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18 Creepy Facts about Arachnophobia

This skin-crawling classic turns 25 today. Here are a few things you might not have known about the first (and last) “thrill-omedy.”

1. IT WAS A LONG-TIME SPIELBERG COLLABORATOR’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.

Frank Marshall had produced a number of films for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, including The Goonies, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Empire of the Sun, and The Color Purple (among many others). He had directed second unit photography and some short films—including making-of documentaries for the Indiana Jones movies, which he also produced—but Arachnophobia marked Marshall's feature film directorial debut. “As a producer for 20 years, I know how hard directing is, and I didn't want to do anything I'd had no experience with,” he told The New York Times. “Disney's Jeff Katzenberg sent me the script, and I felt it was something I could do. I didn't want to get into a serious dramatic piece that might stretch me beyond my capabilities.” 

2. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT WAS MORE HORROR, LESS COMEDY.

When Jeff Daniels came on board to play Dr. Ross Jennings, Arachnophobia was a serious horror movie—one that Daniels told Philadelphia’s Daily News was pretty formulaic. "You could tell that the lines were kind of written by computer," he said. He and Marshall were hoping for a black comedy with a more ironic tone, so the script went through several revisions, and the filmmakers studied Hitchcock films and Jaws to get the tone right. One key change: Daniels’s character was given a fear of spiders.

The result, Daniels told the Orlando Sentinel, was a one-of-a-kind movie. “It's not really horror,” he said. “We don't have chainsaws going through necks and blood spurting. It's scary, but this is not The Attack of the Killer Spiders. We approached it as a comedy with a couple of thrills. We knew we had the thrills in there, so we worked hard to make sure the movie had a sense of humor about itself.” The humor, he said, “kind of relaxes the audience, so that we can come in and get them again.”

“We wanted it to be scary, but not too terrifying,” Marshall told Entertainment Weekly. “We didn’t want it to be a typical horror movie—The Spider That Ate Cleveland—so we used a lot of comedy. We tried to make it like a roller-coaster ride for the audience. It’s frightening, but in a fun way.”

3. THE PRODUCTION SHOT IN A PART OF VENEZUELA WHERE NO MOVIE PRODUCTION HAD FILMED BEFORE.

For the opening sequence, which takes place in South America—and where a photographer is bitten by a deadly spider that then hitches a ride back to the States in his coffin—the crew headed to the Tepuis of Venezuela's Canaima National Park. No movie had filmed there before, and getting to it was hard work: They set up a base camp in a location that was meant for one-night stays, and stayed for four weeks, flying in all of the necessary equipment and food. They used five helicopters to fly up to the mountains every day.

“The Tepuis rise out of the rainforest almost 10,000 feet,” Marshall said in a featurette created for the movie. “Because they’re so high up, they’re right in the cloud bank, so the weather is [always] changing. Some days I would just get one take—not one scene, one take—and it would be an hour before the sun came out again. There was one day we were trapped the whole day; we had actually built the survival camp, and 15 minutes before we were going to be stuck all night, the clouds opened up.” Abandoning their equipment, the cast and crew “jumped on the helicopter and got out just in time,” Marshall said. “It was kind of exciting.”

4. ONE SPIDER USED ON THE PRODUCTION WAS NAMED FOR A HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR.

The production required two species of spider: The first—the arachnid that hitches a ride from South America to California—needed to measure about one foot across. The filmmakers found their star in a bird-eating tarantula native to the Amazon; there was only one such spider in the U.S. Marshall named the spider Big Bob after director Robert Zemeckis. 

5. THE SPIDER HAD TO BE MADE SCARIER FOR THE MOVIE.

As terrifying as Big Bob was, he still wasn't scary enough for Arachnophobia. So the production painted purple stripes on his back and added a prosthetic abdomen “to give him greater bulk,” according to Entertainment Weekly

6. TO CAST THE SMALLER SPIDERS, THE PRODUCTION PUT THEM THROUGH A “SPIDER OLYMPICS.”

In the movie, Big Bob arrives in California and promptly mates with a house spider, creating super deadly offspring. To find the right arachnids for the job, Marshall and his team evaluated a number of species—including wolf spiders, tarantulas, and huntsman spiders—by putting them through a “spider olympics,” running each species through 10 tests, including speed (the faster the spider, the scarier it is), climbing ability, and reaction to heat and cold. 

