Hiding the Horror

It was only a few years ago that I came to appreciate the severity of my own arachnophobia. Although I could tolerate tiny spiders, anything larger than an average-size black widow activated instant terror.

Sam McPheeters

Sam McPheeters

Photos by John Michaels

In Western civilization, arachnophobia is a mainstream disorder. According to one British study1, more than half of all women and nearly a fifth of all men are scared of spiders. For most of these people, arachnids never rise above an icky annoyance. But for a small minority, the dread is so intense that it manifests in rituals that seriously affect one’s day-to-day life. Even more troubling, extreme arachnophobia can be a direct route to the worst sort of agoraphobia: a crippling preoccupation with the enemy invading the sanctuary of home via countless imperceptibly tiny chinks and gaps. Fortunately, it’s a curable condition.

It was only a few years ago that I came to appreciate the severity of my own arachnophobia. Although I could tolerate tiny spiders, anything larger than an average-size black widow activated instant terror: My hands moistened with sweat, my heart raced, and my skin twitched in anticipation of contact. More important, I would do anything to get away. A photograph, or even a one-second glimpse of a spider on TV, could conjure these reactions. Webs and cartoon spiders were also triggers. I’ve worked desk jobs where the adrenaline jolt from a simple Google image search for “tarantula” replaced my afternoon caffeine fix.

There’s no mystery to how I acquired this affliction. The culprit was The Brady Bunch. Specifically, “Pass the Tabu” (season 4, episode 2), when the gang goes to Hawaii and a tarantula crawls up a bedspread toward a terrified Peter Brady. This aired when I was three, and although I don’t remember the rest of the episode, the scene is an indelible part of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is of trying to fall asleep in my old bedroom in Troy, New York, waiting for the tarantula to come creep-crawling up my blanket. Normally, an event even this innocuous would precipitate a lifelong trauma—point A to my present point B. But in between these points, I took a detour from my fear that I still can’t fully explain.

In the summer of 1985, I spent a month camping in the jungles of Panama. I was 16 and had been accepted into the School for Field Studies (SFS), a Massachusetts-based undergraduate environmental study-abroad program. SFS offered rigorous on-site research intertwined with rugged physical challenges. After meeting our American instructors in Panama City, my group traveled by train and boat to an inlet east of Lago Gatún. We pitched camp in a clearing, ate a lot of Spam and mangos, drank hot cola, and learned how to survive in an alien ecosystem.

We set up camp adjacent to the jungle, and our minders hacked a winding pathway through foliage so dense it made the trail seem like a covered hedge maze or a leafy hallway. Workdays began with a walk through this cool, murky passage. A five-minute stroll led to an open field and, from there, the sites of our research. Returning to camp in the afternoon, it was impossible to ignore the huge web just to the left of the entrance to the path. A hairless spider—definitely not a tarantula but still gigantic, with legs like jointed knitting needles—dangled in the dead center of the web. It never moved, except to sway when the wind caught its web. One of us had named it Mike. Every day we would greet Mike, usually with a machete salute, as we headed back to camp. Returning from the field on our last day, I noticed that Mike was missing from his web. My field partner and I paused and laughed and dared each other to step back into the hallway. It seemed like a trap from a horror movie. But after a few laughs we continued on. It wasn’t that scary.

Why would it be? SFS paperwork included warnings about the local fauna. We learned that large wolf spiders could inflict a painful bite, but they weren’t fatal. We’d also been warned not to shake any trees, lest one dislodge a Goliath bird-eater tarantula (so named by a 19th-century explorer who allegedly witnessed one devour a hummingbird). In the vast pantheon of jungle-dwelling creepy-crawlies, however, spiders ranked somewhere in the middle. They were scarier than the scorpion I dislodged from my boot, but nowhere near as chilling as a half-glimpsed slither of a monster python, or waist-high anthills, or howler monkeys whose distant, inhuman shrieks brought conversation to a nervous halt. When I returned home at the end of the month and greeted my mother, I said, “Well, I guess I’m not scared of spiders anymore.”

1 Davey, Graham, Phobias: a Handbook of Theory, Research, and Treatment, (London: Wiley, 2000).

Unlike most phobias, the fear of spiders can infantilize adults by making it seem like they never overcame childhood fears.

