Bugged Out

The Carrizo Plain National Monument

Jeffrey Lockwood is an entomologist-turned-entomophobe who investigates the fear of insects in his new book, The Infested Mind. In an excerpt, he describes his first brush with bug fear, in a canyon in Wyoming:

Grasshoppers boiled in every direction, ricocheting off my face and chest. Some latched on to my bare arms and a few tangled their spiny legs into my hair. Others began to crawl into my clothing — beneath my shorts, under my collar. They worked their way into the gaps between shirt buttons, pricking my chest, sliding down my sweaty torso. For the first time in my life as an entomologist, I panicked.

In a review of the book, Michelle Nijhuis reasons that “entomophobia seems pretty rational”:

There may be some hard-wiring involved, but we learn a lot of our entomophobia — from unfortunate childhood experiences with beehives or anthills, from our parents, or from the culture at large.  ”We are weevils/We are evil/We’re aggrieved/Since time primeval,” begins a poem in Douglas Florian’s Insectlopedia. Read that at bedtime for a few nights, parents, and you’ll have a thriving little entomophobe on your hands.

While Lockwood thoroughly dissects the biology and psychology of our infested minds, he can’t explain away his own fears. In the years after his encounter in the Wyoming canyon, he moved out of traditional scientific research and into work that combines science and the humanities — an intellectual evolution that he credits in part to his phobia. He has come to a sort of peace with his fear, learning to see it not as a handicap but as a reaction to the sublime. For most of us, he points out, a skittering insect is as alien as the open space at the edge of a cliff, and we’re repelled by it and drawn to it in a similarly paradoxical way. So next time you floss a cricket leg out of your molars, remember: It’s not disgusting. It’s sublime.

An interview with Lockwood is here.

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)