Peter Parker’s “spider-sense” is arguably his most famous power. It’s been called a “spider-sense” a “danger-sense” and even a “spider instinct.”It gets referenced throughout all corners of pop culture. If someone has a bad feeling, there’s a fair chance they’ll say “my spider-sense is tingling” or “my fill-in-the-blank-sense is tingling!” But what exactly is it?
Welcome to Oodon’s Nerd 101 where we’ll give you the crash course on this!
Peter Parker debuted as Spider-Man in the anthology comic series Amazing Fantasy issue #15, in a story by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, the same duo who would later create Dr. Strange. In that first two-part story, high school student and scientific prodigy Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider. The irradiated venom courses through his body and somehow alters his body chemistry, giving him the ability to cling to surfaces, as well as superhuman strength, reflexes and agility. After inventing a pair of “web-shooter” devices and briefly pursuing a career as a costumed TV performer, Spidey winds up learning that power brings responsibility and decides to become a superhero.
But his famous spider-sense wasn’t seen in those pages of Amazing Fantasy. Months later, Amazing Spider-Man #1 hit the news stands and featured not one but two stories starring our teenage non-mutant superhero. In the second story, the spy villain known as Chameleon decides he wants Spider-Man’s attention. To do this, he builds a radio that broadcasts a frequency only a spider could hear, concluding that if the web-slinger has the powers of a spider, he might have a spider’s senses. It’s never explained exactly how he knows what, if any, radio frequency can be heard by a spider. But it’s comics, so don’t worry about it! The point is, it worked and Spider-Man heard the message loud and clear.
Later on, our hero learns that he was deliberately diverted while the Chameleon, disguised in his own Spider-Man costume, robbed a ship carrying state secrets. Spidey sees the Chameleon just for a few moments before the guy escapes, but apparently this is enough for him to now use his spider-sense like an ESP bloodhound. By just focusing, he mentally homes in on the villain’s presence and follows. We see Spidey use this ability a few more times in his earliest comics. He can’t just track any villain, but once he’s met them or gotten within a few yards of them, his strange spider-sense can somehow lock onto the person and track them.
Later still in the same story, Spidey is sure that the Chameleon is nearby and uses his spider senses to confirm that the guy is in the room. He can sense that the enemy he tracked earlier is in the same room with him, but he can’t narrow it down more than that, so has to wait for the villain to make a move. If that seems like a limitation, keep in mind you can’t track down your enemies psychically at all. And while your GPS might be able to tell what building you’re standing in, it could still be off by several yards or unable to distinguish which room you’re actually occupying. So this is still an impressive ability.
In Amazing Spider-Man #2, Spidey uses the spider-sense as a tracking ability again, this time to scan the skies for any hint of the Vulture’s presence. At one point, the Vulture flies up behind the wall-crawler and knocks him out. So once again, the spider-sense warns him of an enemy’s general presence but only when he focuses on using it. It isn’t some automatic alarm bell to warn about sneak attacks and it doesn’t have pin-point accuracy. At this point, once Spidey relaxes or thinks about something else, he can no longer sense his foe.
Issue #2 includes a second story wherein Peter Parker first meets the villainous inventor and arms dealer known as the Tinkerer (Mysterio was also there, as one of the Tinkerer’s nameless goons). In this tale, the spider-sense picks up the intense electrical impulses of the Tinkerer’s hidden equipment, just as it picked up the Chameleon’s radio call. While Spidey focuses on using his spider-sense to lead the way to the source of the disturbance, he realizes he’s also got an enemy sneaking up behind him. This is the first time we see him detect trouble in such a way.
Once Peter jumps into full battle, he’s focused on fighting rather than using his extrasensory ability and we see that the spider-sense goes away. It doesn’t warn Spidey that the Tinkerer is behind him with a gun and our hero winds up shot down from behind (but not dead, obviously, or the article would end here). So it’s still clearly a conscious ability.
