Humans are funny creatures. On the one hand, we aspire to be normal. We want to fit in physically and psychologically. On the other hand, we want to be unique. We’d like to be in the upper tail of the distribution when it comes to mental qualities such as intelligence.
As for our responses to insects, I suspect that most of us want to be somewhere near the middle of the curve. A normal mother reads her daughter Charlotte’s Web and grabs a can of Raid to dispatch an earwig in the kitchen. And a normal dad plays the video of A Bug’s Life for his son and mashes a house spider underfoot. We figure that we’re far from the deep end of irrational fear. But what really stands between our presumed sanity and an explosion of debilitating terror?
It’s rather easy to imagine that we’re rational about insects when the modern world provides an environment that is largely devoid of these creatures. And when these creatures threaten our well-being, we can rely on professionals to sanitize our homes and yards.
However, what if the insects refuse to submit? What if our lives and bodies were under siege? What causes apparently normal people—the ones who are like us—to destroy their furniture, burn their clothes, and abandon their homes?
The answer is a quarter-inch long bug.
From behind headboards and beneath mattresses, bed bugs have crept into the national consciousness. Although the East coast has drawn the greatest attention, by now every state has bed bugs. The housing staff at the University of Wyoming—where I’m on the faculty—finds bed beg infestations every year in the dorms. There aren’t 100,000 of the beasts as in some New York apartments, but it doesn’t take many of these insects to infest our minds.
At night, bed bugs crawl out from their hiding places to feed on blood. As unappealing as this might be, they do not transmit pathogens and their bite is relatively benign for most people. However, the thought of having our bodies invaded while we sleep drives people to extreme measures.
A New York family threw out 40 garbage bags filled with clothes and toys and another family spent more than $70,000 to rid their home of bed bugs. While the financial costs can be staggering, the most devastating damage done by bed bugs is psychological.
Why do bed bugs elicit such dramatic responses? Psychologists tell us that horror is fear-imbued disgust—a sense of being repulsed without being able to physically or psychologically escape. And few creatures are as horrifying as vampires—except, perhaps bed bugs.
(More on bed bugs as six-legged vampires in my next installment…)