UConn Spider-Man lies under the sun in the Student Union Mall at the University of Connecticut on April 14, 2023. An anonymous student, he is recognized in his costume but few know the identity of the person in the suit. Revealing it is less important to him than leaving a legacy at UConn. (Esther Ju/UConn Journalism)
By Esther Ju | UConn Journalism
May 6, 2023
A dozen pairs of eyes follow us as we move through the Student Union food court. Unbothered, his red and blue silhouette weaves confidently between tables, greeting students who already know his name.
He approaches a man wearing a backwards white baseball cap. “What’s up, Spidey?” the man says from his seat, motioning for a fist-bump. “How we doin’?”
A woman walks by and recognizes him instantly.
“It’s Spider-Maaaaan!” she says.
Out of every building at the University of Connecticut, the Student Union is where you’ll find UConn’s Spider-Man most often. That’s where he gets the most attention, he says, his voice slightly muffled under the mask.
We exit the Student Union and are strolling past Oak Hall when a group of students approaches us. One of them asks if he can interview Spider-Man for his philosophy discussion.
“Why is it that women are being so oppressed throughout history?” the interviewer probes. Another group member records on his phone. “What do you think?”
“Uh, it’s obviously the men’s fault,” Spidey replies.
“Yes, but what do you think the motivations are behind that?”
“That’s a good question,” Spidey says. “I’m not entirely sure why.”
The interview concludes after about 30 seconds and the group applauds. While walking away, Spidey mutters, “That was awful.”
Minutes ago, he relished his moment in the spotlight. Now, he’s just annoyed. Glib exchanges are nothing new to him, he explains. Putting up with them is part of his job as an on-campus superhero.
“You kind of just have to do what people want you to do,” he says. “And then they tend to leave you alone.”
At a lofty height of 6‑foot-2-inches, UConn Spider-Man stands quite tall for someone just over a year old. His persona was an impulse decision, conceived at 3 a.m. on a random night in December 2021. Just like Peter Parker, his inspiration stems from his own troubled past.
After his father died when Spidey was 15 years old, the only male figure in his life was gone. To cope, he latched onto superheroes, an attachment that sparked his desire to become his own role model during college. He admits to doing poorly in school and has been on academic probation twice at UConn. He needed a way to motivate himself.
“To some extent, I’ve always related [to Spider-Man],” he says. “So I kind of figured I’ll do what he does.”
While he initially planned it to be a one-time affair, Spidey’s first experience in the suit would actually become his origin story.
When HuskyTHON, UConn’s biggest student-run fundraising event of the year, rolled around in April 2022, Spidey knew it was time for his debut. Although he had already bought a suit from Amazon back in December, he stayed apprehensive for months, concerned about getting unmasked or bullied. His therapist even told him he would get beat up.
He changed into the suit in one of the bathrooms near the Founders Green, where HuskyTHON was taking place. For 20 minutes, he faced the mirror and gave himself a pep talk.
“I was like, ‘You got this. You can do this,’” he says. He recalls that his hand was trembling when it finally reached for the door.
Upon walking out, Spidey realized that people were just as nervous as he was, not knowing how to act at the sight of Spider-Man making a cameo at UConn. Then they laughed. Not at him, he clarifies, but because they found the situation funny.
“People fell in love with it and I fell in love with it,” he says. “People were laughing and I was laughing. I was having fun, they were having fun. Next thing I know, I was crowd-surfing.”
We sit on the steps outside the north entrance of the Student Recreation Center, the shade providing a cool escape from the sweltering sun. I ask Spidey about the suit, which he says he’s been sweating through.
Since last fall, he’s leveled up from the Amazon ensemble and opted for a custom-tailored suit from printcostume.com. Perhaps it’s not as high-tech as the one from Stark Industries, but at least it fits him better. Underneath, he’s wearing a T‑shirt and shorts, while the shoes are built-in.
Transforming into Spider-Man is a time-consuming process that calls for finding an empty bathroom on campus, plus however long it takes to change into the suit — which can be anywhere from five to 20 minutes. On days like today, he compares it to putting on a wet sock.
Lately, Spidey’s been less enthusiastic about suiting up. He returned to duty at the end of March after a three-month hiatus, which he attributes to inclement weather, a busy school schedule and weight gain. Over the past year, he put on between 40 to 50 pounds, but has managed to shave off 20 so far. Before that, he didn’t feel as confident wearing the suit.
