Eight Legs To Hug You: Spiders in Horror Cinema


Originally published in Scream Magazine issue 46

Spiders. Even those who love them will agree they're pretty creepy things, with their multiple legs and multiple eyes making them feel like someone looked at the insect and thought "Nah, this just isn't alien enough". But while the common public's perception has never been brilliant, it's not been helped by a continual PR assault on the humble arachnid's reputation by Hollywood and its ilk. That which does not kill you can only make you stronger? Nope, it just hides until you least inspect it and barrels out spitting venom and hissing like a broken radiator.

Of course we can point to children's tales like Little Miss Muffet being an originator for our fears, not only demonstrating the spider's inimitable trait to just pop out and say hello whenever we least expect it, but also young ladies fearing large and hairy objects running after them at every opportunity (a terrifying thought). But the movies started early, especially again getting at our kids. For example, Mickey Mouse having to fend off a giant spider in the mid-thirties Walt Disney short "Gulliver Mickey", but if you mention spider movies to your average person on the web, you'll either get a confused mention of Peter Parker or someone will mention "Arachnophobia", not just the condition but the 1990 Spielberg-produced blockbuster where spiders do a lot of crazy things.

The plot of "Arachnophobia" is pretty familiar, being inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and the great "King Kong" amongst others, as a deadly spider from a hitherto unexplored area of Venezuela hitches a ride to California in a coffin and has a one night stand with a house spider, creating a deadly new species that goes out to attack the populace of a small town. Of course, this is not just a deadly spider but a deadly deadly spider - it can kill in seconds, it has venom sacs the colour of radioactive green, and its children don't have the ability to reproduce, just like ants, and subsequently the townspeople begin dropping like, well, flies. This leads to a grand finale which pits a heroic young doctor against Mr. Venezuela, nicknamed “The General”, which involves a novel use of the old lighter and a spray can trick, as well as a trusty nailgun.

While "Arachnophobia" is a hell of a fun ride, it's very likely played into some of the myths that still currently face spiders on many fronts today, with the usual tabloid nonsense that comes up every time someone gets a blister on their leg after seeing a spider a month earlier. Let's start by looking at the main villain of the piece. The General – called “Big Bob” by the production after director Robert Zemeckis - appears to be an amalgam of spider species, namely a tarantula and a jumping spider. Understandably you don't really get a clear shot of Big Bob as a whole, so you get a bunch of veiled close-ups or long shots in the shadows, or partial shots of his head (the technical term for spiders is prosoma, although some use cephalothorax) or other bits. One of the famous shots is a big close-up of his upper face, which is the main jumping spider part. Jumping spiders have huge eyes, which is mainly why they're used for adorable memes, and they work well for the inserts of the malevolent staring bonce, which in reality was a special effects creation about a foot across. The issue for people who know spiders (or can see in low light) is that when the film flicks between the big head and the real life tarantula, it's obvious that they both have completely different prosomas. Oops.

Despite his physical discontinuities, Big Bob is a pretty effective fella when it comes to scaring people but his bodycount is really pathetic. He finishes off a photographer at the beginning in a Venezuelan minute, but after that, well, his only victim is a crow. Bad form, Big Bob. Of course, his offspring certainly knock off a fair few people, but still, get off your ass Bob (Sorry, I mean opisothoma). Being the villain, Bob has some special powers that are pretty worthy of, well, Spider-Man, notably leaping metres into the air at speeds of 50mph while being on fire. Now while jumping spiders can jump around fifty times their body length, you have to remember that the average one is a couple of millimetres long. The Goliath bird-eating spider, which is the likely candidate for the real-life actor for Big Bob, can run to being twelve inches, so it's not only big but also heavy, around 170 grams. The chance of one of those leaping across a huge basement is pretty unlikely, but then again people do crazy things when they're on fire. The spider also screams and hisses like a cat in heat, and while that immediately comes across as being ridiculous, there are nuggets of truth. One thing the Goliath is able to do, along with several other spiders, is something called stridulation. Similar to what insects do, the spider runs the bristles on his legs alongside a set of bristles on his body, creating a noise that sounds unerringly like a hiss. It's used as a defence mechanism and is known widely in some Australian tarantulas, which can be colloquially called barking and whistling spiders. Interestingly, another defence mechanism not used in Arachnophobia (or any film I've seen with tarantulas) is their use of “urticating hairs”, barb-like hairs on their rear legs and opisothoma that can be launched at predators to warn them off. This generally only occurs in so called “new world” tarantulas found in the Americas, the “old world” types found in Asia only really have one defence mechanism: biting.

