Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Elements of Horror: Aliens

On a personal note, I have decided to abandon my NaNoWriMo for this year. The story just wasn't ready to be told yet and forcing it out has been very damaging. I will continue to do these Elements of Horror Blog entries, though. Although now with a more personal touch since I am not writing in the voice of a character.

Now, in regards to aliens, I have a theory about horror that it taps into our collective narcissism and low self-esteem. Aliens are almost a perfect example of this idea. For aliens to be a threat to us, they have to exist. I think the smart money now is on the idea that somewhere out there in the universe, there must be an inhabited planet besides our own. That these other life forms would be superior to us demonstrates those low self-esteem blues. That they would also mean us harm or want our resources is very narcissistic. As we will see when I get into some of the more religiously rooted horror, I think we, as a species want it both ways. We want to be the apex predator but we deeply fear that we are not.

I watched a really great documentary recently called The Nightmare (as I mentioned in the opening blog). It talks about sleep paralysis and how many people see the same creatures coming after them while they are in the throes of their illness. These creatures look like the dapper gent I have posted above. That some people describe them as demons and others as aliens just says to me that they are The Other. Whatever our world view secretly is (secular or non), that is how our mind would interpret such organisms.

The Greys, that is the alien pictured above, are creepy but also vaguely human. Skin, eyes, nostrils, a mouth, walking upright, two arms and two legs...these things are a slightly distorted reflection of us. Why do we assume an alien would just start probing and experimenting with us as soon as they find us? Because, duh, that is what we would obviously do to them. As humans, we take apart and examine things we don't understand...why wouldn't an alien?

I would have to wonder how colonialism affected all this, too. As empires were spreading and assimilating, did that permanently change how we would have to view the Other? If Native Americans had an encounter that they could attribute to beings from beyond our world, I imagine they would not see them as conquerors but just another life form to share all of existence with.

I think the less human an alien is portrayed, the scarier they are. While greys are chilling and Predators are the off world embodiment of that jerk who killed that famous lion, HR Giger's Alien is probably the most horrific alien. It doesn't have technological superiority, it isn't smarter than us...it is the equivalent of a shark or a vicious cuckoo bird, existing only to eat and reproduce. James Cameron expanded that vision into one of a creature that lives in glorified ant or bee colonies. This isn't a twisted reflection of us coming to kill us from beyond the stars, it is a twisted version of nature itself.

Probably the first, best example of alien horror is HG Wells' War of the Worlds. Aliens come all the way to Earth to blast us to cinders using ray beams. This is the alien as conquistador set up. Instead of following the historical patterns of aliens carrying rare diseases to which we are not immune, Wells made it the other way around. Our diseases are lethal to them and our salvation comes from dumb luck rather than ingenuity.

I think it is telling that, 100 years after Wells' story, the movie Independence Day followed a similar plot but hinged on human endeavor to win the day. I think the main difference is that Western society was emerging from the industrial revolution at the time of the War of the Worlds. Life even 100 years earlier was all but unrecognizable. Our fears were that we would meet something so far beyond us as we were beyond the indigenous people of the Amazon. By Independence Day, we figure we can give any alien technology a run for its money if we just give Jeff Goldblum a laptop to work with.

That's why I would say that we have lost the more horrifying aspects of alien stories when they are told as large scale invasions. Only bodysnatchers taking our identities or abductors threatening our anal integrity can really scare us. But, in this regard, how are aliens any different than other monster?


  1. "they are The Other" - I really like that way that sounds. That's a good way of putting it.

    This was a really interesting entry! Of course, I've been interested in aliens since The X-Files stole my heart... but I've also always been a big fan of anything to do with space, other galaxies... just, in general, the vast unknown of it. I think about it in more of an introspective way, I guess, and it's not a scary thing to me really. But I agree with all your points here on the general view of intelligent beings from other worlds and the idea that we fear being scienced by them because it's what we, as a civilization, would do in return.

    The bit you mentioned about James Cameron's ant/bee colonies reminded me that honestly, ants are becoming one of the most horrifying things to me. We just watched Them! the other day, and for real...? The thought of giant ants roaming the Earth sounds like a legit threat. Like, if that happened, I would be full on panicking and I feel like we would legit be doomed if someone didn't take drastic measures...

    1. I plan to do an entry on Nature Gone Wild as that is yet another essential element of horror.