22 February 2000 Daily Telegraph
Spiders are not out to get you
by Hazel Curry
If you're one of an estimated one million arachnophobics in Britain, fear no more - London Zoo is teaching sufferers to like the hairy little creatures. Hazel Curry reports
UNTIL very recently, there were several places in which you would never find me: rainforests, Australian lavatories and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason was my terror of spiders, a condition that put me among an estimated million fellow phobics in the UK.
But now, thanks to an arachnophile called Robert Farago, I am cured, and am even beginning to love the beasts myself.
The transformation came after I attended Farago's Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo, a day course designed to rid chronic arachnophobics of their fear.
On arrival, I found hordes of hysterical women frantically discussing their anti-spider tactics. These were women who poured bleach between their kitchen units every night, religiously covered "possible spider holes" with masking tape and checked every nook and cranny before getting into bed. Most were convinced the arachnids worked in teams, watching them and following them around the house.
"The course always attracts more women," Farago told me. "First, because they are much more willing to admit their fear and second, because women tend to be more arachnophobic than men."
"I once ran outside completely naked," confessed Sheila Cook. "I was about to have a shower and spotted two huge spiders on the wall. Luckily, it was sunny, so I hid in the garden until my husband came home."
Farago began our cure by discussing the root of our fear. There are only three ways a person can become phobic, he explained: trauma (a nasty close encounter of the eight-legged kind); the influence of an early authority figure (a parent's screams programme your subconscious mind); or the sinister effect of popular culture (note that they don't use golden labrador puppies to frighten children on Halloween Night).
According to a recent survey, arachnophobia is the UK's second most common phobia (after public speaking). In other words, more people are scared of spiders than are scared of death itself. Most of the group confirmed this.
However, to our astonishment, Farago told us we weren't the worst group he had treated. At the previous session, one woman had screamed every time he said the word spider.
We were comforted further when Dave Clark, head of invertebrates at the zoo, revealed that he used to be arachnophobic himself. He described how he now cultivates his greenhouse to attract spiders - a fact greeted by about 40 bewildered frowns.
So began his attempt to convert us by demolishing the everyday myths that surround the spider.
House spiders, he told us, don't sit in the bath on purpose. They fall in because the sides are so smooth and they get stuck. Clark suggested helping them by providing an escape route, such as a towel. (More frowns.) False claim two: spiders don't charge at humans when we're watching television. According to Clarke, they have no idea we're there unless we move. They only sense light, dark and movement. So, as we sit motionless on the sofa, the television is the main stimulus and the darkness under the sofa screams safety.
Nor, apparently, do they mean to dive-bomb us. Spiders often fall from the ceiling because their claws aren't strong enough to tackle the upside-down stroll.
Finally, the reason why we see so many spiders around September is because it is the breeding season and the males are on the hunt for a mate.
Spiders are not universally reviled: there is a wealth of pro-spider folklore around the world. Navajo Indians and Aborigines worship a god called Spider Woman. According to legend, she was responsible for building the Earth and created humans from clay. In India, Hindus collect spiders before a wedding and throw them over the bride and groom like confetti. They believe this will bring happiness to the couple.
In some countries, tarantula is a delicacy, and in Cambodia and Laos, it is common to see barbecued spiders for sale. Apparently, they taste like chicken and have a high protein content.
Thankfully, our culture has more practical reasons for worshipping the spider. The US Defense Department is developing synthesised spider silk, to be used in the manufacture of bullet-proof vests that will be seven times stronger than the fibre currently used. Arachnids also save lives with their venom, by killing mosquitoes (which carry malaria, the world's biggest killer) and flies (which carry cholera). The venom also reduces heart rate in humans, which can help people suffering from heart disease.
Contrary to popular belief, spider venom can't kill the average human being. When people die, it is usually because they have an allergic reaction to the poison.
Having had the natural history lesson, we lay down on the floor for our hypnosis - something an arachnophobic would never normally do for fear of attack. The idea was to open our subconscious mind, changing the way we think, feel and behave.
After 40 minutes, the session was over and we headed to the Invertebrates House to gauge our progress.
Once inside, we were presented with house spiders and a 20-year-old red-kneed Mexican spider called Frieda. (Can you think of a better name to humanise a spider?) Yes, I held her. The disgusting, twitching body I had expected was, amazingly, adorable - delicate and feminine. She was such a lovely little soul that I went back for a second go.
By the end of a miraculous day, all but two of our number had made friends with Frieda. As the programme claims an 82 per cent success rate, this was to be expected.
There are a lot of variables, Farago admits, such as the phobic's ability to be hypnotised, plus their level of motivation and intelligence. "If we could cure all of the people all of the time, that would be great, but we can't."
So what are the alternatives if you're one of the 18 per cent who haven't been cured? The most common suggestion is Systematic Behavioural Desensitisation (also part of the Friendly Spider Programme), which exposes sufferers to spiders in stages - from looking at pictures and videos to touching the real thing. This is usually done under the supervision of a psychologist or GP.
In America, the latest answer to arachnophobia is virtual reality. Cognitive psychologist Hunter Hoffman and his scientific research team at Washington University have produced the Virtual Spider.
Patients find themselves in a virtual world, in which spiders are in close proximity. They are taught how to deal with their anxiety and eventually encouraged to touch them. Hoffman claims a 90 per cent success rate.
However, critics argue that such a phobia is caused by an underlying problem - usually psychosexual - and Hoffman and Farago fail to take this into account. "It's a great theory," says Farago. "But there's simply no evidence. In more than 2,000 cases, I've never seen it. And I never will."
If you're not fond of our eight-legged friends and unsure of which treatment to go for, call the National Phobics Society. It can offer sound advice on what's best for you.
Then perhaps you, too, will feel free to go anywhere you want - from the rainforests to that cobwebby cupboard at the bottom of the stairs.
For information about the Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo, which costs £110, or £55 for senior citizens, call: 0171-722 3333
The Farago Clinic: 0500 002 650
The National Phobics' Society: 0161 227 9898