A few years later the fear returned, and by the early 90s I was fully aware that I had some form of arachnophobia. Between 1989 and 1993, for example, I had to approach my Manhattan PO box by a roundabout route, so that I could avoid Forbidden Planet comics and its illustrated window display of a sexy woman kissing a huge spider. While researching this article, I quizzed old friends to see if they’d known of my spider problem. Almost uniformly, they did not. Somehow, throughout an adulthood defined by an inability to keep my private affairs secret, I’d carefully concealed this lone vulnerability.

My pal Adam confirmed my suspicion. “If we’d known, we just would’ve tormented you with rubber spiders.” (In his defense, I would’ve done the exact same thing if our positions had been switched.) I called my pal Christina, whom I’d known from high school (meaning, since before Panama) through the 1990s, when she roadied for my band. She told me that she didn’t have much insight into my phobia. Eventually the conversation turned to her recent trip to Ecuador and a hotel room in which a giant spider had “crawled up out of the fucking toilet.” I had a nasty jolt, visualizing a map of South America with Ecuador fading to black—one more place I’ll never visit.

Phobias are essentially errors of recording, byproducts of traumatic events committed to memory through the amygdala and lodged deep inside the reptilian brain. Many phobias spring from trivial childhood incidents that live on only through a ghostly afterimage of fear. For many phobics, the physical or visual presence of their fears can set off a series of instant physical reactions: sweating, shaking, confusion, nausea, breathing difficulty, and other responses. Phobias can either mimic or accentuate other panic disorders (like OCD or PTSD), but they are stand-alone conditions, and an accurate diagnosis hinges on both the presence of disproportionate fear and the self-awareness that one’s fear is irrational. Survival instincts dictate that spotting a dangerous snake—or any snake—in the wild should evoke a reaction of fear. Viewing a photograph of the same snake should not.

In the annals of humbling dreads, arachnophobia occupies a special spot. Most major phobias—fear of germs, flying, or needles—have a foothold in logic. But there are people who are terrified of things like cats, trees, and pickles—aversions so extreme that they are easily recognizable as mental disorders. Arachnophobia occupies a sketchier middle ground, neither logical nor bizarre. Unlike most phobias, fear of spiders carries a whiff of immaturity and childhood frights carried over into adulthood. Perversely, horror and humiliation act as binding agents to keep sufferers trapped in their phobia. Many arachnophobes never consider professional help.

It doesn’t help that some phobia therapists can make the process seem like a trip to Orwell’s Room 101. In 2008, the National Geographic Channel aired a nasty, trashy special on arachnophobia therapy in which an arachnophobe named Alfred visits a doctor for whom phobia recovery is nothing more than an exertion of willpower. (“We’re talking about courage. [He’s] going to have to say, ‘Look, I’m going to persist in the face of my fear.’”) Poor Alfred is forced to confront live spiders and at one point is left alone and barefoot in an empty room with a hairy tarantula. During the climactic tarantula-in-the-hand scene, Alfred describes his fear level as “90 percent.” The process works—the episode wouldn’t have aired otherwise, of course—but how many viewers were scared away from treatment due to the severity of the process?

Last spring, I finally decided to look into arachnophobia treatment for myself, safely outside the confines of a television program. I knew that I needed to uncover a method that didn’t require superhuman levels of masochism. I found more than I expected: systematic desensitization, cognitive-behavioral therapy, virtual-reality treatment, something called Fast Phobia Cure, and good old-fashioned hypnotherapy. I’d been wary of this last approach. It wasn’t just the perception of this method’s slippery New Ageyness (many LA-based hypnotists offer phobia therapy alongside help for “feeling low,” “motivation boosts,” and “past lives”), but also that many hypnotists advertise their wares with websites featuring clip art of dark forests that no arachnophobe would ever set foot in.

Further research and phone calls made hypnotism seem more attractive. Even the most promising systematic-desensitization doc could spring a giant spider on me. A lot of the specialists were booked. Many were far too expensive. Then I spoke with Brennan Smith, an LA-based hypnotherapist lauded on Extra as the “stop-smoking hypnotist to the stars.” Brennan said all the right things, and his website featured no forests. I made an appointment.

The following week, I arrived for my appointment a half hour late after racing through traffic. I was tense and frustrated, and not particularly in the mood to wrestle with my deepest fear. Brennan’s office, on the fourth floor of a Beverly Hills banking building, consisted of a tiny room, not much larger than a closet, containing two chairs, two end tables, and a larger comfy chair with a throw blanket. Next to the door, drawn blinds discretely covered a long window. The space wasn’t nearly as New Agey as I’d expected. Neither, for that matter, was Brennan. He was a slender, long-fingered man who vaguely resembled a young Bret Easton Ellis and spoke with the authoritative, soothing voice of an airline pilot. I found him instantly likable.

