Alright, confession time: one of my best friends is scared of moths. I know, it was a shock for me too. I found this out about two and a half years ago when I sent this friend (let’s call her Sarah because that is her name) pictures of a poplar hawk moth I’d caught. In hindsight, maybe I should have checked first.
Like all phobias, it can be really difficult for those of us without it to understand what the problem is so I asked Sarah exactly what she doesn’t like:
“I don’t like them cause they freak me out irl when they fly in my face and they’re fuzzy and look like death and just looking at them gives me shivers
That any good for your blog?”
Although we often refer to it as lepidopterophobia (the irrational fear of all Lepidoptera), its true form is actually very rare. Many people are terrified of moths but have no problem at all with butterflies, leading to mottephobia (the irrational fear of moths) being increasingly common.
“Specific phobias” are an intense and persistent fear of a certain object or situation, most of which are thought to develop in childhood as a result of a traumatic experiences and/or genetic predisposition, and usually go away by adulthood. In the case of a lot of common fears, such as arachnophobia or cynophobia (fear of spiders and dogs, respectively), it is thought that they might be an evolutionary adaptation to things which were once dangerous for us, even if they aren’t any more. Both of these factors make sense for fears of things which can hurt you, bees and wasps for example, but what possible harm can moths do?
According to some sources, it seems Sarah is not alone, the fear is mostly linked to movement. Some find the unpredictable fluttering flight patterns unsettling, feeling uncomfortable when a butterfly or moth flies near them in case it lands on them or brushes against their skin. These fears are multiplied when the insects are swarming in groups, something which must make lepdiopterophobes who live in monarch butterfly migratory “highways” somewhat uncomfortable. At the end of the day, it seems to be the unpredictability which is especially fear-provoking, which ties in with the fear of the unknown. This still doesn’t answer why more people are scared of moths than butterflies and it doesn’t seem that clear. My best guess is that is has something to do with the fact that we mostly encounter moths by night as they try to get into our houses – a distinctly creepy scenario.
Although it is important to be understanding of people with true mottephobia, there is a greater issue here: that of irrational disgust and dislike of interests, without the excusable irrational fear and panic of a phobia. A third of fear of British animals in UK adults was of “fear-relevant animals” (snakes etc.) and invertebrates. Not of fear relevant invertebrates like wasps and bees, or even disease relevant invertebrates like mosquitos and cockroaches, just “invertebrates”. The paper even lists slugs and worms as given examples of feared invertebrates, suggesting that the disgust the great British public feels about “creepy crawlies” is entirely without logical reason.
To a certain extent it can be argued that fears develop because of a lack of exposure: students from urban areas on field trips to wildland areas were recorded as frequently expressing a fear and disgust of insects, as well as snakes, plants, and “getting lost”. Fear of the unknown is considered by some researchers to be “the fundamental fear”; what you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. To link this back to mottephobia, if the only exposure you have to moths is them flapping in your face on summer evenings, I can see why it would be annoying, even distressing and how that could develop into a fully blown phobia.
The idea for this article was sparked by an episode of Doctor Who back in November where the Doctor and her companions ended up in an anti-zone between universes infested with flesh moths: enormous carnivorous moths which are attracted to light and movement and could strip the flesh from prey in moments. Look, don’t ask me, ask the BBC.In order to reduce and remove specific phobias, exposure therapy is used to gradually reduce the amount of fear associated with a trigger. But how are people supposed to ‘grow out’ of their childhood fears if the media constantly feeds us negative images of insects?
Now whilst some moths do, as Sarah said, “look like death” (I’m looking at
you, Death’s Head Hawk Moth), there are many more which are beautiful and play incredibly important roles in their ecosystems – one of the best well known being the obligate mutualism between yuccas and yucca moths. Maybe the fact we never see these moths represented in the media but are regularly exposed to butterflies in a positive context also contributes to the difference in attitudes.
Sometimes we have a tendency, as people who know about and spend time with insects, to find the level of disgust the British public feel towards invertebrates frustrating. That’s fair enough, but what scares people, scares them, and there’s nothing we can do except try to support those with true phobias and educate those who just don’t understand.
And whatever you do, don’t send mottephobes pictures of hawk moths!