The Terror of Alien

The Terror of Alien

~ essay on the primordial terror of the xenomorph and the Alien series.

For years now I have had dreams featuring the xenomorph in some form and capacity. That is, THE monstrous, cosmic horror-inducing alien from the Alien series.

I have been ardently keeping a dream journal since 2015 and the xenomorph — in its blackened, mecha-skeletal, nightmarishly-elongated, apex-predatory form — has appeared in, on average, about two of my dreams per year. That may not sound like a lot, but no other random creature or figure or symbol recurs nearly that much. I guess my dreams are pretty diverse affairs, with many people and many shadows.


Good question. Maybe because of my obsession with cinema, including the many Alien films. Maybe because the xenomorph is perfectly designed to capture our fears, the thing being designed from a creative culmination of death-dealing creatures and unconscious myths.

The xenomorph is “a fictional endoparasitoid extraterrestrial species that is the antagonist of the Alien film series.” With its exterior defined by fangs and a giant tail, a combination of bony blades and smooth exo-armor the color of shadow, the titular alien features the nasty traits of spiders and snakes alike, two of humanity’s mortal foes.

For you Freudians, it also looks like an engorged phallus. Acid flows through its body as blood. The xenomorph leaves slime everywhere it goes, is full of spikes and teeth and has a mouth within its mouth. Their perfectly diabolical reproductive process includes a horrifying death to human hosts, stealing their life and DNA as nutrients.

It’s almost like the xenomorph was created …to scare the living hell out of us.

ALL Xenomorphs Explained

But I guess I should mention, as a way of seeing into my own perhaps disquieting subconscious mind, that none of my xenomorph dreams were ever truly nightmares.

Instead of fear, my xenomorph dreams — (like Ian Holm’s Ash and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop and Michael Fassbender’s David) — were defined more by fascination. I can remember the dreams being on starships or in labs, with the xenomorph hunting others or chasing me. A basic template from the films. But I never really woke up from those dreams sweating with heart racing; I was just intrigued, surprised at yet another appearance of this strange, fictional alien shadow.

Why does the xenomorph enthrall me so?

Not sure. But I wanted to write about it and what makes them such a perfect organism — and a perfect vehicle for horror.


Xenomorph: The Perfect Organism

The xenomorph is not only the perfect organism, as Ian Holm’s creepy Ash describes in the first film — it is also the perfect cinematic horror villain.

Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?

Ash: You can’t.

Parker: That’s bullshit.

Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Lambert: You admire it.

Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.


The tagline for Alien (1979) was apt: In space no one can hear you scream.

That’s another way of saying that against the alien void of a non-earth existence, there can be no delusions about morality, or mercy.

From a creative capacity, and in the fiction of the Alien universe, the xenomorph is a perfect creature. Like Michael Myers from Halloween (1978), it cannot be reasoned with; unlike the psychopathic yet still human Myers, its instincts as an inhuman beast can be understood quite well: It wants to hunt and kill and eat and reproduce, and do it all as efficiently as possible.

Their lifecycle of egg > facehugger > infant > xenomorph is a sequence of horrifying perfection, with every step full of goop and potential bloodletting to its human encounterers.

The documentary explaining the origins of the first film — Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019) — details how the xenomorph’s original, sublimely terrifying design was provided by artist H.R. Giger.

Born in 1940 in Chur, Switzerland, Giger’s dark imagination drew from the well of the Nazis horrors. He transformed his fears on the canvas, from frightening reality to a universe of artistic creation. Giger’s surrealistically stunning biomechanical style created its own genre, and was the eventual inspiration for the daemonically beautiful xenomorph.

The xenomorph’s design is perfect in another way — as dualistically beautiful and terrifying, as a creaturely metaphor for desire and fear, sex and death, at the same time.

So perfect, like a plague — or the profit motive — the xenomorph is destined to wipe us out if we let it.

Humanity vs. The Outside: Capitalism Unconsciously Conspires Cosmic Horror

One of the major themes of the Alien series is that corporations and A.I. will always betray human life. Because they are immortal, they are separate from humanity.

How could an immortal inhuman ever value life the same as a mortal human?

In Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) it is the working class that investigates the horrors of the deep, and it is they who are slaughtered. The alien wipes out the crew of the Nostromo in large part because the company values the potential use of the alien as an asset more than it cares about them or their ship as assets. It’s purely a cost-benefit analysis for A.I. Ash and his master in the corporation which employs his crewmates and built him. For the colonial marines sent in to investigate LV-426, it is done less to save the missing colonists and more to recover any xenomorphs for potential use by their employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, as a biological weapon.

In Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), it is the ruling class (top scientists and executives) and middle class (colonists), respectively, that experience the bio-horrors of the xenomorph’s domain. In the case of the malevolent, narcissistic A.I. David, the humans are simply expendable experimental subjects for the building of his own delusional creation fantasy through the alien’s massacres. The hubris of humanity’s explorers searching for our creators and trying to conquer space crumbles away with fitting demises at the hands of a superior superpredator.

In space, where no one can hear you scream and you can only breathe for a moment, it is disheartening enough to call horrifying those motives which cause our companies and robots to throw away our lives like they are nothing at all.

If resource extraction and the profit motive and endless growth are the core drive, then human life truly pales in comparison. Corporate domination and A.I. ambivalence morph into cosmic horror in the far future space age (even as they drive on extinction to prevent its arrival).

Post-human Nightmares: Alien and A.I.

What do you call a creature which cannot laugh but can reason? It cannot “think” like we do but its instincts are perfect, its traits and attributes perfectly evolved for its purpose. One that cannot die easily, if at all. It can live without air and grows in minutes. It has acid for blood and no clear weaknesses. Its fast, faster than its prey. And it can murder us without a thought, and it wants to. It certainly has no conscience.

Monster? In Alien, it’s the xenomorph. And the A.I.

They are each post-human nightmares, separate but similar. It is thus no wonder, in the Alien timeline, that they work so wonderfully together.

David supplies the meat to grow the xenomorph while it provides him the ego.

Together — or apart! — the xenomorph and the rogue A.I. each represent an extinction-level threat. They can wipe us out. They desperately want to. And they’ve begun the work.

They are a dying species, grasping for resurrection. They don’t deserve to start again, and I am not going to let them.”

In the Alien mythos, a confrontation with our own nightmares — in the forms of technology, monsters, science-fiction futures— dramatized to fuckin’ horrify us! … is an effective vehicle for messages about what we should do about our own future. ~

Mother, the Nostromo's AI from Alien: cassettefuturism
Ripley taking control in the Control Room… When will we do the same?