The Killer Inside My Apartment
by Casey Johnston
The closest look I ever got at a house centipede was, I shit you not, the time one crawled out of my kitchen sink drain, moments after I’d finished cleaning it — my HANDS were just there, and this hellbeast appeared from the depths of my home’s drainage system, legs akimbo and flailing away, defying gravity. I reflexively turned the faucet back on full blast, corralling it back down the drain.
I have never liked killing bugs, especially ones that pose no direct threat to me. I’ll clap at a mosquito, but spiders I used to conscientiously trap and carry outside, until a few years ago I realized that that a spider in my home has not, like, lost on its way on its journey through the great outdoors — it wants to be here and has literally nothing better to do than find its way back. Now when I see one I go tense, tell myself it’s not that big, hope it’s not that mean, and get back to what I was doing.
House centipedes, from the minute I first encountered one, became the exception to that rule. If you’ve made it this far in life without seeing one maybe that’s for the best, but here is a picture if you’re violently curious. Let the fact that it would be unconscionable to embed an actual photo of one of these guys stand for a judgment of their appearance. I will say this: there are no visible eyes, no visible head, and more legs than body. It’s like if you took a giant black toothbrush and smashed its bristles flat.
I went to a high school made of big, dark stone buildings connected by tunnels and lined with wood. They were infested with house centipedes, though I didn’t know it at the time. This being the early aughts, just before digital cameras were handy and when it was still a relative pain in the ass to put any photo on the Internet, there was no way of identifying them, and no one had ever seen them anywhere else. Long before I’d enrolled they’d been bequeathed the school’s name: “Emma bugs.” I saw one from a distance maybe once or twice, but for the most part didn’t cross paths with them, since I was only there during the day.
But I have to be in my apartment at night, and it’s a tiny fraction of the size of any given corner of my school. From that first encounter in my studio onward, nothing engaged my survival instinct like a house centipede. They would emerge from under my fridge or appear out of nowhere in my bathroom. I’d go into showdown mode, but having shown amnesty to basically every insect I’ve ever encountered, I didn’t even know how to kill them. A small spider or mosquito you can squish with a paper towel, but full-grown house centipedes are the size of small horses; I sensed that if I tried to crush one I’d almost certainly feel it struggling mightily for its life beneath my fingers, pieces of it crunching and breaking under the force. I solved this by dropping books on them, then avoiding the books until someone braver arrived to clean up.
House centipedes, or Scutigera coleoptrata, do actually live outside, mostly in moist places but also not (Wikipedia suggests they like offices, also). They made it all the way to my apartment from the Mediterranean, by way of Mexico, and earliest records show they first menaced Americans in 1849, in Pennsylvania. In 1902, the US Department of Agriculture circulated 3,000 pamphlets about house centipedes, particularly to calm people in urban areas:
“Its rather weird appearance, its peculiar manner of locomotion, and frequently its altogether too friendly way of approaching people, give it great interest and, with its increasing abundance in the North, make it a subject of frequent inquiry.”
In those days, women in their long skirts proved very attractive to house centipedes:
it may often be seen darting across floors with very great speed, occasionally stopping suddenly and remaining absolutely motionless, presently to resume its rapid movements, often darting directly at inmates of the house, particularly at women, evidently with a desire to conceal itself beneath their dresses, and thus creating much consternation.
Its very name speaks to how it has always scared the shit out of us, “centipede” being Latin for “I’m not even joking it had literally a hundred legs.” House centipedes are born with four pairs of legs, and grow new pairs as they molt until they can’t fit any more on their body, topping out at 30 (not literally 100, still too many).
They are the only centipedes with true compound eyes, which means they can sense ultraviolet light — the kind that gives you sunburns and skin cancer — and daylight, which they avoid. But the indoor light cast from bulbs doesn’t seem to register with them at all, which explains why I tend to see them after work in the winter when I’m just trying to relax.
I’ve seen one amble into my apartment through gap under my front door, and a teenaged one sunning itself on the bathroom ceiling in the glow of the vanity bulbs. They are yellow, with stripes, and have a reputation for being extremely quick. But when I sit very still and watch them survey my apartment, their movement is slow, entitled, almost languorous. When I tried to approach one that had strolled out from under my fridge, it felt me coming. Its whole body seemed to stand on end, and it bolted back to where it came from.
Not long ago I overheard someone call them “friendly.” House centipedes are carnivores and will kill and eat all manner of things you wouldn’t want in your apartment — bedbugs, spiders, silverfish, termites, moths. They can even take on cockroaches, which, frankly, seems like Vin Diesel taking on The Rock. YouTube is a rich source of videos in which people have put a house centipede and a cockroach in a container together, like a cage match, which I will link but definitely not watch. I’m satisfied just knowing they exist.
House centipedes attack by leaping onto their prey and enveloping it in their many legs, then delivering their venomous bite. They are deadly huggers. House centipedes can’t even see their prey — they will ignore a meal even half an inch away — and have to basically run smack into their food to feel it, grab it, kill it, eat it, sweeping for food like tiny death-brooms. Regardless, they stand to dominate the ecosystem of a human dwelling, since their natural predators are things like toads, birds, and chickens. Sometimes they will eat each other.
But they don’t feed on people; they only bite us under duress. That turn-of-the-century pamphlet points out you’re more likely to turn a house centipede into a crushed pile of legs before it can mount a retaliatory attack. House centipedes are solitary hunters, living together but alone, like bloggers in an urban center.
Maybe if I owned my apartment I’d be more inclined to stop this whole crazy system at its root, killing the house centipedes as well as their food sources. But it’s so much work, and nature is probably right to be trying to reclaim this place, our places, anyway. So we share this apartment now, me and the many house centipedes crawling around its dark corners. I’m no longer out for their blood and when I see one I try to imagine the valiant battles it’s fighting against more menacing creatures, alone in the dark. I resolve not to kill them, though I can’t yet resolve to be calm about them. I hope someday to be as unruffled by the sight of their earless bodies as they are by my screams.
Casey Johnston is an editor for The Wirecutter and gets paid in exposure to freelance for Twitter dot com