To Cast Out Fear: The Terrors of ALIEN (1979)

To Cast Out Fear: The Terrors of ALIEN (1979)

Greetings, readers. You know, these theme weeks always kind of throw me for a loop. On the one hand, there’s nothing quite like being given a general topic and told to work within it’s confines. The Blood Sprayer gives its writers so much freedom, and sometimes that’s a little intimidating — I have a gigantic list of Blood Sprayer articles I would like to write, and it’s nigh-paralyzing to try and choose just one to work on. On the other hand, with theme weeks, there’s always the looming menace of too much overlap between authors. In the past I’ve tried to push the envelope in a different direction without abandoning the theme. I’m going to attempt the same here.

I’m not here to talk about the film ALIEN (1979), directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Dan O’Bannon.  I’m here to talk about you.  Your mind.  Your fears.  Not your fear of clowns, dentists, or public speaking.  No.  Your deep-down, inescapable, instinctual fears.  The ones hard-wired into your DNA because they determined the life or death of your Australopithecine forebears.

Why? Because they were written into ALIEN.  See, I’m still within the theme!

Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders and other arachnids such as scorpions, is one of the most common phobias in the western world.  Irrational and varying in intensity, some arachnophobes feel uneasy entering an area with visible signs of spiders’ presence (i.e., webs), while others might have a panic attack simply upon viewing a photo of a spider.  It’s estimated that as many as 55% of women and 18% of men in the western world suffer from some form of arachnophobia.

In fact, studies have shown that people can learn to fear spiders as readily as they can a pointed gun.  Why is this? Some theorize that a fear of spiders is a relic of our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness.  That is to say, we evolved during the Pleistocene Era, and in some ways, we’re stuck there.  Guns didn’t exist in the Pleistocene, but big nasty poisonous spiders that could bite us and leave us weak, vomiting, or even dead sure did.  And nothing puts a cramp on passing on your genes like being dead.  Admittedly, there’s some debate regarding this, as many cultures around the world view spiders not with fear, but with hunger — arachnids being a delicacy on their menus.

The most obvious connecting point between spiders and the Xenomorph of ALIEN is the Facehugger; the first stage of the twisted life-cycle of the creature (dubbed Linguafoeda acheronis “Foul tongue from Hell” in expanded-universe comic books, and Internecivus raptus, “murderous thief” in bonus materials on the ALIEN Quadrilogy DVD boxed set).  Emerging from a leathery egg laid by the Xenomorph Queen, the Facehugger is essentially a mobile penis; attracted by the body heat of a potential host, it attacks, gripping the head and forcing an ovipositor down their throat, implanting a Xenomorph larva, which quickly grows and emerges from the host.  While no currently-known species of spider or other arachnid uses this method of endoparasitic brood-raising, the Facehugger’s eight-legged anatomy is distinctly arachnid, resembling a spider with a long, scorpion-like tail.  It’s lightning-quick, skittering locomotion, likewise, is very much that of a spider.

Likewise, the adult Xenomorph’s black, chitinous exoskeleton and tendency to ambush it’s prey from above calls to mind the Black Widow Spider, though in some ways, the Xenomorph reminds me of another spider.  To explain, let me point out: The Xenomorph is, yes, largely animalistic.  It is not a sentient life-form like you and I.  However, it does display the capacity to learn, displayed most notably in the ambush of Dallas (Tom Skerritt).  It had previously encountered Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), stalking him and killing him from above with a bite to the chest.  Encountering Dallas, armed, in a similar environment, it opts to come up from behind and below, dodging Dallas’ flamethrower.  Similarly…well, if you’ll look to the left, I’d like to introduce you to the lovely Portia.  A genus of jumping spider, Portia is araneophagic — that is to say, it preys on other spiders.  Portia displays incredibly problem-solving skills, utilizing an entire bag of tricks in it’s hunt for food.  Against one spider, it may imitate a fly trapped in it’s web.  Against another, it might capture a fly and throw it into the target’s web, luring it into range.  Against another, it might pretend to be a mate for the target.  It will only approach spitting spiders from behind, unless the spitting spider is carrying an egg-sac, which blocks the spitting glands and allows Portia to attack from the front.  It learns from each hunt, adapting it’s techniques, remembering what tactics work against what targets.  For having a brain significantly smaller than that of a honey-bee, Portia is a genius, an eight-legged cannibal Borgia.  While the sequels (particularly ALIENS) would more fully-develop the notion of the Xenomorphs being capable of studying and learning from their prey (that is to say, us), it was already on display in the original ALIEN.

