Like most phobias, arachnophobia makes no rational sense. But also like most phobias, the fear of spiders comes from some dark, hidden corner of the psyche. It’s primal. Just the suggestion of something hairy and eight-legged is enough to make the average arachnophobe gag, scream, or even leap out of a moving car. This is well before the rational part of the brain kicks in and tells us that ‘it’s a harmless little spider’. I can only speculate that somewhere in our prehistoric past, our ancestors ran from a now-extinct, man-eating species of cow-sized spider, and that this distant memory is locked away in our subconscious.
I’ve been aware of my arachnophobic impulses for many years now, and I’m proud to say that I can override the urge to hysteria in all but the scariest of spider sightings. A recent encounter, however, came when I was at a physical and emotional low, and I reacted a little badly. To put it bluntly, I was left shattered and highly embarrassed for days afterwards.
It was a Thursday night. All week, I’d been suffering from a nasty stomach pain. I felt sore and bloated. My appetite had all but disappeared. My head and back were aching and I was very tired. It was as though all my systems were falling apart.
I been visiting my daughter, but felt so sick, I decided to leave early. I didn’t feel like doing anything other than getting into bed.
That was when things started to go very wrong.
Upon getting home, I went straight to my bedroom, flicked on the light, and was about to throw myself onto the bed, when I caught sight of the largest, ugliest, hairiest huntsman spider I’d ever seen. It had arranged itself above my bed like a wall ornament. Like the severed hand of some alien creature now displayed as a trophy. I’d frozen – my mouth hanging open and my limbs stopped dead, like one frame of a moving picture – a runner caught mid-stride.
I did the right thing at first. I didn’t run out of the house screaming, or start waving my arms or rolling my eyes. I calmly thought things through. My plan was to brush it onto the floor with a magazine, then either catch it in a jar or, if I had no other choice, squash it with my shoe.
But as I took one step towards it, a magazine curled in my hand, the spider ran, with astonishing speed, down behind the head of the bed.
I gasped as a spasm of repulsion rippled through my body. ‘It’s on my bed,’ I whispered, swallowing the urge to hiccup violently.
I peered reluctantly into the crack between bed and wall, the creature’s hideous body a silhouette in the sliver of light. It was on the bed head, about level with the pillows. A terrifying chant echoed in my head. ‘There’s a spider on my pillow, my pillow, my pillow. There’s a spider on my pillow, my pillow…’
Again, I suppressed the inclination to panic. As calmly as I could, I attempted to lift the foot of the bed and swing it away from the wall. But the bed – queen-sized and solid wood – was so heavy I could only move it a few centimetres. Looking into the crack a second time, I could still see the spider, but it had crawled onto the mattress. There was no way I could even get close to it, forget about swinging a magazine.
Maybe I could lever the mattress from the bed? If the spider clung to the mattress, I’d be able to get to it. If it jumped onto the bed base, I’d also stand a better chance of getting to it without the mattress in the way. Either way, I’d get a shot at the monster.
By now, I was getting weary. The little energy I’d had was dribbling away, as were my feelings of compassion. All thoughts of rehabilitation had dissipated. It was now a fight to the death!
The mattress was no easier to move than the bed. It was big and heavy and awkward, and it was only after much swearing that I was able to get it on its side, standing like a wall across the middle of the room. But now that it was in that position, the spider was nowhere to be seen. I looked carefully around the bed head, and then, reluctantly, squatted on the floor and peered underneath. There it was – clinging upside-down to one of the slats forming the base of my bed.
The wooden slats were not nailed or bolted into position, but merely slotted into a groove in the base. I carefully manoeuvred the slat loose and lifted it, hoping to expose the beast. But as soon as it was visible, and my magazine poised to swat, the spider leapt with great skill onto the next. As I lifted the second slat, it did the same again, and kept on doing it until all the slats were loose and stacked in a ramshackle pile next to the bed.
By this time, I was white as a sheet and sweating profusely. I may have even been sobbing. The spider itself has clambered onto the foot of the bed and was making its way towards the great wall of mattress. Apart from the mess I’d created from dismantling the bed, I’d also stirred up a disgusting amount of dust that filled the air like a noxious fog.
I sneezed, sobbed and began to whine in the manner of a two-year old. I went in search of a glass of water and caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror. What this the face of a mature 50-year man, or a mentally defective infant?
Upon returning to the bedroom, I spotted the spider making itself comfortable on the upper reaches of my mattress. Suddenly, as though a fuse had blown in my brain, I slipped into a kind of hysterical madness, and lunged at the spider with a battered copy of Mojo magazine. I smashed at the mattress again and again, my blows random and careless, and as I did so I uttered a sort of primitive guttural shriek.
In the end, nothing remained of the spider or the magazine. Although, to my discomfort, I could only finds spider fragments scattered across the room – a leg here, a bit of body there. No complete confirmation of its demise.
I collapsed – exhausted and wrecked. There was no relief, just a sense of embarrassment and shame. Surrounding me was the remains of my bedroom – bits of bed, hastily moved furniture, disorganised piles of paper and magazines.
I found an uncontaminated pillow and slept on the lounge room sofa. Even then, as I closed my eyes, spider-shaped figures crawled across the inside of my eyelids.