Smith told me he had once grappled with arachnophobia himself. Unlike my variation, his was of all spiders, large and small. He too had experienced immediate recoil, a phenomenon familiar to most arachnophobes. Brennan dealt with it through hypnotherapy. He described a moment when, one night after completing his own sessions, a spider crawled over his bare chest. Instead of screaming, he merely shrugged and said, “Huh.”

Brennan probed the parameters of my fear. I described a recent trip to California Adventure, a lesser offshoot of Disneyland. At some point, my wife and I stumbled into a 3-D movie “experience” called It’s Tough to Be a Bug! I’d forgotten I had a phobia until it was too late. The house lights dimmed, and a school-bus-size spider trundled onstage in all three dimensions. Boxed in by families with kids, there was no way to leave without drawing attention to my shameful fear. I closed my eyes, and despite my racing heart, I was able to laugh at the absurdity of my predicament. At the end of the show, huge animatronic spiders descended from the ceiling and stopped close enough to brush my hair. I crouched low, head between my knees, in an attempt to thwart hyperventilation. As we left the theater, several children cried in the distance. I could relate.

Before his hypnotherapy treatment, the author could barely even look at a spider in captivity.

While surveying my physical reactions, Brennan pointed to a table in his office and said, “Imagine that the lamp base is a tarantula.” (The lamp’s three curled supports had a diameter of an LP.) This prompted an instant physical response. Within a few seconds, my palms were so sweaty I couldn’t grip anything. Brennan asked me to break down my reaction: I was plotting how I would get to the door and, absurdly, realized that my brain had included the window as an escape route. If faced with a spider this size, I would have no qualms with plunging through a window. I said this out loud, and Brennan laughed. “That’s reinforced security glass,” he said. I chuckled as well, although I doubt it was very convincing.

Brennan sketched out a simplified overview of the brain, and the regions affecting my phobia. A large horizontal band represented the anterior cingulate gyrus—the bouncer of the nightclub that is my subconscious, separating the conscious 12 percent of the mind from the murky 88 percent below. Brennan told me this determined which thoughts were allowed in or out of the tavern of my subconscious, according to previously established negative and positive associations. Soon his diagram filled with so many little plus signs that it looked like a cartoon graveyard. I felt a twinge of fear. What if the treatment didn’t work? I’d soon find out, because it was time to get hypnotized.

I moved to the comfy chair, and the lamp—which, in my mind, had returned to its original form—was dimmed. Brennan instructed me to close my eyes and led me, through several visualization exercises, to a slightly lower plateau of relaxation than I was accustomed to. I could hear him talking, but his voice remained in the background, addressing me from far away. I’ve experienced a sensation like this before, trying to sleep in moving vehicles while the front-seat passenger and the driver conversed. Soon it was easy to forget that this soothing voice was directed toward me. Occasionally he asked me to respond to queries with my index finger, which I outstretched like a tarantula leg rearing up in aggression.

Brennan had me visualize a movie theater in which I was both projectionist and sole audience member. Through the square hole overlooking the seats, I was told to picture myself sitting in the front row, watching a film about spiders. I imagined the film as a brief documentary of a trip I took to the Santa Ana Zoo, when I happened on a Goliath bird-eater in its cage. Brennan had me replay this brief, humiliating encounter, each time adding a layer of ridiculousness. I was instructed to paint the scene in Day-Glo and add clown shoes to each of the massive arachnid’s eight spindly legs. Finally, Brennan started singing, with real gusto, the theme to Sanford and Son. He suggested I add my own soundtrack and to “pick something fun.” I chose “Yakety Sax,” the theme from The Benny Hill Show.

I know enough about therapy to understand that sudden epiphanies do not really ever happen. And yet this felt exactly like one of those moments. As proved on YouTube, there aren’t many of life’s disasters that can’t be made at least slightly funnier with the addition of this “Yakety Sax.” Why should spiders be any different? Brennan pulled me out of the hypnosis and wrapped up the session. He asked me how long I thought it’d taken. I guessed high—18 minutes—actually believing it was closer to ten. He smiled and said, “28 minutes.”

