Little Miss Muffet was afraid of spiders. Darklings, however, love them. Dresses and capes festooned with webs, arachnid jewelry, spidery fishnet tights and silken black satin gloves—spiders are a staple of gothic style and a hallmark of the Vamp. But why are spiders so often associated with dark culture in general and wicked vixens in particular?

Webby Vixens: Left: Mae West. Center: Anne Francis. Right: Yvonne de Carlo.

Male Objectification: Toxic Women, Crafty Spiders

We can follow one silken thread back to the medieval universities of Europe. There, male clerics studied the works of Aristotle and combined them with authoritative theological texts. From their scholastic perspective, men were perfect—warm, dry, balanced, and rational. Women, however, were constructed as inverted men. Cold by nature, their hunger for warmth drove them to sexual rapacity. If denied sexual congress, women resorted to deception, manipulation, and wicked craftiness. In some cases they became the wanton prey of demons—yet another sign of their physical and moral depredation.

Take me demon! Left: Marion Martin and the Red Hot Hairy Host of Hell. Right: Dance of the Devil Woman. For more Satanic Burlesque, click here.

In the medieval male imagination, women’s bodies were not only hungry—they were also filled with poisonous menses. As early as the eighth century, Isidore of Seville wrote that menstrual blood could cloud mirrors, rust metal, dissolve glue, and cause rabidity in dogs. In De Secretis Mulierum, the thirteenth-century scholar Pseudo-Albertus Magnus and his late-medieval commentators warned men to avoid contact with menstrual blood during sexual intercourse. Its “venom” could wound the penis and cause cancer or leprosy. Its stink could “corrupt a man’s insides” for at least a month. These toxins permeated a woman’s body and were exuded from her eyes, mouth, and nose as noxious vapors. Bloody women, in short, were dangerous to dicks.

Fourteenth-century Dick Pics: Left: A woman plucks penises from a tree in the marginalia of Roman de la Rose (Bibliothèque Nationale de France). Right: A woman flies away on a chill green penis creature in the marginalia of Decretum Gratiani (Lyon, Bibliothèque Municipal). While both of these images are humorous, they nevertheless indicate male concern over female desire for and control over penises.

The thirteenth-century preacher, Jacques de Vitry, wrote a sermon comparing toxic women to venomous spiders. Hungry, crafty, and potentially deadly, both crept about in the darkness, spinning webs of deceit and turning all to poison. Wicked women were particularly dangerous to pious men who—much like bees—were industrious, intelligent, and obedient to God’s will. Distracted from the rational divine, devout bee-men might get drawn into a sticky and chaotic death at the center of the spider-woman’s web. What a way to go…

Left: The Spider Vixen in her web. Right: Catherine D’Lish awaits you. Credit: Ed Barnas

The association of wanton women with toxic creatures was elaborated in witchcraft treatises such as the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), Demonolatry (1595), and the Compendium Maleficarum (1608), to name but a few. In these texts, witches concocted poisons and communed with frogs, toads, worms, mice, and snakes—all of which were spontaneously generated from decaying matter—as well as flies and spiders, which were born of moist and fetid air. From these dark roots, the sex-hungry witch and the crafty spider became evermore intertwined.

Above: A witch feeding her rat-thing and toads. Woodcut from the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, England (1579).

Female Empowerment: Spidora has had it with your shit.

In the 1880s, sideshows in London and Coney Island featured Spidora—“Born with the head and face of a beautiful girl and the body of an ugly spider, she survives in total misery, for no man could ever love her.” Objectified by the male barker and the audiences who came to see her, she was trapped in a web woven by other people’s fears and fetishes—much like the late-medieval female witch.

Left: Man objectifying Spidora in Tod Browning’s film, “The Show.” Right: Spidora has had it with his shit.

This attempt to trap female sexuality, to contain it in a man-made web, was in vain.

Caught in a Web (1909)

Victorian Darklings had already begun to claim the spider as a symbol of feminine power and dark alterity. They were inspired in part by gothic horror and its use of the spider as a signifier for the uncanny. Spiders are ubiquitous, yet they are often invisible, lost in the shadows. They are beautiful and graceful, and yet completely “other” in their eight-legged, multi-eyed, and occasionally hairy appearance. They are for the most part harmless and yet potentially deadly. Often overlooked, they are intelligent hunters who sit motionless, waiting for the slightest vibration—and then they move with alarming speed to kill and drain their prey of life.

Mysterious, hungry, elegant and powerful—the spider became an apt signifier for the enchanting and sexually liberated woman who wove her own dark web and lived how she pleased.

Left: Vicky Butterfly by Maria S. Varela Photography Center: Vintage Spider Burlesque Right: Carole Jayne, “The Spider Girl” (1950s)

Realizing her inherent power, Spidora broke free.

And she honored her sexuality, her primal connection to nature, the power of the feminine.

Left: Mae West in “I’m No Angel” (1933); Center: Rita Hayworth in “My Gal Sal” (1942); Right: Helen Bennett’s Spider Dress (1939)

And she was elegant and regal in her webs.

Maila Nurmi as sultry horror host Vampira. She often appeared with her pet spider, Rollo.

And she didn’t care if “no man could ever love her” because she loved herself.

Spin your webs, dear Darklings, and wear them with honor.

Additional Reference:

Carolyn Muessig. The Faces of Women in the Sermons of Jacques de Vitry (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 1999).

Brenda S G Walter

Brenda S G Walter

By day, Brenda poisons young minds as a college professor.  When she is not teaching classes such as Science and the Supernatural, she is writing about monsters, witchcraft, horror films, heavy metal, and gothic culture.  She might also be drawing apocalyptic landscapes or haunted houses while watching Creature Double Feature.  You can find her on Facebook and Instagram as Elderdark Nightmoth.
Brenda S G Walter