Published on Psychology Today
With Halloween just around the corner, many of us have creepy imagery on the mind, especially as we gear up to decorate our houses with ghosts and goblins and muster up the scariest costumes we can think of. My 6-year-old son is obsessed with making our house as scary as possible, so that neighbors gasp when they pass by throughout the month of October. The scariest house in town last year had a giant spider covering the house’s entire roof, with big red eyes that seemed to follow you as he sat affixed on his equally giant web. Clearly, the folks in this house went all out to create the scariest scene possible—in fact, hanging out of the spider’s mouth was a bloody baby doll toy representing the giant predator’s last meal (which was a lot to take in, even for an avid horror fan like me). As you can imagine, the house got a lot of attention; it was featured on several town websites and twitter pages, and people could be seen stopping to gawk as they passed by.
In my lab, I study the development of fear and anxiety in infants and young children. To evoke fear, I use the scariest thing I can imagine that is both safe and wouldn’t exactly scar kids for life. It is a simple remote-control car that is covered by a brown box; but the brown box is designed to hide the car from view, and to prop up a giant toy spider that is mounted on top. When the remote-control car moves forward, it looks like the giant spider is barreling toward you. As you can imagine, the spider is quite effective at inducing fear, and usually sends infants (and sometimes their moms) running out of the room.
Why are spiders so scary? Researchers have suggested that the answer is that spiders are threatening and can hurt us in some way. But this logic is a bit flimsy when you take a hard look at it. Out of about 38,000 spider species in the world, only 0.1-0.3% pose an actual threat to humans (Maretić, 1987; Gerdes et al., 2009). And spider bites rarely cause death (Forrester & Stanley, 2004), even in places like South America and Australia which contain some the world’s largest and most dangerous spiders. Snakes—another one of our most highly feared animals, are a bit more dangerous than spiders to humans, but not by much. Within the United States, an estimated 13,000 people are injured by snakes every year, but of those injuries, only about 6 result in death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016; Forrester et al., 2018; Conover, 2019). The majority of snake deaths around the world most offer occur in rural communities in developing countries (Alangode et al., 2020; World Health Organization, 2021).
So scary things like snakes and spiders can hurt is, but they usually don’t. Still, many of us will jump on a chair at the sight of one of these creepy crawlies. Why? Some researchers think that we inherit snake and spider fear through our biology. The reasoning is that snakes and spiders were some of our (and by “our” I mean mammals) most ancient predators, and over the centuries, we have evolved a natural fear of these animals. Some research supports this idea. Research from my own lab at Rutgers has shown that adults, children, and even babies are really fast to detect the presence of a snake or spider in series of photographs—faster than we are to detect other objects, like flowers and frogs (LoBue, 2013). But other research suggests that faster detection doesn’t necessarily mean we are born afraid. In one study I did when I was a graduate student, I brought toddlers into a lab space with 4 fun toys, and 4 live animals in small terrariums—a snake, a tarantula, a hamster, and a beta fish. I figured that if we are born with a fear of snakes and spiders, the toddlers should spend less time interacting with them than with the other animals and the toys. I was wrong. The kids loved all the animals and spent almost twice as much time interacting with them than with the toys, including the snakes and spiders (LoBue et al. 2013). So much for being born afraid. The only evidence of fear I saw was in the parents, who sometimes would pull their children away from the snake and spider to look at the other objects in the room.
That made me think: Maybe we do inherit snake and spider fears, but perhaps not through our genes. In other words, maybe parents pass down this fear in other ways—by their own fearful reactions or in the way they talk about things like snakes and spiders. To find out, we recorded parents and children talking about snakes and spiders and other animals as they walked through a reptile house at a local zoo. We looked for instances where they said both positive and negative things about the animals in the exhibit, which included a variety of snakes and spiders, along with other lizards, reptiles, and insects. We found that parents don’t have a lot of good things to say about snakes and spiders and used a lot more negative and threatening language when talking about them when compared to the other animals in the exhibit (Conrad et al., 2021). And we know from other research that negative or threatening language can cause children to develop fears.
This suggests that perhaps we do inherit snake and spider fears—but not from our genes, from our parents. Or more accurately, from our culture. Indeed, if you look around us, snake and spiders are almost always depicted as symbols of evil and fear. Movies like Arachnophobia, Anaconda (and its many sequels), along with Snakes on a Plane were designed to scare the pants off of us. And our sordid relationship with snakes and spiders goes back way farther than that, to the serpent in Garden of Eden and the Medusa monster whose hair was made of snakes. It’s pretty rare that snakes and spiders are depicted in a positive light in the US; it’s no wonder we don’t like them.
But not all cultures push this scary narrative. Ancient Chinese cultures, for example, thought snakes could prolong life, and as such, viewed them as a symbol of good luck and fertility. In ancient Egypt and Indian mythologies, snakes were often a symbol of divinity instead of evil. In India, those who observe Nag Panchami still traditionally worship snakes on this religious holiday. And in Hong Kong, snake soup is a popular delicacy, containing the meat of at least two different types of snakes as its main ingredient. In these cultures, it’s possible that snakes are something to be revered instead of feared, or something that has some utility or even nutritional value. And after all, who’s afraid of their own lunch?
Back in the good ole USA, propping a giant snake or spider in your front yard for Halloween is bound the have the desired effect—on both adults and children alike. In fact, if a parent is afraid of snakes and spiders, it’s more likely that their kids will get spooked too; after all, language, culture, and popular media seem to make sure that we do inherit our most basic fears.
Photo by Bart Everson/Flickr
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