Spiders are disgusting. No matter their size, shape, or genre —sometimes they’re tiny and realistic. Other times, they’re large and anthropomorphic. Regardless of their type, spiders have been a fixture of genre cinema since its beginning. In 1957’s "The Incredible Shrinking Man," the titular shrinking man (Grant Williams) battled a giant spider while adjusting to dime-sized life. Early roots of folktales and mythology abound with symbolic spiders. Arachne, a Greek weaver, defeated the Goddess Athena in a weaving contest, subsequently condemning herself to a life of eternal weaving as Athena transformed her into a spider. There are arachnid roots and depictions throughout history, most benevolent, though all deeply meaningful.
In contemporary canon, spiders have become more menacing, threatening, and squirm-in-your-chair disgusting. Likely rooted in the quotidian experience of arachnophobia, filmmakers have wasted no time exploiting the basest of fears to make their projects even more frightening. Most spiders are relatively harmless. Still, their legs, size, and capacity to hurt renders them distinctly terrifying. Here, we’ll be looking at the 12 scariest movie spiders in film history, with endless apologies to the arachnophobes among us!
Venezuelan Spiders in Arachnophobia
Arguably the scariest spider movie ever made, Frank Marshall’s "Arachnophobia" delivers on what the title promises by using real spiders. To control the direction the (generally harmless) Avondale spiders traveled, the production team used lemon pledge to cordon off routes for the spiders to follow. Oh, and they travel. They hide in lamp shades, under toilet seats, and even drop from the ceiling while unsuspecting women shower in their homes.
Of course, as the film’s main character, Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), discovers, these aren’t just normal spiders: They’re newly-discovered prehistoric spiders with deadly venom. The film follows these creatures terrorizing small-town America, killing several people in fear-inducing crunchy and crawly mayhem. The use of real spiders renders "Arachnophobia" scarier than most films that tackle the subject matter. Yes, giant spiders are chilling, but giant spiders are (hopefully) fiction. Little creepy crawlies hiding in dark and damp spaces? They’re very real.
Giant Spiders in The Mist
Stephen King fan Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile") made an unusual choice when he opted to adapt King’s notoriously difficult novella "The Mist." With one of the most famously bleak movie endings in horror, "The Mist" has no shortage of monstrous beings emerging from the titular mist. There’s an early bout with some tentacled thing, and in a standout set piece, the supermarket sanctuary falls under siege by flying bug-like creatures. Then, of course, there are the spiders.
In "The Mist," Thomas Jane’s David Drayton and company venture into the strange fog to check an adjacent pharmacy for medical supplies. While the visit initially goes well, the group soon finds the building occupied by enormous prehistoric spiders. These arachnids aren’t just vicious with their fangs, either. They can produce corrosive webs that slice through flesh, making their likely Xenomorph cousins proud of their acidic acumen. Overall, it’s the movie’s most gruesome beat and aptly exploits the innate fear of eight-legged menaces.
Toxic Spiders in Eight Legged Freaks
2002’s "Eight Legged Freaks" was a respectable modern update on the 1950’s monstrous B-movie craze. Swapping out nuclear radiation for toxic pollution, Ellory Elkayem’s "Eight Legged Freaks" is a cheeky, self-aware giant monster bonanza. Of course, it had to be spiders.
In the film, David Arquette stars as Chris McCormick, an inheritor of a mine in Prosperity, Arizona, which he’s back in town to sell. Along the way, he starts a cute quasi-romance with Sheriff Samantha Parker (Kari Wuhrer), all while giant, toxic spiders reproduce on the outskirts of town. Soon, they descend, and "Eight Legged Freaks" becomes a goofy, not often-scary romp about giant insects and country gunslingers fighting for their lives. While it’s mostly played for laughs, giant spiders remain innately scary — especially when they trap a young Ashley Parker (Scarlett Johansson) in her bedroom, pinning her to the wall with an infinite well of webs. It’s disgusting. It’s terrifying. It’s great.
Aragog in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chris Columbus’ "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," an adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel of the same name, was a gateway horror experience for an entire generation of kids. While Alfonso Cuarón depicted creepy Dementors, "Chamber of Secrets" might be a giant monster movie masquerading as a "Harry Potter" sequel. After all, the movie’s main threat is a giant, Medusa-like basilisk. After being falsely accused of opening the chamber of secrets, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) faces imprisonment in Azkaban and tells Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) to "follow the spiders" to save him. Reasonably, is the truth really that important?
