Call it simple instinct.
We see a snake or a spider and our initial reaction is revulsion — because we perceive it as a threat. Our ancestors learned the hard way, in countless separate tribes, that some creatures are dangerous, others are not. Few of us fear budgies or warblers for instance and might even find them cute or otherwise pleasant. Yet, most spiders are much smaller than these birds, not to mention completely harmless to us. Still, we have a natural revulsion to them.
There is more to our little eight legged boogieman than we see at first glance. Spiders have eight legs and eight eyes. The number eight has significance in many esoteric belief systems, and we are aware of this too, though at a deeper level. Numbers mean something to us beyond the amount of things they count. Some people even see numbers in terms of gender or even color or taste.
When you put a spider in your story, the reader’s natural fear or negative baggage will arise, and you must take advantage of this. Thus, a spider can represent something related to the number eight. Perhaps your protagonist is an outlaw in a western, riding across the desert to start a new life. He encounters a tarantula and gets a bad feelin’. Well, turns out there’s a posse on his trail; eight hard men, aimin’ to kill.
Let’s take it a step further; our hero brings down his knife, severing one of the spiders’ legs. But it gets away; he either chose not to kill it or simply wasn’t able. Of his pursuers, one is an adversary whom he wounded and should have killed.
This also falls into the realm of both foreshadowing and subtext. But the important thing is — you never spell it out. Some readers might catch it but most won’t — yet their subconscious will, and the reader will have a richer experience. It’s like the barest pinch of a spice in a stew that takes the whole meal from “delicious” and elevates it to “unforgettable!”
This is an entry level example of symbolism, which admittedly, is pretty much where I am. But it’s a start, and if you want your story to work beyond just the gut level -meaning a pure celebration of scares and gross outs and shock factor, which is just as legitimate a form of horror I might add, in the same way that slapstick is just as powerful a form of comedy as the most sophisticated Greek tragicomedy- then it’s not a bad idea to research symbolism.
NEXT TIME: Part 2. Duh.