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From Harry Potter to ‘The Hobbit,’ how did spiders get such a bad rep?

Jumping spider
Jumping spider

I was about to step outside the laundry room onto the drive one night when movement near the door light caught my eye.

A tan spider with a leg span of about a quarter was industriously erecting a silken net. To me it was impressive, so I called the espousa to see. To her, however, spiders are not impressive, and she said get rid of it.

Instead, I became protective and watched the construction proceed. Eventually the spotted orb weaver decided to build her sticky food trap across the door. Fair enough, I thought. Winter’s coming. I stretched tape across the entry to remember not to blunder into it.

A storm blew through one night and by morning wiped out the net, which had reached perhaps 5 square feet. Too bad, I mused, all that work wasted, and headed out for the newspaper. Walking back in I felt the brush of thread on my face and glanced down. The spider was on my chest.

I gently brushed her off, and she pulled herself back up into the leaves above the door. And then it struck me. She wasn’t after bugs, but bigger game.

She was after me.

The web got ruined before I could be enmeshed in it. In desperation or frustration, she leaped on me from above, making one last effort, panther-like, to bring me down and suck out my precious bodily fluids.

Well, maybe not the last. She’s still up there.

I have grown cautious, though not arachnophobic.

Spiders are our friends, really

It seems to me that folks spend too much time being afraid of spiders, which seem to conjure hysterics ingrained from our apeish days.

And this season just reinforces this reflex. Check out the Halloween decorations: spray web and giant eight-legged, eight-eyed monsters everywhere.

Harry Potter? Giant hairy spiders are constantly terrifying poor Ron Weasley and the audience. Author J.K. Rowling is said to be an arachnophobe.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who stuck them in both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” wrote them in to frighten his spider-adverse son, but the author would rescue them from the bathtub, he said. (Yes, he was bitten by a large baboon spider in his South African childhood, but he said he had no memory of it.)

So can we consider it child abuse when the Oxford professor wrote of giant Shelob: “But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.”

Compare that gothicity to the tale of the Greeks, who gave the spider the name of its scientific class: The peasant Arachne and the goddess Athena had a weaving contest; in the end a jealous Athena turned the girl into a creature that spends its days weaving silk.

From a third to half of Americans admit an aversion to the eight-legged creature; only about 1 in 20 actually suffer panic attacks in their presence.

Remember that the little guys are beneficial. Yes, we all shuddered a bit over the story of the Weldon Springs, Mo., house abandoned by a family who did not want to share it with 5,000 brown recluses. But think how many bugs those little guys were consuming!

And no, the average American, over a lifetime, does not ingest five of the little buggers while sleeping. That was made up, an example of false info on our Web, so naturally it exploded uncontrollably as a “true” statistic infesting all those “odd news” sites.

Missouri is home to 39 species: only two — the shy little brown recluse and the Southern black widow — are venomous enough to threaten humans.

These natives (although some sneaked over from Europe) come in many sizes. The female is almost always significantly larger, but the biggest you’ve probably ever seen — setting aside the tarantula from the pet store — was the black-and-yellow garden spider. Her spouse is mousy brown.

Most don’t spin webs but prowl or wait in ambush on flowers and trees. We have three species of jumping spiders (one zebra-striped); two of fishing type; two so-called crab, the large Carolina wolf, and common grass spider, among others.

Kansas has nearly the same lineup, but features the impressive green lynx (which spits venom defensively) and the beautifully named Hacklemesh weaver, which doesn’t really weave but hides under logs.

Both states have a spider that mimics the movement of ants and one that has an abdomen shaped like an arrowhead.

Yes, it creeps you out that most have eight eyes — does it help that most still have poor eyesight? Some exceptions are night hunters like the wolf and jumping spiders. Some other facts:

▪ Of the more than 43,000 species creeping around the world, only one is herbivorous.

▪ The Old English word for spider was cob, hence cobweb.

▪ Many females protect their young, and some even feed them.

▪ Every spider leg has seven parts and is kept extended by a hydraulic system (which is why the legs of corpses curl up).

▪ If stung in the leg by a venomous wasp, the spider drops the limb before the venom spreads to the body; a new one is grown at the next molt.

▪ A spider might produce different silks (protein fibroin) for different tasks — five just to build varying parts of a web, including scaffolding. Other uses include wrapping prey, covering eggs, lining or creating tunnels, fishing with a single strand, kiting (that is letting the wind catch the silk and disperse young spiders), and trail markers, including for the opposite sex.

▪ Everyone has heard that spider silk is often compared to steel or Kevlar, but did you know that a single strand encircling the globe would weigh less than 18 ounces? And that in the Pacific, Nephila strands are used as a fishing line?

▪ The energy expended on a web is the equivalent of two or three insects; on average, a spider can catch 30 a day so it’s a good investment. Some recycle their webs, eating all or part of the silk for its amino acids.

▪ Spider courtship is dangerous for the smaller males. Some dance before the female, some stroke her legs, another species offers a gift-wrapped bug.

▪ The bite of a tarantula is about like a bee sting, while the venom of the mature black widow female is more than 10 times as potent drop for drop as a rattlesnake’s.

‘Tarantula’ the movie

So I’ve almost always admired these amazing creatures once I pupated out of my bug-squashing days. But there was this one fall night in the late ’50s …

I got invited to a double-bill horror feature. Having seen a Rodan flick (the pterodactyl equivalent of Godzilla), this 11-year-old was pretty sure he could handle whatever the Tom Sawyer Theater in Hannibal was showing. Turned out to be “Tarantula” and “Brain Eaters.”

Radioactively enhanced, naturally, growing to arena-sized proportions, the arachnid star of the first is amusing today, although the shriveled, web-shrouded corpses dropping here and there would put your heart in your throat.

The other film had a convoluted plot that involved aliens unloosing fist-sized, maggot-like parasites to crawl up your back to inject acid into your brain stem. This was for mind control, I believe. As one crept across the bedroom carpet to the slumbering girl, my mind was certainly controlled.

You’d think the latter movie would have had the most effect on my overly stimulated cortex on the loooong walk/run home alone, but you’d be wrong. Ever notice the drooping limbs of winter-bare trees, the sharp winds swaying them down toward the sidewalk?

On a moonless night, they might look a lot like giant, reaching spider legs, trying to pull you toward the chelicerae that will dissolve your guts so the beast can suck them out and leave you so shriveled that your grieving parents will hardly be able to recognize you the next morning and …

So yeah, sometimes a guy can get a little arachnophobic, ya know?

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send emails to levings@kcstar.com.

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