Of course, Harry and Ron choose to meet Aragog (Julian Glover), a giant, sentient spider, in the Forbidden Forest. Aragog reveals Hagrid’s innocence, recounting how Hagrid saved Aragog after he was accused years before of being the Chamber’s monster. He now lives as an exile in the woods with his many children, who vow to protect Hagrid. But that same courtesy doesn’t extend to Harry and Ron. While Aragog is kind enough to confirm Hagrid’s innocence, he sends his offspring after Harry and Ron, urging them to devour the boys. Although they survive, it’s a nightmarish scene and far scarier than anything the "Harry Potter" film franchise has ever done.
Possum in Possum
Dark Sky Films
Matthew Holness’ "Possum" is one of the scariest movies of the century. More of a sensory experience than a strict narrative one, the rough sketch plot follows a sensational Sean Harris as Philip Connell, a former puppeteer who returns to his uncle Maurice’s (Alun Armstrong) home with a terrifying spider marionette in tow. The puppet Possum haunts Philip’s dreams, and despite his many attempts to dispose of the puppet, it always finds its way back to him. All the while, Philip is menaced by Maurice, who mocks Philip’s mentally-regressive state.
While Possum isn’t a spider in the strictest sense, it works wonders as a symbolic incarnation of Philip’s psyche and deepest fears. In an interview with PopMatters, director Holness remarked, "There’s an obvious primal fear of spiders in the film, but it’s not about spiders." Shifting into a child-like innocence, exploiting common adolescent fears, "Possum" endures as one of the scariest movies in recent memory. The film is deeply oppressive, aggressively dark, and moving. The fact that there’s a giant spider puppet at the center of it makes it all the more terrifying.
Shelob in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" has no shortage of terrifying monsters. There’s the Witch-king of Angmar and the specters along the Paths of the Dead, but none are like Shelob. Shelob, per Tolkien’s original novel, resides in Cirith Ungol, otherwise known as the path of the spider. Gollum (Andy Serkis), the tricky little former Hobbit, leads Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) into Shelob’s lair en route to Mordor. Unbeknownst to either, Gollum intends Shelob to kill the duo, finally permitting him to have the titular ring to himself once and for all.
Shelob is a giant, demonic spider, who almost successfully derails Frodo’s plan to destroy the one ring. But with a little deus-ex-Samwise Gamgee that Shelob is defeated. Though a brief beat within the extensive 201-minute (theatrical) runtime, Shelob makes an impact. Some scholars have identified the monstrous being as a rare instance of Tolkien’s exploration of female sexuality and violence. Whether symbolic or literal, Shelob cultivated years of nightmares among young Middle Earth fans.
Cannibalistic Tarantulas in Kingdom of the Spiders
Before their acquisition by the 21st Century Film Corporation, Dimension Pictures released a litany of (fantastic) B-grade horror movies. There was "Return to Boggy Creek" in 1977 and "Satan’s Cheerleaders" in 1979, among several others. However, John "Bud" Cardos’ "Kingdom of the Spiders" is one of the better animal-attack features released in the 1970s, an era where killer frogs and alligators reigned supreme. In "Kingdom of the Spiders," pesticides cut off the spiders’ food supply, leading hordes of flesh-eating tarantulas to attack humans. Veterinarian Rack Hansen (William Shatner) teams up with arachnologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) to survive.
Using nearly 5,000 real spiders, "Kingdom of the Spiders" lives up to its title. The monster flick is a big, hairy, terrifying foray into weird country music, with an incredulous William Shatner and nightmare-inducing tarantulas. That the movie ends on a rather grim note is no surprise. With that many spiders running amok, there’s no hope for the movie’s sleepy Arizona town.
Giant Tarantula in Tarantula
Just as the 1970s dabbled in ecological terror with its many tales of beast and man confronting one another in an ever-changing natural world order—one besieged with pesticides and environmental devastation—the 1950s’ nuclear era exploited giant, larger-than-life beasties with its sundry tales of existentialism and the dangers of modern science. Jack Arnold of "Creature from the Black Lagoon" fame followed his masterpiece with a sterling slice of arachnophobic terror. In "Tarantula," a scientist (John Agar) developing a rapid-growth serum to combat world hunger accidentally injects their tarantula, dooming the spider to grow and grow and menace the local population.
