The Itsy Bitsy Spider Diaries

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By Alyssa Samson/ Medill News Service

After a strenuous week, I get home from the newsroom and stumble over myself before I finally collapse onto my bed. It’s still light outside. I am still in my professional attire, but none of this makes a difference. I fall asleep in a matter of minutes. Slowly but surely, my brain registers that my day is not over. I open my eyes. Suddenly, I jolt upright and my breathing begins to accelerate. Yes, I am almost positive I saw it, right in front of my face. A spider.

Arachnophobia is extreme fear of spiders. It may come as no surprise that more than 50 percent of woman and 10 percent of men carry this uneasy apprehension throughout most of their lives. Millions of people throughout the U.S. shudder, just like me, when they see the rhythmic crawling of eight slender legs, the daunting eight eyes, and the most eerie characteristic: the pincers.

This fear has consumed most of my life and, recently, I decided to tackle it. In simpler terms, I decided to associate human characteristics and feelings with the spider on my balcony and conquer my anxiety.

Let’s start from the beginning.

I first spotted the spider as I awoke on the night of April 29th. His large brown abdomen and scrawny legs caught my attention as he knitted his web vigilantly outside my sliding glass backdoor. Since I had a sturdy couple of inches of glass between the spider and me, I watched with intense curiosity. Here was the enemy, right in front of my face, yet he had no way to sink his pincers into my skin.

I was safe.

At first I tried to identify what kind of spider he was. Finally, after a good hour on the Internet, I decided it was a brown recluse: a venomous spider that is known to cause death with every bite. Due to this classification, my anxiety hit an all-time high. I became obsessed with the idea that the spider was going to make his way into my home and attack me in the dead of the night. I would end up as a story for the news service where I am a reporter. That’s when I decided I had no other choice but to document every move of this new tenant's residency.

However, there was something wrong with my findings. Research on brown recluses showed that most reside in Southern Illinois. I live on the North Shore. What was it doing here, making a web of death right in front of my face?

On day two, I realized that he had not broken through the safety barriers of the sliding glass door, so I gave him the name “Steve.” I needed some way to refer to “the spider that is living outside my door.” I also began to make video recordings of Steve in an Australian accent. His presence created an exhilarating wildlife charisma and a sense of imagination disguised my fear.

Day three is when I observed that Steve had a lady friend, “Crystal.” However, her lethargic behavior suggested a sad romance that she was not going to live much longer. After the night, I never saw Crystal again.

About a week after I first detected Steve, I also observed a swell in his abdominal and lethargic behavior. I became concerned. I was not sure if I was concerned that “Steve” was pregnant or if Steve was soon to follow in Crystal’s demise. By this time, pandemonium had already engulfed my friends and family who feared for my safety. Each and every one of them was telling me how it was vital that I kill Steve because his venomous bite meant a one-way ticket to the hospital.

Obviously, I was not in the position to kill Steve. For starters, he was not situated in an ideal place for murder since I didn't want to open the door near him. Second, I had grown morbidly attached to his presence. Consequently, I decided to send out a video of Steve to various entomologists. Perhaps I had identified him incorrectly and it would not be essential that I put an end to his life. After knowing he had might have had a wife or become a parent, it would seem so wrong.

First I contacted the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Karen Wilson, living invertebrate specialist, suggested that Steve might be a cat-faced or monkey-faced spider.

“They like to hang around lights outside and catch what comes. They have a very heavy abdomen and the markings on them actually look to some folks like a cat face, hence the common name. So not likely a very venomous one,” Wilson said.

At this response, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, I had an answer. But as I began to research cat-faced and monkey-faced spiders, I realized that they didn't match Steve. The video I had sent Wilson was blurry - I didn't give her much to work with. Back to the drawing board and back to fearing for my life.

At this point, day 10 is when I started thinking about making preparations for my final interview: in the event of my demise. I also created a carefully clear video and sent it off to entomologists throughout the U.S. My life was in the hands of these experts.

Day 11, I received the life-saving response from Phil Pellitteri, an insect expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is an adult female orb weaver - likely in the genus Araneus,” Pellitteri noted.

I frantically researched orb weaver spiders and the chiming of bells rang when I realized he was right! I was safe. No danger here. Steve was safe. So, nothing could prepare me for what happened next.

On day 13, I went to open the sliding glass door to allow the spring breeze to infiltrate my apartment and that’s when a crippled spider corpse fell limp on my floor. It was Steve. Every night since then, I look out my window hoping to find his fat little belly dwindling from a web, with the moon radiating off his back. But night after night, he never returns.

And I’m still afraid of spiders.

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