I've got some new angles on the legends I call "The Spider in the Hairdo" and "The Spider in the Yucca," which tell of bugs in strange places.
Gene Nora Jessen of Boise, Idaho, wrote me recently about her experience with the "Spider in the Hairdo" legend in the early 1960s, when she was a sales demo pilot for the Beech Aircraft Corp."My territory was the 48 contiguous states, in which I traveled constantly," she recalled. "At that time we wore beehive hairdos with lots of backcombing or ratting, and we went to the beauty shop weekly rather than doing our own hair.
"I heard the spider-in-the-hairdo story in beauty shops all across the United States over a period of a year. In each shop I was assured that the incident had happened in another shop in that very town.
"Running into that story constantly was a revelation to me," said Jessen, "as well as an introduction to urban legends."
I recognize the feeling described by my Boise correspondent. I've never worn a beehive hairdo, of course, but wherever I've lived - Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Idaho and now Utah - I've always heard the story of the spiders infesting this once-popular hairstyle.
Like all folklorists who have collected the story - and like Gene Jessen's hairdressers - I was generally told that the incident had occurred in the very town I was living in at the time. Usually it was said that the spiders were discovered when the victim fainted and was taken to a hospital, where her hairdo was combed out for the first time in weeks.
Jessen, incidentally, is president of an international organization of women's pilots, called The Ninety Nines. The group takes its name from the number of charter members who organized the group in 1929. Amelia Earhart was its first president.
If the eensie-weensie spider infests a beehive hairdo in one legend, in the other it comes out of an exotic house plant.
I've related stories told about potted yucca plants, imported into England, that were found to be infested with tarantulas. And my ace legend correspondent in Western Canada tells me that there has been a tarantula-egg-and-cactus scare in British Columbia.
"The Spider in the Yucca" is also a well-known legend in Scandinavia. In versions told there, the plant's owner discovers the spider or spiders while watering the plant - suddenly the plant begins to shake or squeak.
The owner calls the store where the yucca was purchased and is advised to keep away from it, or to put a plastic bag over the whole plant and pot until store workers can come and remove it safely.
I've been sent the following version, told in a recent letter from Geoffrey M. Miller of Kalamazoo, Mich.:
"A co-worker of my wife's said she purchased a cactus at (a certain plant nursery) in Kalamazoo. When she took it home, she noticed that it seemed to move on its own.
"Her husband said it was all in her imagination, but the next day he too decided that it was indeed moving, so they called the store.
"The store authorities at first denied that the plant could be moving, but a while later they called back and said that the people should get out of their house at once and wait for store employees to arrive.
"Workmen came and replaced the cactus plant with another, saying that the motion had been caused by a tarantula having babies inside the plant."
Before I received this American version, I was skeptical of one Swedish folklorist's suggestion that "The Spider in the Yucca" legend reflects womens subconscious sexual anxieties concerning men. But a pregnant tarantula lurking inside a cactus begins to make that interpretation seem more plausible.