Why Are We Afraid of Bugs?

Why Are We Afraid of Bugs?

It’s Halloween, so horror movies and zombie theme parks are in full swing. We all love a good jump scare now and again—not to mention an excuse to eat candy! When this holiday rolls around, out come the spooky decorations: skeletons, witches, vampires, ghosts, and… spiders?

Wait, how did these everyday pests get grouped in with the undead?

Clearly, a lot of people must really be afraid of spiders. Hey, maybe you’re one of them. While spiders are often the poster child for hair-raising pests, the fears don’t stop there. People have all kinds of pest phobias, and we’re celebrating this sinister season by getting to the root of them.

Fears of bears, lions, or even big dogs make sense. If they wanted, any of these animals could turn you into their mid-morning snack. Most bugs, however, are teeny tiny. If we can trample them with minimal effort, why do they freak us out? Although bug fears may seem irrational, it turns out we actually have some deep-seated reasons to dislike creepy-crawlies.

Why People Are Afraid of Bugs?

  1. They’re unfamiliar to us
  2. We associate bugs with death
  3. Some bugs are really dangerous

scary bug

They’re Unfamiliar to Us

Lions are far more dangerous than turtles. But, between baby lions and baby turtles, which are cuter? Baby lions—obviously!


Animals like lions, elephants, and monkeys have faces (and other anatomical features) similar to ours. We can see a bit of ourselves when we look at them, and we’re programmed to find that comforting.

Humans are social creatures—and that extends beyond interactions with other people. It’s a safe bet to say you’d rather hang out with a dog than a cow, and it’s not hard to say why: dogs are way more relatable! You recognize when your dog is excited, sad, angry, or hungry because your dog’s behaviors are similar to yours. We connect with dogs because we understand each other.

Okay, so back to bugs.

Bugs don’t look like us. They have weirdly shaped bodies and way too many legs. Their faces (if you can even call them that) are straight-up unsettling. Some have gigantic soul-sucking black eyes, while others have multiple tiny eyes… like something imagined in Monsters, Inc. When we look at a bug, we see an alien.

And we hate it.

ants eating dead bug

We Associate Bugs With Death

For many of us, there’s nothing scarier than death.

We’ve all seen bugs swarming over decaying fruit or a dead rodent. Bugs are a huge part of the natural decomposition process, with hundreds or even thousands of small bugs quickly pillaging a once-living thing and leaving nothing but the bones behind.

People are no exception to this. In forensic sciences, investigators use bug activity levels to determine times of death. The funny thing is, we take great measures to keep bugs away from our dead—we detest insects that much.

Because insects are closely tied to our natural life cycle, they’ve evolved into symbols of death. In movies and television, bugs often appear as omens of death and decay or are used as indicators of evil spirits.

Let’s face it… it’s hard to stay neutral about cockroaches after seeing them crawl out of a possessed person’s mouth.

bug biting flesh

Some Bugs Are Really Dangerous

Okay, so it’s true that some fears are learned. Maybe you stepped in a fire ant colony as a kid and have been afraid of them ever since. Maybe your older sister was terrified of spiders, scaring you enough to fear them as well.

But when it comes to bugs, most of us also have some level of innate fear. One group of researchers from Germany and Sweden tested this by showing different images to babies. While pictures of fish and flowers caused no reaction, pictures of spiders and snakes consistently caused the infant’s pupils to dilate—an indicator of fear.

Ultimately, this fear keeps us safe.

Pests can be really dangerous. Sure, some bugs have lethal venom—definitely a hazard. However, diseases or deadly allergic reactions are usually the real threat. Fleas carried the Plague, mosquitoes carry malaria, ticks carry Lyme disease… the list could go on and on. Evolutionarily, people who avoided bugs were less likely to die because of one.

There’s nothing irrational about that.

So when that giant spider Halloween decoration sends a shiver up your spine tonight, know that you’re not alone. This seemingly innate discomfort is part of the human experience—and probably a good reason why they’re a classic when it comes to prepping for the spookiest holiday of the year.



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