Watching ‘Spider-Man’ helps cure actual fear of spiders, study finds

RAMAT GAN, Israel — If you shriek at the sight of a spider, Spider-Man may be able to save you — seriously. A new study finds that watching “Spider-Man” can actually help ease one’s case of arachnophobia, or fear of spiders.

Similarly, researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Ariel University in Israel say that watching the movie “Ant-Man” may also decrease symptoms stemming from the fear of ants, or myrmecophobia. All it took, in fact, was just a seven-second clip from each film to significantly reduce symptoms in study participants, the authors say.

For the study, the authors measured levels of arachnophobia, myrmecophobia, and insect phobia in general among 424 participants, and then had them watch various movie clips, including scenes from “Spider-Man 2” and “Ant-Man.” Participants also watched a seven-second general opening scene from other Marvel movies, as well as a seven-second calming scene of nature.

Researchers found that participants who watched the “Spider-Man 2” and “Ant-Man” clips experienced a 20% decrease in symptoms from their respective fears. But there was no change when they watched the generic Marvel opening scene nor from the nature clip, suggesting that exposure to the bug-themed superheroes was behind the positive effect.

The authors tout the power of in-vitro exposure therapy for the study. That is, being exposed to something one is afraid of without actually exposing them directly to their fear. In this case, seeing positive video related to spiders or ants, rather than having to experience an actual spider or colony of ants in person.

They believe this is the first experiment that’s ever used Marvel movies — or any fantasy imagery — in concert with cognitive behavioral therapy. The results, they hope, will perhaps destigmatize therapy among those who could benefit from it, but are too apprehensive about giving it a try. Future studies by the team may test out other phobias with related movies. The authors also plan to examine the effect of Marvel films on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.