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  • Water Bugs: A Story Of Absolution
  • Clinton Crockett Peters (bio)

Katsaridaphobia is the fear of cockroaches. It is umbrellaed by entomophobia, the panic caused by Insecta and the class's ten quintillion individuals that are alive on the earth at any one time.

There are sound reasons to be wary of roaches, as their feces can cause asthma in children and their feet, like entomological crampons, carry salmonella and other microbial nemeses that can spoil food.

But unlike mosquitoes, our world's deadliest creature, cockroaches do not carry dengue, nor malaria, nor yellow fever, nor West Nile, nor encephalitis. They cannot chew wiring nor ignite fires like squirrels. They do not envenomate ankles. They cannot dump their family of four into steel barrels and leave them to decompose in New Hampshire for fifteen years, as one human did. And if you're alive, they will not eat you.

There is little that is life threatening, actually, about a scurrying, bark-colored insect—unless you should enter an invertebrate-eating contest as Edward Archbold did. Archbold, a thirty-two-year-old father of two, competed in the bug-munching marathon at a Miami-area reptile store. He sported a ponytail, a yellow tied-dyed T-shirt, and a rocker sweatband, and was required to munch sixty grams of meal-worms, thirty-five three-inch-long "super worms," and a bucketful of live, giant, Central American cockroaches, all in hopes of winning an $850 python.

He swallowed many roaches whole. Witnesses say he crammed the bugs into his mouth even as the insects crawled out, desperate for light, their antennae twitching at his lips.

Many of the thirty participants bowed out long before the contest's finish. Archbold gorged on the buggy feast and became the "life of the party." He raised his arms in a V, hooting like a football fan. Shortly after winning, Archbold walked out of the store, vomited, and collapsed. An ambulance was phoned for. The paramedics watched Archbold die en route to the hospital.

Doctors examined his stomach and found "airway obstruction by the arthropod [End Page 469] body parts." Archbold, the champion devourer of insects, lover of snakes and tie-dye, had been fighting for life even as his last meal had been, too.

There are four thousand species of cockroaches, and most live in rain forests. Only twelve of which are pests. Yet they are, arguably, the world's most abhorred life-form. I have always wondered why.

In the Dark Ages, citizens brought legal action against roaches. The Bible warns, with its classic redundancy, "Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepth." The ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder damned them, and early Egyptians conjured spells to ward off roaches.

There are a few theorized causes of ancient entomophobia, the dread that has led to our stomping, poisoning, smashing, damning, wineglass tossing, and eating to death living things that generally do not cause us harm.

Humans, it is thought, frighten at unnatural movement. We watch roaches scurry three miles an hour (an entomological cheetah speed), and a line of metaphorical ants marches down our nerves.

We humans quiver at prodigious breeding because small individuals, as Napoleon knew, conquer through armies. We also nightmare at creatures smuggling themselves into the cavities of our bodies. Roaches exhibit "positive thigmotaxis," an attraction to squeezes, crawl spaces, cracks, crannies, and drains. Ironically, twentieth-century sanitation allowed roaches to spread throughout homes and buildings as they followed pipes and cables through spaces in walls and floors. The heat inside our dwellings keeps them alive and breeding in every season.

But I think it is the roach's otherness that is most damning. They possess the alien look of giant eyes, sprouting antennae, flailing appendages, and wings. Their voices cannot sound feelings; their faces do not betray emotion. They are a scurrying mass of unfamiliarity.

Cockroaches are also scavengers, and we detest ragpickers. Think of how vultures, worms, fleas, telemarketers, and the homeless are viewed in our society. They are a reminder of mortality; to see a roach is to envision the day I am aswarm with nocturnal recyclers. Seeing a cardboard box's human...


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pp. 469-475
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