I don’t remember exactly how I came about watching Alien, but I remember everyone talking about it at school one week. Someone had seen it, had decided to tell everyone else who was still not allowed. You know how people like to ruin things, to tease. The way they talked about it, you would have thought they had seen a snuff film. It was one of those movies that was expressly forbidden.
I watched it much later. My curiosity needed to hibernate. I had apocalyptic dreams growing up, most of them involving horrifying accidents, malformed creatures, and bodily harm. This was also around the time I was feeling deep reservations about the things I was being taught and the things I was expected to believe (that the Earth was only 6,000 years old, that Jesus was not just a good man but the savior of the world). Not only was I very closeted, it was as if the metaphor swelled and pushed at every other corner of my life. I often felt trapped. Sometimes, when I was home alone, out there in the desert, I had terrors of men walking up the lonesome path to the house, breaking in and murdering me. The nights there were always quiet, and I was a light sleeper. Light pollution laws kept the sky dark and full of stars. I often wondered whether where we lived was at all similar to being adrift in space.
My father watched the movie with me one night, he must have insisted. The pastor of our church showed up halfway through the movie somehow and he stayed for the rest. The two of them recalled watching it when it had first come out in 1979. The way they talked about it gave off an aura of thrilled disgust, much like how I remember evangelicals thrilling in their own descriptions of Jesus’s torture and death. There was something pornographic about both. Oblique remarks about the elongated head or the mouth inside a mouth or all that dripping goo. Again, the imagery and language of the crucifixion comes to mind: the sponge of vinegar tenderly, viciously put to Jesus’s lips; the spray of blood and water from the hole where the spear pierces his side; “the nails in your hands / the nails in your feet / they tell me how much you love me.” Looking back, I wonder if this movie had so inspired a cult following because it tapped into the still reservoir of sadism that all cults share.
My father and the pastor were vocal about their disgust throughout the movie. I would recognize a lot of this vocalization over the years, with jokes about homos made at the pulpit, or uninformed, vulgar opinions about anal sex—all of it a kind of subconscious dread verbalized as disgust. A fear of otherness, of alienness. I remember one of them saying how “disgusting” the alien was exactly how my mother would sometimes say how “disgusting” it was to see two men or two women kiss on television. Everyone considered the alien disgusting. It was in movies like Alien that I felt a friendship with disgust. It was a disgust from which I could draw frightening parallels.
I sat on the sofa and contained everything I felt, namely this desire to see the titular alien emerge into sight and the unease once it did. This desire was a tension between repulsion and enticement. The alien was not only an instrument of terror, escalating narrative tension, but also the counterweight I had been looking for all this time to tip the balance away from those things I was learning at school and at home. If it was powerful enough to disturb everyone around me, then for me there was a small comfort in that disturbance.
I withheld all this because, however much a stretch it seemed, this desire and uneasiness felt familiar. When I turned to the windows in the living room, I was no longer as afraid. Should I have been? The softness of the sofa was at odds with the harsh bulkheads and corridors I saw in the movie. The play of light and dark that fell on our faces. The sound, emitting from my father’s carefully engineered sound system, that put our skin on edge.
My mother was finishing the dishes in the kitchen behind us when the movie ended. It was late and the pastor sat back with his arms outspread. My father sat in his own chair, arms folded. No one asked me about what I thought, which came as a surprise. I had grown up always being asked if I was alright. Whenever an adult read something of mine or looked at my drawings or overheard the music I listened to, they would always ask with a lilt, Why does it have to be so dark?...You sure you aren’t angry?...Is everything okay?...You seem depressed... I figured they didn’t ask me what I thought that night because they had grown immune to the vague replies of, I’m fine.
Alien is so shocking not because of its gore or its meticulous suspense, but because of how blasphemous it is. It is bleak poetry for the dispirited, and a mirror for the things we are most frightened of in ourselves. It pokes and prods at everything sacred. Never had I felt so violated like I had been that night even if I hadn’t quite known it then. My entire upbringing seemed exposed, gutted. For those who have no claim to normalcy, it offers a dark, inexplicable comfort.
I half-expected that if I were to look out the window, beyond the glare and visual distortion of glass, I would see that dripping, sinuous monster lying in wait.
Horror has long held an obsession with people’s homes. Alien is no different, it so happens to transplant that obsession into space. The Nostromo, a commercial towing vessel, is home to a crew of seven on their way back to Earth only to be interrupted by a distress signal of unknown origins. What takes place for the next two hours is a remarkably restrained, lean union of terror and dark poetry.