With a poster that proudly declares, "Giant spider strikes! Crawling terror 100 feet high," there’s no doubt that "Tarantula" is the big, bad, sensationally fun monster movie it posits itself to be. Arnold is nothing but a craftsman, and the matte effects used to suggest gigantism still hold up remarkably well. While it’s not as creepy-crawly frightening as some of the smaller arachnids on this list, there’s still something distinctly horrifying about a giant tarantula running amok.
Giant spiders in Kong: Skull Island
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ "Kong: Skull Island," no matter what CinemaSins says, is the best entry in the contemporary Monsterverse (with "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" being the second best, of course). Here, Vogt-Roberts has an astute understanding of tone and audience expectations that made his debut, "The Kings of Summer," such a refreshing coming-of-age treat. Monsterverse movies should, writ large, be monster movies, and no one’s got more monsters than Skull Island.
Here, Monarch scientists and several others embark upon the first expedition to the titular island, hoping to capture proof of some giant being living there. As soon as their copters approach, King Kong—gorgeously rendered—takes them down one by one. Stranded in the unfamiliar wilderness, they set off, hoping to find a way off the Godforsaken island and encounter several monstrous beings. The standout creature of the film (other than Kong, of course) has got to be the giant spiders. Introduced in an homage to Ruggero Deodato’s "Cannibal Holocaust," the graphic spiders make an immediate impact. They tower over the trees, striking with their many legs, leaving the humans no choice but to hack and slash their way to survival.
Creepy Crawlies in Something Wicked This Way Comes
Sadly, Disney’s streaming service still hasn’t made Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel available to watch digitally. However, it’s a hallmark of a lost age of cinema — when films carried empathetic depths and were sensationally, urgently scary. No, spiders aren’t a central feature of the film. "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is a meditation on aging, identity, and the splendors of youth. Still, they make a nasty, creepy appearance midway through its runtime.
In a change from the source material, young Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) and Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) are attacked by hundreds of spiders while preparing for bed. They’re on the windows, pouring through the ceilings, and hiding in plain sight on a doorknob. Yes, they’re all real. The change is a necessary departure from the book, whose scare is considerably harder to reproduce cinematically (it involves a hot air balloon). Spiders are more visceral and primal. While it might not have worked on the page, it encapsulates the distinct childhood terror of the source material remarkably well.
Killer Spiders in The Beyond
Like "Something Wicked This Way Comes," Lucio Fulci’s seminal "The Beyond" isn’t about spiders. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a young woman and the hotel she inherits, one that might be a gateway to Hell. Like other Italian horror films from the period, Fulci revels in excess. "The Beyond" is a nasty and delightful foray into every horror trope imaginable — never content to be one thing. Instead, "The Beyond" endeavors to be all the things, all at once.
In a standout sequence, architect Martin (Michele Mirabella) discovers blueprints of the property, revealing a hidden and secret space in the basement. After falling from a ladder in the library, Martin becomes paralyzed. In the shadows, several nasty spiders (real ones) crawl forth. Their menacing procession alone is terrifying — especially once they crawl atop him, sticking their fuzzy legs into his mouth. Soon, they graphically eat him. The spectacular practical effects here are stomach-churning: There’s no denying Fulci delivered one of the most gruesome deaths-by-spider ever here for viewers brave enough to watch.
The Arachnids in Starship Troopers
In recent years, Paul Verhoeven’s "Starship Troopers" has undergone a necessary critical reappraisal. After all, this is the man responsible for the likes of "RoboCop" and "Elle." There was something special within Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s source material, and it’s a shame it took so long for others to recognize that.
A modern cult classic, "Starship Troopers" abounds in urgent satire and plenty of ooey-gooey arachnid action. While it might seem odd, it’s become a franchise springboard in its own right, with several sequels and adaptations since Verhoeven’s original. In the film, interstellar war is afoot as the United Citizen Federation, the collective world government, battles against an arachnid species in outer space after encountering them while colonizing the galaxy. While the attacks play for laughs, there is a genuine, meaty subtext beneath the splayed limbs and sprays of galactic gunfire. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the arachnid species is incredibly well-designed. For as much fun as Verhoeven is having, they incite a chill as they intelligently scramble to protect their homeland.