But the simple most ridiculous thing about Big Bob is not his Olympian skills or his vocal talents, it's his ability to kill, not just instantly, but to kill at all. The fact is that there has never been a single reliable recording of a death caused by a tarantula. It's understandable why the movies uses them; they're large, they're pretty, and a lot of them are fairly tame. But while they can cause some pretty nasty mechanical damage – an adult Goliath's fang is about two inches long – and some of them will put you in hospital for a day or so, they won't kill you. No sir. Nor can a jumping spider. In fact, there's no spider that can kill you as fast as Big Bob's venom does. There are two spiders that normally fight over who is the most venomous in the world (always remember: venom is injected, poison is ingested), Australia's Sydney Funnel-web and Brazil's Wandering spiders. Both are widely reported as responsible for deaths, partially because they often are found in suburban areas and neither are particularly fond of backing down against something, whether it's a cricket or a human. Wandering spiders get a lot of press because you occasionally find them hiding in bananas that then make their way to places like the UK, and you see outrageous sensationalist headlines from the tabloids because someone got one in their latest Ocado delivery. Bastards. I never get free spiders with my food shop. The Sydney Funnel-web is the one currently listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most venomous spider, and even to arachnid fans it's a nasty piece of work. For starters, it's one of the few exceptions to the rule of “the female is the deadlier of the species”, as Mr. Funnel-web is both larger and more venomous than his lady equivalent. It also has disproportionately large fangs that it drives into its victim to the point where it needs to be ripped off. Ouch. The Wandering spider's venom is known to cause priapism, which basically means it'll give a male victim a painfully hard erection for a while. That's not a good thing.

However, it still takes a number of hours for both spiders' neurotoxin to do its work in the bloodstream. It's also notable that there is antivenom available for both, so it's very, very unlikely that someone will die from a bite from either. There's also the fact that often spiders that bite to defend themselves instead of catching prey will enact what is known as a “dry bite”, which is simply where the spider bites without injecting its precious venom so the victim just gets the mechanical damage from the fangs, which to be fair is still pretty heavy. Arachnophobia has had a fair few siblings in the “normal-sized spiders rampaging” genre, with films like 1977's "Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo" where sacks of coffee beans being smuggled into the US happen to contain a group of deadly tarantulas, or "Kiss of the Tarantula" (1976) which has a young girl using an army of her pet tarantulas to go and do her evil deeds. But the pre-"Arachnophobia" king of these came in the same year as "The Deadly Cargo" and pit none other than Captain James T. Kirk against a horde of rampaging eight-legged beasties: "Kingdom of the Spiders".

"Kingdom of the Spiders" is pretty similar to the other films of its ilk: a heroic vet (!) joins forces with an arachnologist to investigate why farm animals have been dying, apparently from shots of spider venom. What they discover is that tarantulas have banded together on a quest to make humans and large animals their primary food source after having their usual lunch taken off the menu due to the use of pesticide. So man again dooms himself, and the only person that can save the world is the vet aka William Shatner. "Kingdom of the Spiders" is a crazy film, and it perpetuates another myth that is absolute arachno-shit – that tarantulas hang around in the thousands just waiting for a human to walk by so they can jump them. The thing is, spiders are cannibals and they live a very solitary life in their own burrows, so they'd rather eat each other than be in each other's company (a bit like my family). The only real exception is when it's mating season, and in Midwestern and Southern America you can see hordes of tarantulas together, but they're not out to get you; instead they're all pretty horny and looking for a lady to bed down with. "Kingdom of the Spiders" uses a ton of real life spiders in its scenes, and this is both a good and bad thing – all the actors interact with the spiders, and there's a moment where Shatner panics after having around thirty dropped on his face, but there's also the fact that the production didn't seem to consult too closely with the animal cruelty associations around, so a lot of the spiders are killed on-screen, especially in the huge crosstown panic scene where hundreds of people run around town with spiders on them, causing car crashes of all kinds.

While the film isn't centred around them, the humble tarantula figures again in a brutal scene in Lucio Fulci's gothic splatter masterpiece "The Beyond" (1980). While searching for a book of dark magic in a library, a man is thrown from his ladder onto a hard floor, leaving him lying helpless on the floor. Approaching him from all directions are yet again tarantulas, however these are probably the most vicious spiders in film history, especially when they're doing the bidding of Maestro Fulci. Of course, they go straight for the poor guy's face and take great pleasure in tearing apart his flesh, particularly his nose, and yes, his eyes. Oh god Fulci, what is it with you and eyes? It's a horrific sequence, even when it's obvious that the spiders actually doing damage are pretty poor fake spiders, but as usual Fulci gets right down to the gore of it. Funnily enough, a shot of the guy's eye with a spider above it was inserted into a scene in Sam Raimi's first "Spider-Man" film in 2002.

Of course, there are the giant spider films we are all familiar with. One of the more infamous examples, 1975's "The Giant Spider Invasion", featured spiders encased in meteors that apparently came from outer space, and had spiders of different sizes, from the standard tarantulas to the notorious giant spider of the title, which was a Volkswagen Beetle dressed up as a, well, giant spider, complete with huge glowing red eyes. But the giant spider craze began a lot earlier, with one particular example nearly making it out in 1933. I say nearly because it no longer exists, but the great "King Kong" was initially released with a sequence known as “the spider pit”. In the film itself, while on Skull Island the sailors are walking across a log when Kong comes along and decides to remove it. In the film, that's all that happens, but originally it cut to the sailors when they dropped to the bottom of the ravine, where they were attacked by giant spiders and other horrific invertebrates. The scene ended up in the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, but when the film was originally shown in 1933, it stopped the audience dead, as in no one could concentrate on anything else because it was so absolutely horrifying. And so it was removed, and while on-set stills have shown parts, it has never been seen since.

