Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

Lena Herzog’s Lost Souls

Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, museums, neat stuff

I came across this by chance: another photographer, photographing Frederik Ruysch’s amazing birth defect displays from the Kunstkammern of Peter the Great, as well as Vienna’s Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm.  I have always admired Rosamond Purcell’s photographs, but now there is Lena Herzog.

On Science and the Arts, she does a good job of talking about the true nature of the collectors of the old days, the ideals of morality and aesthetic considerations, the way that art and science were not so separate as they are now.  Check out her narrated slideshow here.

In the meantime, I recommend her book, Lost Souls, which sounds like an amazing meditation on the the abstract beauty of these items of study:

“The arrangements of the fetuses, the specimens, the anatomical skeletons, was highly artistic.  Ruysch was a true artist.  The images I have created, I took special care not to take advantage, not to speculate, on the macabre — on the horrifying.  I wasn’t interested in shocking anyone.  They are shocking by definition because it’s such complicated territory.  They’re dead, they’re children, they were meant to live, they never lived — so I truly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Ruysch, who took special care.  For example, he would hide the especially frightening parts with lace, revealing it only to his students of anatomy and to himself to study, in order to help humankind.  The morality of the cabinet makers was never in question.  They were highly conscious of the moral and human implications.”

 The preserved fetuses are glimpses into the perils of health and science back when medicine was in its infancy, but she manages to capture some of their ephemeral beauty, and some of the qualities which Ruysch so carefully preserved: that of error and loss, of humanity and the need to understand.


More on Ms. Herzog and the book in the Paris Review,
A rather technique-heavy conversation with Ms. Herzog at the American Society of Cinematographers.

Little Vampire (and Other Little Folk)

Cabinet of Wonders, children, comics, creepy stuff, fiction

Just a brief post to say I love Joann Sfar. And possibly Emmanuel Guibert.

I first became aware of his work through, bizarrely, a little annual comic (a compilation of stuff put together for kids to read, in a cheap format similar to a TV guide) which my kids bought at a vide grenier (a village-wide garage sale) in France. Mostly it was full of fluffy kids’ comics, but there was this one story which caught our attention, in which evil mermaids who make horrible honking and tooting noises (expressed in French as “Onk! Onk!” and “Tut! Tut!”) capture a girl and boy. The kids fight the mermaids with a found sword, and then… well, the next frame is of them sitting around a table with a couple of huge fish skeletons on plates, looking very full. The annoying mermaids (sans tails) are left on an island, still alive and honking, to enrage a skinny guy and a superhero-type guy, while the two kids and their pirate friend fly off in a spaceship.

Now, first of all, the concept of cutting off (and eating) mermaid tails is wildly arresting. I was initially rather shocked, and then thought, “Wow, the French sure are open-minded!” But the whole thing – drawings and all – was weird: who was the guy in the superhero suit, and the skinny guy with the tall head and beak-like lips? And why are these kids flying around in a spaceship with a pirate guy? My French simply wasn’t good enough to get my head round it.

But I also couldn’t forget it.

Then one day I was in my local comic book store and there it was: a little comic called Sardine in Outer Space, by Emmanuel Guibert and Joanne Sfar. I couldn’t believe my eyes: a whole book of that gross humor, drawn in hilarious style? I had to get it, and then I got the skinny: Sardine, a girl (or little witch?) whose black cat rides around on her hat, and her friend Little Louie, travel around space with Sardine’s uncle, Captain Yellowshoulder (known as such, apparently, because of his ubiquitous shoulder-riding parrot), committing deeds of derring-do (and sometimes deeds of pure annoyingness) against the stupid President of the Universe, Supermuscleman (known by the same name in French) and his evil genius advisor/superior Doc Krok. The stories are unique, individually and as a collection. My daughters love them, particularly the younger, who likes funny stories with occasional gross jokes about badly-behaved people – and particularly if they are drawn as wildly as these.

Sfar has gained some fame in the U.S. with The Rabbi’s Cat, which won an Eisner Award and has gotten excellent reviews. He also did the Donjon (Dungeon) series with Louis Trondheim, another of my favorite (very irreverent) comic people. Sfar’s Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East sounds pretty fun, and The Professor’s Daughter seems intriguing. I have to admit, though: I haven’t personally read any of his adult stuff yet.

