Sunday, 22 August 2010



I have something to confess. It's something I want to get off my chest. It's a little embarrassing, and I can already picture some of you rolling your eyes and squinting at the backs of your skulls. Others will be a lot more sympathetic and will probably shudder with an empathetic sigh and continue reading.

I'll come to the point.

I'm arachnophobic. In other words, I have a morbid, uncontrollable fear of spiders. The merest glimpse of a hairy eight-legged predator scuttling menacingly across the sitting room floor is enough to send every hair on the back of my neck standing rigidly on end. I've also been known to scream. Loudly and girlishly: a long drawn-out wail of terror perfectly pitched to shatter a small decanter into a thousand shards of glass.

There. I've said it. I'm out of the closet now. I've confessed. And I can already feel a huge weight being lifted off my mind. And I know I'm not alone. According to statistics, 50% of women and 10% of men show symptoms of arachnophobia. This means that at least 60% of you who are reading this article will be able to empathise with everything I say.

Describing arachnophobia is rather like describing a panic attack. The symptoms are very similar. At the first sight of an eight-legged monstrosity scampering across the carpet or bungee jumping from the ceiling, every corpuscle of blood is drained from my face. Cold fear rises from the bit of my belly and goosebumps blister my flesh. The fear is raw, almost primeval, and every solitary hair on the nape of my neck bristles like a toothbrush. Senses are heightened, eyes are white-rimmed with terror and surges of adrenalin are pumped through the heart.

Some of you - the doubtful 40% - will probably laugh with derision and accuse me of hyperbolising. But let me tell you this: arachnophobia is real and has often caused me considerable distress, insomnia and acute embarrassment in the past.

Many years ago, at university one warm, sunny September, my tutor decided to take his seminar outside, away from the confines of his small, cramped study room. Myself and six other English Literature students formed a small circle on a patch of grass on the outskirts of the university campus. Bums on the dry grass, we sat and discussed how the dominant image of motherhood in some of Virginia Woolf's work was instrumental in undermining the credibility of the Patriarchal society at the time. Or some such malarkey.

All of a sudden, one of the students, who was sitting in a lotus-position directly opposite me, pulled a face and pointed a finger in my direction. She was pointing to something on the front of the hideous, paisley-patterned shirt I happened to be wearing at the time. And judging from the lip-curled grimace of horror on her face, I quickly concluded that it was something a lot more distasteful and alarming than one of the flower-like patterns on my shirt.

Immediately, I looked down.

Crawling up my belly, with every intention of reaching the pimply contours of my face, was one of the most enormous, long-legged house spiders I had ever seen. It was at least as wide as a saucer, and the bristly, black hairs on its legs were as thick as toothpicks. What's more, the spider's pincers were clicking aggressively, salivating at the prospect of taking a dirty great vampire chunk of flesh from out of my vulnerable, bare, white neck.

In a flurry of flailing limbs, I bounced onto my feet and screamed at the top of my voice. "Get it off me! Get it off me!" I yelled, running wildly in circles like a cat with a firecracker attached to its tail. "For god's sake, get it off me!"

Every eyeball was turned in my direction. Jaws were hanging slack. One of the students thought I was having a seizure. Another, who'd spotted the grisly creature climbing up my shirt, merely covered her mouth with her hand and tried not to giggle.

Eventually, after a lot of yelps and cries for help from me and a lot of jigging and hopping about, the sucker-footed monster detached itself from the polyester of my shirt and plummeted back down to the ground. It quickly vanished among the blades of grass, a predator in a jungle once more.

Naturally, I refused to sit back down on the grass. After all, the beady-eyed monster was still lurking about somewhere, waiting to pounce on its prey again, waiting for another opportunity to abseil my paisley-patterned shirt and bite my neck with its poisonous fangs. Bolts of fear were still shooting through my body.

"Oh for heaven's sake," my tutor remarked, looking understandably annoyed as I hovered nervously about with my eyes scanning the undergrowth for signs of the venomous, flesh-eating creature. "It's only a little spider!It can't harm you."

"Only a spider!" I angrily retorted. "That was a fucking tarantula!"

