Charlotte's Web of Horror
Charlotte's Web is a children's novel about a pig who befriends a spider. It is also the most terrifying novel ever written.
If you aren't familiar with the story, it goes like this:
After being saved from the slaughter because he was the runt of his litter, a piglet is raised and loved and nurtured by a young girl named Fern. She names him Wilbur. When Wilbur grows up, he is sold to Fern's uncle and goes to live on his farm but all the other barn animals on that farm are bullies and so they reject his friendship and shun him. That's when Wilbur meets Charlotte -- a spider that lives on a web overlooking Wilbur's bed, who can communicate fluently with all species and is capable of intelligent, sentient thoughts. With a new friend by his side, life is good once more.
But, as moments of peace often are, Wilbur's happiness is taken from him too soon. He finds out that he is going to be turned into food. Charlotte doesn't want this to happen because not very many sentient creatures like it when their friends are turned into food, so she devises a cunning plan to save him -- a plan that entails spinning webs with words of praise for Wilbur woven into them so that humans will think he is a special pig.
Naturally, the plan works. Fern's uncle and all his neighbors believe the praise is divine intervention and since they can't interfere with God's plan, Fern's uncle decides to enter Wilbur into the county fair instead of slaughtering him.
At the fair, Charlotte spins more messages about Wilbur and also finds time to spin an egg sac containing her 514 unborn spider children. It's a tremendously exhausting amount of work, but it's worth it. Even though Wilbur doesn't win one single prize, he's celebrated by the fair's staff and visitors and in turn is placed on a prestigious pedestal too high for the fear of being slaughtered to ever reach him again.
In the quiet moments as the fair winds down, Charlotte and Wilbur are alone and they share the following exchange.
“Charlotte,” said Wilbur after awhile, “why are you so quiet?”
“I like to sit still,” she said. “I’ve always been rather quiet.”
“Yes, but you seem specially so today. Do you feel all right?”
“A little tired, perhaps. But I feel peaceful."
Charlotte goes on to make her implication clear: she's going to die. It's a heavy passage, and an honest one, and a perfect example of the simple, dry writing style that made author E.B White a masterful artist.
As a final act of friendship, Wilbur promises to protect Charlotte's egg sac and ensure the safety of her 514 spider children. When those eggs hatch, only three of them stay with Wilbur at the farm -- the rest depart to adventures and places unknown.
Each spring more spider children are born and each spring all but two or three of them would go off into the world, and those two or three who remained behind would take up residence in the doorway Charlotte used to live in to keep Wilbur company for the rest of his days.
Perhaps you're wondering how a story like that could be anything other than an important and nuanced introduction to death and change for young readers. After all, that's almost certainly what E.B White intended for it to be. But when a book exists in the world, the author's intentions matter less than the relationship between the book and its readers.
For any reader with even the faintest, tiniest hint of arachnophobia, commentaries on life, loss, and friendship take an immediate backseat to the inescapable fact that this book is about one thing: sentient spiders.
Being afraid of spiders is among the most common fears out there, and like any fear it's both irrational and grounded in some quasi-sensible explanation.
(A personal anecdote: many lifetimes ago, when I was in the third grade, my class went on a field trip to the Ontario Science Center. It's a good place, and a fun place, full of interactive and engaging ways for people to learn things.
On this trip we were there to see a special demonstration about ecosystems and food chains. My teacher brought us into this dimly lit room that looked a lot like a cross between a theater and a university lecture hall and she insisted that we gather around these glass boxes that were sitting front and center. In my youthful naivety, I listened.
A man with white gloves holding a black container walked out from behind a curtain. He welcomed us, and I'm sure he said a lot of interesting and important things about ecosystems and food chains, and then he opened the container. Inside was a tiny mouse. He placed the tiny mouse inside the glass box and didn't say another word. He just waited. So we all just waited too.
The mouse rummaged around, minding his own business, doing nothing to harm any single living thing. Then from out of the shadows and beneath some leaves a spider leaps out and attacks him. The mouse didn't move. He was dead, or frozen with fear, or paralyzed with venom -- it didn't really matter. The spider dragged him backwards to the leaves and disappeared back into the shadows. The man with the white gloves started talking again and to this day I've never paid less attention to what someone was saying in my life.
From that moment, I was all the way out on spiders.)
To be clear, there are a lot of good things that spiders do. They're a natural insecticide that provides a potent defense against pests like aphids, moths, and cockroaches. In doing so there's even evidence suggesting they can limit the spread of disease carried by fleas, mosquitoes, and roaches.
But also spiders have too many eyes and too many legs; sometimes they're hairless and sometimes they're covered in hairs that look and probably feel like what stubble feels like when it should have been shaved three days ago; some of them only catch insects but some of them can eat birds; some of them are small but some of them have six inch legs and bodies that are a foot long; some of them are harmless but there are also species that attack humans and whose venom is a literal neurotoxin.
