If you go through your list of friends, family members, and acquaintances, you probably know multiple people with a strong dislike of spiders, rodents, or both. When faced with something like a sewer rat or a wild tarantula, many people’s reactions range from nervous fascination to complete panic and disgust. But why is there such a universal fear of these particular members of the animal kingdom?
A Strained Relationship Throughout Human History
Let’s just say that rodents and humans haven’t always been the best of friends throughout our shared time on the planet. Historically, humans have had pest control problems with rats and mice eating crops and food stored for harsh times. Rats, in particular, have been synonymous with disease. For generations, rats have been blamed for spreading the bubonic plague, which wiped out millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages--although emerging research suggests that human parasites, like fleas and lice, might have been the actual culprits.
When it comes to spiders, some scientists speculate that people’s fear has a genetic origin. This theory is supported by a study that tracked infants’ reactions to images of spiders and snakes compared to those of flowers and fish. Spider and snake pictures triggered a significantly more noticeable “fight or flight” response in the babies than flower and fish pictures. Reactions like this could indicate that our human ancestors learned to fear spiders due to their painful and sometimes toxic bites, and that particular trait was passed down to many people today over tens of thousands of years.
It Started Back in My Childhood...
Many phobias start from a traumatic event that occurred during one’s childhood. Often, this incident has a lasting impact that can cause recurring fear or anxiety when the affected person sees or is in the presence of the thing that caused the event. For instance, if you were bit by a spider as a child or saw someone going through the pain of a spider bite, that might be traumatic enough to cause you to develop arachnophobia, which is one of the top-ranking childhood fears.
Additionally, some phobias can play into others. For example, those who have mysophobia (the fear of germs), which affects 13.2% of the US population, may also fear mice and rats because of the diseases these rodents can carry and transmit.
Attack of the Killer [Insert Ordinary Animal Here]: Phobias Reinforced by Popular Culture
“Charlotte’s Web” and “Ratatouille” aside, stories in mainstream entertainment have not always painted a picture of spiders and rodents as friendly and helpful. These creatures have traditionally inhabited crypts and haunted houses and have been the familiars of some odd and dangerous characters (think “Willard”). Some have even been “supersized” into evil-doing monsters, like the giant spiders in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the Harry Potter saga. These portrayals reinforce the idea of spiders and rodents as “creepy crawlies” to be feared.
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