id you hear the one about the merchant banker who was arrested for trading in tarantulas? He was had up for inspider dealing. Sorry. too many pantomimes. And too little sensitivity to those arachnophobes who’ve been imploring me all week not to write a word about our eight-legged friends and. please. how could The List even think of putting one on the cover? Well. the clean-cut folks at Disney reckon creepy-crawlies could mean big box-office business and. unlike their cartoon compatriots Hannah-Barbera who produced the spider- friendly Charlotte's Web in 1972. the company’s new release Araclznophobia is a square-jawed. live-action. small-town shocker that preys mercilessly on our unease about those ﬂy-loving octopeds. Set in a sleepy Californian village. the Spielberg-produced movie follows the Jennings family (Jeff Daniels and Harley Jane Kozak starring as the parents) whose arrival from the big city heralds the appearance of a silk-spinning army of terror-mongers. An appropriate quota of Hitchcockian neurosis. scariness and death ensues.
When only eight species of spider present any danger to human beings. why do we get so het up about them? Although all spiders carry some venom. there are more than 36.000 species that pose no threat to us whatsoever. ‘It could be that we’re biologically programmed not to feel friendly towards spiders.’ suggests Halla Beloff of Edinburgh University’s Department of Psychology. ‘in the same way it is natural for us to be frightened of very loud noises. of losing support and so on. But I suppose there’s also the psychoanalytic interpretation that these big. hairy spiders have associations with sexuality in a way that is alarming. They’re ready and waiting for phobia to be attached to them. in a way that pussy cats are not.’
Certainly, ifthe evolutionary argument holds true. spiders have had plenty of time to become imposed on our collective psyche. The Arachnida class. which counts scorpions. mites and spiders amongst its members. has been around for a healthy 500 million years. It is believed that scorpions were amongst the first animals to leave the water and inhabit the land. while the earliest
‘ spider fossils are around 400 million years old.
Compare this to the earliest hominoid finds from a trifling 25 million years ago and it’s not hard to guess which of us was first to suss out the art of ﬂy catching.
There again. spiders must have been pretty abstemious for their first 100 million years until Mother Nature got round to inventing the ﬂy. Even now a Blackwall spider can get by for twenty months without food. while large mygalomorphs have been known to fast for over two years. Keen on water and often choosy about what food they’re prepared to eat. their poison is fatal to insects and sometimes to mice. birds and fish. but the rare irritating bite ushered out to a human being is normally as a result of being
had little out ofthc ordinary (save an early appearance from Clint Eastwood as a fighter pilot) to recommend it. A largely wooden cast meet a nasty end. courtesy of the giant arachnid.
I Ssssssss (aka Ssssnake) (1973) A customarily batty scientist determines to turn his assistant into a snake. in order that he can
Arachnophobia, currently threading its way across a web of Scottish cinemas. is by no means thetlrst attempt to realise the scare-value of common phobias on film . .. ITarantula (1955) Despite hailing from the stable ofsci-fi maestro Jack Arnold. this mad-boffin-makes- mutant-monster movie
survive any coming holocaust. Complications set in. however. and he ends up as mongoose- fodder. Biblical references and hallucinatory sequences blur this otherwise amusing horrorfest. which. quite properly. slithered into oblivion. l The ﬂats (aka Deadly Eyes) (1982) Consigned
John Calbert from Lasswade’s Butterﬂy Farm. which currently keeps about ten species of arachnids. puts things in perspective. ‘I come from New Zealand and I grew up in Australia.’ he says. ‘There they have red-backs and funnel-webs and those are the dangerous spiders. But even when you look at a red-back scientifically. there’s only been fifteen people killed by their bites in the last hundred years and no one since 1956. If you’re fairly healthy and you have about 80 hours to get the anti-venom. it’s not a danger.’
As Calbert points out. there are as many visitors to the Farm who have phobias about butterﬂies. moths or birds as there are about spiders. Such people are of all ages and backgrounds. and if there are slightly more women, it is only because they are more prepared to show their fear than their male counterparts. ‘A lot of it.’ says Calbert. ‘is the complete conditioning from childhood. All the horror movies like Araclznophobia give people a ridiculous fear ofspiders.’
