As man watches primates grooming one another in the zoo or in a nature film, one can clearly see that the process of checking one's hair for insects is a procedure that has been inherited from the most primitive ancestors. Combine this instinctual grooming practice with the fear of poisonous insects and there is the likely origin of the urban legends about the spiders in the hairdo.
Although tales of the unwanted presence of bees, wasps, and other annoying insects in someone's long hair had been popular since at least the late 1800s, the urban legend of the poisonous spider in the hair continued through the twentieth century. This legend started up again with the introduction of the popular beehive hairdo in the early 1960s. Because women sprayed their hair to create a rounded "beehive" appearance, it seemed possible—and terrifying—to those wanting such a fashionable style that a spider could take residence in the raised hair atop their heads.
The Story: As the legend goes, a woman, wearing a beehive hair style, walks into a beauty shop and asks for a trim. She tells the beautician that she has not touched her hair for days—other than to add spray—because she felt she had achieved the perfect shape to her hairdo. As the beautician begins to shampoo the woman's hair, the customer screams in awful pain. She grimaces, gasps, and collapses.
The beautician, horrified and confused, calls an ambulance as the other customers look on in disbelief. As the paramedics are lifting the woman onto a stretcher, a black widow spider crawls from the woman's hair. The poisonous insect had been nesting in the woman's sprayed hair and had bitten her when the beautician began to shampoo her hair.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, male "hippies," who wore their hair shoulder-length or longer, became the most oft-cited victims of the "spider in the hair" folktale. The long hair made it possible by the suspicions of the general public that "hippies" seldom bathed, thus allowing a deadly spider to remain undetected in their hair until somehow provoked.
The Internet continues to resurrect both the female victim with her beehive hairstyle or the poisoned hippie with his uncombed, unwashed shoulder-length hair. However, sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the urban legend was updated by substituting a man or woman with dreadlocks as the unsuspecting host for the poisonous spiders. In some versions, the victim is bitten when he or she attends a barbershop or beauty parlor and the barber or beautician uncovers the insect. In other legends, both the wearer of the dreadlocks and the hair-stylists are bitten by a nest of spiders.