By Mike Mowbray
The so-called ‘spidey sense’ or ‘spider sense’ generally refers to an extraordinary ability to sense imminent danger, a kind of ‘sixth sense’ attributed to the comic-book superhero Spider-Man – though the term long ago escaped the confines of Peter Parker and his web-slinging alter-ego’s fictional universe to enter into popular usage and animate the popular imagination. The character, created by writer Stan Lee and writer/artist Steve Ditko, following his first appearance in the comic book Amazing Fantasy in1962, went on to grace the pages of thousands more comics (most notably The Amazing Spider-Man), a dozen TV series (beginning with a 1967 animated series rerun countless Saturday mornings), several recent films (starring Toby Maguire) and even a 2010 Broadway musical. Spider-Man is unquestionably the flagship character for the Marvel Comics cultural-commercial empire, a figure immediately recognizeable to a sizeable portion of the world’s population, a ubiquitous instantiation of the comic-book superhero, rivaling Superman and Batman for top billing. As the story goes, teenage protagonist Peter Parker gains his ‘spidey sense’ alongside a series of other remarkable powers and abilities when he is bitten by a radioactive spider on a school outing; the ‘classic’ Spider-man thus gains “the ability to cling to walls, superhuman strength, a sixth sense (“spider-sense”) that alerts him to danger, perfect balance and equilibrium, as well as superhuman speed and agility” (“Spider-Man”, Wikipedia).
The ‘spidey sense’ reveals itself in a curiously varied amalgam of guises in both the comics and spin-offs (though Spider-Man appears, for the most part, to keep it a secret); it is as versatile as its possessor, though not obviously a reflection of any specifically arachnid sensory capability. The ‘spidey-sense’ is commonly represented as manifesting an “itching” or “tingling” feeling at the base of Spider-man’s skull (Lindsay n.d.; “Spider-Man’s Powers and Equipment”, Wikipedia). It is also suggested that it “[alerts] him to personal danger in proportion to the severity of that danger” (“Spiderman’s Powers and Equipment”, Wikipedia). The ‘spidey sense’ thus implies a kind of intelligence, capable of parsing Parker’s surroundings, identifying and critically evaluating a possible threat at seemingly pre- or sub-conscious level and furnishing this information instantaneously – if not before the fact – to his conscious mind. Both the temporal and spatial dimensions of this ‘sense’ ability are ambiguous, as it is represented alternately as working at close range and apparently within ‘normal’ time to help Spider-Man escape peril in combat or avoid an ambush and as working across immense distances (it once warns him of an intergalactic super-villain deploying a deadly device in another solar system), and possibly as even permitting a certain amount of extraordinary insight into the immediate future.
Given his extraordinary ‘spider-speed’ and his ‘spider-grip’ (which allows him to adhere to most surfaces at any angle, even upside-down), the spider-sense(s) allow(s) the web-slinging hero to escape all manner of immediate dangers (an attacking enemy, a thrown object, even a hail of gunfire) by a seemingly instinctual exercise of some uncanny reflex. The connection between Spider-Man’s warning sense and his reflexes is such that the ‘spidey-sense’ can trigger a reaction even when the hero is “asleep or stunned,” and it permits him the ability to “casually dodge attacks up to and including automatic-weapons fire” or a point-blank pistol shot (“Spiderman’s Powers and Equipment”, Wikipedia). In the face of such imminent threats, Spider-Man simply reacts where a normal person would have been caught by surprise. In the first Spider-Man film (2002), this aspect of his extraordinary perceptual gift is represented via the now well-established cinematic effect of ‘bullet-time’. As one writer summarizes, “Whenever something bad was about to happen, time would slow down from Peter’s perspective, allowing him ample time to react” (“Spider Sense”, tvtropes).
But the spatially and temporally immediate hazards thus more easily avoided demonstrate only a limited range of the ‘spidey sense’ (or senses). It also furnishes a degree of spatial awareness that can be compared to the ‘radar-sense’ of fellow Marvel superhero Daredevil (a character, also marked by a radioactive encounter, whose blindness is well-compensated by the enhancement of all his other senses and the substitution for sight of the radar-sense, which is “like touching everything at once”):
When he is temporarily blinded, Spider-Man learns to emulate this ability and navigate without his eyesight. Even under normal conditions, his spider-sense helps him navigate darkened rooms, instinctively avoiding obstacles or hazards, or potentially noisy or unstable floorboards, walls or ceilings that may betray his presence. In one comic, he is shown sensing how many fingers Mary Jane is holding up (“Spiderman’s Powers and Equipment”, Wikipedia).
