Reflections on Horror Literature: Alien

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Alien before this week.

Yes, I know, I know. I’m a member of Gen X, a Sigourney Weaver fan, and an afficianado of both science fiction and horror (not to mention the artwork of H.R. Giger) and I’ve never seen this movie until now.

Take a deep breath and let’s get over this travesty together, shall we?

This is not the time or place to discuss how much this film was built up to me and what I ultimately thought of its effectiveness when I finally watched it. What I want to discuss instead is a reading of the work that even one of its screenwriters acknowledges was one of his purposes.

The monster in Alien is the anxiety of threatened sexual assault.

In a documentary on the film, Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that his goal with writing Alien was to write sexual horror, but with a twist:

I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number. (Dietle)

There’s a lot to support this, of course, in the story of what happens to Officer Kane (John Hurt). He’s the first to awake from his sleep pod, he’s the first to encounter the alien’s first victim, first to try to assess and make contact with the living creature inside the alien egg, and the first to then be killed by the alien. However, he’s also the only victim to die from the reproductive process, and his death is the most horrific of any of Alien’s many death scenes (arguably the second most brutal is that of Science Officer Ash, but as he’s revealed to be a liquid-filled android instead of a human, it’s not really “death” and it’s not at the hand of the alien).

But it’s important to mark Kane as the first to encounter the species because he’s then the one to, essentially, get raped. Kane is an explorer, then, a kind of curious visionary who seeks more knowledge than is advisable to have. Like his (differently spelled) Biblical namesake, he is among the first humans. But the Biblical Cain, having been born after his parents’ expulsion from Eden for the acquisition of verboten knowledge, also commits the first murder. Various mythologies have sprung up about Cain over the centuries, from his literary use as the first vampire to the source of boogeyman folklore. Officer Kane doesn’t appear to have been a bad guy before his attack, but if he’s to be taken as a symbol more than a flesh-and-blood character, we have him being raped, impregnated, and murdered—perhaps as symbolic retaliation for both Adam and Eve’s over-curious nature as well as Cain’s murder of his own brother.

Because it isn’t just rape. It’s rape in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge that man (or human) is better off not having. It is Officer Ripley (Weaver) who first advises the returning crew from the planet’s surface to stay in quarantine. If the film is about men’s sexual anxiety, it’s important that the only correct directives continue to come from the female characters, particularly Ripley. Though she is overridden by Ash (male), Ash is also inhuman, so the problem isn’t merely men-versus-women but women-versus-inhuman. The only other female character (Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright) is the only other human character to live nearly as long as Ripley. The only other survivor of the carnage is the ship’s cat, Jones, and though Jones’ sex is not revealed, cats are often taken as feminine symbols due to their temperament and physiological traits.

Ripley avoids being consumed by the alien due to her sheer determination and intelligence. When female characters in the film pursue knowledge, they are rewarded by getting to live longer or ultimately triumphing. When male characters pursue knowledge (Kane, Dallas, Brett, and Parker), each one of them is systematically killed by the creature. Lambert’s death only comes becomes she was following Parker’s orders, and Dallas’ death comes when he fails to heed Lambert’s warnings to him about the creature’s location.

What makes the alien ultimately so terrifying, however, is its ability to deal death in multiple ways. Its embryo killed through rape and impregnation. Its infant form killed through a sort of “childbirth,” and its adult form killed presumably through hunting and consumption of its prey, yet each victim is found (or not found) in a slightly different state. This unpredictability makes it particularly difficult for the humans to locate and kill, and yet again it’s Ripley’s role as a woman masterful in human-based science and technology usage who is ultimately able to outwit and destroy it. The film’s argument here could be that women are the ones who typically must be more mindful of danger than men, due to the threat of violence from more sectors than merely the inhuman. This vigilance, when inherent in someone with Ripley’s intelligence, makes her the most able to adapt to the creature’s unpredictability without (much) panic.

Dietle, Dan. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. 02 Jan 2011: n. page. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

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12 Comments

Filed under blog, horror, pop culture

12 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: Alien

  1. Michelle R. Lane

    Your discussion of how Kane is raped, impregnated, and killed by the alien makes me think a little bit more about my first impressions of him when he wakes up in the ship. He is the first to awaken. His pod opens, and I couldn’t help thinking about how feminine and/or androgynous he appeared at first glance. I wonder if that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers.

    • I had a similar feeling regarding his androgynous. I also felt like it was telling that both of the British men wound up being emasculated in a sense, either by the pregnancy (Kane) or by being found to not be human (Ash).

  2. Samantha Lienhard

    My forum friends would love this. xD These kinds of discussions are the main reason I knew they would all be happy when I finally watched Alien.

    Your analysis of the pursuit of knowledge is interesting. What do you think that means? Why would the men die from the pursuit of knowledge while the women survive longer when they pursue knowledge? Is it the way they go about it, or the type of knowledge they pursue–is it the men searching for the knowledge they aren’t meant to know?

    • I would say it’s that the men seek knowledge foolishly, thinking themselves immune to danger. Note again that it’s Ripley who’s very cautious and lives because women must be cautious as a matter of staying alive or staying safe. Men think they cannot be raped, therefore the over-curious man exploring without caution gets raped.

  3. One of the things I enjoyed about re-watching this film was all the clues that Kane was going to die. He’s the first one to get up, Dallas refers to the dinner as a “last meal”, even his first line in the movie is “I feel dead.” It was subtle, but it set the tone.

  4. Margaret Ayala

    Other than noticing that Kane shared his name withe Biblical Cain, I didn’t make the connection between the roles the characters played in their respective stories. Now I want to watch it again with your observation in mind.

  5. Oh my word. You are so damned smart, my understandings of the underpinnings of how horror relates to basic fears are noticeably shaken. Awesome friggin job! I will be following, dear. Now, as for the blog, you’re a 90s kid who hasn’t seen Alien? Forgive me, but I’m calling the 90s culture cops. That’s a crime against our cultural integrity. I posit that all horror is sexually based and all fear is essentially related to sex. See, in ours and rat brains, the wires for aggression and sex Criss at a shared junction. Metaphorically, impregnation poses risk of all basic human fears, penetration, ravage, infection, and death (by joining in reproduction). It’s seldom that you see someone make those observations though. Awesome!

  6. This was my first time watching alien too. I did not see any sexual imagery or rape themes right until Ash’s attempt to kill Ripley. I watched almost the whole film in blissful ignorance. But reading all of these blogs made me see. Now I can’t unsee.

    • It’s pretty upsetting when viewed that way. I think it can be seen on different levels without these ideas, but that’s what makes it a really rich piece to examine.

  7. It’s okay, we can lose some geek cred together 🙂

    Now I only have now seen this once, but I thought that Lambert actually represented the opposite of what Ripley was. She seems a lot more passive than Ripley through most of the movie, just depending more on the other people (namely men). She even slaps the crap out of Ripley when they bring Kane back. In the end, Ripley is just the most badass out of everyone 🙂

    • Poor Lambert gets a lot of flack, I found when doing some research. 😉 Even Veronica Cartwright wasn’t too crazy about playing someone she viewed as weaker. But I maintain that Lambert was simply more ANXIOUS than Ripley; when there were only three of them left and they all split up, I maintain that if Lambert had been allowed to go with Ripley, she probably would have lived. She was very good at her navigation and Dallas would have been smart to take her advice on more than one occasion.

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