I did just get Little Vampire, which includes three stories about a, well, little vampire, the son of the man from the Flying Dutchman and his suicide bride. He lives in a haunted house with his horrific-looking but kindly father and his beautiful, but blue, mother, with a small red demon-like dog and a host of yucky monsters. When he makes friends with a human boy, these create some minor obstacles, being initially daunting for the boy; but the boy soon gets used to it. The stories are, in true Sfar style, truly unusual, though they have more structure and a little more empathy than the unapologetically bad-mannered Sardine books.

I really, really like them. Sfar has an unerring eye for what it’s like to be a kid, and a certainty about a child’s understanding of its place in the world: he understands the simple irritants of kids trying to deal with stupid adults, and finding ways to mess with their boring desire to control things; at the same time he knows that adults are not always bad, and that being a kid can be difficult and confusing. If his adult stuff is this spot on, I’m in.

A Bit of Soap

Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, reliquaries, weird science

Warning: one slightly gruesome picture, below, about halfway down)

There is a story in my head, certainly a conflation of two different stories. In one of the stories, a man who endowed some institution stipulated in his will that he should be preserved upon his death and seated in a cabinet in the foyer of the institution, so that he might oversee the comings and goings of the people who came after him. The other story involved a fat man who had been buried in just the right conditions that he had been turned entirely to soap. I pictured him, my conflated man, sitting in a chair in a cabinet somewhere with a suit on, a solid block of man-seeming soap, watching with saponified eyes the comings and goings of his modern brethren.

The man in the cabinet turns out to be Jeremy Bentham, an influential London philosopher (and the founder of Utilitarianism) who had his body preserved and set into a cabinet he called his “auto-icon” (see more here). The soap-man of my conflation, on the other hand, is actually a man who was dug up at the same time as the Soap Lady who resides at the Mütter Museum, that holiest of weird medical museums. Both bodies had been disinterred somewhere in Philadelphia, possibly as part of a street-widening project.

“Due to the unusual nature of the two bodies, Dr. Joseph Leidy, a prominent physician, scientist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was notified. It is unclear how Dr. Leidy acquired the cadavers, but he eventually presented them to two separate museums.” (link) The woman ended up in the Mutter Museum, and the man went to the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the man is no longer on display, but the Soap Lady can still be seen, for a fee.

My early vision of a person converted into a solid block of soap, liable to dissolve in floods, is not actually accurate either. Adipocere, otherwise known as grave wax or mortuary wax, “is a water-insoluble material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids. It is formed by the slow hydrolysis of fats in decomposing material such as a human cadaver by action of anaerobic bacteria…Corpses of infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation. Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and in the absence of air it can persist for centuries.”

This process, called saponification (also used to refer to the reaction which makes common soap) happens in cold, moist environments where the lack of oxygen keeps aerobic bacteria and other agents of dissolution from doing their work. My guess is that the anaerobic bacteria actually live off some byproduct, such as the alcohol which comes from the conversion of fats to soap, and so they actually precipitate the transformation to that end.

In regular soap, fats or oils are boiled with an alkali agent, such as lye or wood-ash, and the resulting mess which comes from this combination of heat and pH is a solid substance with a curious molecular makeup. On one end of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it likes water: it can be dissolved by water. The other end of the same molecule is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t like water, and this end is actually able to dissolve grease molecules. “The hydrophobic portion (made up of a long hydrocarbon chain) dissolves dirt and oils, while the ionic end dissolves in water. Therefore, it allows water to remove normally-insoluble matter by emulsification.” [wiki]

In other words, it magically bridges the gap between two universes: that of oil and water, which we all know do not normally intermingle.

