By Andrew Tucker
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien famously boasted, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and it certainly feels that way watching the film today. The Alien franchise is one that relies less on crying out-loud thrills and more on uncomfortable, disturbing images and situations.
But at its heart, the Alien series is about one thing: fear. Each film explores fear in a different way. Critics have long suggested that that Alien is one big sci-fi haunted house, and it’s worth exploring what that really means. In essence, the Alien films are haunted house stories—only this time, the visitors take the ghost home with them.
In Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, the ill-fated trucker crew of the spaceship Nostromo stumble upon a derelict spacecraft, famously designed by artist H.R. Giger. The derelict ship takes the place of the classical haunted house: long dark corridors, mysterious trinkets strewn about, and a monster in the basement. What makes Alien stand out, however, is the fact that the haunted house is just a shell: the real horror is what our intrepid explorers bring back with them. Giger’s ship has all of the twists, turns, and horrors of an actual haunted house, but everything in the ship is dead—save for what lies in the house’s basement: eggs. The titular Alien, however, can only evolve with the presence of a living host, and that’s where this haunted house plants its seed inside one of the Nostromo’s crew.
We all know what happens next; one of the eggs opens, the creature inside affixes itself to John Hurt’s face, and makes its way onto the Nostromo. The creature bursts out of Hurt’s chest and the horror ensues. If Giger’s derelict craft was the haunted house, the Alien, itself, is the creature hunting down those who dared open its doors. This is unintentionally akin to a lot of later Japanese horror in which death only occurs when foolish humans break the seal of whatever cursed house (a la The Grudge) or VHS tape (a la The Ring) holds the ghost’s malevolence. The Alien, or Xenomorph, hunts down the crew one-by-one. Just like both of the aforementioned Japanese films, the ghost—or Alien—cannot be evaded or reasoned with. It must be stopped.
In a nod to classical horror, the crew’s pet cat, Jonesy, is a herald for the Xenomorph. The characters often have to find Jones and then stumble into finding the Alien. Jones sees the monster when the others don’t, knowing what lurks in the darkness. There’s even a scene when the Alien confronts Jonesy in his carrier. The creature sniffs the crate, and then bats it out of the way. The Alien has no desire to attack this creature; Jones is the bridge between the natural and supernatural worlds. Yet while Jones doesn’t show any particular affection to the humans, he hisses and growls when the Alien appears. It’s as if Jones can sense evil.
The Nostromo now becomes the haunted house; Infected by the Xenomorph and carrying the curse of the derelict craft to our pitiful ensemble. Only Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley survives, destroying her haunted house in the process as she detonates the self-destruct system on the Nostromo.
Unfortunately for Ripley, things only get worse from here. In a complete 180-degree shift from its predecessor, director James Cameron’s Aliens shifts away from the quiet, slow-building tension of the first film and chucks Ripley into a whole nest of Xenomorphs, with gun-toting marines to back her up. Ripley is more assertive, with a Princess Leia-like quality to her quips and demands. She brandishes her familiar flame-thrower, this time strapped to a grenade-launching pulse rifle. She wakes up from hyper sleep 57 years later only to find out that her daughter has died and the planet that housed the derelict spacecraft has now been colonized and (surprise, surprise) authorities have lost contact with civilization. Ripley goes in with a group of marines to rescue the colonists, only one of which has survived—a small girl whom in which Ripley takes a special interest.
If Alien was a haunted house that follows its guests home, Aliens is something different. Here, Ripley is plagued by the ghost of her daughter, who in the 1992 director’s cut is revealed to have died of old age. Amanda, Ripley’s daughter, has lived a full life while her mother slept in space (Amanda has her own confrontation with the Alien in the beautifully crafted 2014 video game, Alien: Isolation). Ripley notes that she promised to make her daughter’s 11th birthday, and Newt, the lone survivor of the colony, is approximately that age. It’s no stretch to imagine Ripley atoning for the death of her own daughter by adopting this new one into her care.
However, Newt is inevitably captured by the Xenomorphs, and Ripley must rescue her. As much as it is hailed as an exemplary example of a great action movie, Aliens succeeds mostly as a character piece. Ripley is willing to sacrifice everything to save Newt; and while it is never explicitly stated, we know that this is because she is haunted by missing out on her daughter’s life. Ripley’s daughter is seeks revenge on her in the form of the Aliens threatening make Ripley another failure as a mother. The metaphor continues as, in order to escape the clutches of the Alien hive, Ripley and Newt must face the perverted personification of motherhood herself: the Alien Queen.
The Alien Queen is something of a foil for Ripley here. Both are willing to fight for their children, and the Queen is not without sympathy here. As Ripley torches her nest, the Queen cries out and goes after Ripley with a vengeance. Ripley’s nurturing and courageous fervor clash against the malevolent survival instincts of the Xenomorph mother. Ripley can finally put her daughter’s soul to rest and forgive herself by defeating the merciless Queen. In the end, Ripley survives and promises her new surrogate daughter that they can find peace together.
Except they can’t. In the (much maligned) follow-up, Alien3, Ripley crash lands on a prison planet only to learn that Newt and the survivors of the previous film have all been killed in the crash, there is a new Alien running around, and—worst of all—Ripley has been impregnated with an Alien, herself – a queen.
Ripley is akin to a ghost in the film. Ripley lives off of borrowed time; she communicates with the wrecked and ghostly form of her previous companion, an android named Bishop, who reappears at the end of the film in the form of the wicked emissary of the dreaded “company;” and the Alien antagonist of the film, which (in the 2003 Assembly Cut of the film) bursts out of a dead animal within a butcher shop on the planet. Ripley cannot escape this fate as she has before. She must accept her fate, and death, before she can finally bring peace to herself and the human race, which is constantly being threatened by “the company” trying to use the Aliens as biological weapons. Ripley doesn’t know she’s a ghost until it’s too late—and she must make the ultimate sacrifice in order to find peace.
At its core, the Alien series explores many of humanity’s fears through Ripley’s adversarial relationship with the Xenomorphs; but it is the initial trilogy that truly explores these themes within the context of horror. In Alien, the haunted house unleashes a demon that reflects the horrors of sexualized violence—the facehugger grips its victim’s face and forces its proboscis down their throat, giving way to a phallic-like snake bursting from their chest. The full-grown Alien takes its victims into dark corridors, slides its serpentine tail up a female character’s leg before killing her off-screen, and then faces off against Ripley after she has undressed in her escape pod—vulnerable and alone. In Aliens, the fear manifests itself as the horror-mother, threatening to take yet another child from the tormented Ripley. Finally, Alien3 explores the fear of mortality. Ripley must not only confront death again but accept it, as the ghosts from her past haunt her until her final sacrifice.
Giger’s sensually constructed horror house and the relentless nature of the demon-like Alien species take us through one helluva ride through science fiction’s greatest house of horrors, as the full gambit of human fear is explored in the deepest—and darkest—reaches of space.
Andrew Tucker is an English teacher for Carroll County Public Schools by day, but by night… he sleeps because he is a public school teacher. He does take repose with his darling wife Sydney, and his many hobbies, such as action figure collecting, video game playing, and general pontificating on nerd culture.