There's something about a not-so-itsy-bitsy spider, the sighting of which - spindly legs splayed out on a wall or skitter-pausing across the floor - can get a human body moving faster than a starting gun.
Especially here in the Home of the Brave. "The level of fear that U.S. citizens have for spiders is way higher than any other population on the planet," said Whitney Cranshaw, a professor of entomology and extension specialist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, "and I think it's probably getting worse."
For several years, Cranshaw surveyed students about their level of spider fear (or arachnophobia), asking them about their specific concerns regarding the largely benign creatures. Of the 338 males and 377 females polled, more than two-thirds expressed some arachnophobia.
"Some don't like little spiders; some don't like big ones. Some don't like them because they're hairy, though many are not. Some people hate spiders because their older brother tortured them by putting spiders down their back as a kid," Cranshaw said. "Obviously, some spiders are dangerous, but that's extremely rare in Colorado. Generally people's reaction to the dangers of spiders is way out of proportion to reality."
He blames the rumor mill.
"It's just scary stories that come out - so much nonsense, but it gets reinforced," he said. "You hear it a few times, even if it's totally wrong, you start to think it's true."
Myth One: You eat X number of spiders during your life.
"How many? Probably none," he said.
Myth Two: Daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spider in the world, but they don't bite.
"They're not a spider. They're in their own order," Cranshaw said. "They don't have poison glands. They don't produce silk. And how could they be the most poisonous spider on the planet if they don't bite?"
Myth Three: Spiders will go out of their way to bite you.
"If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone."
Cranshaw places a big part of the responsibility on Hollywood.
"Too many people watched 'Arachnophobia' when they were too young," he said. "Imagine, you're 10 years old and you're watching that and, holy cow, that's scary. It stays with you.
He points out that spiders show up in numerous creation myths and legends, especially among Native American tribes in the southwest United States.
In many parts of the world, a spider living near the hearth is considered good luck; a spider by the door means a visitor is nigh.
"Here, other than Charlotte, I think we just don't have any positive spider role models," Cranshaw said. "I don't count Spider-Man."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364