Still, Spidey doesn’t intend on giving up his title. He plans on revealing his identity in a year or so at graduation by retrieving his diploma in his superhero garb. Until then, he’ll continue being anonymous to the majority of the public — with the exception of those closest to him.
Spidey’s girlfriend, who we’ll call Mary Jane, says she hasn’t seen all the Spider-Man films — only the ones with Tobey Maguire — but the couple is making their way through the Marvel franchise via movie nights. When it comes to his tastes in cinema, Spidey isn’t the biggest fan of the Marvel series. In fact his favorite movie isn’t part of the superhero genre at all: It’s “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“Yeah, the Marvel movies are alright, but they’re not all that in my opinion,” he says. “They were fun while they lasted, but they don’t really have any substance if I’m being honest.”
Mary Jane was there the night Spidey got the idea for his new identity. She’s been a big supporter ever since, and even helped him pick out his first profile picture for his official Instagram account. But having to keep mum about her boyfriend’s alter ego has made for some awkward moments, like when he showed up to one of her club meetings — which was also the first time she saw him in the suit.
“I had to pretend like I didn’t know who he was,” Mary Jane says on the phone. She agreed to talk through an Instagram call, but only using Spidey’s account. “At one point, I accidentally held his hand and I was like, ‘Shit. I don’t know him!’ It’s weird, but it’s fun at the same time.”
There have been multiple occasions where she’s had to act clueless: when her roommate last year told her that there’s a Spider-Man on campus, or whenever her friends would send their selfies with Spidey in their group chat. She’s managed to lie low, but containing the secret is still a learning curve for Mary Jane. Halfway through our interview, she accidentally slips Spidey’s real name.
Spidey’s good friend, who we’ll call Harry Osborn, found out just last fall. While hanging out, the two were sharing a discussion about community outreach, which naturally segued into the topic of UConn Spider-Man. Osborn then watched his friend open his backpack and pull out the mask. Now, he finds his obliviousness ironic, considering his usual skill at solving puzzles and the fact that his father is a detective.
“I was surprised to find out only because I never would have thought that I would know the guy,” Osborn says over the phone. Like Mary Jane, he’s also using Spidey’s Instagram account to talk. “But knowing that it’s him, it doesn’t surprise me that he would do something like this.”
As UConn’s designated superhero, Spidey’s main responsibility is to spread compassion. He’ll go on his usual missions to give out high fives at the university quad, or peek in on students studying at the library to offer words of encouragement. But he’s also gone on some more serious side quests, like assisting two drunk people back to their apartments from Huskies Bar or having a 40-minute conversation with someone about dealing with anxiety.
Navigating his own mental health has been an obstacle for Spidey, who entered college in the middle of a global pandemic. Juggling COVID anxiety and online classes while still grieving his father was challenging. Taking on the role of Spider-Man was ultimately a way to rebel against his hardships by becoming a force of optimism within the UConn community.
“I thought that it’d be a good idea to become something a bit more than myself, like turn my issues into something positive,” he says. “Even if it’s a small thing, just seeing people walk by and smile, that’s more than enough for me.”
In a sense, donning the Spider-Man mask was almost a form of self-therapy or — in this case — superhero therapy. Katherine Washington, a psychologist from Denver Health Medical Center, defines the practice as helping patients relate to pop culture characters.
“And seeing that people, even superheroes, can go through struggles and can overcome them,” she says in a phone interview.
To Washington, it seems like Spidey empathizes with someone who’s gone through similar experiences that he has: the early loss of a male figure, followed by the assumption of responsibility to use his powers for good.
“Just being able to run around and be positive to people and bring them joy, that in itself — giving to others — can be very therapeutic,” she says.
The temperature outside reaches 90 degrees as Spidey and I roam the center of campus. Back at the Student Union, he told me his plan to meddle with one of the campus tour groups.
During our walk, he spots a group gathered in front of the Recreation Center. We stand alongside everyone else, trying to blend in.
“Are you joining me for my stop?” the guide asks, pausing her spiel.
“A little bit, yeah,” Spidey replies.
“Okay. No pressure or anything.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it. You’re fine,” he says. “You’re doing great.”