Interestingly, one of the beneficial uses of hot-fat saponification is in the kitchen:

“Fires involving cooking fats and oils… burn hotter than other typical combustible liquids, rendering a standard class B extinguisher ineffective. Such fires should be extinguished with a wet chemical extinguisher. Extinguishers of this type are designed to extinguish cooking fats and oils through saponification. The extinguishing agent rapidly converts the burning substance to a non-combustible soap. This process is endothermic, meaning it absorbs thermal energy from its surroundings, decreasing the temperature and eliminating the fire.” [wiki]

In the ancient world, many people did not, apparently use soap for bathing. The earliest form of soap, made by boiling fat with ashes, was probably only used for washing Babylonians’ clothing; and there is some evidence that the Phoenicians were producing it, probably as a hair pomade, in about 600 BC. The Greeks and other mediterranean ancients, commonly cleaned themselves by rubbing with scented oils and then scraping themselves with a metal strigil, bringing off the dead skin and dirt with the oil (this is making a comeback now as a “modern” beauty method).

The Celts, on the other hand, seem to have had soap from a relatively early period. While the Romans had baths, and seem to have looked down on soap’s crude smelliness, the Celts may have had a cruder approach to cleaning altogether. When one is crouched in a cold stream, in a cold country, one tries to get on with the job as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Castile soap came to London in the 1500s, the first true hard soap to be seen in those parts; it was made by boiling wood ash and olive oil, and then adding brine to make the soap float to the surface. By adding salt, the soap separates itself more thoroughly from the lye and the other byproducts of the soap-making – creating a hard, white soap which grows harder with time (without losing its whiteness).

Which is interesting, because people who have observed saponified corpses have often compared them with this kind of soap. Sir Thomas Browne describe it this way:

“In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap: wherof part remaineth with us.”

In Lake Crescent, Washington, a murdered woman’s body came to the surface of the lake three years after her death in 1937, and a witness said, “She had the consistency of… Ivory soap.”

The Higgins children, from the Hopetoun Quarry murder case, Edinburgh

But how could a body, submerged in water, be acted upon by anaerobic bacteria? One would think the oxygen in the water would preclude it. A very likely answer is that there is a thermocline, a layering effect where the upper, changeable parts of a body of water separate out from the deeper, colder, temperature-stable areas; these remain undisturbed for long periods of time. This means the oxygen mixing that goes on at the upper reaches of the water doesn’t make its way to the lower reaches. I suspect the cold environment and the stillness, also mean that any aerobic bacteria use up extra oxygen until there isn’t enough to support more oxygen-thirsty life forms.

So when Hallie Illingworth’s body was pulled out of that cold Washington lake, she looked almost perfect. “She was full formed as in life; what had been an attractive woman; even her mass of auburn hair seemed strangely natural, almost untouched in appearance by the watery grave from which she had just been removed.” She was white as marble, almost shiny in her perfection. If she were a saint, it would be safe that she would be designated incorruptible.

Grave wax (adipocere) tends to be a strange substance, smooth and, when it’s had time, relatively hard and brittle (not always; it depends on the conditions). The Soap Lady is considered so fragile that they don’t dare move her unless absolutely necessary. It tends to begin on the outside of the corpse – the longer the body has been interred, the deeper the saponification penetrates. This has led to some rather extraordinary mistakes. Augustus Granville, for example, in 1821, performed the first really scientific dissection of an egyptian mummy, taking six weeks to unwrap it and examine every inch of the remarkably beautifully-preserved corpse. He very accurately surmised a number of things about her: that she was in her mid-50s, that she had been quite well-fed, that she had an ovarian tumor. However, in examining the body he found she had been preserved in a way not described by Greek historian Herodotus’ 5th-century eyewitness accounts – that being the record which Granville was working from.

There were, according to Herodotus, two ways of preserving a corpse: the cheap way and the expensive way. Both ways involved removing the organs from the corpse – and yet, Granville’s mummy’s organs were still almost entirely intact and in place.

“Granville concluded that the embalmers had used a method Herodotus had missed. One clue to the technique was the softness of the skin and muscles and the pliable joints. Another was the presence throughout of a waxy substance, which Granville believed was a mix of beeswax and bitumen. He deduced that the body “must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen and kept there for some hours or days, over a gentle fire.” He tried the treatment on stillborn babies. It seemed to work.” [from New Scientist’s article on same]

Granville decided to give a scientific presentation of his findings, but was unable to resist his flamboyant urges, and made his presentation in a room lit entirely by candles made from the “wax” he scraped from the corpse. It wasn’t until Egyptologist John Taylor joined the British Museum in the late 1980s that Granville’s sample cases were found again, and the “wax” discovered to be the saponified flesh of the mummy herself.

