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Sep 02

SIX LEGS GOOD EIGHT LEGS BAD: Why giant spider movies aren’t scary

Do You See/9 comments • 26,138 views

Insect films have usually been better structured than spider films because you do not need to change the nature of the insect as much. With a spider you both need to change the standard loner habits of a spider and make it deadly. In a film like Mimic all they need to do is mutate the cockroach – the natural aggression of the insect will do the rest. Yet the irrational fear of insects is much less. Indeed fear of insects is so minor that three recent animated childrenís films have either been wholly about or starred a wide range of insects (A Bugs Life, Antz and James And The Giant Peach). Nevertheless insects make a much more creditable enemy for a horror movie. Perhaps the nature of the irrational fear of spiders is such that it would be impossible to countenance a weaker reaction. If you hate spiders why would you go and see a film with spiders in? If you donít hate spiders, then you cannot quite see what the fuss is all about – and just will not be scared. This is a problem in a horror movie.

The psychology of our desire to watch horror movies is not as simple as the desire to scare ourselves. The idea of exorcising our fear in a safe environment, to be able to laugh at our own reaction to what is merely a story is what has driven ghost stories from the dawn of time. Fear is an important emotion to humans, tapping into our very basic urges – and hence the adrenaline rush of a good horror movie can be very enjoyable. Part of the enjoyment is in suspension of disbelief. Whilst phobias also play on fears these are even more basic fears which usually stem from our formative years7 . It is obvious why a psycho killer with a chainsaw is frightening, but it is also tied up with genre conventions. When we enter the cinema we are no more afraid of Leatherface than any other abstract idea of a murderer. When we leave we have the resolution – possible nightmares but not an obsession of being chased by this fictional character. This is not the case with spiders. An arachophobe will be afraid of spiders when he enters the cinema and when he leaves. It is unlikely he will feel particularly safe while being presented by the object of his irrational fear actually being dangerous.

Spiders do retain the ability to shock in a film, but are employed in a much better fashion as supporting characters. The tarantula crawling on Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice is truly creepy. The abseiling spider in Spider-man that bites Tobey Maguire gives the film an early boost, the inevitability of the bite is part of the fun, but the time it takes to crawl around is there to raise the audiences pulse. Used sparingly the spider can succeed as a mild horror clichÈ – however when taking the lead they are less than convincing. The Doctor Who episodes where he battles giant spiders not only has terrible special effects but is laughable to suggest that the mutated, talking, mind controlling spiders are really posing a threat. Whereas in the beginning of Raiders Of The Lost Ark a large selection of Tarantulas thrown at Harrison Ford has the best reaction a spider can give you – the sudden shocked start8 .

Probably the best spider scene ever in the movies is in merely an addendum to a film. The ending of Neumannís The Fly – an insect movie – is for my money the most iconic spider scene ever. Vincent Priceís miniaturised head on the body of a fly caught in a spiders web, the spider getting closer. The spider is giant here merely due to the difference in scale – but the tinny cry of Price screaming ëHelp Meí as the other characters walk away is truly chilling9 .

I am not afraid of spiders – yet probably fifty percent of the people I know are. When asked if they wanted to see Eight Legged Freaks they looked at me as if I was some kind of lunatic. Having seen the film they might have been right, but it was merely the inclusion of spiders that stopped them. The film itself is too in love with its own in-jokes, its own internal references to be anything but a minor comic-horror, but the fact that its horror dimension is undermined by the inclusion of spiders may appear surprising. From a film point of view either spiders are not frightening enough – or too frightening to ever watch. You would be better off letting a money spider run over your palm than investing in one.

Notes

1. Perhaps in picking the nice powers Marvel comics learnt from their previous mistake with Ant-man. Ant-Man pre-dates Spider-man, but has difficulty coming up with as good a metaphor. Ant-manís powers were the ability to shrink to the size of an ant and to command legions of ants. Possibly as alienating, these powers were due to science and soon their limitation became very apparent. Ant Man became Giant Man – being able to grow too, but never really got over his somewhat lame original powers and later – in typical join the dots Marvel comics style – became a wife beater with split personality disorder and a really nasty yellow jacket.

2. At least in western cultures. There is some suggestion that living with harmless spiders encourages the fear. In parts of the world where deadly spiders exist a more robust and respectful coexistence exists which replaces the irrational fear and replaces it with a healthy sense of safety. Even further than this the process of colonialization could even have exacerbated the western view of spiders as potentially deadly in alien cultures – the myth of deadly spiders entering the collective unconscious.

3. It is notable that in Alligator that it is the initial cruelty of flushing the pet down the toilet which creates the beast – a not unusual line in such films where the motivation and creation of the creature is mankind’s fault. Jaws, the most successful of all animal attacking horrors, is almost unique in not providing a justification in mankind for the creature to attack.