Ophidiophobia

Moving on from Arachnida, we must confront another fear-inducing organism…snakes.  From the Serpent in the Garden of Eden to Apophis, the Egyptian devourer of the Sun, to the Midgard Serpent whose coils encircle the globe, snakes have always been a mythological harbinger of terror for mankind.  It’s theorized that this is for the same reason we fear spiders — because Australopithecines who went, “Durr, I’m gonna try to pick up this funny legless lizard” didn’t live long enough to have kids.  Snakes, particularly poisonous snakes, were bad news for our earliest ancestors, and this instinctual wariness has been passed on to us in the present day.

The most obvious serpentine moment in ALIEN is also perhaps the most startlingly iconic: the Chestburster sequence.  In the film, Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by a Facehugger and an embryonic Xenomorph implanted in his chest.  Reviving once the Facehugger dies and detaches, Kane is soon in seemingly-excellent health, eating with the rest of the crew in the mess of the Nostromo.  But then Kane starts coughing and, collapsing on the table, the crew sees an ominous bulge forming under the skin of his chest.  His skin splitting, blood fountaining, the bulge reveals itself to be the Xenomorph, grown to it’s aptly-named “Chestburster” stage, chewing it’s way to freedom.  At this point, it is a head, blurring into an under-developed torso with vestigial limbs, and a well-developed tail upon which it quickly slithers away amidst the confusion and panic (supposedly, the rest of the cast were not told what would happen in the scene, and so their reactions are genuine).  In short, it’s a snake.  An eye-less, smooth-skinned snake.  In the sequels, the limbs would be more fully developed, allowing the Chestburster to more casually pull itself out of the host body, though ALIEN VS. PREDATOR restored the simple, serpentine design utilized in ALIEN.  Personally, I find the more snake-like, almost-limbless design more quietly unnerving.  Maybe it’s the snake connection, maybe it’s simply the fact that without functioning hands, it really has to chew its way out of the host.

As an adult, the Xenomorph doesn’t really lose it’s serpentine qualities completely.  The large quantities of slime perpetually dripping from its unholy maw can be interpreted as simply saliva, but there is also a persistent, nagging notion of venom here as well.  Most notably, though, is the “tongue” of the Xenomorph, or more properly the pharyngeal jaws — A real-world anatomical adaptation most commonly found in fishes, particularly moray eels.  While in the real world, pharyngeal jaws are used to further grip at prey and to pull it down the gullet in aid of swallowing, the Xenomorph’s secondary set of teeth are attached to something of a pressurized tube, capable of being extended at high speed with a tremendous amount of force to snap at or penetrate the body of an intended victim.  What I’m getting at here is that O’Bannon and Giger took a piece of functional anatomy that already says “Mother Nature is One Bad Mutha (Shut Yo’ Mouth!)” and weaponized it, producing an organ that serves no purpose other than to cram even more teeth into the monster’s mouth, and looks like a snake on top of it all.

As an interesting side-note to the discussion of snakes and Xenomorphs, during the design and construction of the Xenomorph, Giger had replica snake vertebrae cast in plasticine, and incorporated them into the suit.

Parasitism/Disease/Corruption of the Human Form

This is going to be a fun one.  Parasitism is defined as a symbiotic relationship between two organisms wherein one organism, the Parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, i.e., the Host.  An example of parasitism would be a flea living on the blood of the family dog.  There’s also Parasitoidism, which is similar, but in which the parasite kills the host organism once it’s taken what it needs from it.  The Xenomorph in ALIEN is a parasitoid; more properly, an endoparasitoid, developing inside the host organism.  Dan O’Bannon is on record as explaining that he used the endoparasitoid approach as an innovative means of getting the Alien on board the Nostromo.