The “gold medalist,” according to Marshall, was the three-inch-wide Delena spider, a harmless but sinister-looking huntsman native to Australia that was introduced to New Zealand in the 1920s. Marshall joked that “we got them all little passports,” which was sort of true: The production did have to jump through hoops to bring 300 of the spiders to the U.S. for filming (and that was just the initial shipment; supplies were replenished every two weeks).  

7. JOHN GOODMAN WASN’T FREAKED OUT BY THE SPIDERS. 

Though Daniels claimed that he was fine with small spiders, he acknowledged that “anyone in his right mind” would have issues with spiders as huge as Big Bob. But John Goodman, who played exterminator Delbert McClintock, wasn’t fazed. “I don’t have any problem,” he said. “We see each other eye to eye—well, two eyes to their 16—but we get along swell.”

8. A HOUSEHOLD CLEANING AGENT PLAYED A PART IN WRANGLING THE SPIDERS.

“You can’t actually teach them to do anything,” wrangler Steven Kutcher told Entertainment Weekly. “You just watch what they do, then figure out how you can apply it to what you want them to do.” Still, he managed to come up with some solutions for controlling them: He discovered that the spiders hated Lemon Pledge—it gummed up their feet—and used lines of it on the set to control where they went; he also strung networks of wire, vibrating faster than the camera could see, to guide them. But sometimes, more extreme measures were needed. According to The New York Times,

To keep spiders in a relatively contained area, they are put to sleep with carbon dioxide, and tiny monofilament ''leashes'' are attached by wax to their abdomens. And for really complicated shots, minuscule steel plates are glued to the spiders with wax; electromagnets behind a wall then move them to the places where the script calls for them to be.

The wranglers would also sometimes chase the arachnids with hair dryers to get them to go where the camera needed them.

9. MARSHALL PLANNED HIS SHOTS VERY CAREFULLY.

“One of the things I learned in my second unit directing days is the only way it’s going to be scary is to include the spiders in the same shots with the actors,” he said. “So we’ve been designing the shots so when you start on a person you pan over, there’s a spider there, and the audience will know the spiders are very, very close to all the actors.”

10. THE ACTORS HAD TO BE PATIENT.

“This film takes a special kind of actor,” Daniels joked to The New York Times. “You have to realize from day one of shooting that the spiders come first. They're picked up first in the morning, they're first in the chair at makeup, they take lunch first. And they've also got the biggest trailer.'' 

The spiders didn’t always do what they were supposed to do on cue, or on the first try—so, Marshall told Entertainment Weekly, “You just have to keep shooting over and over again until they accidentally give you what you want.”

“You are basically waiting for the spider to get it right,” Daniels told the Orlando Sentinel. “And when he does, you better be great because that's the one [take] we are going to use.” Sometimes, they weren't even awake when the cameras were ready to roll: When Entertainment Weekly visited the set, the cast and crew had to wait for Big Bob to wake up. “This is the last time I work with insects,” Marshall said. “Next time it’s humans only.”

11. THE CREW HAD A “SPIDER LOTTO.”

The New York Times reported that one of the most often heard phrases on the set of Arachnophobia was “Spiders, take 10.” Marshall told the paper that sometimes the cast and crew had "a spider lotto; everyone puts $5 on the take they think is going to work. Twenty-one takes is the longest we've gone.” 

12. FILMING THE SCENE WHERE A SPIDER GETS STEPPED ON TOOK HOURS.

The safety of the spiders was paramount throughout the entire production, so for one scene where Goodman had to spray an arachnid with insecticide, then squash it with his boot, the production went to extreme measures: First, a dummy spider was sprayed. Then Goodman donned special boots with a hollowed out sole for the squash shot. “[The spider] would just curl up inside and wait for the next take,” Goodman told Entertainment Weekly. ”I swear, [Kutcher] was more concerned with the spiders than with us.” The sequence lasts under half a minute on screen but took hours to shoot.