It was an embarrassing and humiliating moment. It was the sort of moment when time seems to stand still and little blotches of redness begin to spread across the face, like jam on a slice of buttered toast. Even Little Miss Muffet from the children's nursery rhyme had been spared the agony of having several eye-witnesses to her brief encounter with a pincer-snapping monster from the bowels of hell. Not only had I made a complete fool of myself in front of six fellow literature students (most of whom were women and who didn't seem the slightest bit put out by the gruesome sight of one of their colleagues being attacked by an eight-legged freak), but I had also just sworn in front of my tutor. I'd even used the 'F' word. And I was only a first-year student too!

A couple of weeks later, I received the results of my essay on Virginia Woolf. I was only awarded a C minus for my efforts, my lowest grade to date. "You need to pay more attention during seminars," my tutor had scribbled at the bottom of the last page.

Even today, I still blame the house spider for my poorly graded essay on Virginia Woolf. I hope the spider came to a horrible, sticky end and is now nothing more than a fading stain of a visceral smear on the sole of somebody's shoe.

Arachnophobia exists. Of that there is little doubt. But what causes the condition is still purely academic.

Even today, in 2010, experts are still uncertain what causes the fear of spiders. There are, of course, many different theories, and one of the most common theories was put forth by evolutionary psychologists. This view suggests that arachnophobia was a survival technique for our ancient ancestors, and that the fear of spiders is a a race memory passed down to us over the millennia. Since most spiders were deadly back then, an instinctive fear of them may have made ancient humans more likely to survive and reproduce. However, other psychologists argue that there were many other animals more likely to pose an even bigger threat to ancient humans, including tigers, wolves and crocodiles. Yet phobias for these animals are not very common. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say they suffered from 'crocophobia' or that they wouldn't leave the house because they'd spotted tigers prowling among the petunias in the garden outside? Does a word for the fear of crocodiles even exist?

None of this washes with me. I don't believe the psychobabble. At least, not completely. The reason why arachnophobia exists, and the reason why it is so widespread, is simply because spiders are scary. Bloody scary. In fact, they're the scariest things on the planet!

Sir David Attenborough (who is not himself arachnophobic) once suggested that the reason the fear of spiders is so common is because their anatomical make up is so vastly different to our own. I think there's some truth in this. We tend to prefer those animals that are more like us in appearance - animals like cats and dogs that have four limbs, two eyes, a nose and a mouth. A spiders, on the other hand, is the ultimate monster. It has a cluster of eyes on its head, jaws that move sideways and multiple legs that can bend in surprising ways. Spiders are also clever little buggers too, and use a wide range of strategies to ensnare their prey: trapping it in sticky webs, lassoing it with sticky bolas, mimicking their prey to avoid detection, or running it down.

As I said, spiders are clever little buggers and should never be trusted.

I also blame film and television for my condition. As a young boy, and barely knee-high to a tarantula, I will never forget watching Jon Pertwee in 'Doctor Who' in a story called 'Planet of the Spiders'. It was, in my opinion, one of the scariest episodes of 'Doctor Who' ever made. It should have been banned. Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association should have complained. The story featured some very large spiders that could jump onto people's backs. What's more, these spiders could speak. They were intelligent - highly intelligent - and had telepathic and telekinetic powers. Now stop and think about that for a moment: A very large spider that can speak, is highly intelligent, evil and can possess its victims like the demon in 'The Exorcist'. What the hell were they trying to do to out heads?

And then there was the old pulp sci-fi classic 'The Incredible Shrinking Man'. As a small child, watching Scott, the incredibly shrunken man, plunder his wife's sewing kit for weapons and then waging a primeval battle with a big, fat, hairy spider was a cinematic experience I have never forgotten. Even scenes in Stanley Kubrick's film 'The Shining' can't match the sheer and utter terror of Scott's gladiatorial battle with a spider the size of an elephant, all snapping pincers and beady black eyes. 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' gave me nightmares for years!

There are, of course, a wide range of remedies and treatments available to help those of us who are afflicted by the curse of archnophobia. These include psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, self-help books, videos and even virtual realty simulators. Call me pessimistic, but I doubt they'll help. My fear and mistrust of spiders is so deeply ingrained into my psyche that only a lobotomy would cure me of my arachnophobia.

And nobody's messing with my brain, thank you very much. Thanks to 'Doctor Who' and 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' it's been messed up already.