‘Arachnophobia’ Revisited: Throwback Terror on Eight Legs

I am deathly afraid of spiders. There’s something about their eyes and fuzzy legs (why do they need eight) that absolutely petrifies me. It’s not unlike Medusa’s gaze or the Basilisk slithering about Hogwarts– one look and I’m frozen. I’m not quite sure what it is, perhaps some longstanding, primal urge to fear the small arachnids whose bites can immobilize and kill. They’re also disgusting. Slimy, gooey buggers who fritter in the dark, always watching from unseen crevices and cracks. It’s a common fear, too, with an estimated 5% of the global population suffering from debilitating arachnophobia. And it is debilitating. When Brian McNamara’s Chris Collins (also my father’s name, curiously) asks Jeff Daniels’s arachnophobia Dr. Ross Jennings to step toward an elusive spider so that he can capture it, Ross remarks that he physically can’t. Chris reminds him that his brain has a fear response that will help him to overcome his paralysis, to which Ross famously responds, “I don’t think I have that particular neurotransmitter.” 

All spiders scare me. I was terrified watching the nihilistic, apocalyptic William Shatner grindhouse vehicle Kingdom of the Spiders. I quivered and cowered as a kid watching David Arquette and Kari Wuhrer (attacked for the second time by giant creatures) besieged by radioactive, giant arachnids in the sci-fi throwback Eight-Legged Freaks. I hated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets because I hated Aragog, and when he died in the sixth entry, I all but cheered in the theatre. No spiders, however, have prompted quite as visceral a reaction in me as Arachnophobia. Initially conceived as a straightforward horror film– star Jeff Daniels remarked that the first draft was painfully dull– the movie was reworked and tinkered, bringing on Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy as producers, Frank Marshall in his directorial debut, and perhaps most famous of all, reworking the script to highlight its core conceit– Jeff Daniels’s Dr. Ross was given a fear of spiders. 

Arachnophobia was released in the summer of 1990, the first theatrical outing for Walt Disney Studios’ Hollywood Pictures, an adult venture for the media enterprise that endeavoured to finance and release more adult-oriented fare. Hollywood Pictures would go on to release titles such as The Sixth Sense (its most profitable), Stay Alive, and Primeval, before going defunct in 2007 as Disney shifted its focus to its main distribution studio, Touchstone Pictures (which itself went under in 2018).  Produced, too, by Spielberg’s own Amblin Entertainment, his touch is felt all over. There’s an adventurous feel to both the setup and execution. Big Bob, an aggressive member of a then undiscovered species of Venezuelan prehistoric spiders, kills a photographer and hitches a ride to the fictional Canaima, California in his coffin. Once there, Bob mates with a standard house spider, producing a hyper-deadly fleet of offspring constrained by an exceptionally short lifespan. Nonetheless, they’re deadlier than any other, and as the bodies drop, new town arrival Dr. Ross Jennings fears the town might have an invasion on its hand. 

Effects work in the early 1990s isn’t what it is now, so naturally, the hundreds of creepy-crawlies on screen, save for some shots of Bib Bob himself, aren’t computer-generated– they’re real. The small spiders used were Avondale spiders, a harmless species hailing from New Zealand that the production had shipped over in massive bundles. Spiders cannot be trained, so entomologists on the crew guided the spiders with sundry techniques, including vibrating wires the spiders wouldn’t cross and lemon Pledge the spiders refused to walk on (spiders have standards too, it appears). 

No spiders were harmed during filming, and in the film’s climax where Dr. Ross is pinned beneath a wine rack in the cellar of his home fending off Big Bo, Jeff Daniels spent three days throwing bottles at the living spider, under strict instructions not to hit him. In the wise words of Jada Pinkett Smith in Scream 2, “if that was me, I’d be outta there.” Spider supplies were replenished every two weeks, with shipments often including upwards of 300 spiders at a time. It’s truly nightmarish stuff, yet that care and craftsmanship is evidenced in the final product. 

The terror and tension are augmented with the knowledge that, yes, these are real spiders on screen. When The House on Sorority Row star Harley Jane Kozak ushers her children up the stairs as spiders pour in through doors and windows, it’s terrifying because it’s real. It’s why the movie affects me so much. I can watch a woman being skinned and fileted in Martyrs, no problem, but I had a very physical reaction to Arachnophobia after screening it for the first time since childhood. I’m talking very cartoonish, embellished reactions, including, but not limited to: jumping out of my seat, audibly gasping, screeching like a child, covering my eyes, and reciting, “No, no, no, no” as I got up from my seat to leave. I refused to eat or drink, forgoing my new frozen cookie dough bites for the duration of the movie, paranoid that a spider had somehow crept in and was just waiting for me to reach for a bite. 

Arachnophobia might not work as well for those not innately terrified of little, gooey arachnids, but for filmgoers who are, it’s genuinely terrifying. It’s adventurous, swashbuckling in a way that only early nineties creature features were, and it’s got a winking sense of humour that makes it palatable. Director Frank Marshall, comparing Arachnophobia to Hitchcock’s The Birds, stated, “People like to be scared but laughing, like a roller coaster. No one wants to be terrified.” With Arachnophobia, he’s right. As scared as I was, it never became too much. It was an exhilarating experience, an opportunity to overcome childhood fears and revisit one of the few movies that truly, madly, deeply scares me. Sure, I won’t be closing my eyes in the shower for the foreseeable future– let’s go, irritated eyes– but it’s worth it. It’s worth it for having had the chance to revisit a truly inspired, creepy, crawly, frightening, and aboundingly fun creature feature. 

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