13. A MECHANICAL BIG BOB DOUBLE WAS BUILT—BY A FUTURE MYTHBUSTER.

Even a painted up and tricked out spider wouldn’t be useable for all the shots. “He has to stalk Jeff Daniels; he has to stay in the right light, and if we waited for him to do that, we'd be here three or four months longer,” Marshall told The New York Times. "The main character had to become a creature, and no spider out there could give us the vicious, evil close-ups the script called for," added visual effects supervisor David Sosalla, "The evilest ones, with real ugly looking faces, were too tiny.”

So the production reached out to a Hollywood prop shop to build The General, a 15-inch mechanical Big Bob double—and it was created by none other than future MythBuster Jamie Hyneman. “Arachnophobia was one of the first films I did major effects for,” he said in 2014.

14. THE PRODUCTION SHOT THE TOUGHEST SCENE LAST.

Marshall saved the shooting of Arachnophobia’s climactic fight between Jennings and The General until the very end of production. “All the other actors have been sent home, they've been put on planes, they've been waved goodbye to, they've had parties thrown,'' Daniels told the Orlando Sentinel. “They were gone. It was like, ‘Hey, great, thanks a lot! Now, Jeff, let's go ... down to the basement.’” 

The scene, which involved fire, explosions, and many smashed bottles of fine wine, took two weeks of 13-hour days to shoot. Daniels spent two of those days pinned under a 250-pound wine rack, hurling bottles of wine at Big Bob while under strict instructions to not hit the spider—and, in fact, always miss it by three feet or more. 

“When you're lying under a 250-pound wine rack for a couple of days, it's tough to walk to your car at night,” Daniels told the Sentinel. “Movies have a way of saving those life-or-death stunts for last, so that if you lose an actor, it's a shame and it's horrible, and we'll all be there at the funeral, but at least we got our film shot."

15. DANIELS WAS NOT A FAN OF BIG BOB.

Throughout the Arachnophobia press tour, Daniels spoke openly of his animosity toward his big, hairy co-star—and we’re not talking about John Goodman. I had a problem” with Big Bob, Daniels told Entertainment Weekly. “Especially when the spider wranglers were off-camera wearing thick, heavy gloves, yelling, ‘If he comes after you, we’ll be jumping in right away.’ But meanwhile, it’s the movies, you know, and they’re going, ‘Let’s do it again. Let’s see if we can get him to crawl closer to Jeff’s hand.’ ... We had no rapport,” Daniels jokingly continued. “He’d rear up and hiss. They’d feed him a rat every weekend. It would be, ‘Have a good Saturday night, Bob. See ya Monday.”’

In an interview with Philadelphia's Daily News, Daniels recounted how Big Bob once blew a dozen takes: “I had to be great every time. Big Bob only had to be great once.” And when they were filming the climax of the film and a bottle broke near Bob, drenching the spider with wine, Daniels wasn’t that sorry—although filming did have to be delayed for a few hours to allow Bob to dry off. "The joke went that Big Bob was refusing to leave his trailer," Daniels recalled.

As for the Delenas? "I was OK with them,” he told Entertainment Weekly. "Though I’d rather they weren’t crawling on my face.”

16. THE MOVIE ORIGINALLY ENDED WITH A REFERENCE TO THE BIRDS. 

"There was one ending where we are standing outside after it's all over,” Daniels told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “It's like, ‘Wow, we're OK,’ and the family is all right. All of a sudden, one bird lands on the swing set and then another ... and we just turn and look. I think [executive producer Steven] Spielberg was the one who said, ‘Let's not do that. Let's just make it its own thing.’”

17. NO SPIDERS WERE KILLED DURING THE PRODUCTION.

When dead spiders were needed, the filmmakers used bodies of arachnids that had died of natural causes

18. IT WAS BILLED AS “THE FIRST THRILL-OMEDY.”

According to materials released with the film, that meant “a thriller with a sense of humor.” The Washington Post called the term “clumsy coinage,” while Entertainment Weekly dubbed it “awkward” and said in a review that it was “an awful word!—it sounds like somebody got sick from too many rides on the Whip.” It didn’t catch on.

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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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