We’re back with another edition of Urban Legend: Fact or Fiction. In this chapter, we take a deep dive into one of the most pervasive legends we’ve ever covered! So, let’s try to answer the question, can spiders really live in your hair or face?
Back in the 1950s beehive hairdos were all the rage. The only issue is these styles take a lot of work to maintain. So many women just resorted to getting their hair done every few months and caking their locks with hairspray in between stylings. As you can imagine, this prevented regular washings.
18-year-old Mary Sue was one of these stylish young women. Being your stereotypical broke college student living on her own for the first time, made it so she could only afford the salon every three months. So she took the advice of some girlfriends and after getting her hair done she would douse it in hairspray each morning, and wrap it up in toilet paper each night. Mary Sue even exclusively slept on her back to keep her beehive intact for as long as possible. Soon her hair was like a helmet slathered in hardened styling products.
Maybe two months after a trip to the salon, she started to notice weird red markings when she woke up in the morning. At first, she thought nothing of it, but after a few days of finding more and more swollen red marks, she went to the doctor. He informed her that they were spider bites and that her apartment must be infested. She was able to get her landlord to foot the bill for an exterminator since he didn’t want other apartments in the building to become a haven for arachnids. After her apartment was sprayed Mary Sue enjoyed a peaceful night of sleep. That is until she woke up to find webs in every corner of her apartment. Furious she reported it to the landlord, who then cursed out the exterminator until he came back to the apartment to respray.
Again Mary Sue drifted off to sleep that night in a (theoretically) spider-free apartment. The exterminator did promise he used enough spray to kill “any living thing in that place!” But when she awoke, to her horror she found a trail of webs leading from where her head rested n the pillow out to the nightstand, lamp, headboard, etc. She immediately jumped up to inspect where they were coming from. She ripped apart her pillow thinking it was the most likely culprit, but she found no spiders.
Confused and still half asleep she walked into her bathroom to survey any new bites. As she looked in the mirror, she not only saw bites all over her face. But then she spotted it, one lone spider climbing up a web back into her hair. In a panic, she grabbed kitchen scissors and began to hack at her stiff, teased-out locks. Only to discover hundreds of spiders roaming around in her hair. Having laid what looked like thousands of egg sacks.
Mary Sue was committed to a mental institution soon after. Where she always kept her head shaved. Let this be a reminder; vanity can kill.
This one became wildly shared in the 1950s when the beehive hairstyle was the “it” hairdo. But records indicate the tale dates all the way back to at least the 13th century. There is a piece of exemplum literature (a short tale incorporated by medieval preachers into their sermons to emphasize a moral or illustrate a point of doctrine). An excerpt from the book “Speculum Laicorum” tells the story of a woman who is often late to church because she is too busy adorning her hair. Eventually, the devil uses her vanity to terrorize her with spiders in her hair. Spiders that only vanish once a local abbot displays the holy sacrament in front of her. Taking cleanliness is next to godliness to a whole new level, eh?
Once teased hairstyles became all the rage in the 1950s, this legend found a new victim in modern, fashion-forward, women. Which we still see in its current variants.
While the hairstyle and insect may change, the general tale here stays the same. Someone’s vanity leads to a hairstyle that prevents regular washings which leads to an infestation of bugs. Once beehives fell out of vogue, the legends shifted from a young woman to an older one clinging on to a passe hairstyle. Sometimes the victim of the tale is a man who has either unkept hair or dreadlocks.
While not always explicitly stated, this tale often revolves around Eurocentric standards for hygiene and typically Caucasian hair types. Not all cultures or hair types require daily washing as this legend often implies. While the racial connotations here seem to be bred more from a narrow world view, than intentional malice, it is worth noting that they are there. The dreadlock version for example is often presented with a Rastafarian man.
Sometimes the hairstyle remains the same while the infestation of creepy crawlies changes. While spiders are a favorite culprit, especially black widows and redbacks since they are both known to be poisonous and potentially deadly. [Note: the redback spider version is more common in Australia]. Other bugs like blow flies, centipedes, and maggots have all made appearances in some version or another of this story. In some cuter iterations (discussed below) bees inhabit the beehived hair.
At the end of the story, sometimes the victim just loses their hair and is confined to a psychiatric ward, like the version told above. Others have them bitten to death by the baby spiders as they hatch. Or go into a coma that may or may not result in death.
More modern versions often skip the hygiene angle altogether and just chalk it up to pure bad luck. The most common version for this is someone has a spider lay eggs on their body, normally their face. The mark is mistaken for a zit until baby spiders begin to pour out from it. A lot of folklorists treat this version as a separate legend, but they are so fundamentally similar we are putting them together since covering both would be redundant.
While this version does remove the (real or perceived) poor hygiene element. The person afflicted with the spiders under their skin is often very vain about the mark. The spiders normally emerge when they are so tired of their perceived disfigurement that they attempt to pop the “pimple” only to be met with dozens to sometimes hundreds of baby spiders emerging from it. This is probably the most common version among millennials, due to it being a pop culture touchstone for many.
While beehives and other teased hairstyles are common in pop culture, surprisingly we couldn’t find many examples of this legend in popular media. What we could find is:
1988-1999 “Mystery Science Theater 3000” had an ongoing joke semi-based on this legend. If a character in a movie is sporting a beehive hairdo. More than likely someone in the gang will make buzzing noises.
1990s Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics have a parody of this legend, pictured above.
1991 Alvin Schwartz’s book “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones,” tells the zit version of this legend. Hence its popularity with millennials since many grew up on that series. It was also told in the 2019 film adaptation of the book series. Directed by André Øvredal, from a script co-written by Guillermo del Toro.
1993 in an episode of “Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog” Robotnik’s Mother adopts Sonic. When a social worker comes by to inspect the fortress she sports a beehive hairdo with real bees buzzing around it. She even has a hole for them to fly into.
Is it Real?
Luckily the deadly spider version of this legend has no basis in reality. Human hair really isn’t the best place for spiders to lay eggs. Even more so if the person uses the amount of hairspray this myth often portrays. Also, the version where the victim dies rests on the assumption that black widow hatchlings basically come out biting. But according to the Burke Museum, the “venom they carry would not likely be very harmful; even the bites of adult females are very rarely fatal if properly treated.” Clark Pest Control also cites this as a myth.
Creepy crawlies like lice can obviously live in hair, but with proper treatment infestations like that are far from deadly. Normally serious bug infections found in hair are the result of serious, long-term, neglect. While dosing your hair in products without washing it for months on end probably isn’t good for it. As we established above it doesn’t make for the best place for bugs to breed.
“Spiders in the Hairdo,” Too Good to Be True: the Colossal Book of Urban Legends, by Jan Harold. Brunvand, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 191-193.
“Spiders in the Hairdo,” Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, by Jan Harold Brunvand, ABC-CLIO, 2012, pp. 410-411.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Spider in the Hairdo.” The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, Norton, New York, 1981, pp. 76–81.
Holt, David. “The Belle at Biloxi.” Spiders in the Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends, SAGEBRUSH BOUND, 2001, pp. 70–72.