That night, I dreamed about spiders: I was outside, after dusk, on a shady lane whose regularly spaced street lamps created a series of bowers extending off into the distance. I glanced up into the tree closest me and was just able to make out the shiny, metallic body of a huge spider. It was smaller than a person but larger than a dog, creeping through branches with the slow, inexorable movement of a horror movie. I realized that the trees were full of huge spiders. I had a second realization: They had their world, we had ours. I was surrounded by them, which could potentially be a serious problem. But it wasn’t an issue at that moment. Instead of screaming, I merely shrugged and said, “Huh.”

I thought about the dream, and “Yakety Sax,” over the next few days. Could it really be this easy? In the name of science, I headed back to the Santa Ana Zoo. Not far past the main entrance, I found a comically thatched hut labeled BAUER JAGUAR EXPLORATION OUTPOST. Nearby loudspeakers blared the sounds of jungle life that I’d once, in a previous lifetime, heard in person.

Almost immediately, I recognized the gravity of my mistake. A plastic spider in a display case was enough to make me freeze, then speed-walk back to the entrance. From there I could see the Goliath enclosure in the hut’s corner. Infuriatingly, it was blocked in by waist-high displays, leaving no easy escape route. I stepped back inside the structure, determined to touch the glass separating myself from my greatest fear, veering close enough to read a placard marked GOLIATH BIRD-EATER TARANTULA. Not one of those words was good.

Three feet from the glass, I froze. No force on earth could have compelled me to take those last few steps. I glimpsed the animal, motionless and enormous, in the back of the terrarium. I’d had many opportunities for one of these things to fall on my head in Panama. How would I have dealt with a Goliath bite on my neck, or nose, or eyeball? I weakly hummed “Yakety Sax,” but at this point the song seemed to be more about me than the spider.

The open rafters of the false hut took on an air of imminent menace. I thought of the descending spiders from California Adventure. The skeletal remains of a different tarantula rested on top of the enclosure. Had one escaped and died? I pulled my hooded sweatshirt even tighter. A series of children stepped between me and the Goliath, examining the beast at eye level, gleefully slapping their little palms against the glass and exclaiming, “Daddy! What a big spwi-dah!” It occurred to me that any grown man skulking around a zoo in a hooded sweatshirt probably looked like a child molester. Disgraced, I fled.

The stink of shame followed me for days. The Goliath had deeply frightened me. But why? What was it about that configuration of shapes that caused fear? I could glue two billiard balls to some pipe cleaners and probably freak myself out. I’d pondered this question for years, and although I’d never deduced any logic for my fear, I had located its locus. It wasn’t their fur, or legs, or even that creepy sidling walk. It was those bulbous little abdomens. This is why crabs and scorpions and even a video of the Japanese Kondo Kagaku spider robot don’t frighten me, and why a “spiderish” configuration of wet leaves in an underpass did.

The hypnotherapist’s treatment was subtle but successful.

Brennan began our second session with an incident he was surprised he’d forgotten. As a teenager in Kansas, he’d attended a rural summer camp. The camp’s meeting space was inside an open-air building. On one occasion he glanced over and noticed that a tarantula was ambling up to the meeting house, perhaps curious what all the fuss was about. He remembered pointing frantically and trying to form the words to warn the others. Finally, a camp counselor approached the spider with a broom, shooing it with sweeping gestures. Brennan remembered thinking, “That guy is dead.”

I understood. He’d thought that the tarantula would run up the broom faster than the human eye could follow, perhaps attaching itself to the counselor’s face—like a facehugger in 1979’s Alien—or, worse, scamper into his clothing. I would’ve thought the exact same thing.

The day after my second session with Brennan, I realized I was able to read an entire National Geographic article about tarantulas without flinching. I spent the rest of the afternoon learning about the creatures. I’d had no idea they were cannibals with milky blue blood, or that they molted. I spent an hour reading about the molting process, marveling at the insane complexity of it all. If tarantulas don’t have enough energy, for example, they can die trapped in the ruins of their old bodies.

This made me a tad sympathetic. The more I read, the harder it became to dislike them. Their method of eating—pumping digestive liquids into prey and then slurping out the innards—was certainly disgusting. But was it any more disgusting than us humans grinding and liquefying food with our mouths? Also, the myth of the human-attacking spider started to rub me the wrong way. Tarantulas seem to have a pretty good handle on us being fast and strong and several hundred times heavier than they are. Even their one threatening posture seemed sadly impotent, the rearing-up “attack position” that mimics a human hand performing parlor magic (or, for that matter, stage hypnosis).