Alien’s beating heart is like many other slasher and domestic horror films: an invasion. A stalking threat grows exponentially before erupting in violence. When they first encounter this threat in the flesh, it is as an egg. Kane (John Hurt) comes across a silo of them in a derelict spacecraft on a stormy planet. His curiosity gets the better of him when he leans in for a closer look that will eventually (and quite literally) birth the horror to come in the form of the now infamous H.R. Giger xenomorph. The facehugger that jumps from the egg attaches itself to Kane’s face like a bony, humanoid hand that is forcing an embryo down his throat. When it detaches itself, Kane feels fine. Later, in the movie’s most memorable scene, it bursts out of his chest and disappears into the ship's dark, grimy interior to begin its rapid evolution.
I am as much afraid of the dark as anyone else. What is not seen can be a Schrödinger’s cat of horror. The feeling of being alone in my house, the windows’ reflections obfuscating the night outside that teemed with possibilities. This is the same feeling one gets watching any claustrophobic horror movie. As an audience, we are constantly teased with the alien. It is much worse for the crew members, they don’t even know what the alien looks like in its adult form. The only time anyone sees it and lives (aside from the finale) is when it bursts from Kane’s chest in larva form.
When Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) goes looking for Jonesy the cat, he finds skin that has been shed. He even picks it up in a way that harkens back to Kane’s impulse to look into the egg. As Brett goes further into an engine room, we see him bend forward as the alien unfurls behind him like one of the chains daintily chiming all around. The cat recoils and Brett senses that something is behind him. He turns and we see the alien’s sharp shadow travel across his face, its snarling teeth, the quick snap of its insectoid proboscis, and then it vanishes upward with Brett in tow. Jonesy the cat watches on.
Any time we or the crew get a look at the alien it is always askance or via inference. The motion sensor the crew rigs up after Brett’s death shows it simply as a dot moving closer and closer to the dot representing Dallas (Tom Skerritt) in the air ducts. Other shots of the alien are so dark it’s as though it blends into the interior of the ship, emerging from it, maybe even an extension of it.
As the tension escalates, the more fleeting the glances of the alien, the closer the camera focuses on Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) eyes. Her showdown with the alien peaks when she initiates the process to blow open the pressurized door to the shuttle she used to escape the Nostromo. She is strapped into a chair that swivels and turns her back to the alien. In her spacesuit and clunky helmet, she strains to see the thing that has been terrorizing her, pushing her eyes to the point of rolling inside her head. And that is the true terror of Alien, being unable to see the thing that is terrifying you, and, by extension, being unable to understand it.
The term xenomorph itself, meaning “strange form,” elicits its own possibilities. So much emphasis is put onto its body in a way usually reserved for women in horror movies: naked, smeared, sinewy, and above all suggestive. Much of that sensuality oozes in the movie’s play with shapes. The spacecraft with vulva-like openings, the facehugger that looks like a hand, the fully realized xenomorph that looks like every sex organ together in one baroquely elegant form.
Of course, one of the reasons I love Alien is Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. She was a lodestar for me during nights such as those in the desert. The final girl trope here doesn’t quite bother me because it also props her above other complications. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking for women role models who were not simply objectified beauties, love interests, or lunatics. Ripley wore a sexless jumpsuit, always kept her head, and wasn’t afraid to let her sweat and trembling reveal how her body had taken primacy in order to survive. In Aliens, she solidified her role as badass. In Alien 3 she became a personal icon with her coy androgyny. And in Alien: Resurrection, which has to be one of the more bizarre sequels in the franchise, she embraced a weaponized femme fatale attitude that put her fellow male roles to shame.
But I can only look up to Ripley.
Ripley is an ideal, people hold her in esteem, write about her as a pioneer. But it is the alien’s strange otherness—complete, hostile in origin—that is more aligned with my affinities. In the years following school and that first time watching Alien, I felt I was also, in some ways, hostile. Sometimes I wanted to lurk around town at night, looking for men. I would come home late some nights to my mother who had stayed up, never frightened but concerned. She must have been aware of the suffocating pretenses we all kept up, the maddening cycles of predator and prey we all spun around: who waited up for whom, who watched what, who would finally crack and let all the pressure of not talking roil out in torrential arguments. What I’m saying is, we all had to face our demons. And while it is tempting to similarly look at Alien as a kind of perverse morality play, wherein Ripley must face her own alien demon, to do so would be a shallow interpretation of her and a total misreading of the alien that stalks her.
Part of the reason the xenomorph has captivated (and disturbed) our imaginations for decades now is that it is a transgression. It orally rapes, impregnates, and then births from a man’s chest. The way it looks is nothing short of a fantasy gone haywire. But as Ridley Scott says in Giger’s Alien, “He’s better than a monster. He’s far more primal and far more frightening and far more realistic.” The xenomorph is a parasite, and just as it gestates inside one character and feeds off of him, so does it gestate within us, feeding off our notions of what is primal and frightening and realistic.
