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.”
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.
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.”
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.’