Yes, that’s The Alien with a capital A and a capital T to the “the,” because make no mistake: no one would ever confuse any other monster with that title. Aliens – that is, monsters from outer space – are a huge archetype in the horror genre. There are countless variations on this archetypical monster in the horror genre, but this phallus-headed xenomorph is the one that truly owns the name itself. If Dracula is the classic vampire, then Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s space fiend is the classic alien.
So what makes the Alien so special?
Every monster is symbolic of some flavor of fear (or possibly several). The most effective and popular monsters tend to embody their fear in several ways, which makes them more interesting and terrifying to the audience. They also tend to embody common fears. A monster that is shallow and poorly thought out often falls flat with audiences because it just doesn’t connect with, and thus inspire, fear.
I’d argue the two main fears in the world are the fear of death and xenophobia, which means the fear of the other or the fear of what is different. Every other fear that horror can exploit – fear of sex, fear of disease, fear of predators, fear of the dark, etc. – is grown from those two parent fears. The alien archetype is particularly based on xenophobia, and no alien I’ve ever encountered is as precise and detailed in its exploration of that particular fear than The Alien.
An alien is a creature that comes from outer space – the final frontier, the last Great Unknown Land in the expanse of human knowledge. Already it is tied to xenophobia. The Alien, however, goes even further. It’s a parasite that reproduces in such a grisly, horrifying way that seems completely antithetical to the way humans are born. In its premiere film it begins by penetrating a (male) human through the mouth and implanting an embryo in his chest, which then tears its ways through the man’s chest and continues to pick off the rest of the humans one by one. Everything about the creature’s life cycle is the reverse of human nature. It’s a child that literally rapes and devours its own parent just to exist.
This is an animal whose blood is a deadly and corrosive acid. As any horror scholar could tell you, blood’s symbolism is generally pretty clear cut. Blood is life. That’s not the case with The Alien. Its blood is death – a weapon, not a vital fluid. Again, this is a polar opposite of what humans consider natural and normal. It is as different and “other” as you get.
The Alien’s life cycle has many stages that are incredibly different in from each other, which, again, is not how humans work. We go from little humans to big humans, slowly and gradually. A slight change in proportion of parts, sure, but they’re all basically the same. The Alien, on the other hand, begins as a skeletal spider monster with a snake-like tail housed in a fleshy, somewhat vaginal egg that leaps out and penetrates the nearest living being with its egg laying proboscis. Fear of spiders and insects is a very common fear, and one that is linked to xenophobia. Humans aren’t multi-legged creatures with compound eyes and external skeletons – that shit is different and, to some people, a source of fear because of it. So the alien exploits that fear. Then it grows into a snake-like, eyeless monster whose body is segmented like a worm or an intestine that, hey, literally explodes out of its host’s chest as if their actual organs were in revolt! Snakes are another commonly feared animal (particularly in the Western World, where they’ve been used as a symbol of evil itself for a few centuries now), and it’s again because of how different they are then us. They don’t have any arms or legs, they’re covered in scales, most have unblinking, lidless eyes, and they often attack with venom rather than brute force. That shit’s different, and so some people fear it. The chestburster form of The Alien takes those snakelike traits, slaps on some disturbing sexual imagery (we generally don’t have cock-headed monsters fuck us from the inside out – that shit’s different, and thus must be feared), and basically makes a terrifying monster.
The final form of The Alien looks, at first glance, to be almost familiar. It’s humanoid (because it’s a human in a suit, at least in the original movie), with two arms, two legs, and a head. Yet that familiarity is warped. It has a head – one that even has some strangely human features, particularly with its lower jaw – but that head is eyeless and on top of a serpentine neck, and extends way far in the back to look, well, let’s be honest, EXACTLY like a penis. It was even intentional. This is a monster that is born by fucking another man’s mouth and then fucking its way out of their chest, and it grows up into a monster with a giant cock for a head. Its life cycle takes something that we think we should understand – penetration’s role in reproduction – and turns it into something horrifying, and the monster never stops reminding you of that fact. It’s a beast with exoskeleton, like an insect, except that exoskeleton also very closely resembles a human skeleton. It has a long, reptilian tail that also looks skeletal and ends with a vicious barbed spike. It has human-ish hands, except those hands have six fingers. And just when you think you know how this slimy, cock-headed exoskeletal monster man works, it opens those skull-like jaws to reveal a second mouth attached to a violently thrusting, piston-fast cock-tongue that can shoot through a person’s skull like a goddamn shotgun shell. The monster’s final form is the most insidious spin on xenophobia, because it takes things we think are familiar and makes them strange and revolting to us. Watch the movie – Alien, if you somehow don’t know what film I’m talking about – to find out. This man-in-suit monster is as terrifying as one has ever been, despite having a form you think you could find familiar. It feels, well, alien.
The actions and motives of The Alien are tied to the other primary fear: fear of death. This is a creature that does nothing except kill. It has to do so by its nature, to – even being born requires The Alien to take a life. It then proceeds to murder every living being it can find, perhaps without cause (we never find out what the alien does with the bodies of the people it kills in the original movie – we can presume it ate them, I suppose, but we never see it doing so. A deleted scene of the original movie showed The Alien turning the corpses into eggs, which just furthers the relationship between death and birth in The Alien’s life cycle). Even the act of being wounded is just another way for the monster to kill, as The Alien’s blood will burn all it touches. This creature is practically an avatar for death.
The Alien is such an iconic monster that it spawned countless imitators, and often its unique features are copied into lesser knockoffs. You’ll find countless cartoons where an alien monster (often one that looks quite different than The Alien) will have acid for blood, or a second head within its mouth, or the need to implant its eggs inside a living host. People started thinking of The Alien as the template for what an alien should be. It, like Count Dracula, defined several key aspects of an archetypical monster that had been around for decades before it. That’s why it’s The Alien.
With the monster’s mysterious origins and terrifyingly bizarre biology, The Alien’s debut movie is textbook Cosmic Horror. The more you know about the monster in Alien, the more it scares you. Its sequels, on the other hand, may well have slipped into a different Horror genre…