When your hair stands on end

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Some months ago, while riding my bike, I was surprised by a very small dog with a very loud bark. Amazingly, I shuddered and felt my hair rising. I say amazingly, because I knew perfectly well that I was not about to be bitten — I knew the dog was simply going through the motions of an instinctive reaction.

But I, too, was reacting instinctively. What I was experiencing — the sensation of my hair standing on end — was a reflex inherited from my primordial ancestors (whoever or whatever they may have been). For a split second, I felt like I'd been sucked into a time-warp and hurtled back millions of years.

As everyone knows, most mammals are covered by hair or fur. When a mammal is about to attack, or be attacked, its hairs rise (if it is a porcupine, its quills stand erect). The purpose of this reflex is to make the mammal appear larger and more intimidating to its opponent. Its hairs also rise when the temperature drops, to trap the warmth and provide insulation.

Dogs, cats, elephants, mice, apes, humans, etcetera etcetera, are all mammals. That's why we humans get what are commonly called goose bumps when we sense cold or a strong emotion, like shock or fear. Goose bumps are caused by a sudden contraction of the muscles under our skin, pulling the hair follicles into a vertical position.

The proper word to describe this condition is horripilation. Horrible, horrid, horror, horrify are all related to horripilation — their source is the Latin verb "horrere" signifying to bristle or to shudder. In the word horripilation, the reference is specifically to hair ("pilus" in Latin) bristling or standing on end.

One morning in early January, I went outside and found a mysterious rivulet making its way across the floor of the carport. Kneeling down to peer under the car, I saw that the little stream began on the driver's side. I pushed a container into position to collect some of the liquid. Its blue colour and non-viscuous quality indicated it was the windshield wiper fluid.

Five days later, I found a puddle of reddish oil beneath the car. This time the liquid was leaking from the other side of the engine. It continued to seep for two days and two nights.

A friend to whom I told my story suggested I look under the car's hood. He also warned me of what I might find.

Having worked the release mechanisms, a procedure neither swift nor noiseless, I raised the hood and found myself face to face with a very large rat. I'd been forewarned and my blood was boiling, which is, I suppose, why I sensed no horripilation when confronted by the villain of this crime. But I don't think the villain's hairs stood on end either. After giving me an impudent look, the rat turned around and slunk off. I monitored the situation all evening and heard it stir in the nether regions of the engine. Bright lights and strong words didn't faze it.

In my opinion, the rat-human relationship has become too familiar here. Rats practically thumb their noses at us. I'm for finding the means to instill fear into them, to let them experience some good, primeval horripilation. All in favour say "Aye!"

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This page last updated: February 12, 2012.