4. A much better though horrifically dated treatment of this plot is in the 1977 Kingdom Of The Spiders. A mass spider invasion notable for how much contact between the real spiders and the extras there is and for its intriguing justification for the attack (pesticides have killed all the spiders natural food so they come after humans). Despite a bleak apocalyptic ending and clever rewriting of normal genre sexism (the lead female is more than content with handling spiders) – it stumbles under hammy acting (William Shatner), low budget and the inclusion of a very strange and obviously painted final shot. Still if you want to see William Shatner with real spiders crawling over his head – this is the film to catch.

5. Its obvious more recent references are Tremors and Scream – even sharing a lead David Arquette with the latter. Unlike both of these films though Eight Legged Freaks seems pathologically afraid of killing off its lead characters – undermining itself even further and removing almost all sense of danger in the film.

6. A handy if somewhat killjoy law of nature which proves that for any increase the weight will increase by a cube of the increase while surface area will only increase by the square. For a creature without lungs that breathes through its skin a giant spider would not gain enough oxygen to live.

7. Psychologists who deal with phobias usually trace them to incidents in very young childhood – from birth to about five. Picture a baby in a cot staring at a spider on the ceiling, just sitting there and then – suddenly moving. Not to mention the effect of two nursery rhymes – Little Miss Muffet and Incey Wincey Spider (Itsy Bitsy in the credits of Eight Legged Freaks in an equally horrific version by Joey Deluxe).

8. There is an obvious debt from this scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Kingdom of The Spiders. The Raiders scene is now a standard in action horrors – it not being the only thing aped in The Mummy – with its carpet of beetles.

9. Less chilling but equally effective are the battles of the miniaturised kids in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The insects are seen as generally benevolent (they hitch a lift on a bee) but the spider is evil in its trap setting ways. Perhaps this shows us another reason for fear of spiders – it is the only other creature that sets traps and toys with its prey before killing it. How human?

Comments

  1. 1
    alek vidakovic on 2 Sep 2006 #

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  2. 2
    RB on 15 Jan 2008 #

    I thought that the alien spinders in the “lost in space” film, where quite scary.

  3. 3
    destiny clontz on 11 Mar 2008 #

    Another iconic and very effective spider encounter can be found in “The incredible shrinking man”. As in “The Fly” and other “altered scale”-films, the spider is of normal size and is acting “natural”. It becomes a threat because the protagonist is suddenly finding himself on the other end of the food-chain. In those films the spider is always a threat that has to be killed so that man can survive.

    The scene in “shrinking man” is incredibly well done by Jack Arnold who also did Tarantula. Compare it to a very similar, but failing, scene in “Lord of the Rings”.

    I also find it very frustrating that all spiders (and actually all other creatures) in any film are emitting the same, high-pitched, squeeling noise. Can´t sound designers find another menacing sound that was not generated out of a squeeling pig and lions roar?

  4. 4
    LD on 17 Mar 2008 #

    Enjoyed the article. One correction, it is not Vincent Price’s head on the spider. It is his movie brother’s head. It is Vincent who destroys the fly and spider with a rock….thus keeping the secret. But that chilling “help me, no no no…” is truly frightening.

  5. 5
    LD on 17 Mar 2008 #

    oopss.. I meant to write that it was not Vincent Price’s head on the fly.

  6. 6
    Pete on 17 Mar 2008 #

    Of course, you’re right. I have made that mistake before and it keeps coming back.

    I did consider updating this article with Shelob, when the LotR films came out, but beyond Peter Jackson’s obvious ability as a horror director, I still don’t think the spider itself is all that scary. Good to see someone else agrees.

  7. 7
    Cococomet on 13 Nov 2008 #

    When you said “just big enough to cover our faces”, you really scared the hell out of me. EWWWW!

  8. 8
    swanstep on 10 Oct 2009 #

    Good article. Perhaps you could have expanded on _Aliens_’s specific contribution: that scene the Ripley and Newt have gone to sleep, only to wake to find a face-hugger or two is on the loose around them is pretty much the ultimate arachnophobe nightmare you’re looking for, and shouldn’t be elided with the broader Alien stuff. When _Aliens_ came out (read its early reviews to confirm this) it was regarded as almost unbearably tense and nerve-wracking, and I do believe that it was this relatively early scene that directly shredded nerves for at least half the audience that set up the rest of the film to be a gut-knotting rollercoaster (rather than the straight action/war piece it would otherwise have been).

  9. 9
    Pete on 11 Oct 2009 #

    Good point, the skittery facehugger probably reaches the maximum size for a credible “large spider”, and as you say while Ripley and Newt are prone that sequence is unbearably tense. You’re right that this sequence calls back on an aspect of Alien which is slightly underplayed (the facehugger is more of a jump scare there). But I still wonder whether the effect of this sequence is more due to the knowledge the audience has of what will happen if the facehugger “gets them”. But that is certainly the most spidery sequence in the films.

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