But the game changes in Amazing Spider-Man #3, the same issue that introduces Dr. Otto Octavius as the sinister Dr. Octopus. In this story, Spidey once again uses his power to track down a person he’s met before (this time he tracks his ally and colleague the Human Torch). But twice during the adventure, the spider-sense (or “spider instinct” as the text calls it in the issue) turns on by itself to warn Peter about danger coming from behind. Thanks to that, he’s able to react in time and dodge attacks that would have otherwise led to serious injury or death.
This set the new standard for the spider-sense, occasionally called the “danger-sense.” In several stories, Peter describes it as a danger-sensitive form of ESP that creates a buzzing in the base of his skull, the severity of which depends on the level of threat. If someone has bad intentions or is carrying a concealed weapon, or if there’s a security camera nearby, or someone is spying on Peter, then there’s just the buzzing and a general sense of what direction to look for the source of the trouble. But if an attack is incoming, the buzzing increases and compels Peter to move out of the way.
By trusting his spider-sense to guide his superhuman reflexes and agility, Peter can be damn difficult to land a hit on. Give him enough distance and he can even dodge bullets. Of course, as is seen in the above scene with Dr. Octopus, this doesn’t make Peter untouchable. If too many attacks are coming at him, he just won’t be fast enough or his spider-sense won’t be able to adjust in time to which threat is the most immediate. And in some comics, opponents who have learned about his spider-sense have used it against him. In a couple of cases, opponents use things such as remote activated bombs to distract Spider-Man, counting on his spider-sense to warn him of the sudden large threat and leaving him momentarily open to an attack by the enemy he’s just turned his back on.
Ok. So that’s what the spider-sense does. But really… what exactly IS the spider-sense? After all, spiders do not have psychic abilities that alert them when someone nearby has a gun or if there’s a time bomb in the room. A spider can detect vibrations in its web and in the air to know that an attack is coming, but they won’t know if a camera is watching them or if they’re about to set off a security alarm and need to avoid it.
The real answer has never been given. It’s one of those comic book powers that relies on you not to think about it for too long. However, a few stories over the decades imply that Spider-Man’s abilities are not scientific but actually, at least partially, mystical in nature, that he is an animal avatar or a champion empowered by the manipulation of cosmic entities to fulfill a specific destiny in history. In which case, we can just blame it on magic and just relax!
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko soon altered the idea that Spidey could use his spider-sense to just track down anyone he met. During Doctor Octopus’s second story, Peter builds “spider-tracers” to keep track of his enemy and this becomes a standard part of his arsenal. At first, he uses a hand held homing device, but later adjusts the tracers so that they set off his spider-sense. So once again, he can track down enemies like a bloodhound, only now with the help of technology. In one comic, scientists working for the terrorist Secret Empire examine one of Peter’s spider-tracers and remark that whoever designed them is a genius with electronics.
In the live-action movies directed by Sam Raimi, and starring Tobey Maguire, Peter does not have a psychic ability. Instead, Raimi decided that his version of Peter Parker now had enhanced senses. This brought his brain enough information that he could detect different types of oncoming attacks, making it seem as if he had some sixth-sense that warned him when to movie. But this version of a “spider-sense” was even less reliable than the comic book power when it came to dodging sneak attacks, and it certainly wouldn’t let Peter know that the person next to him had evil intentions or a hidden weapon.
In the movie Captain America: Civil War, Peter mentions a similar idea, that his senses are now enhanced and sometimes (perhaps especially when his adrenaline is heightened) this can lead to sensory overload. He tells Tony Stark that the lenses he wears in his mask are designed to buffer his senses. It’s a neat idea. Later in the movie, Peter definitely detects an incoming attack from behind and dodges it. So it seems that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we might see a merged version of the comic book and Sam Raimi interpretations. We’ll just have to see!
What other powers and sci-fi devices would you like to learn more about? Let us know!
Alan “Sizzler” Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is Director of Content at Oodon, as well as a pop culture historian focusing on superheroes and sci-fi franchises, and author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History.