Making candles of the flesh of the dead is not unheard-of, however, though it is usually done more intentionally than Granville’s dubious debut. The Hand of Glory, for example, is a sort of grisly candle holder made from the cut-off hand of a hanged man. Take a candle made from the fat of a (possibly the same) hanged man and put it into the grasp of, or attach it to the fingers of, the hand. Now light the wick (preferably made from the hair of the dead man), and all the people in the house will sleep without waking while you plunder their treasure. It cannot be put out by any means except dousing with fresh milk, and there are many stories (rather startlingly like urban myths in their repetition and style) of intelligent chamber-maids putting out the candle and waking the house when the thieves were busy.

The recipe for preparing the hand, which must be cut from the corpse while it is still hanging in the gibbet, goes as such:

“Squeeze the blood out of the hand; embalm it in a shroud and steep it in a solution of saltpetre, salt and pepper for two weeks and then dry in the sun. The other essential for its use is a candle made from hanged man’s fat, wax and Lapland sesame.” (This according to the Whitby Museum in Whitby, England, where such a hand is housed. There is also, supposedly, one in the museum in Walsall, England).

Hangings these days are rare, and when executed are rather brief and hygenic. It is hard to imagine there would be an opportunity for cutting off the hand while the body is still in the gallows (since gibbets are no longer used, this would be your only option). Still, it is tempting to consider a discreet proviso in one’s will about where you will be buried – in the hopes, someday, that your remains might be turned to soap. As a contribution to science, of course.


James G. Mundie’s awesome photos and drawings of exhibits in the Mütter Museum

A Short History of Soap: fascinating stuff!

Soap Lady, a children’s book by underground comics writer/artist Renee French, about a dirty boy who meets a naked woman made of soap who has washed up near his town. With its storyline about friendship and acceptance, it was apparently a departure from her usual style, which has been described as “surreal” and “grotesque.”

A thirteenth century description of soapmaking by King Al- Muzaffar Yusuf ibn `Umar ibn `Ali ibn Rasul

A creepy post-mortem love/obession story

Germany’s modern problem with their corpses not rotting properly

Top 10 famous corpses

An interesting article about a corpse garden created for forensics students at the University of Tennessee to learn about rates of decomposition (WARNING: Not for the squeamish)

Make your own castile soap with these soap recipes.

The Hand of Glory in the Harry Potter Wiki, which I only just discovered.

Ze Widow, She Is Black

Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, natural wonders

One of the not-so-great joys of my new trailer is that it came with an infestation of black widow spiders. We would open the galley, and there one would be: black, and shiny, with horribly pointy legs and a big, fat abdomen. And a few days ago, for the first time, I saw the Hourglass. Red and very clear, it shone on her chitinous tummy. She quivered in her web, horrified that we had opened the lid on her lovely darkness.

We don’t see a lot of black widows here; they tend to like it warm and dry, like in the central valley, and they don’t like being disturbed. They like the dark. They like it still and they like hard, close places like the spaces between woodpiles or behind cabinets.

Latrodectus hesperus, the Western black widow, is, like all widow spiders of the Latrodectus genus, very shy. If you intrude on her life she will flee first and ask questions later. Though her bite is incredibly venomous, she prefers not to bite unless grabbed, pinched or squeezed. I have seen black widows (in my precious trailer, no less) with abdomens more than a quarter inch across, and leg-spans close to one and a half inches (the males look very different, smaller and differently-colored and -patterned, so when I say “she” I know for sure that it’s the female I’m talking about).

The male black widow isn’t even black, most of the time

Unlike brown recluse spiders, whose venom is cytotoxic, meaning it is meant to slow down the prey, partially digesting the tissues and making for failure of the prey’s systems, the black widow spider’s venom is based on a neurotoxin, which I would much prefer. In mammals, when they are bitten by a spider with cytotoxic venom, it means the tissue surrounding the bite turns necrotic (dies) and is often unable to heal afterwards. There are some truly horrific pictures on the Internet of brown recluse spider bites several months on, which I would rather not contemplate.

