Alien’s Take On The Movie Monster
C/W: Sexual Assault
Few aliens are as terrifying as the titular monster from Alien. But what makes this phallic-headed man in a rubber suit so scary?
Aliens. One of the most common archetypes in the sci-fi and horror genres, stories about space monsters and alien invaders are a dime a dozen in media, but few are as terrifying and iconic as the titular creature from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, simply titled Alien. But what exactly makes this phallic-headed man in a rubber suit so scary, even forty years after its initial release? Let’s take a dive into why this, in my opinion, is one of the best creature designs in all of horror.
First of all, what exactly makes a monster scary? Most monsters, villains, and assorted creeps in horror exploit one or more somewhat common fears. These can vary from more existential or social fears (stranger danger, the banality of existence, government surveillance), to the most primal and ingrained ones in human nature (darkness, predators, death).
The most effective monsters are usually those that are able to represent several kinds of fear in different ways, in order to get under the skin of as many people as possible. And, in the case of the Alien (or xenomorph, as it would come to be called in the several sequels), it embodies two of the most primal and universal fears in all of humanity: xenophobia, the fear of what’s different, and, in a lesser way, the fear of death itself.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”– Ash, Alien (1979)
Simply put, every single part of the Alien’s biology, design, and even behavior is completely opposite of what humans as a species conceive as ‘normal’. Even when it has a resemblance to humans, these anatomical features are distorted or in the wrong place, adding to the sense of otherworldliness. The very concept of alien beings is linked to the fear of the different; strange, inhuman beings with radically different body plans and cultures as us. But the xenomorph isn’t your garden variety little grey man; this is a horrifying being from the cold outer space.
The Alien is first introduced as a cluster of eggs inside an abandoned spaceship, its only other occupant a mysterious colossus that may or may not be fused with its chair. These eggs are already unlike any human has ever seen; large and leathery, with a four-leaf opening on the top. The environment they’re in is also odd, with intricate biomechanical designs courtesy of H.R. Giger (who also designed the various forms of the xenomorph).
The life cycle of this being is already utterly opposite to what humans consider normal. We look relatively the same at all stages of development, the only things that change are proportions and minor details. This being sprouts from an egg and violently attacks the closest host, implanting an embryo in a manner that’s intentionally reminiscent of sexual assault.
Shortly afterward, the so-called facehugger dies, and the grip on its victim releases. Everything seems to be okay. But of course, this is only the beginning. For the real alien makes its debut in one of the most iconic scenes in horror cinema.
After bursting out from the chest of its host, this second form (usually called chestburster) quickly slithers away and grows into the adult creature offscreen. Before even seeing the fully adult creature, the juvenile stages are already completely removed from everything humans consider natural. Birth is usually considered a happy, life-bringing event. But not for the eighth passenger of the Nostromo. It takes concepts humans are familiar with (sex and birth) and twists them in horrific ways.
The various stages of the xenomorph are completely different, but they all exploit common human phobias and integrate human anatomy in twisted ways. It begins as a skeletal spider with a tail and legs that look eerily similar to human fingers. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears worldwide, simply because spiders are so different to us; we don’t have eight legs, multiple pairs of compound eyes, and external skeletons – that’s different, and as such, scary.
The next form it takes is that of a serpentine, eyeless monster with human teeth, that also bears resemblance to a human body part – an intestine. The fact that it bursts out of its host’s chest doesn’t make the resemblance less obvious. Snakes are also a commonly feared animal, and are often associated with the Devil itself; and, again, feared for being different. No arms or legs, unblinking eyes, venomous fangs – different, and thus feared.
Add a dash of disturbing sexual imagery (a walking vagina that grabs the face of a man and rapes it; a penis-headed snake that penetrates our insides until it breaks free), and you’ve got yourself nightmare fuel. But of course, those are only juveniles; we have yet to talk about the final form.
The fully-grown alien looks almost normal at first. It’s a humanoid creature with two arms, two legs, and a head (of course, it was played by a human in a rubber suit). But all those features are… strange. It has a head, yes, with a humanlike set of jaws, but it has no other features, sits atop a long, curled neck, and extends back into an explicitly phallic shape.
.It has teeth, but they have fangs, seem to be made out of metal and drip constantly with saliva. It has a exoskeleton, like an insect, except that exoskeleton also looks like a human ribcage. It has a long, reptilian tail (also skeletal) that ends with a vicious barbed spike. It has human-like hands, except they have six clawed fingers. Perhaps most eerily, it has a completely human skull that can just barely be seen behind its domed cranium.
And just when you think you have this penis-headed rubber skeleton-snake-bug man figured out, it opens that metallic muzzle to reveal a second inner set of jaws, attached of course to a violently thrusting, tongue that can impale a human skull like it’s nothing. This final form is not only instantly iconic but is the ultimate exploitation of xenophobia; it takes things that we think we know and twists them to make them revolting and nonsensical to us.
The Alien’s behaviour is also linked to the other primary fear in human nature: death. Pretty much everything it does in this movie is kill, try to kill, or avoid being killed in order to kill more people. It’s in its very nature – even its birth requires it to kill someone. Then it systematically kills every human it encounters aboard the Nostromo, waiting until they’re alone before striking the killing blow.
We don’t even know why it kills; it doesn’t seem to eat much, if at all, and the audience never sees what exactly it does with the bodies off the crewmembers (A deleted scene showed the Alien turning one of the character’s corpse into an egg, which just further emphasizes the link between life and death when it comes to the Alien).
Even hurting it is enough to wound you, for the xenomorph’s blood is sickly green and burns upon contact, even able to pierce through several floors of a spaceship. Blood, as any literature professor would tell you, is typically used to symbolize life. But in this case, the very blood that keeps it alive is used to hurt people; every part of this predator’s anatomy has evolved to kill and maim.
This man-in-a-suit monster could have easily come off as goofy, but a combination of creative designers and talented crewmembers made it one of the most horrifying things to walk inside a spaceship. And oh boy was it effective; think about how many alien monsters in cartoons, comics, etc. have acid blood, a second head inside its mouth, or implants eggs inside a human host.
Much like how Dracula is the ultimate vampire, or how Godzilla is the ultimate giant monster, the xenomorph is the ultimate extraterrestrial being. That’s why I personally always preferred to simply call it The Alien; for it is the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of one.