Snakes rattle the nerves and spark some hissy fits


Donna and Mike McDonough nearly demolished their kitchen searching for a slithery black snake that had accidentally made its way into their Perry Hall home.

Mary Knauer, sick with a cold and running out of tissues, huddled in her pajamas and blew her nose on her sheets just to avoid the snakes she imagined lurked under her childhood bed.

And Pam Goode didn't speak to her daughter Lauryn for weeks after the 17-year-old gave her a writhing 2-foot-long python as a gag gift one Hanukkah.

No matter how rational we normally are, when you throw a slinky, slippery serpent into the equation, cue the shuddering and prepare for an instant reduction to raw emotion and knee-jerk reactions.

"I hate 'em," says Knauer, a legal secretary from Parkville, who sometimes - even at 60 - still has nightmares about snakes. "Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em."

She's far from alone.

Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes and other reptiles, affects people young, old, male and female, and may have been doing so since caveman days, according to experts.

Lynne Isbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, published a theory in last month's issue of the Journal of Human Evolution that the ability to spot venomous snakes may have played a major role in human evolution.

Snakes lurking in the grass might have been one of early man's greatest dangers, says T.J. McCallum, assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. So the ability to spot the slithering predator, and avoid it, would have been an evolutionary boon.

Just ask Eve in that Garden of Eden.

But we've long since moved from caves and teepees into veritable fortresses of brick and stucco. Why are we still so afraid of snakes?

That primal phobia is the basic premise behind the movie Snakes on a Plane, which will open to squirming audiences tonight in selected theaters. In the film, starring Samuel L. Jackson, hundreds of snakes are released into the cabin of an airplane and slide out from overhead bins and through oxygen masks, attacking frightened passengers and wreaking mile-high havoc.

"I hope there won't be any snakes on this plane," said Tim Hugus of Parkville, who was waiting at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport this week on his way to a family vacation. Hugus remembers when, as a kid, he mistook his own brown belt for a viciously fanged snake and woke his father for help.

"The buckle does sort of look like a rattlesnake head," Hugus, 54, recalls, "if you use your imagination."

"I won't be seeing that movie," says Pat Panuska, whose crusade to rid her Catonsville home of a black snake that dropped from a ceiling panel into her laundry room last year left her $550 poorer and wholly unsatisfied. It took a week for the pest removal company to come to her rescue. By that time, poor Panuska had nearly pulled her hair out. And the exterminator never did find the snake.

"I live in a townhouse in Catonsville for Pete's sake," says Panuska, 63. "This isn't the wilderness."

And right there is the freak-out factor. If snakes on a plane sound creepy, imagine the critters skulking around in your own comfortable, plush-carpeted home.

Stanley Smith remembers the time his brother had to remove a sleeping snake from the living room bookcase or risk his wife skipping town. Dressed like he was going to battle, in work boots and a winter coat, Smith's brother managed to kill the snake, "but only after nearly fainting because of his fears," Smith, of Baltimore, says.

Goode nearly had an "emotional breakdown" last Hanukkah because of a snake.

Her youngest daughter, Lauryn, handed her a Macy's gift box. But inside the box was no sweater. Lauryn, ever the jokester, had purchased a python - with every intention of returning it to the pet store - just to watch her mother squirm.

"I screamed, threw the box in the air and ran up the stairs," says Goode, of Owings Mills, who still shakes when she tells the story. "I won't be opening any of her gifts this Hanukkah."

Shelley Sturtz of Westminster can do the snake-in-the-house bit one better.

Her surprise snake appearance occurred in an even more vulnerable place: a Port-o-Potty.

Watching her sons play football at a park, Sturtz had to go. Little did she know that a snake had coiled itself comfortably into a corner of the portable lavatory. Stuck in a space about 8 feet around, and in a very compromising position, Sturtz managed to hold in a scream long enough to "finish her business" and sneak out.

"I have never used that potty again," says Sturtz.

And Hal Willard's close encounter with a snake was even closer than Sturtz's.

Sitting on the front porch of the rambling old house that Willard's great-grandfather had built, relatives and friends nearly jumped out of their skin when a baby black snake fell through a crack in the porch ceiling - right onto Willard's brother-in-law's bald spot.

Snakes on a Bald Spot? It has a bit of a ring to it, but Willard is inclined to put the incident behind him.

"I don't think we have the makings of a horror movie," says Willard, of Monkton. "Maybe a comedy."

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