“Spider venom falls into two categories: neurotoxic and cytotoxic. Neurotoxic venoms interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, frequently causing spasm and paralysis. Neurotoxins act rapidly, important to spiders confronted with large or dangerous prey intent on escape or retaliation. Cytotoxins, on the other hand, act more slowly. They principally act to slow down the prey, and actually begin the process of digestion by liquefying the tissues of the prey. Such venom can cause tissue necrosis in mammals, wherein the flesh surrounding an injection site dies, and heals very slowly or not at all.”

The venom of a black widow, being a neurotoxin, has a more widespread effect, entering the bloodstream and being deposited at the nerve endings where the endings insert into the muscles. This causes intense, painful cramping and muscle spasms, and is very painful. It lasts a few days and then disperses, leaving only a few minor symptoms – spasms, tingling, nervousness and weakness – to remember her by. For me – though I would not want to encounter a black widow bite – the biggest fear has been for my children, because the smaller the body mass, the more likely the venom is to cause shock to the system and death.

Ultimately, though, I think black widows have gotten a bad rap. They really, really do not want to bite you. And only one kind of widow has been sighted as actually devouring the male of its own species after sex, in the wild. And although they are not artistic – building sticky, tangled and irregular webs from which they hang upside down to catch their prey – their silk is, like many spiders, stronger than its own weight in steel. If you built a bridge of spider silk, I remember hearing, it could be a hundred times thinner than the steel cables used in modern suspension bridges, and still just as strong. Less brittle, too. In fact, the strands are so fine and strong that for many years they were used in the crosshairs in the reticles for rifles and navigational instruments.

The chitin of the black widow, her exoskeleton, is so shiny and tough that simply spraying her living quarters with Raid will not kill her; you must spray it directly on her body for the insecticide to take effect. Even then, you have to use some pretty strong stuff for it to work. And it means you can’t kill her without a little personal, face to face combat. Some people say that any strong essential oil will drive the spider away, as they prefer unlively quarters with little or no smell. Personally, I’m a big believer in a tightly-constructed house and a live and let live mentality; usually, I catch them in a glass (or get someone braver than me to do so) and release them far from where my children are likely to be. Sometimes, when I’m enraged (usually because I’ve been taken by surprise), I squash one – and then immediately regret it, because it always feels like I am killing someone, not something, when I kill a spider – they are so very much smarter than flies and their ilk. Plus, those widows are big, and it just isn’t pleasant.

I remember once, in a shop in southern San Francisco where I went to buy a lizard when I was younger and had more time to be interested in the impression I made on others, I saw a large tank full of black widow babies. The shop was either displaying them (presumably under the same youthful impulse to be cool that made me buy a tegu, one of the world’s most hostile lizards – sorry, another story) or they were selling them. I remember being in awe that the store owners, or the future pet owners, could be that hardcore. Despite the heavily-tattooed and pierced person behind the counter (very much less prevalent then than now), and the array of odd pets on display, I hadn’t considered that anyone would be into selling poisonous spiders. Now, when I look back, I can’t help seeing it as a little irresponsible, spreading poisonous beings who are pretty good escape artists via people who probably have no idea how venomous their new pets really are.

In any case, we tend to live side by side, the spiders and I, and I try to keep to the busy light and let them live in their quiet darkness. And if I or my children enter or move those dark places, we check carefully to see who we’re disturbing before we go there. We demand the same awareness of the denizens of the dark, and if they cross that line, we do not forgive them. But all in all, we leave each other alone, living our lives and raising our children as if the other side did not exist.


Stringybark graphics has a fabulous redback spider pattern which they will put on t-shirts, linen dress shirts or any clothes they produce (click on the “prices” link). Guaranteed to stop conversations when you walk in. My friend Gwyan has had one for years and loves it.

A gruesome article, in the vein of the tegu store people, from the oh-so-reliable Sun tabloid where, of all the poisonous species in a man’s home, the Widow takes the rap.

The Black Widow Hearse Club is a group of people who love funeral coaches.

Arachnids poster from the Big Zoo

Spider web ear wrap, covers your ear with a silver spider web