Reality itself was the instigator of the “giant bug” craze of the 1950's, in the guise of the atomic bomb. In 1945, the “Trinity” atomic bomb test was conducted in the deserts of New Mexico, and from that was the use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an attempt to end World War II, as well as an assumption that nuclear fusion would provide power for the ensuing generations. Hollywood reacted to this by showing a distrust of scientists meddling, and out of the gates in 1954 was "Them", which featured irradiated ants made giant by the radiation from the bomb tests. Following in 1955 was the quintessential giant spider picture "Tarantula", which had scientist Leo G. Carroll using a nuclear isotope to try and solve world hunger by creating giant animals, including a huge guinea pig, rabbit, and, well, tarantula (this led to the “Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel” lyric in the song 'Science Fiction Double Feature' from 1975's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"). The tarantula escapes and marauds across the Arizona desert, growing to gigantic proportions as it devours livestock and the homeless before being undone by a young Clint Eastwood and a fair amount of napalm, and the result is a pretty classical example of the genre. It's a lot of fun, particularly with its stars John Agar and the aforementioned Carroll (who gets some gnarly makeup when he contracts Acromegaly, and there's a great moment where Agar is shown a short film about tarantulas and theorises about what a gigantic one could be. The answer: “Expect something that's fiercer, more cruel, and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.”

Tarantula's visual effects are particularly effective, with the majority of shots of the spider being of a superimposed actual tarantula, moved by little jets of air. The spider is given a somewhat creepier and more anthropomorphic face when you see it at a window before it attacks a large mansion, but the real spider is the star. Coming two years after "Tarantula" in 1957 and from the same director, Jack Arnold, was "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Written by genre great Richard Matheson of "I Am Legend" fame and based on his novel "The Shrinking Man", the film features a man called Scott Carey who is exposed to a strange mist that causes him to begin shrinking. The book and film look at Carey's journey from two angles, the physical and the metaphysical, and when Carey becomes shorter than his wife they explore the misogynist side that is brought out. On a straight horror level, Carey is juxtaposed against those that would normally be subservient to him; for example the family cat, which attacks him when he is forced to become living in a doll's house. But the final act is where Carey shrinks so much that he is lost in the basement, where it becomes a sheer fight for survival against a monstrous spider (in the book it was a Black Widow, but here it's a tarantula that is being posited as a house spider, simply for the visual side of things due to the tarantula's size being receptive to photography). Carey's ingenuity shows through, but it's a horrifyingly desperate battle with what to him was originally a tiny and insignificant being to him – there's a moment where he hides in a matchbox, something children often keep spiders in. He eventually defeats the spider, but his victory is irrelevant, inconsequential, as he is still shrinking. The film ends on a wonderfully existentialist note with Carey accepting his fate, but wondering about where this will take him:

“And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”

The next year came a more traditional picture in "Earth Vs The Spider". Produced and directed by Bert L. Gordon, who brought us great B-movies like "The Amazing Colossal Man" and "Attack of the Puppet People", it's a brilliantly fun flick that has a couple discovering a giant tarantula in Los Angeles' Bronson caves (presumably near the Batcave). The tarantula is apparently killed and then hauled to the local high school's gym to be studied, but of course it's just knocked out and is woken up by the noise of the high school band playing rock and roll (is this social commentary on the teenager phenomenon?), where it goes on a rampage. Again it uses a live tarantula for most of its shots and is pretty effective, although it goes and commits a cardinal sign by perpetuating another spider myth: that all spiders make webs. In fact, tarantulas are notorious because they're not only too big and heavy to have webs but they also catch food differently, either preferring to go out and hunt or wait by its burrow, which is lined with spider-silk. The Incredible Shrinking Man also features a tarantula on a web, but we can forgive that because it's supposed to be a normal spider.

Just under a decade later saw giant spider Kumonga take his place amongst the legion of Kaiju in Toho's Godzilla series, starring in "Son of Godzilla".

Giant spider movies have continued to be an interest for producers like The Asylum and SyFy, with titles such as "Big Ass Spider" and "Lavalantula", but the last real big entry was 2002's "Eight Legged Freaks", which once again had a sleepy desert town overrun by giant spiders, this time affected by toxic waste dumping near a local spider farm. A horror comedy along the same lines as "Gremlins", "Eight Legged Freaks" has fun with playing with the perception of spiders from the public, and features a lot of different kinds, including huge jumping spiders chasing dirtbikes, and while it includes a tarantula the baddie this time is a Golden Orb Weaver, which makes for a different feel, and it's a great time.

While Hollywood will undoubtedly continue to position the spider as an antagonist for their films, it's worth remembering the truth behind the terror. Spiders are wonderful and important creatures who do a ton for the environment but just happen to be a bit creepy. But please, try to love them. After all, what else are their eight legs for if not to hug you?

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