If you ask someone to give you the name of a science-fiction horror film then chances are they’ll say Alien or Aliens. That’s one hell of a statement; an entire sub-genre essentially dominated solely by one franchise, but it’s true. When Alien came out, people went nuts for it. It was loved by audiences and critics alike and went onto spawn 5 sequels and God knows how many comic books. The franchise is also a horror staple, in fact many critics referred to it as a haunted house movie in space, and the xenomorph (the main antagonist from the series) is the quintessential sci-fi horror icon. While a great deal of the franchises success can be attributed to the excellent story, atmosphere and direction of the first two films, there is certainly some credit owed to the xenomorph itself. So, why are they so successful?
The Xenomorph is an alien creature of unknown origin that resembles a cross between Jurassic Park’s velociraptor and some freakish deep-sea parasitic monstrosity. It’s difficult to talk about the Xenomorph because we genuinely know very little about it. We know that they seem to have a hive mentality; they have a queen and the others are all drones. The xenomorph has a very unique and yet very realistic reproduction system. The queen lays thousands of eggs which contain facehuggers. These facehuggers then attach themselves to other living organisms and impregnate them. In a matter of hours, the creature inside the organism grows and breaks out of the creatures chest cavity. There have been multiple incidents of humans coming across xenomorphs or attempting to capture the animals. All of these attempts result in huge casualties.
Some more than others…
The strongest aspect of the xenomorph is its design and it’s a major reason why they are so iconic. The term xenomorph means strange form and the xenomorphs featured in the Alien franchise fit this description perfectly. They are so alien and strange and different that we don’t really know what to make of them. The only thing we can be sure about is that they’re dangerous. I don’t think there’s a single part on this animal’s body that isn’t sharp or teeth or claws, its blood is acid, it has a secondary mouth as a tongue; is it any wonder people speculate that this thing is a man-made biological weapon? Is it any wonder that the army wants to use them? It’s almost difficult to think of anything in nature this deadly and that’s pretty scary. Most people are scared of spiders or sharks and the idea of the army creating something that is essentially a perfect killing machine in a lab for use on the field is pretty scary.
Much like my theory that Piers Morgan was created in a lab. After all, not even nature could create something that poisonous..
Another reason why the xenomorph is so scary links in with its biology. The xenomorph has acidic blood, most fans say it’s hydrofluoric acid, and this makes the idea of killing the animal far more complex than it may seem on the surface. It’s the ultimate defence mechanism, you don’t dare kill it. Thankfully, acid attacks aren’t too common but when they do they’re big news. Most acid attacks result in moderate to severe facial damage and I think that has an impact on all of us. The face is probably the main part of the body; it is a key aspect of our personalities and beauty and the idea of this part of us being dissolved, of any part of us being dissolved, is terrifying. The xenomorph’s stealth is also key. You never really know where it is. It could be in the ventilation system or in the plumbing; it’s a difficult thing to pin down. Because of this, we get the impression that the xenomorph is everywhere and nowhere at the same time and that it could strike at any moment; the idea of safety is alien.
It would be difficult to talk about the xenomorph without mentioning the idea of rape and body horror. The life-cycle of these creatures is unsettlingly close to the rape process. The facehugger forces itself onto an organism, pushes a tube down its victim’s throat and impregnates it. If the facehugger is removed then the victim dies, much like a real rape scenario. The xenomorph then forces its way out of the victim in an incredibly painful and distressing moment. It’s a rape analogy, these big butch space marines explore an alien planet and are raped; The birth process of the xenomorph is the ultimate emasculation. Body horror is a really key part of the xenomorph. The idea of a parasite growing inside us only to burst out through our chest is terrifying and it’s made even scarier by the fact that we have many examples of this behaviour in the real world. We’ve all heard the stories of the flesh-eating parasites that plague the tropics and the various species of wasps that lay their eggs in spiders only for them to hatch later and devour the spider from within. This is not that unusual.
There is, however, a more important reason than the popular rape analogies. Since the 1960’s when man first left the planet and set foot on the moon, there has been the idea that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, that one day this spirit of exploration into the vastness of unknown space will come back to bite us in the ass. Whether we’ll drawn unwanted and hostile attention to ourselves or perhaps we’ll find something we really don’t want to find, the fact is that maybe we’re getting way too ahead of ourselves and that we should hold back on going into space until we’re really ready. The xenomorph is the absolute manifestation of the fear that space is scary. It’s this biologically superior killing machine that is ruthlessly efficient and the worst part is that we are completely unprepared for it. Space is the most hostile environment imaginable and the xenomorph matches that hostility note for note. It’s efficient, brutal, stealthy and, when it really comes down to it, alien.
The xenomorph is a brutally efficient killing machine that not only acts as a perfectly chilling piece of symbolism for the crime of rape and the terror of male pregnancy and birth but also is the manifestation of the fear of the theoretical and practical dangers of space exploration; the hostility of the environment and the threat of the unknown.