‘It’s six weeks of hell’: how cicada-phobes are surviving Brood X


Ritter Hoy has been dreading this spring in Cincinnati for 10 years, ever since she moved to the midwest. But at least it was time to come up with a plan.

As the temperatures started to climb last month, Hoy stocked up on groceries and filled her car with fuel. She bought two tennis rackets and three bottles of vodka. She had her backyard inspected for breaches. She even picked up pee pads for her Bernese mountain dog, in case she could not leave her house at all.

Then all Hoy could do was wait. “I look out my blinds every two seconds,” she says. “Just waiting for them.”

A cicada sits on a sidewalk in Dublin, Ohio.

Every 17 years, cicadas swarm several eastern and midwest US states, coating tree trunks and walls, bouncing off cars and people, drowning out engines with their deafening call. “Brood X”, the largest and most widespread of the known periodical cicada groups, began emerging late last month.

For most people, the short-lived infestation falls somewhere between irritation and oddity. For some, it is like landing in a horror movie.

“I was totally taken by surprise,” says Michelle Dillingham of the 2004 “emergence” – the ominous term given to the cicadas’ arrival above ground. “It was so debilitating: sitting in my car, looking out the window, seeing these very large cicadas flying around and feeling frozen, like I could not move.”

Dillingham, a social worker, says the experience helped her to relate to her clients with anxiety disorders. To get from car to door, “I’d just put a raincoat around my head and run.”

An estimated 12.5% of US adults report a specific phobia at some point in their lives, or about 9% in a given year. The fear of insects, or entomophobia, is well recognized among them, and can be hugely disruptive. But even for those whose experience is less severe, the sudden appearance of billions of outlandish insects can seem a cruel joke.

Some will do whatever it takes to avoid it.

A Brood X cicada crawls amid a pile of cicada husks at the base of a tree in Princeton, New Jersey.

Back in 2004, Dillingham told herself: “I don’t care what is going on for my life in 17 years – but I am going to get out of Cincinnati.” She and her son are now on a road trip nearly two decades in the planning, working remotely, entirely to escape the cicadas. The first were emerging just as they left Ohio. “I was just thanking my lucky stars that I was going to get out of there,” says Dillingham from roadside Wyoming.

Hoy first encountered cicadas in 2008 with Brood XIV, on a different schedule from Brood X. While driving, she came face-to-face with a cicada perched atop the gearstick, “looking up at me with those red, beady eyes”.

Hoy is audibly repulsed by the memory. “It’s like they stare into your soul, like, ‘Hey, bitch. I’m here. Be afraid’… You can never trust anything with eyes like that.”

'It's like they stare into your soul.'

Cicadas cannot bite or sting; they don’t even have jaws. But for those with a phobia, that is irrelevant. “Sure, it’s irrational … a bug that comes out every 17 years, how does it affect your life?” says Hoy. “But it really does. It’s traumatic.” Even their lifecycle unsettles her: “They just chill underground, for almost 20 years. I went to college in that time! That is not normal behavior.”

And then there is the sheer number of them: billions, even trillions. “It’s some Jurassic Park-world shit out there,” says Hoy. In two weeks, she estimates that she has left her house three times. “It’s six weeks of hell – but then they’re gone for 17 years.”

In 1987, Jane Pyron was visiting her then boyfriend’s parents’ home in Cincinnati. Brood X was out in force, visible in the trees even from inside. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was horrified,” says Pyron. “I could see them putting their eggs on the branches, their big buggy red eyes.”

When she and her boyfriend, Lindsey, broke up, “no more cicada vacations” was a silver lining. But 30 years later, they reconnected. When Lindsey proposed in 2018, she agreed with a “huge stipulation”: “I said, ‘I’ll marry you and move to Ohio – but when the cicadas come out, I have to leave.’

“But then, of course,” she adds, “I got a job.” Unable to flee the state, Pyron has met her fear with creative problem-solving. She covers herself from head to toe with a creation of her own making, built from an umbrella and two shower curtains.

Hoy, for her part, wears a beekeeping suit when she must go outdoors and compulsively monitors the Cicada Safari tracking app intended for scientific research.

There is such demand for solutions through cicada season that a company making weather-proof, wearable “walking pods” recently released a limited-edition mesh version for nearly $100.

Some people feel such anxiety about cicadas, they are unable to work, says Dillingham – but support, or even sympathy, can be hard to come by.

In late April, Dillingham set up the “Cincinatti Cicada-Phobia Safe Space” on Facebook, billed as a forum “to share ways to cope!!”. In six weeks the group has gained nearly 1,000 members and four moderators, upholding only two rules: no making fun of the phobia, and no posting pictures of cicadas. “That’s why it’s called a safe space,” says Crystal Smith, a moderator; for some people, just “that wretched sound” is trigger enough.

With Brood X’s 2021 emergence now well under way, activity in the group has been frenetic, including expert insights, strategies for self-protection and sightings around Cincinnati.

Though Dillingham feels “a little guilty” that not everyone can have an escape plan like hers, she believes the online resources has helped first-timers in particular to prepare. “They have it much better than we did in 2004,” she says.

Some have even felt empowered to try to conquer their fears. Niki Taylor, not so much under siege further east in New Jersey, summoned the courage to pick up a dying cicada. “Its legs were still kicking – but I held it,” she says. “I don’t want a bug to control me.”

The response on Facebook was awed; one woman told Taylor she was “too brave to be in this group”. She has tried to give back by sharing details of her own programme of exposure therapy.

But those with a more severe phobia can only seek solidarity. “My home has become my prison,” one woman recently posted in distress.

The irony of having to shelter in place just as Covid-19 restrictions are starting to lift has not been lost on the group. “Everyone has felt constrained for a year and a half, here we are now feeling like we have to walk around with umbrellas over our heads,” sighs Dillingham.

In the meantime, it is a matter of toughing it out until the last cicada finally falls silent. The group’s current projection is for the end of the month, though there are concerns that a cold snap in Cincinnati may have slowed their lifecycle.

Hoy is not taking any chances. “I’ve got a racket everywhere I go … I’m afraid that the minute I let my guard down is the minute that one’s going to land on me.”


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