The ‘spidey-sense’ seemingly has a directional component and “can guide him to or away from hidden weapons and disguised enemies” (ibid). It can also help ensure that he keeps his secret identity as a fly-by-night crime-fighter under wraps, as it “alerts him to observers or cameras when changing into or out of his costume” (ibid). While the mechanism(s) by which the ‘spidey-sense’ operates are never really articulated in the various media appearance of the Spider-Man character, there is at least one instance that presents a possible clue. Parker himself – a bit of a technical whiz, having also designed the web-shooters that allow him to swing through the cartoon metropolis, net hapless crooks and combat enemies – develops ‘spider tracers’ which emit a signal to which he is sensitive, providing an elusive suggestion that the nature of the ‘spidey-sense’ at least includes the potential to pick up certain radio frequencies. The arch-villain Mysterio (one of many villains seeking to suppress Spider-Man’s abilities over the years) has been known to appear in plotlines bearing an electronic device that deactivates the ‘spidey sense’ – though another famous Spider-Man rival, the Green Goblin, has achieved a similar effect with a gas.
As noted, Spider-Man is perhaps one of the penultimate figures in the comics universe (and its myriad cross-media offshoots). The penetration of the notion of the ‘spidey sense’ into the popular imagination is well-established; “my spidey-sense is tingling” is one of the most recognizable catch-phrases associated with the Spider-Man franchise, repeated as an allusion countless times in everyday conversation. As top-ranked entry for “spidey sense” on the popular website urbandictionary.com has it, the term’s general usage is as follows:
Derived from the “Spidey sense” of the comic book superhero Spiderman, it is generally used to mean a vague but strong sense of something being wrong, dangerous, suspicious, a security situation.
“He looked like a student, but something about his dirty shoes and the way he tried to open a locked door totally set off my Spidey sense, so I called campus security.”
A pop-culture phenomenon of the magnitude of Spiderman is simultaneously a commercial franchise of no trifling value, and every aspect of the web-slinging superhero’s exceptional traits and persona furnishes an angle for marketers. Burger King in 2004 – as part of a tie-in with the film Spiderman 2 – invited patrons to “Swing into Burger King to test your spidey sense.” Presented with game cards incorporated into the packaging of fast-food drinks and fry boxes, customers were to “use their ‘Spidey Sense’ to select and scratch off one of two rub-off spots […] for a chance to win prizes” ranging from free food items to a million dollars in cash. As summarized in a press release from ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky on behalf of the restaurant and its partners,
“Part of the intrigue of this popular hero is his uncanny ability to sense when something is about to happen,” said Russ Klein, chief marketing officer, Burger King Corporation. “To add to the excitement of this highly anticipated film, guests can have it their way and use their intuitive Spidey Sense to choose the winning web and reveal if they win one of the many great prizes.”
Thus, the ‘spidey sense’ trope proves a handy one for tying in a game of chance promoting the consumption of side-orders with “a popular hero,” investing the product with the affective aura associated with a modern-day myth – and with the possibility that these things aren’t all ‘luck’ after all.
Ample evidence of the ubiquity of casting what otherwise might be considered an intuitive hunch (if not dumb luck) is to be found elsewhere as well. A recent court case in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, for example, prompted a legal opinion on whether or not an police officer’s “spidey sense” – an officer’s own choice of words in testifying about the feeling of suspicion he experienced upon questioning three Saskatoon youths in response to a report of gang members frequenting a particular area – furnishes legal grounds to justify the detention and search of an individual. Provincial Court Judge Daryl Labach ruled that it does not.
“[The officer] said that his ‘spidey sense’ was going off. Spidey sense, whatever that term may mean, is hardly enough to justify the further detention of the accused especially when the accused was not doing anything illegal and was not acting nervously or inappropriately but simply standing there” (ibid).
In sum, in the comic-book universe, the ‘spidey-sense’ appears to denote an amalgam of abilities, combining an enhanced, nigh-infallible version of the intuitive hunches or premonitions of danger that many people experience with a species of clairvoyance or paroptic vision, potentially characterized as a kind of ‘radar-sense’ (also somehow sensitive to particular radio frequencies) that furnishes an effective spatial awareness in and of itself. The two components converge in the case of immediate threats (the attacking enemy, thrown object or hail of gunfire), where danger is physically manifest in the immediate environment.
“Swing into Burger King to test your spidey sense & win.” June 29, 2004.
“Officer’s ‘Spidey Sense’ prompts illegal search.” March 20, 2011
Lindsay, Jason. N.d. “Characters: Spider-man: Powers”
“Super Senses”, TVTropes
“Spider Sense”, TVTropes
“Spider-Man’s Powers and Equipment”, Wikipedia
“Spidey Sense”, The Urban Dictionary