science of us

Nothing Is Scarier Than Something Fast by Your Feet

Photo: Davies and Starr/Getty Images

Here is why I think scary movies and TV shows (with few exceptions) don’t actually scare me: none of them provide the stimulus I fear most, which is fast things by my feet. Production companies are wasting too much money on 3-D when what they should really be spending money on is the 20-plus-year-old technology they use in DisneyWorld to make it feel like something is blowing on your neck and running by your feet. I guess this is more of a theater issue than a movie production one. I don’t know. You guys figure it out. The point is: fast things by your feet is the scariest thing in the world (the inevitability of death obviously excluded).

Think about it: this is why you want to jump on a chair whenever you see a mouse. 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. This is why the current presence of cockroaches in my Brooklyn apartment is making the inevitability of death seem fine, all things considered. You could argue that things like rodents or insects are self-evidently scary, but I’d argue it is their fast-by-feet-ness that makes them so. Are slow bugs scary? No. Is a beaver scary? Okay — in your house, maybe, yes. I know I’m onto something here, but in the event you remain unconvinced I talked to a natural scientist about my theory.

Jeff Lockwood, a natural science professor at the University of Wyoming, says our fear of certain horrible small animals is adaptive. “Evolutionarily, there’s been very good reason for humans to have their eye drawn to small critters, the reason being that in our evolutionary history, they generally meant one of two things: they either meant a snack, or they meant an encounter with something that was going to be painful or in some cases even deadly,” he says. (He also says he’s heard this referred to as the “squeal or meal” response.) Most of us won’t pick up a cockroach and eat it, which leaves one option. And what makes it worse is their difference from us. “We’re predisposed to a fear or anxiety about things that are very different from us,” says Lockwood. “And, you know, insects, they got too many legs!” Indeed!

But that’s not the whole story — there is also what Lockwood chillingly and accurately refers to as the “skittering” aspect. The fast by your feet part. “One of the qualities of insects that generates anxiety is their capacity to invade because they are small and skittery,” he says. “It’s exactly for those reasons that they get into our houses, they get into our basements, they crawl up our pant legs.” (Do you feel them now? I feel like they’re in my hair!) Sure, we could overpower a cockroach, or a mouse — if only we could catch them. But when they’re down by our feet (the less useful end of the body), they’re in control. They can fit under anything, and they can wait there forever, until one day you think you’re safe, and they’ll go zooming past your feet. Horrible!

Nothing Is Scarier Than Something Fast by Your Feet