Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is one of the most common human fears. Most people are somewhat afraid or absolutely terrified of snakes. However, your unease and apprehensiveness around snakes can easily be understood, rationalized, and overcome.
Humans have a hardwired response to snakes based on the need to survive for longer in the wild. The brain processes images of snakes (bites, fangs, and venom) that leads to an unconscious, immediate fear reaction. This phobia (ophidiophobia) is also a cultural phenomenon due to the way snakes are depicted on TV, in movies, and books.
We will now explore the reasons why people are scared of snakes, including the evolutionary reason why our primate ancestors sought to avoid snakes. Then we will look at the common snake traits that people cite as reasons for their fear, and we will learn why there is no need to be fearful.
Table of Contents:
Why Do People Fear Snakes?
Know that you are not alone in your fear. It is easier for humans to experience a fear of snakes more than almost anything else.
Researchers at the Northwestern University and Karolinska Institute found that all primates, including humans, learn to fear snakes much more easily than any other fear stimulus. It doesn’t matter how often the individual human has interacted with snakes.
Humans are also remarkably good at picking out a snake, or a snake-like shape, out of a picture or our surroundings. Identifying snakes is a natural, untrained ability. It makes sense that being able to easily notice a snake would be a good thing for our primate ancestors. Smart monkeys avoid snakebites.
However, while this fear of snakes prevalently remains with us, we are no longer monkeys wandering the jungle. A lot of the reasons why you may fear snakes are not as big of a deal as your primal instincts are trying to convince you.
Let’s take a look at the things that you may find scary about snakes and learn how to overcome these fears. All these “scary” things have an understandable, interesting side for you to discover.
A Bad Media Reputation
When you think of snakes, there’s a good chance that the first image that pops into your head is not a real snake. Unless you are a reptile keeper, you are more likely to see a snake in a movie. Most kids get their first exposure to snakes through animated films and fairy tales – but in these contexts, snakes have an undeserved bad reputation.
For many people, the first time you hear about a snake as a villain goes right to the Bible. The story of the Garden of Eden is one of the oldest biblical stories in Western culture. Who is the villain of this story? It’s a snake. The serpent gets Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, and it is punished by having its legs taken away so it must crawl in the dirt.
Snakes continue to be the villains of stories, and all kinds of terrifying traits and powers are attributed to them in fiction. Kaa from The Jungle Book tries to magically hypnotize and eat Mowgli. The cast of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is stalked by a giant snake-like creature, a basilisk, for an entire year before they finally defeat it. Snakes are the one thing that heroic archaeologist Indiana Jones fears.
Even when a snake itself is not a character, snake-like traits are used as shorthand for telling you something or someone is “bad” or “scary.” In mythology, demonic or evil figures are often depicted with the narrow pupils and forked tongue of a snake. To this day, people still use the idiom that a person is “speaking with a forked tongue.” This means that someone is being duplicitous, unfair, or making empty promises.
With so many fictional sources telling you that snakes and anything that looks like a snake is evil or frightening, it’s no wonder that fear of snakes is so widespread.
Tell A New Story
The thing is, these evil snake stories are just that – stories. You can tell yourself new stories, to help you associate snakes with a better light.
Rather than thinking about forked tongues as a sign of villainy and deceit, you can just as easily frame them as a symbol of knowledge and truth. The forked tip of a snake’s tongue allows the snake to gather multiple points of “smell” data about its surroundings at once. This helps the snake track down food, find a mate, and avoid dangerous predators. Rather than scary, forked tongues are useful.
You can also watch nature documentaries about reptiles, which frame snakes in a more realistic light. Rather than depending on symbolism, nature documentaries treat animals with sympathy. Snakes are not the villains of the natural world. They are the heroes of their own stories, just like any other animal.
Giving yourself real experience with real snakes can also help you associate snakes not with the scary stories you’ve heard, but with a calmer reality. Check out your local zoo, pet store, or reptile breeder for opportunities to watch snakes while safely on the other side of a window. The longer you watch a snake laze about its enclosure, the more its odd features stop seeming creepy, and start to seem cute instead.
The Mysterious Mobility of Snakes
The way snakes move is a bit of a puzzle for humans. Snakes have neither arms nor legs. Nevertheless, they can move on the ground, in the water, and even up walls, evidently defying gravity. Clearly they are using a different kind of movement strategy than you do, and seeing something different can be unsettling.