Now, if you’ll look to the left of the screen, I’ve included an image of a tarantula and a large, blue-black wasp with rust-colored wings.  This is a Tarantula Hawk wasp; a large, solitary vespid known for it’s particularly painful sting, described by one researcher as, “immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”

Friendly, eh? The other thing the Tarantula Hawk is known for is it’s endoparasitoid reproductive cycle.  The tarantula in the picture is not dead, merely paralyzed.  The Tarantula Hawk is dragging it to a specially-prepared “nest” dug underground.  Here, the Tarantula Hawk will tear a small hole into the spider’s body with its mandibles, and insert her ovipositor into the hole, pumping an egg (or maybe more than one) into the tarantula’s body cavity.  The mother leaves, sealing the chamber behind her.  The eggs soon hatch, and the Tarantula Hawk larvae begin to eat the paralyzed tarantula, bit by bit, burrowing through its body, avoiding vital organs in order to keep the host alive as long as possible.  When the larvae are ready to pupate into adults, they finish off the organs and chew their way out of the now-lifeless host, forming pupa next to the corpse to complete their life-cycle into, ironically, vegetarian adults, spending the rest of their lives feeding off flower nectar.

Earth is full of similar parasites, and even stranger/more horrifying ones besides.  While we can look at Tarantula Hawks, or cuckoo birds (who practice brood parasitism, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests), or Leucochloridium paradoxum, a literal “brain worm” that zombifies its host (in this case garden snails), with fascination, when they get into us it becomes utter revulsion.  Tape Worms, Screw Worms, Bot Fly larva…all it takes is one show on the Nature channel to send us screaming with the heebie-jeebies, swearing never to set foot anyplace more tropical than Antarctica for fear of being colonized by vermin.

Why this fear of parasites? Well, in large part it’s a fear of illness.  To be diseased is to be defective, a hindrance to the community, or so our reptilian hindbrains tell us.  To be diseased is to be shunned, forced out of the tribe into the wild where something will eat us because we are sick and useless.  Because before modern medicine, if you got sick, you recovered on your own, if you were lucky.  And diseases were a lot more dangerous, especially in pre-modern societies.  The spread of the Black Plague across Europe, for instance (which was, by the way, parasite-borne) claimed millions of lives, radically depopulating the continent.  The Spanish Flu in 1918, same story.  It wasn’t military power or empires weary of war that brought the First World War to a close, it was the Flu.

Many parasites make their presence known in a human host.  Scabies mites burrow through the skin, leaving red trails of inflamed tissue in their wake.  Fleas leave swollen bites that itch like hell.  A guinea worm can be seen coiling inside a human eye.  But others can’t be seen.  Tapeworms, for instance, leave little evidence of their presence except a wasting effect and (if you feel like digging through your own feces) eggs.  They form a silent invasion; you have no means of telling who around you is infected.  And if you’re using the same water supply as they are, maybe they’ll infect you next.  The Xenomorph is likewise a silent invasion.  The crew of the Nostromo had no way of knowing that the Facehugger had implanted an embryo in Kane; once the Facehugger fell off, it was business as usual.  That is, until his ribs were cracked outwards and the Chestburster burst loose.

A related disquietude is that of Corruption of the Human Form.  The Xenomorph in its adult form takes on qualities of the host it developed in.  So while the ALIENS 3 Xenomorph, having gestated in a dog, is a sleek, quadrupedal creature, those who grow inside humans (such as the original ALIEN) take on human physical characteristics.  This makes them simultaneously Us and Not-Us.  They take on the stomach-turning revulsion we experience towards members of our own species disfigured by disease.  Seeing someone whose flesh has been reshaped by disease is unsettling to us — how much more unsettling is seeing our flesh shaped into something completely inhuman? David Cronenberg built an entire career off this notion — though I’m thinking specifically of 1986’s THE FLY here.  We can muster the humanity to work compassionately with those stricken with disease; but in dealing with the Xenomorphs, no compassion is possible.  They not only mock our humanity through imitation, they also rob us of it.

