Okay, this post title is deceptive. See, I’ve never actually seen Alien, but I can confidently declare it the “scariest movie of my life.” You may find this surprising. After all, Alien is often heralded as one of the more feminist sci-fi/horror flicks out there, and we at WWAC are certainly not abashed about feminism.
Okay, this post title is deceptive. See, I’ve never actually seen Alien, but I can confidently declare it the “scariest movie of my life.” You may find this surprising. After all, Alien is often heralded as one of the more feminist sci-fi/horror flicks out there, and we at WWAC are certainly not abashed about feminism. Cultural critic David Skal even argues that Alien is a protest against the continued (and continuing despite Alien being released over 25 years ago) undermining of reproductive choice by the Supreme Court . Of course, I can’t speak for my own interpretation, because I only know Alien as a cultural artifact.
I grew up under the infallible influence of my geeky mom. My mom was a busy working woman, and the times we spent parked in front of the television watching our favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies and shows are some of my fondest childhood memories. Late 80s and early 90s horror, like the vampire detective series Forever Knight, the Warlock films, and The Lost Boys were perennial favorites, and I delighted in the ghostly terror of the Poltergeist movies. My mom was pretty open about what I could watch, and she let me determine for myself what was too mature or too scary. Vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, ghosts—not a problem. But, aliens? Aliens were an issue.
First off, a clarification: the aliens in more traditional sci-fi films were not a problem for me. I cut my teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Star Wars franchise. The cantina scene in A New Hope was Jim Henson revelry for me, and Worf was my favorite character on TNG. But I drew my arbitrary line when the alien became a monster. (I say arbitrary because E.T. did freak me out.)
Monsters are integral to every culture. They are amorphous (sometimes literally); their meaning changing with the eras. Even specific monsters serve different purposes and meanings for different times. The vampire has changed from a repulsive folkloric figure to a Byronic romantic hero who even sparkles. Aliens are no different.
H.P. Lovecraft’s aliens were blatant metaphors for the author’s racism. During the cold war, aliens and space invaders symbolized communist enemies of the state, criticized post-war American consumerism and apathy, reaffirmed American evangelicalism, etc. Towards the end of the 50s and early 60s, alien narratives (whether filmic, televisual, or journalistic) reflected the rising tide of concerns surrounding gender and sexuality. Thus, not all aliens and monsters are created equal, but, as a child, aliens coalesced into a particular kind of monster for me.
Alien abduction was my biggest childhood fear. I thwarted many a slumber party attempt at backyard camping by successfully convincing everyone that sleeping outside exponentially increased the possibility of alien abduction.
As a perfectionistic, anxiety-ridden child—and let’s face it, a girl—aliens represented my deepest anxieties over self-control and my body. Aliens abducted you in the middle of the night by immobilizing your body with their advanced technology thingamajigs and flitting you away in their flying saucers to invade said immobilized body with their probes and technologies. You could not run like you could in the slasher flick. You could not resist. Your body was not in your control. It is a fear many of us experience, particularly little girls. Society constructs and reifies the message that our bodies are not our own. And for me, alien horror tapped into this fear the most.
Alien blurs the lines between sci-fi and horror and, in particular, deals with “body horror.” Body horror is a subset of horror fiction where the body is the site of the action and consequently the horror. Think The Fly (1958, Kurt Neumann), Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987), and any of the slashers. In body horror, the body can become a site for foreign, monstrous parasites (The Thing’s tagline was “man is the warmest place to hide” and, of course, lest we forget the infamous womb bursting scene in Alien) and/or is a site for mutilation and/or destruction. In each manifestation, one’s agency over their own body is frequently robbed from them or never present in the first place.
As a woman, I find body horror some of the hardest to watch. Some of these films end on a positive note where the protagonist reasserts their bodily autonomy. Tina outsmarts Freddy. Laurie defends herself against Jason. Sidney makes sure Billy is dead in Scream. But others are just misery-ridden, misogynistic gore porn. And sometimes you can’t tell by the trailer and description alone. (People keep saying the Saw movies are smart. I still refuse to watch them.)
The funny thing is, Alien isn’t even a classic alien abduction story—it involves far more agency than that, yet I just can’t watch it. Generally, when I watch horror, I watch it with a fan’s eye and a critic’s eye. I watch for common narratives, themes, and allusions and inversions of genre conventions. However, Alien is still a movie I can’t bring myself to sit down and watch. I can’t suppress my terror under the cool facade of a critical-cultural scholar. Alien is too affective for me. Just the hint of the infamous image of the alien progeny bursting forth from stomachs still taps into my deepest (and culturally influenced) fears surrounding my female body.
 David Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, revised edition (New York: Faber & Faber, 2001).