In Charlotte's Web, Charlotte is a barn spider. Barn spiders aren't poisonous to humans and they aren't aggressive. But Charlotte being a sentient spider means one of two things: either Charlotte was the first -- of what is, at the end of the book, many thousands of barn spiders with sentience -- or there is a chance that any spider could be born as a sentient spider.
Both those thoughts are more terrifying than Stephen King's most twisted dreams.
If Charlotte was just the first sentient spider, who then gave birth to 514 sentient spider babies, who then each also gave birth to a similar number of sentient spider babies, the number of sentient spiders roaming the world would increase year over year at an exponential and alarming rate.
Some quick genetics and math for context:
Let's assume, to mostly avoid the complexities of genetic science, that whatever gene mutation it is that codes for sentience is a dominant gene -- meaning that if it's present in the spider's genetic makeup, it will be expressed and make the spider a sentient spider.
Let's also assume, for simplicity's sake, that this gene is expressed in each and every one of Charlotte's offspring and that each of her offspring passes it on to their offspring in whom it is also expressed, and so on and so forth for the rest of time.
In the first year after Charlotte dies, if each of her 514 babies have 514 babies, there would be 264, 196 sentient spiders on Earth. The year after? 69.8 billion.
Now, Charlotte was a kind and good spider. But what are the odds that all 69.8 billion of her great grandchildren are also kind and good? Probably awfully slim. There are roughly 7.6 billion people on Earth and at least a significant minority of them are some shade of ass hole. At the very least, it isn't inconceivable there would be bad and evil sentient spiders somewhere in the family tree.
If Charlotte was able to use her intelligence to convince people not to kill a friendly pig, then that also means she was able to affect and influence the thoughts and actions of human beings. What if other spiders used their intelligence for bad? What if instead of convincing people to not kill pigs they schemed up ways of convincing people to be mean, or to lie, or to cheat, or to commit crimes, or to rig elections, or even to kill each other and start wars? The list can go on in any direction you desire. Put simply: a world in which sentient, evil spiders outnumber people nine to one and can convince them to do their bidding is a deeply terrifying world to live in.
Now consider that the other implication of Charlotte's Web is true instead. What if any spider that has ever or could ever exist has a chance to be born as sentient and cunning as Charlotte.
All of the previously listed reasons for why spiders are scary come with reassuring caveats: at least you're smarter than them; at least our evolved human brains put us high enough on the food chain that they won't hunt us; at least most of them aren't smart enough to realize the devastation they could cause if they decided to operate in packs.
What if none of those reassurances were true anymore?
Australian funnel-web spiders are some of the most dangerous spiders on the planet. They're relatively small, maxing out at about two inches long, but have two powerful fangs that are capable of penetrating fingernails and soft shoes. Making matters worse, their venom is a deadly neurotoxin that inhibits the body's control over releasing (and in turn, increasing) three very important neurotransmitters:
- Acetylcholine (which makes muscles contract)
- Noradrenaline (which does a lot of things but in this case it only matters that it makes blood vessels constrict)
- Adrenaline (which also does a lot of things but for now it only matters that it increases how hard your heart is working)
One bite from one spider can affect all of those things. And one bite from one spider probably wouldn't be enough to kill you before you could get treatment -- although there are 13 recorded deaths it is known to be responsible for.
But what if evil, sentient Australian funnel-web spiders decided they wanted to team up to hunt humans? They wouldn't be like the spiders in the 2002 classic, Eight Legged Freaks, in which mutated SUV-sized spiders terrorize a rural mining town. They'd be a more quiet kind of deadly. They're small enough that they could hide in any number of inconspicuous places -- in jacket pockets, behind toilets, inside dresser drawers -- and after the first attack, the rest of the pack could spring out from those hiding places to deliver several more deadly injections of poison until you're dead.
What if evil, sentient Australian funnel-web spiders decided they wanted to claim their native country all to themselves? How long would it take for them to sweep across the land in organized packs and hordes and exterminate every human in their path? The biggest concentration of this species of spider is in and around Sydney. So residents there would surely be the first to go if swarms of them descended upon the city. But what's to stop them once they've conquered Sydney?
What if those evil, sentient Australian funnel-web spiders learned the intricacies of human social dynamics and decided they wanted to be like Heath Ledger's Joker and watch the world burn? How long would it take for them to figure out that they could hitch rides on food transportation vehicles or unsuspecting travelers and end up in any number of countries around the world in a matter of days, and then be ready to assassinate world leaders shortly after that?
Those are outlandish possibilities, to be sure -- about as outlandish as the notion that a barn spider would befriend a pig in the first place. Charlotte's Web may be an iconic children's novel, but it can't escape its own implications and the horror they represent.