiness.
It wasn’t all memes, either: People were sharing photos of unique moths they’d spotted, beautiful moth art and tattoos, videos or GIFs of moths in action. The more I checked the page, the more it began to serve as an internet version of exposure therapy, in which a patient is allowed to experience a source of anxiety in a controlled context instead of simply trying to evade it forever. My impression of moths as gross, invasive or somehow evil was supplanted by the truth: They’re harmless and even kind of cute.
This revised opinion of these Lepidoptera was tested, though, by the inexplicable eruption of moth memes elsewhere on the internet. In contrast to the Facebook page’s posts, mainstream moth memes tend to focus exclusively on moths’ attraction to artificial light (the presence of a lamp may confuse them into taking suicidal flight paths because they normally navigate by the position of the moon), and they star a single, sinister moth that originally appeared on Reddit. I can say with confidence that the sight of such a moth at my own window would make me shriek until my face fell off. But while I continued to recoil at the image, the endlessly remixed dumb joke brought me joy.
By the time moth memes had run their course, at least so far as the internet at large was concerned, I could barely conjure the dread I once had at encountering such a creature. Moths were now sweet, gentle and driven to their own destruction by an impossible love. The apparent stupidity of their behavior was really a measure of purity.
So thank you, whoever helped take moth memes viral, for showing me how silly I’ve been all these years. Just last night, some kind of insect — not a moth, but certainly moth-like — got into my apartment and settled inside a lampshade. I didn’t try to shake it
out and kill it, knowing the thing was merely lost and meant me no harm. I eventually turned off the light and went to bed, hoping it would find a freedom away from the bulb.
We’ll see, I guess, how I handle a bigger, furrier or panicked moth in the future — and whether the memes have true rehabilitative power. But for the moment: Team Moth.