I was far more horrified to read about its enemy, the spider wasp perversely known as the tarantula hawk. This brutal, two-inch-long freak of nature has large red wings and hooks for claws and lives to torment its namesake. Tarantula hawks hunt tarantulas by chasing them into their burrows and stinging their prey into paralysis. That the spider can even survive this is a feat; the sting of a tarantula hawk has been described as one of the most painful injuries a nonmammal can inflict on a mammal, an attack that can literally shut down the human mind with agony. But the tarantula does survive, only to be dragged by the wasp back to its lair and implanted with a single egg. When the tarantula-hawk larva is born, it feeds off the tarantula’s nonvital organs, finally bursting through the spider’s abdomen when it grows too large. Tarantulas, it turns out, are the good guys from Alien, not the monsters.

This was real progress. Perhaps too much progress. I considered that I might be getting overconfident. In my next session with Brennan, we set about defining what constituted “cured.” Holding a tarantula in my hand would be a nice way to prove that I’ve overcome this phobia, but certainly not the only way. The goal, he reminded me, was merely to arrive at a point where my quality of life was no longer affected by an internal fear response. It would be good for me to be able to explore my attic, or to not break out in sweats when a spider popped up on TV. I didn’t need to go spelunking in search of hairless Mexican cave tarantulas.

We agreed on a simple tolerance comparison: sewer rats. In New York, I remember watching rats scamper on subway tracks as relief from the boredom of waiting for a train. If one had walked over my foot, I would’ve recoiled, kicked it away, and then gone on with my day. I should have the same reaction to spiders.

Before I left, Brennan gave me a heads-up: He explained that the brain will expel phobic thoughts, much the same way a recovering smoker will hack up bits of tar. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I was told to expect visitations, a final round of spider-related nightmares as my brain purged a deeply ingrained fear.

“It’s a good sign,” he reassured me.

I visited the Petco near me to gauge my progress. Previous Petco trips had always been hurried affairs. No matter how badly I needed pet supplies, it seemed irrational to knowingly enter a building with a live tarantula in it. This time, I didn’t encounter any of fear’s physical manifestations: sweaty palms, a creeping expectation, or the peripheral vigilance. As I approached the Scary Animals aisle, I felt only annoyance. Petco used the same floor scheme as the Santa Ana Zoo, forcing me into one of the narrowest aisles in the store.

I approached the spider tank slowly, finding no wall of fear. A small true zebra tarantula (a Costa Rican species known for its speed) huddled in a back corner, motionless. Its abdomen looked like a squeak toy. One wee cricket bounded about obliviously. In days past, I would’ve felt real pity for this guy, trapped with a nightmare. Now I felt like the spider deserved a few more of these Happy Meals.

A new sensation came over me: Fear and the absence of fear existed simultaneously. It was like seeing a small shiny object in bright sunlight, the glint reflecting in just one eye. In one part of my consciousness, the true zebra was still a monster, something ancient and Lovecraftian. In another part of my mind, it was the ugly duckling in a pet store full of adorable animals. It would never have to face the tarantula hawk, but it would also never know the security of its own burrow. And while the spider had a cushy existence in this pet store, its sheer ugliness ensured that it would eventually wind up in the care of the very worst sort of flaky pet owner, slated for a life with someone who would probably forget to feed it, or spill bong water on it, or let it get eaten by a larger, less exotic pet. Overlapping these contradictory sensations was a third realization: I was calm. This was the closest I’d ever been to a tarantula.

Soon after my revelation, my wife bought me a plastic tarantula at Target. The toy was from a line called TARANTULA PLANET—its logo a cartoon tarantula standing guard over its own little planetoid—and featured SOUND ACTIVATED CRAWLIN’ ACTION. The back of the box showed the full line: Octane “the Racer” (blue with black flames on its abdomen), Tango “the Soldier” (camo, with comical little army helmet), Red Beard “the Pirate” (black, with tiny hat, hook, and parrot), and Spike “the Rocker” (purple Mohawk, studded wristbands, light-up eyes). She bought Spike. This seemed only one small step removed from the clown-shoed Goliath of my hypno-movie. It wasn’t much effort to hear the yakety sax.

The next day I popped off the detachable mohawk and studded bracelets. It looked a lot scarier. For an hour I was alone with my fear. Then it stopped being scary. By the end of the day, I saw the plastic tarantula as emblematic of exotic adventure, like the model schooners decorating my living room.

