I did the math to determine the years ahead that would be blighted by what felt to me like a biblical plague.
Even if I had not added up the 17-year-cycles, I would have known they were coming. Facebook posts began to appear in March from friends who seemed aggressively enthusiastic about the imminent emergence. Their posts seem less designed to promote scientific enlightenment than to elicit horror from those who didn’t feel the same way.
Videos were posted of writhing nymphs emerging from backyard holes. Recipes for cicada delicacies were shared in gleeful anticipation of the disgust they would evoke.
Most of the articles I read were relentlessly positive, heralding a phenomenon often termed magical. There are plenty of us, however, who might use very different words to describe the return of the Brood X cicadas.
Some are people afflicted with entomophobia — a dread of all insects. Others, like me, have honed our horror to just this one creature — that in its size, appearance, clumsiness and sheer abundance provokes a trepidation that mere wasps, ticks and beetles cannot begin to approach.
My best friend from those early school days is relieved to be living outside of current cicada territory.
She vividly recalls the torment others subjected her to upon learning of her aversion. In 1987, an ardent suitor with a twisted sense of humor offered to walk her to her car to fend off winged assaults. It wasn’t until she had closed the car door that she discovered the cicada he had taped to the door handle, trapping her in the cacophony of her own screams.
People who are not bothered by cicadas can be dismissive, even mocking, to those of us who are.
A colleague was teaching middle school in 2004 during the last emergence. Forced outside by a fire drill, the bombardment began in earnest. “I distinctly remember students running around screaming — and I was, too,” he said. "[Cicadas] were flying everywhere, landing on people. … One rogue student even grabbed a cicada and ate it in front of his friends.” This colleague has been taunted for his aversion.
“As an adult male, I have had people laugh when I run screaming every time I encounter a cicada. But I can’t help it — it’s an involuntary reaction!” he said.
The 16-year-old son of a friend has also faced pushback from his buddies. “I cannot stress how often people, including friends, have told me my fear and caution are irrational,” he said. But he hates what he refers to as “their drunk-like behavior” and that they will “fly at you for seemingly no reason.”
The erratic navigational skills of cicadas are the issue brought up most often by those who dislike them.
A former student shared that “every time I leave the house it feels like I am dodging cicada bullets left and right.” She steels herself for outdoor excursions, scouting the area, listening for their droning. But mostly, “my little sister and I just scream as we’re running in or out of the house.”
I think I could tolerate cicadas with minimal anxiety if they avoided me in their fluttering flights from here to there. But the constant bracing for being pelted or entangled with one of them keeps me indoors these days.
This past Memorial Day weekend was an unexpected gift. The chilly, wet air dampened their amorous instincts and blessed me with two cicada-free days to enjoy regular walks through the neighborhood. I knew it was a temporary reprieve, but I was grateful for it.
If their numbers were small, I’d be willing to gamble on the occasional collision. But because they emerge in the billions, the odds seem in favor of unwelcome encounters.
One of my friends spoke of the psychological underpinnings at the root of our mutual unease: “Hordes of insects … call up apocalyptic fears. The fear that your environment is under attack creates a strong emotional undertow. It’s culturally inscribed, I think, from religion, literature and film.”
Despite my strong reaction to them, I can see the irrationality and the humor in my fear.
I encouraged my students’ laughter the other day when I shared with them the bubble umbrella I purchased as a shield against the onslaught. Huddling beneath it, its clear plastic covering me to mid-torso, I laughed along with them. I am aware that my dread might mark me as ridiculous to many.
I know the cicadas will not hurt me. And yet the feeling of revulsion just the sight of them provokes has motivated me to find ways to get through the buzzing, flapping days ahead — at least until they begin to die off.
I am not alone in devising strategies to cope. One friend shared with me details of the mesh head-coverings she purchased for herself and her young son, when initially terrified by accounts of how bad things would get. Since then, in an effort to address her fears and to be a good mom, she has read articles with him and watched informative videos. She says it has helped.
When my oldest daughter was a child, she went through an intense period of fascination with insects. Though I didn’t share her interest, I wanted to encourage her passion, however unsettling. Together we hunted through the grass in our backyard for crickets and grasshoppers to feed to her new “pet” — a praying mantis.
That I was able to triumph over my dislike of most things creepy-crawly says something about my devotion as a mom — but I am relieved she was just a baby when the cicadas emerged in 1987. That might have been more than I could cope with, though I like to think I would have risen to the challenge.
Since getting my Moderna vaccinations, I have been excited to emerge from my pandemic seclusion. In that sense it’s also unfortunate that the cicadas chose this moment to make their rowdy, bumbling selves known once again.
A friend who shares my dislike of them alluded to the Old Testament figure of Job. “He had all of these tragedies happen, and then the last thing was some horrible rash,” he said. “Not all of us have had tragedies, but some of us feel like we’ve already weathered some heavy stuff, and then there’s this noisy, flappy infestation.”
I have no other common fears.
I don’t cower during electrical storms. I enjoy public speaking. I don’t tremble at dogs or injections. I am amused by the apparently common fear of clowns. I’m not afraid of the dark, and I board planes whenever I want to go somewhere.
So if the one phobia I struggle with only confronts me every 17 years — for about six weeks — I guess I can live with that.
Nonetheless, I am counting the days until July.
Melanie McCabe is an English teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., and the author of “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams.”