by Callie Leuck
Barefoot on the carpeted floor of my bedroom sanctuary, I become a frozen deer: staring, poised to run. As my heartbeat hammers behind my eyes, my right arm thaws enough to slowly, slowly reach for the bat propped behind the door. Though never adept at hitting softballs, I kept the purple bat, confident I could at least wield it with enough force to impede an intruder. Its time has come.
I lunge, driving the worn aluminum end into the invader’s body. Again! Again! And again!, crushing and twisting into the floor until the interloper’s legs, finally, stop twitching — all eight of them.
Arachnophobia is the name for a fearful reaction to spiders. It is among the most common of all the named phobias. The fear response is in three basic parts: fearful thoughts, physical reactions such as sweating and increased heart rate, and action.
My trespasser, the focus of my sudden fear response, is the first large spider I’ve seen in my first year in the D.C. metropolitan area. It scared calm rationality right out of me. It was large and brown and hairy and fast. It had been moving so quickly when I’d first seen it — freezing when I froze — that I worried I wouldn’t be able to trap it, that it was poisonous, that it would jump at me, even attack me. If I had not acted, it would still be in my room, and I wouldn’t know where. My action—which I’d decided was the only option — was to crush its body into the carpet until it stopped twitching.
Suddenly, every inch of mottled carpet seems to disguise another one, every corner a refuge, every fixture a haven for the enemy. I retreat to the island of my bed, where I can see anything that might creep up on me, but the fear doesn’t dissipate. What if its buddy shows up, or its whole extended family, complete with second cousins and gnarly great uncles?
To calm myself down, I fire up my old HP laptop, and carefully type “large brown spider Virginia” into a Google search. The words “brown recluse” jump out of the screen. But although the notorious brown recluse is sometimes found in northern Virginia, it is rare and not native to the area. My intruder was likely a wolf spider, which can look frighteningly similar to the brown recluse. Wolf spiders are covered in short brown bristles. Their bodies can grow up to one and two-tenths inches; including legs, they are over three inches in length, giving wolf spiders a span nearly the size of my palm.
After a week of shaking out my shoes to ensure no wolf spiders were lurking in them, I decide to ask an expert if there is any reason to fear wolf spiders.
“They’re pretty much a non-issue as far as poison is concerned,” says Eric Day, manager of Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab. “They look more ferocious than they are,” he adds. “The name doesn’t help.”
They earned the name “wolf spiders” because they are hunters. Instead of building webs, they chase down prey, reaching sprinting speeds of nearly two feet per second. This may be why people see various hunter spiders more frequently than other spiders.
Although wolf spiders look ferocious, I know they are not going to kill me. So why can’t I shake my fear?
The Center for Neural Science at New York University studies traumatic memories and how they are formed, stored, and retrieved. Their research suggests the human brain is wired so that humans will respond fearfully in dangerous situations and flee, thus staying alive. Research in this brain fear system could help scientists better understand anxiety disorders like phobias.
Neuroanatomists, who study the anatomy of the brain, have shown that two parts of the brain — the amygdala, where the emotional processing of fear occurs, and the neocortex, where conscious thought occurs — are connected asymmetrically. The pathways running from emotional fear processing to conscious thinking are much stronger than the pathways running the other way. This difference may explain why it’s difficult to out-think an emotional reaction like arachnophobia.
Although wolf spiders are not a physical threat, I must not be the only person unable to out-think the emotional response to the fearsome-looking creatures: several local exterminators list wolf spiders among insects they handle. Atlantic Exterminating’s website calls wolf spiders a “common household pest,” which strikes me as a reassuringly degrading phrase. They sound like my kind of people.
The owner directs me to technician Ed Turlington, who has been an exterminator for twenty years. For spiders, Turlington says he would treat a house with nonrepellant products at every ground-level entry point every three months. Spiders do not sense the products, but they die if they cross them.
It’s reassuring that something can be done to prevent wolf spiders from gaining entry to my bedroom, even if they are nonpoisonous to people. This treatment regimen, however, seems extreme for my one-spider-fright. I killed that one dead enough without chemicals. My trusty purple softball bat is surely suitable enough for handling a nonpoisonous but uninvited houseguest who looks like an escapee from an old science fiction film.
Surprisingly, knowing that the spiders are harmless and that my brain is playing tricks with me is reassuring. Eventually I work up enough nerve to stop constantly checking my floor for wolf spiders. I stop shaking out my shoes before slipping my feet in. It is not until a few months later that another one makes its way into my bedroom. It doesn’t see me sneaking up behind it with a glass.
I carefully compare my prisoner with online pictures of wolf spiders. Yes, it is definitely a wolf spider. I toss the critter out the back door, with a friendly admonishment that the food is out there, not in my bedroom. The next one receives only the flippant instruction, “And stay out!” as it is ejected from the premises with casual disregard. Where cool logic failed to overpower my initial fear reaction, familiarity transformed the once-terrifying intruder into a mere curiosity; a pest; an interruption to be shooed away and laughed at. This fearsome-looking creature that I once pulped to death with a bat in a burst of fear somehow became a piteous farce: powerless, pathetic, and just a little bit icky.