In other words, the alien is an invasion into the intimate—homes and bodies alike. Just as in the scene where the android Ash attempts to murder Ripley by shoving a rolled magazine down her throat, so is the final scene, when Ripley realizes the alien is aboard her shuttle, infected by this invasive rupturing of suppressed desire. As Ripley, in nothing but her underwear, slides into a spacesuit and prepares to shoot the alien out into space, she quietly sings to herself, You are my lucky star. Of course, she is steeling herself against the suspense of disturbing the alien curled up in the shuttle’s hull, but it is also as if she is singing sweet nothings to a lover who is still asleep in bed. In that light, the alien is not only the fomenter of character’s inner fantasies, but perhaps the very embodiment of them. Another kind of star.
In high school, in lieu of sex-ed, there were assemblies dedicated to the practice of abstinence one week and the evils of abortion (accompanied by misleading, gory pictures) the next. I have always been afraid of my body. Most of this fear derives from growing up hearing stories about lepers in need of healing, men rising from the dead, whores being stoned. I became not only intimated by sex, but unnaturally terrified. Sex was only ever talked about in relation to the spread of disease of body and soul alike. I was convinced at the time that pursuing my attractions would have been a death sentence.
Lately, the fear of my own body has taken on an extreme consciousness. A continuing struggle with migraines, vision issues, and vertigo keeps me on edge most days, wondering whether one slight pain in the back of my skull will leave or stay there and spread along my temples, to the back of my eyes. Will this be the time my eyes feel like they’ll roll back and I’ll faint like I did one early morning in the bathroom? There’s an anxiety, maybe even a hypochondria, that my body will turn on me at any moment. To know that something might be wrong inside you but being unable to see your inner workings, your own bulkheads and corridors, is the worst kind of fear. I frequently joke that I’m living in a “flesh prison.”
Of course, it is the flesh, and the intrusion of it, that body horror relies upon.
The xenomorph, in all its stages of evolution, draws its thematic energy from its exaggeration of the body. It is only more terrifying because we have never seen anything like it before. Or maybe we have? It is an exaggeration of our own bodies, distorted, rife with innuendo, literally turned inside out in some places. The exoskeleton, the penile head, the mouth inside a mouth. The suit itself is said to have been constructed with real animal vertebrae and a real human skull; parts of its facial muscles were made with contraceptives.
What’s more is that unlike the comfort of computer generated imagery, I cannot rely on the knowledge in the back of my mind that this body is a complete fabrication, mere code. While a fabrication, it is not entirely devoid of mobility, physicality, the occupation of space.
The most disturbing aspect of the xenomorph is that a human is actually inside it. Every day, Nigerian graphic arts student Bolaji Badejo slid into the xenomorph’s plasticine skin. He had been discovered in a pub and Scott was immediately taken with his lanky frame and nearly seven foot tall height. From the very first moment, Badejo had been marked for his physique. His own body was seen as abnormal, and because it was abnormal it fit Scott and Giger’s vision of this extraterrestrial terror.
He “looked like he came from a different universe anyway” as Weaver puts it in one interview. Badejo rarely hung out with the rest of the crew. Scott wanted him separated so that when he was on set his movements and presence would be as unfamiliar as possible. I can imagine Badejo, unable to properly sit down because of his suit’s tail, resting his head under that heavy, elongated helmet, silently waiting as everyone else had their tea and chatted and laughed. Maybe he envied them. Maybe he didn’t care for them at all. Maybe he loved them. Who knows. At the very least, he must have felt some disappointment, for his name never appeared in the credits. No one can know. He died in 1992 of sickle cell anemia. Isn’t that the best and worst part of being alive, having and keeping secrets? Everyone wants to know what is going on in someone else’s head, but it’s all guesswork.
I wonder how Badejo felt in that other skin, languidly moving under the gaze of cameras and cameramen and other actors. Then I wonder what the xenomorph could possibly be thinking, or is it instinct alone, and that conundrum has been an itch the franchise has been trying to scratch for years.
The xenomorph in the original Alien has no backstory. There are hints: the derelict spacecraft with a giant corpse at the helm, and the eggs lined up in a silo. Alien is content with being mostly experiential. We feel and know what the characters do parallel with their understanding. What it might be like to actually encounter an alien wreckage with zero context, to then encounter its unimaginable secret. This lack of context works the same as the visual play of light does in the movie, being in the dark with your imagination churning to make sense of things that might or might not be there.
For instance, the derelict spacecraft in the beginning, because it is abandoned, is to me melancholic. Foreboding, yes, but also melancholic. These creatures have been left behind in a stasis, and when one of them returns, it is through a violent rebirth. It has no say in its horrifying existence just as an android has no say in its own. They’re bound to their creators. They’re imprisoned by nature’s course, one that grinds forward and is indifferent to the crew members’ survival. There is a deep savagery in such simplicity.
