science of us

Nothing Is Scarier Than Bugs Crawling Into Bodily Orifices

Playing pinochle. Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Recently, my colleague Katie Heaney made the argument that the most frightening physical sensation is having something small and fast run past your feet. “Fast things by your feet is the scariest thing in the world,” she wrote. “This is why you scream when a bug skitters by your shoes, even though you are about a million times bigger and more powerful than that bug.”

True — too true — although I would take this a step further and say that the reason we find tiny, skittering things so scary (okay, one of the reasons, in addition to them being disgusting, dangerous, and strange), is that they can fit into our bodily orifices.


Heaney was not overly persuaded by this theory, but I feel strongly about it, so I asked sociologist and fear expert Margee Kerr for her input.

“I’m not familiar with the specifics around bugs being smaller than our bodily orifices,” Kerr said, “but that is certainly a theory worth testing.” She acknowledged that this would be challenging to test without preemptively biasing everyone, however: “The minute the connection between ‘bug’ and ‘orifices’ hits the brain,” she said, “it’s a big no.”

Digging into that “no,” Kerr went on, “you find it’s really all about the uncertainty and lack of control — eating a chocolate-covered grasshopper is fine, and fried shrimp are delicious, but not if you look down to find them creeping where they shouldn’t be.”

Exactly. Maybe it’s all about Something Creeping Where It Shouldn’t Be. Which I will admit is somewhat similar to Heaney’s fast-by-feet theory. (The expert she spoke with mentioned bugs’ unique “capacity to invade,” which seems especially well put.)

Kerr also acknowledged the disgust factor, adding that the reason we end up with a unique set of aversions “is likely due mostly to learning and is culturally/individually specific.” She went on: “Many bugs and rodents are carriers of disease, but this does not translate exactly to what we are universally afraid of.” As an example, she said, “I know I grew more afraid of cockroaches only after moving to the city, where I learned (a), what attracts them (e.g., filth), and (b), the negative health consequences. Prior to that I considered cockroaches in the same way I considered crickets.” She and her wife also fall on different sides of the mouse-fear dividing line: “I have no hesitation in picking up a house mouse,” she said, “while my wife has a legitimate fear of them (I learned this when she really did freak out and have to clean the entire kitchen after one of our cats caught one — I thought it was just a ‘fun’ fear).”

She also mentioned the pain factor, noting, “If butterflies stung like bees, I doubt we’d be chasing them.”

Yes, although butterflies also could not fit into an ear …

In parting, here’s a National Geographic collection of “Creatures That Can Crawl Into Your Body.” Fortunately, “In most places, the odds of waking up with an insect inside you are slim.”

Nothing Is Scarier Than Bugs Crawling Into Bodily Orifices