But an interest in spiders is not only for the ghoulish. ‘The ones that fascinate people as much as any.’ says Calbert. “are some ofthe spiders that spin these huge and very strong webs. The silk of a spider’s web is one ofthe strongest materials known to man. Considering its width. ifyou made a bit ofsteel that wide. you’d break it very easily. You can grab one ofthese webs and pull it a good metre back and push it a good metre forward off the central axis and it won’t burst on you. Where it radiates out from the centre it is stronger than where it comes round joining the radials up. and that means that if it does burst. the whole thing doesn’t collapse and the spider can repair it easily with a minimal amount ofenergy.’
There’s much to admire in these creatures whose varieties inhabit regions as high as any animal. are found in profusion all over the world and live in every conceivable place from tropical tree and suburban gate post to subterranean cave. When a silk-spinning spider launches itselfinto the air pulled by the weight of its own gossamer thread. the journey it takes riding on a spring breeze can carry it up to 200 miles. Arachnids continue to hold the fascination that inspired the makers of the zodiac 4000 years ago to include a scorpion amongst its twelve signs and that prompted Ovid to tell the story of Arachne transformed into a spider as a punishment for being too good a seamstress in the Metamorphoses.
‘A popular misconception.’ says John Calbert. ‘is that they don’t do any good. They do a tremendous amount ofgood. because they’re the main predators ofinsects and they keep down mosquitoes. ﬂies and so on. Without spiders, people would find the world a lot more miserable place.’
Arachnophobia goes on general release on 4 Jan, see Film listings for details. The Butterﬂy Farm, Melville Garden Centre, Lasswade, opens again on Sat 9.
i forever to the sewers of
cinematic history. this
i rather ludicrous tale of
. cat-sized rats is best remembered for a short but excellent performance i by Scatman Crothers. ' I Frogs ( 1972) One ofthc best of the nature strikes | back school of films. ‘ Annoyed at the
unecological behaviour of a millionaire family. a
group of frogs take the law into their own handsand rather improbably. murder patriarch Ray
IJaws (1975) By farthc most successful attempt to scare the living daylights out of an audience by playing on their fears of the natural world. At first Spielberg’s shocker kept people out ofthc water.
It’s no good just being uncomfortable about something. To quality for a phobia, you have to have a morbid lear out of all proportion to the object of it. A lot of people might be uncomfortable about being locked in a room lull of spiders, snakes or doctors armed with syringes, but to earn the diagnosis of a phobia it has to develop into an obsession that dominates your life. These phobias are most commonly caused by incidents in our childhood, which tester and break out as a full-blown irrational fear by the time we reach adulthood. Hence, the predicted epidemic of Chegwinophobia. They are not incurable and desensitisation classes have helped many overcome their fears.
Arachnophobia is, according to doctors, the most common phobia known to man, giving the movie of that name a head start in the terrifying yet compulsive stakes. Some of the following lesser-known phobias are however, unlikely to make it onto the big screen:
P_ggtﬂgp_h_ob_i§: the fear of beards. Murphm: the tear of chickens. mmpmm: the fear of stairs. (je_n_iopho_bi§_: the tear of chins. Mphobia: not the mortal tear of buying a round but the tear of gravity. Keraunothnetgphobia: what sounds like the tear of heavy metal magazines is actually the term for the tear of satellites plunging to earth -which so many NASA employees secretly suffered from in the 703.
Linonophobia: the tear of string. lilgphobia: the fear of speaking, not named after a Glasgow Councillor. nggphobia: common one among students - the tear of study. tjyﬂggphobla: the tear of nakedness- most schools now permit the wearing of shorts during PE.
Mphobia: the fear of marriage. Phobophobia: the tear of fear. maligtgphobia: the tear of death, worth bearing in mind if your ship goes down — demand to get on the lifeboat first because of your thanatophobia.
Later follow-ups. were to engender an irrational fear ofscquels in many people.
I Phobia (1980) Director John Huston’s only foray into the horror genre had Paul Michael Glaser woefully miscast as the mad doctor operating a ‘kill and cure‘ policy on some phobic convicts.
The List 21 December 1990- 10January 1991 9