After the original, however, every entry in the franchise has tried to grapple with the alien’s backstory, and by extension its psychology. Many horror movies have grappled with understanding criminality. Sometimes this involves flashbacks to when the criminal was a child, or watching scenes through their point of view. Scott defies these impulses, instead making the alien as impenetrable as possible.
The alien is what Ash later admires as the “perfect organism” because it is a “survivor” with no “delusions of morality.” He admires its “purity.” As the alien picks off each crew member, it also reveals the lengths to which those remaining are willing to survive, to the point that Ripley discovers she and the rest are actually considered expendable. This is a remarkable role reversal in a movie that relishes in upending norms.
Ash as an artificial man is supposed to be, per our common vision (and fear) of robotics, subservient to us humans. But he attempts to overpower his living, breathing crew members, he is even directed to do so. He becomes the least expendable, or perhaps is not mired in issues of self-worth—“unclouded” as he says of the alien. Likewise, Mother, the eerie, emotionless AI mainframe that runs the Nostromo, is unclouded in her protocols. When Ripley tries to undo the self-destruct sequence she herself initiated, Mother seems to ignore her and continues with the countdown, to which Ripley replies, “You bitch!”
This is all to say, humans in Alien experience a complete undoing at the hands of their twisted replicas. An android rebelling against crew members, an AI circumnavigating orders, and, of course, the alien reversing the role of predator and prey. In fact, the alien, with its slick, wet, black leather-like body, is a nice wink to BDSM fantasies. It’s as if it is trying to dominate a species that prides itself in dominating others. It’s stripping away the veneer of civilization and suggesting that just as our bodies are fragile, so are the roles we have created for ourselves and each other. We might have morality, but it doesn’t do us any good when it comes to survival.
What we are left with then, the thing at the end of all this exfoliating, is the xenomorph itself. It may be beastly and horrifying but it is also pure in intent. People like my parents like to believe that we are essentially good, that in our purest form we are or once were or can be good beings. The xenomorph is the counter image, it suggests that purity does not necessarily equate to goodness, purity can also be horrifying.
No one ever wants to be ostracized but there is something intoxicating about being dangerous. The roles I wanted for myself blended into one another while I lived in the desert. Sometimes I’d proclaim I was not gay or queer but a faggot, delighting in the abrasive reappropriation. Then sometimes I’d be as reserved and good mannered as the church boy persona I wore for years. I cherry-picked what I liked and hated most about the roles of masculinity and femininity I was presented with, attempting to alchemize them into something uniquely me—I’m still doing it, we all are.
No one is a pure anything. Ever notice how some people take on the same laugh as their friends or coworkers? There’s something endearingly sad about wanting to fit in. There’s a ubiquitous pressure to do so. To be pure of heart, to have the purest of loves, the purest of intentions. My intentions were noble, people say right after they’ve royally fucked up.
There has always been this immense mythos out there for how to live. Alien—the original, at least—strips that clean, offering no true reason behind why terrible things happen. The Bible is one grand backstory—one of many—and like any backstory it can be enough, or it can be forced down your throat. I tried for a long time to be pure the way others wanted me to. I remember once, in high school, our English teacher shut down any notion that Satan was the hero in Paradise Lost. She killed the idea with nothing more than a sentence or two. I was left dangling in that moment. I now recognize that same curiosity that feeds off of something’s forbiddenness—I wanted to know then how Satan, long blackballed from sympathetic inquiry, could be a hero for those who harbored doubts, and how even thinking such a thing prompted swift dismissal. Or, if a hero was too strong a word, at least a voice of opposition to the sacrosanct.
That same pastor who watched the movie with my father and I that night long ago once said, during a prayer circle, that he saw a “meekness” in me. As he went on he made it sound as if this meekness was only a surface and beneath it was something else that stirred. It was like he could see my insides, unlike I or any of my favorite characters in the movie we watched together could. He meant he saw something powerful and virtuous, but I think he was unknowingly hinting at my latent wish to frighten them.
I never had anything very dire happen in my life, just a long string of quiet horrors. Like a continuous vibration rather than a singular high-pitched scream. I never wanted meekness, I never wanted to live below the surface. I wanted to turn myself inside out, to see those insides. If only I could be as frightening, as bristling with desire. What a strange thought. I no longer needed to be afraid of someone lurking towards the house in the middle of the night if I could be the one lurking, peering into windows, waking people from their sleep. Maybe we should let ourselves be a little more monstrous. Maybe we should all be a little more afraid.
Colter Ruland grew up (mostly) in Tucson, AZ. He currently lives in San Francisco where he works in a bookstore and writes in the corner of a 400 sq ft “apartment”. His work has appeared in Fiction Advocate, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and others. He has gone to the movie theater by himself only once, on a Valentine’s Day.