While most obviously the human-gestated Xenomorph follows a human bodyplan, head, two arms, two legs all in the correct places, it just as clearly deviates.  The tail, six-fingered hands (four-fingered in some later designs), banana-shaped head and biomechanical exoskeleton mark it as Other.  Additionally, the Xenomorph lacks eyes, further distancing it from Humanity.  Or…does it? As designed by H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph does have eye-sockets — and very human ones at that — under the semi-translucent skull plate.  Indeed, the sculpture to the right (and the Xenomorph skull shown in the trophy room in PREDATOR 2) seem to suggest a harvesting of DNA by the Xenomorph, using a human skull pattern as a launching-off point for it’s own elongated skull.  I don’t know about you, readers, but I find the notion of empty, appropriated eye-sockets in the head of an alien killer to be pretty goddamn unnerving.

Isolation/Loneliness

Moving away from the Xenomorph itself, we find ourselves in the bowels of the ore-hauler Nostromo, in the depths of interstellar space.  The Nostromo has a crew of seven: Captain Dallas, Executive Officer Kane, Navigator Lambert, Warrant Officer Ripley, Science Officer Ash, and Engineers Brett and Parker.  Seven people — Six, if you count the fact that Ash isn’t human.  Now, humans are social animals; we need a certain amount of interpersonal contact to survive.  Studies have been conducted that suggest intense loneliness lowers the immune system and even increases the risk of cancer.  And interstellar space is a lonely, lonely place.

I think this goes back to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness I mentioned earlier, actually.  Our Paleolithic ancestors formed tribes (which eventually got big enough to give rise to cities) as a means of increasing reproductive success, improved foraging, and common defense against predators.  The Pleistocene was a scary place.  Giant bears, lions, saber-toothed tigers, wolves the size of ponies…Humanity was nowhere near the top of the food chain like we are today.  We were a funny two-legged prey animal.  Forming groups increased each individual’s chance of not being eaten; for one, a larger group meant more eyes keeping watch for predators, and two, more hands wrapped around pointy sticks to hopefully keep predators at bay.  The smaller the group, the greater the chance of being chow.

On the Nostromo, once the Chestburster explodes out of Kane, there are five human beings fighting for survival against the meanest, hungriest, biggest spider/snake/wasp in the galaxy.  Even with sensor arrays increasing their effective range of vision and weapons such as flamethrowers, the Xenomorph still has the upper hand.  And the Nostromo is too far out in interstellar space for the surviving crew members to call for help.  They’re completely cut off — just them and the Xenomorph.  Astonishingly, they then isolate themselves further — splitting up to search for the monster.  One by one they meet their demises, absolutely alone.

***

While there are many, many fears addressed in the film ALIEN, these have been the ones ingrained in the human psyche since our earliest dawn.  As such, I opted not to talk about corporate distrust, Frankenstein Complex anxieties, or similar phobias; either they did not fit the theme or were added post-screenwriting process.  Overall, ALIEN is a luxurious film, stunningly framed and shot, with magnificent practical special effects, all building off a simple premise written into a singularly chilling script.  A must see for any cinephile, horror fan or not.


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

7 Responses to “To Cast Out Fear: The Terrors of ALIEN (1979)”

  1. You gone done it again, Bill. Another FANTASTIC article – I love this! I re-watched Alien the other night and still flinched at the sight of the face-hugger, jumped at moments I’d seen before and felt uneasy because of the heady sense of isolation and helplessness of the crew of the Nostromo. Instinctual fears seem to seep out of almost every scene of the movie.

  2. unbelievaburger!!!! fantastic sir. this is amazing.

  3. Phenomenal article!! Absolutely loved it. Well written and incredibly interesting.

    satanslilsunbeam December 21, 2010 at 5:21 AM
  4. This was a very well written breakdown of the fears explored in Alien. I guess my fear of spiders could be why I squirm every time I see the Facehugger.

  5. I dont understand why the face hugger would be called, “Internecivus raptus, “murderous thief” when its not really stealing anything from you but rather giving you something…A special gift in your stomach.

    • Linnaean classification is full of stupidly named creatures now. I can’t imagine the future being any different.

  6. The claustrophobia of Dallas in the airshaft.

    The darkness of most of the Nostromo interiors.

    The bottomless shaft in the derelict.

    The distorted view and motion from the strobelights during the destruction sequence.

    They were all over the place.

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