Agonizing over American arachnids: Halloween ushers sticky spider craze

A Joro spider defends its territory by eating its competitor. Photo Credit: Christopher Brown, Ph.D.

A Joro spider defends its territory by eating its competitor. (Photo Credit: Christopher Brown, Ph.D.) 

By Collin Elder, Class of 2023

Joro spiders might be the newest fixation of the Southeast, but spiders in general have held a special place in our hearts for centuries. Different regions of the U.S. harbor their own species of spiders. From the enormous tarantulas of the southwestern deserts to the wolf spiders that dwell in basements, these creatures come in all shapes and sizes. Dr. Christopher Brown, professor of biology at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), shines light on these fascinating arachnids’ sudden burst of activity in the early months of fall.

“With insects, summer is all about growth. They start off small, hatching or emerging from their hiding places, and they just focus on eating and growing as quickly as possible.” 

Spiders, naturally, feast during these months, with such an abundance of food supply. So, as we approach fall, spiders have been growing, too. And now that we’ve reached the final months of their breeding cycle, their activities grow more noticeable, which is why they grow to be such a horror icon during that period of the year.

What’s interesting, then, is that even though we’re generally horrified of walking into webs or seeing their many feet pitter-patter across the floor, we celebrate them. Spiders are a staple decoration for the Halloween season. Walk into any Halloween celebration store, and you’ll be met with a bunch of plastic skeletons and a huge black spider hanging over the doorway. 

We love spiders, even if we’re terrified of them. They infiltrate our stories and haunt our dreams. Even something as recent as 2019’s “It: Chapter II” has the ultimate battle focusing on what is essentially a giant spider. Myths like Arachne’s weaving with Athena in Greek mythology show our explanations for their interesting web-weaving. 

Dr. David Ludden, professor of psychology, said our fascination with them actually stems from our fears. 

“It's the adrenaline rush, basically. Adrenaline prepares us for action. It can be fight-or-flight, but it also drives us to pursue things that are exciting.” He associates our biologic response to the innate knowledge that these things are venomous. They might not all be able to kill, but they’ll definitely hurt. 

Ludden goes on to explain that our fixation with things that go bump in the night stems from a kind of generalized effort to associate things that scare us with things we find entertaining. That’s how Halloween overtook its spiritual predecessor All Saints Day, held on Nov. 1, as the de-facto biggest autumnal holiday in the U.S. 

As we get closer to the winter, spiders begin the final moments of their breeding cycle. Some spiders, like the tarantula, can live for decades, so it’s just another year for them. But Joro spiders, a Georgia newcomer known for their large broods of up to 1,500 spiderlings, will spread even further next year. Hopefully, their numbers stabilize as they integrate into the ecosystem. 

With the recent craze in Georgia about these new spiders, Brown cited that old saying: “They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.” All spiders might be venomous, but only a few local spiders are dangerous, notably the black widow and the brown recluse. 

Brown offers his final thoughts on the spider’s sticky place in our culture, calling them “charismatic fauna.” 

“Charismatic megafauna, your pandas and your tigers, are those big animals that people, instead of registering that they’re threatening and scary, instead give personalities and attention. We’re fascinated by them. So, with spiders, you get a sense of that on a much smaller scale. They’re charismatic fauna – living creatures that hold their own place in the environment that we’ve given personalities to, and it’s not always a good one.”

Brown and Ludden both agree on one thing.

The spider is a misunderstood but vital part of global culture. 

Collin Elder is a student assistant with GGC’s Public Relations department.

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