Each night, I fell asleep with a dread of nightmares. I’d never been guaranteed bad dreams, although this could be another smoker parallel, similar to the vivid dreams caused by nicotine patches. When the nightmare finally came, it was laughably amateurish: a wire-and-fur tarantula with googly bike-reflector eyes popping up next to my bed, like a cheap fright in a county-fair haunted house. I’m not one for lucid dreams, but I remember looking at it and laughing in contempt. That was the best my brain could do?

A tarantula crawls over the hand of the author—proof that he is no longer an arachnophobe.

My final session with Brennan felt more like a debriefing than therapy. I’d spent the last week exposing myself to spiders in every sense except tactile, without any reaction. For all practical purposes, I’d beaten my phobia in three sessions. With a hint of suspicion, I asked if this was unheard-of. He smiled and said my experience was common. People assume that because their emotional response is so huge, that it will take months or years of therapy to overcome. In fact, such neural pathways are fragile and can be easily disrupted, like cobwebs.

After leaving Brennan’s office, we loaded up on mixed nuts—adequate protein being essential for a steady emotional state—and drove to Medusa, a highly recommended exotic-pet store in west LA. Even though he’d mastered his own phobia, Brennan had never actually held a tarantula and enthusiastically wanted in on this ritual of completion.

When we arrived, the manager was busy with a customer. I respected that he didn’t drop everything to schmooze the press, so we browsed for the spider. There was a large selection of exotic fish and corals. The old me would have resented the contrast between the relaxation of watching swimming animals and the horror of glimpsing crawling animals. We passed large plastic bins of small, beautiful snakes. I searched myself. What emotion was I feeling? My nervousness seemed more social than phobic. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being rude, dragging my hypnotist and photographer around someone else’s tiny shop.

We met up with the manager, Josh, whom I’d spoken with by phone. He produced a plastic animal-storage bin with a rose hair tarantula. The rose hair is passive, slow, and not a particularly strong climber—a good starter spider for phobics. The shop didn’t offer any obvious surfaces, so we stepped out into a back alley where the light was strong. This added a slight absurd feel to a rather important milestone in my life, as if we were conducting an illicit pet transaction.

Josh delivered a shocking warning: Tarantulas are fragile. For a burrowing spider like the rose hair, a fall from even waist level on a human adult would “shatter” it. He meant this literally. If it fell, its body would crack and it would die. I wasn’t quite sure what a shattered tarantula would do for my phobia, but I was pretty sure what it would do for my morale, karma, and journalistic integrity. We gathered protectively around the small, unnamed female as Josh scooped her out of the plastic terrarium and placed her in Brennan’s outstretched palm. Brennan’s hand trembled slightly and he said, “It’s so light!”

I asked questions, perhaps to delay my own moment of truth. Did an animal like this require special handling? It did not. For many tarantulas, maintenance is low: a decent terrarium, a brick of Bed-a-Beast, a half-log hidey hole, food, and water. Was this an expensive tarantula? No, she cost $18. Was there a risk of bad pet owners—lazy-eyed stoners looking for a laugh—buying one? None, Josh said with solemn assurance. Nearly everyone looking to buy exotic pets possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of their animal. Only once or twice he’d refused to sell to people who didn’t seem responsible. One of his biggest problems was people looking to buy unusual animals as presents.

“And insect venom,” he said with a sheepish grin. “That’s another problem for me. I’m really allergic.”

My moment had come. I wasn’t sure how to gauge the absence of fear (after all, when are we ever truly safe in this world?). But I could tell my own dread was as close to zero as possible. For one brief moment, there was a glimmer of the old fear as the spider turned to face me with its many tiny eyes, each black, alien, incapable of transmitting emotion. Then it gingerly stepped down into my cupped hands.

It was indeed light, like balsa wood, or the branch of a fern. The wind picked up for a moment, and it huddled to steady itself. Then it decided it wanted to explore my hand. Its gestures were catlike, just in a different configuration. Slowly I turned my hands over and it climbed down from one to the other, like a toy Slinky.

A second gust of wind blew through the alley, and it—she—turned toward me. Suddenly, those black dots became real eyes conveying a real need, a fear of the breeze that could easily snatch her up and send her smashing into the ground. I felt another internal switch click. I was holding something furry and vulnerable. In an instant, the tarantula had been anthropomorphized, the greatest possible defense an animal can have in a world ruled by humans. Like my phobia, this feeling was internal, psychosomatic, but felt incredibly real, tapping into a different but equally ancient core of my brain.

Those tiny eyes spoke to me now:

Be my friend.
Protect me.
Don’t let me fall.

The author enjoys a post-finally-cured-of-arachnophobia celebratory jump.