How snakes move is a key part of a child’s development of a fear of snakes. A study performed at the University of Virginia found that children as young as seven months old will stare longer at a snake film while listening to a frightened human voice than a happy one. However, these same infants do not have the same fear-adjacent response to a still photo of a snake.
Evidently the movement of the animal is key to infants identifying snakes as a source of fear. This is combined with the idea that lack of legs is somehow an inherent impediment or punishment.
Think about how the serpent in the Bible is punished with having its legs taken away. The assumption made and precedent set is that if you don’t lave legs, then something is fundamentally wrong.
When you are afraid of something you do not understand, the solution is to learn about it.
How Do Snakes Move?
What may seem mysterious or unsettling about a snake’s mobility is easily explained by the snake’s biology. Each rib in the snake’s body is connected to strong muscles, which the snake uses to push itself along without limbs.
Depending on the species of snake, they may move in an S-shaped serpentine manner or a more “creeping” caterpillar-like rectilinear method. The serpentine manner is useful for snakes which crawl across the ground or swim in the water. Rectilinear motion helps arboreal snakes scale to new heights and burrowing snakes enter narrow dens.
Another important part of snake movement is the belly scales of the snake. While they look smooth to the eye, the snake can shift its belly scales to increase friction with a surface. This is how snakes climb up walls.
The more you learn about how snake movement works, the more your horizons expand. Rather than thinking about snake movement as unsettling because it is different, you can see it as a miracle of nature. Snakes are proof that there are more ways to explore the world than we knew.
What If a Snake Chases You?
In those scary movies which cast snakes as the villain, often the snake is maliciously hunting people down. According to fiction, humans are snakes’ prey of choice – a reasonably scary idea.
However, humans are not snake’s choice of a meal at all. Think about it from the snake’s point of view. You are much bigger, louder, faster moving, and overall scarier than almost any species of snake. A snake is just as worried about being hurt by you as you are of being hurt by them.
How Do Snakes Hunt?
Snakes are passive ambush predators. They stake out a spot to hide in and wait there for their prey to come by. This prey is something small that the snake can easily grab – a rodent or lizard, for instance. It only has one chance to strike, after all, since it has only its mouth to grab with.
If a snake’s prey tries to fight back, the snake will not extend much effort pursuing it. Instead the snake will retreat, in a “live to fight another day” sort of strategy. In fact, in captivity, it is not recommended to feed snakes live prey, due to the chance of the rodent biting and hurting the snake.
If you disturb a snake and leave, the snake will not chase you. Instead, it will be relieved that you left it alone. Knowing that snakes are just as afraid of you as you may be of them helps alleviate this fear.
What If a Snake Bites You?
Something else you may fear about a snake is their supposedly deadly bite. Horror movies would have you believe that snakes are poisonous monsters which can kill you with a single bite.
We already know from before that snakes do not want to chase or bite humans. It is much easier to avoid ever being bitten by a snake than your fear would make you think.
While venomous snakes do exist, you are extremely unlikely to die from a snakebite. For one thing, the vast majority of snakes are not venomous at all. What’s more, even when a venomous snake bites, it often does not actually inject any venom at all – this is called a “dry bite.”
When envenomation does occur, it is easily cured. Let’s combat your fear by learning a little about antivenom.
Just like how snakes are not as evil as movies would have you believe, snake venom is not solely a bad thing either. Venom can be used to create a cure for snakebites, a commonly accessible treatment known as antivenom.
Antivenom is made from the venom of snakes. A scientist injects a domesticated animal, such as a horse, with the snake venom. Then, the plasma from the horse is extracted from the animal’s blood and used to create a cure for snake venom.
If you are bitten by a snake, though the moment may be scary, try to remain calm and get to a hospital as soon as you can. With antivenom treatment, humans rarely ever die from venomous snake bites. Remember that getting bitten by a snake is not the dramatic doomful situation portrayed in movies. You can get help and will be fine.
It is natural to be nervous around unusual animals. Being afraid of snakes is common, in part because there was an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors to avoid snakes, but also because many snake traits are given an unfair media reputation as evil or unsettling.
Remember that you are not alone in your fear. From a certain point of view, fear of snakes is part of what makes us human. But now you not only understand the reasons why people fear snakes, but you also know the truth behind the traits and the way to face these fears.