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Fact/Fiction: Can watching seven seconds of a Marvel film cure arachnophobia?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we swing into action to see if a short clip from Spider-Man and Ant-Man can heroically banish fears of creepy crawlies

13557 Fact/Fiction Marvel

How it was told

It’s hard to escape the all-consuming power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially when Avengers: Endgame is currently dominating in cinemas.

You’ll see plenty of belief-defying antics from superheroes on the big screen but recent reports are suggesting even greater feats are possible.

The claim is that watching a seven-second clip of creepy crawlies from Spider-Man or Ant-Man films can rid a fear of insects in real life.

The Mirror Online opted for “Watching just seven seconds of Spider-Man can help people cure a fear of SPIDERS”.

The claim comes from a study published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal by Israeli researchers from Ariel University and Bar-Ilan University. The story reached publications all over the globe, with the New York Post also insisting that Peter Parker’s Hollywood exploits held the key to banishing arachnophobia or myrmecophobia, the fear of ants.

The Daily Mail stopped short of swinging into a full cure, instead insisting that watching a flick could “curb” the symptoms.

And The London Economic held back a step further – instead opting for “Arachnophobia can be reduced by a fifth by watching a seven-second clip from Spider-Man, say scientists”.

Interestingly enough, both the Mirror Online and The London Economic opted to use a photo of the recent Spider-Man video game to illustrate articles rather than the Sam Raimi-directed films of the Noughties that the reports refer to.

But is there any truth in these claims? Or is it just a web of lies?

Facts. Checked

Calling this a cure for arachnophobia is a bit strong. The study worked by dividing up 424 participants into four groups to watch different clips. Two watched scenes from Spider-Man 2 and Ant-Man while the other two control groups watched the Marvel opening common to all their films and a scene featuring nature. It should be said that these excerpts weren’t just the superheroes swinging through the air or punching baddies in the face – they showed the insects they derived their monikers from in action.

All four groups were then asked to fill out an online survey assessing the socio-demographic variables and each person’s familiarity with Marvel movies as well as the phobic symptoms they had displayed.

While the latter groups showed no significant change, researchers reported a 20 per cent reduction in phobia symptoms from those who watched the Spider-Man and Ant-Man scenes. 

From this, the academics concluded that it was not the calm of nature or the fun and fantasy of a Marvel flick that made the difference but the specific exposure to insects in the context of the films that was behind the impact.

The London Economic was accurate with its headline, while the Daily Mirror gave false hope of a cure.

That is not true – at least not yet. Professor Menachem Ben-Ezra, one of the researchers behind the study, insists that the results open a new direction for positive exposure therapy to treat phobias that is more affordable and readily available than using virtual reality. Using such mainstream properties may also destigmatise therapy and encourage people to complete homework that already forms part of cognitive behavioural therapy programmes.

Professor Ben-Ezra and his colleague Professor Yaakov Hoffman are now planning to continue their Marvel-based research to assess the impact of watching these films on people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their theory is that superhero films may have several beneficial psychological attributes by making people feel better about themselves and offering up “the true underlying spirit of confronting one’s fears” away from the stress of everyday life.

So the study is a giant leap forward – if not a full cure. For now, a brave pal with a bit of card and a glass will still need to be kept on hand.

Image: Miles Cole

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