Halloween and horror movies are filled with creatures designed to strike fear in the hearts of viewers—from those that drink blood in the night to insects that grow too large and develop a taste for human flesh and aliens that cross the universe intent on the destruction of humanity. But is there any truth behind any of these fantastical creatures? Turns out, the answer is yes, though the real deal is much more nuanced—and much more intriguing—than their Hollywood doppelgangers.
Spiders tend to be very good for pest control. And we’ve all heard that stat about eating three spiders a year in our sleep. They’re everywhere. That doesn’t mean we want to be faced with them, though. According to Rich Hofstetter, director of the Insect Ecology and Management Lab in the School of Forestry, spiders are scary because we have an arachnophobic reaction that bypasses conscious thought: our primitive, emotional brain instantly processes the image of a spider—within milliseconds, the thalamus prompts the amygdala to release epinephrine, insulin and cortisol, increasing our pulse, blood pressure and rate of breathing in readiness for flight or a fight—while the prefrontal cortex more slowly assesses the risk and decides whether to cancel the amygdala’s preparations or to act upon them. We also have a disgust response that affects our facial expressions. All of this likely comes from that fact that a spider bite could kill us or be very painful as well as vector disease (which is not usual).
While Arizona is home to black widows and brown recluses, both of which are considered dangerous to humans, the more noticeable arachnids are the fuzzy tarantulas that are large enough to make their presence known. They are not considered dangerous to humans—but they do tend to make you jump when you come across one unexpectedly. And, strangely, when threatened they can throw hairs that actually pose a greater health risk than their bite does.
DYK you can keep tarantulas as pets? I do, because when I was a teenager, my family had a couple of them. Yes, for some reason we had two, despite the fact that, when we got the first one, we awoke to an empty cage the second day we had it. My father stopped shaving mid-face so he and my mother could comb the house. I do not remember helping. I do remember they found the tarantula under my bed.