[ Content warning for gore and sexual assault ]

Everyone has that one horror movie they watched as a kid that left them with nightmares for months after the fact. That movie, for me, was Alien (1979) with its featured creature: the xenomorph. Back then, there was no shortage of horror movies about alien monsters who would kill off a group of people. So that instills the question, what sets apart the Alien movies from the rest? What makes the xenomorph one of the most memorable and influential monsters of its time?

The Alien franchise’s monster, the xenomorph, designed by H.R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi, is a thing of freakish nature. In Greek, “xenomorph” translates to “strange form” (xenos=strange, morphe=form). It is described as an “extraterrestrial endoparasitoid species with multiple lifecycles…” meaning it lives within a host during the early stages of its life. Its life begins as a large egg containing a facehugger, a quasi-arachnoid life form. When it detects the presence of a host, the facehugger will jump out of the egg and attach itself to the face of the host, feeding embryos and oxygen into the mouth through a long, phallic tube. The facehugger later detaches from the host and dies, and a young, worm-like xenomorph bursts through the host’s chest, killing them. When fully grown, it is generally 7-8 feet long with a long pointed tail and an oblong, banana shaped head. It possesses a toothed maw hiding a proboscis-like inner mouth in which it uses to feed and four clawed fingers on either hand. With these traits it terrorizes the crew on the Nostromo, a commercial space tug. The crew consists of Captain Dallas, Executive Officer Kane, Warrant Officer Ripley, Navigator Lambert, Science Officer Ash, and Parker and Brett, the two engineers.

The Alien movies are all littered with obscure sexual innuendos and violence. The ship containing xenomorph eggs resembled two spread legs with entrances between them. The face huggers facially raping their chosen hosts with a phallic appendage. Lambert having the xenomorph’s pointed tail inserted inside of her. Ash inserting a porn magazine into Ripley’s mouth, perhaps to imitate the xenomorph, and represent Ash’s admiration and envy of its physical perfection. In a YouTube video titled “An Analysis: Alien” The Long Take says that the alien is “founded on principles of sexual horror intended to assault the viewer at a visceral, subconscious level…” This sexual violence could appeal to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s first theory in his Monster Theory: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body. This thesis states that the monster is created by a culture and is inspired by the time period, places, and beliefs that it is created in. There is no doubt that the risk of being raped, forced to keep the child, and then dying due to childbirth is a common feminine fear. The alien’s ability to inflict this fate on anyone regardless of gender makes it an extremely terrifying, anxiety inducing monster. In the 1970’s discussions about sexual violence and abortion came to the forefront. Discussions of rape bloomed in the early 1970’s. A speak out on rape was held at St. Clement’s Church in New York City in January of 1971 followed by a conference on rape in April 1971. These events helped increase public awareness of sexual violence. In 1972 an individual began growing the YWCA H.O.P.E. center and the Washington D.C. Rape Crisis Center formed. It is no wonder that this topic heavily influenced the Alien movies’ designs.

The xenomorph can also be analyzed under Cohen’s second thesis: The Monster Always Escapes. This thesis states that the monster is always reincarnated as a fragment of itself, representing events and abnormalities in the culture and/or society that creates it. Biologically, the xenomorph is seemingly indestructible. It has a protective exoskeleton, it bleeds an extremely corrosive acid, and, according to Ash, has an outer layer of amino acids for “prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions.” which in turn makes it “one tough little son of a bitch.” In the final scenes of the movie, Ripley shoots the xenomorph from her escape pod through the airlock and kills it. She believes the dangers are over for now, but doesn’t know about the entire alien ship full of alien eggs. As Cohen writes “Regardless of how many times Sigourney Weaver’s beleaguered Ripley utterly destroys the ambiguous Alien that stalks her, its monstrous progeny return, ready to stalk again in another bigger-than-ever sequel.” (Cohen, 4). Each time the monster comes back to us in a new movie, it always changes. For example, the xenomorph in Alien 3, in comparison to the monster in the first movie, is revamped. These new aliens are fast and agile as they run on all fours, giving them the name Runners. They can spit acid from their mouths with impressive distance and are generally larger than original xenomorphs. These changes are due to the species’ tendency to inherit traits from its host’s physiology, in this case: dogs and oxen. Rather than keeping the same old xenomorph, it is now faster, bigger, stronger, harder to kill and therefore, scarier.

Finally, the xenomorph can be analyzed under Cohen’s third thesis: The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis. This thesis states that monsters are unable to be categorized within human knowledge, based on our science, logic, and experiences. The xenomorph begins its life as an egg-like creature, which releases a quasi-arachnoid life form, then resembles a vaguely worm-like organism when born, then becomes an adult xenomorph. In Harvey R. Greenberg’s book, Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, he writes of the xenomorph: “It is a Linnean nightmare, defying every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid. It seems capable of lying dormant within its egg indefinitely. It sheds its skin like a snake, its carapace like an arthropod. It deposits its young into other species like a wasp….It responds according to Lamarckian and Darwinian principles.” The idea that we cannot classify the xenomorph under any human science label scares us, it makes it harder to understand and therefore makes it different.

In comparison to other monsters, of its time and afterwards, the xenomorph is one of my favorites. Due the many sharp teeth, the inner mouth lying inside the maw, the exoskeleton and oblong head, no eyes, six claws, a long pointed tail and the fluid that drips from its maw, I rate its terrifying appearance at 4.5 on a 5 star scale. Next, I rate the xenomorph’s “hard to kill” quality at 5 out of 5 stars because of its protective exoskeleton and its outer layer of amino acids. The best trait of all is its acid blood, taking the fact that the crew is on a spaceship into account. How do you kill something that uses acid for blood without it completely destroying the ship? I rate the alien’s inability to be labeled within human understanding at 3 stars. Next, I rate the alien’s inability to be labeled within human understanding at 3 stars. It was described by Greenberg as “bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid.” and yet, we still know that it is both animalistic and organic. We know that it eats, but we don’t know how or what. This brings me to the next rating: I rate this monster at 4.5 stars for its unpredictability. It has no eyes so you are not sure what it’s looking at, it grows extremely fast and is very stealthy. In Alien the crew believed that the facehugger was feeding Kane oxygen, not embryos. So giving birth to the young xenomorph without warning was very unpredictable.

To reiterate, the xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien movie series is a truly unnerving and terrifying creature, regardless of your age. Through the use of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture, we can analyze just what makes the xenomorph such an incredibly designed monster; we can see just how scary it really is.

Sources Cited:

  1. Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott. Story by Dan O’Bannon. 20th Century Fox, 1979
    Alien is a late 70’s sci-fi horror film about a space crew on a commercial space tug who encounter the Alien. The crew must work together to repair their ship while being hunted by the indestructible creature. I will be using Alien in my monster analysis essay as the primary text and use it to analyze the monster the movie is about. I will use this in comparison to other primary sources. This source is reliable because it is the origin of the xenomorph creature.
  2. Alien 3. Directed by David Fincher. Story by Vincent Ward. 20th Century fox, 1992.
    I will be using Alien 3 in my monster analysis essay as the second primary text and to compare the xenomorph in this movie to its original.
  3. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
    These theses are about what makes a monster so monstrous. It outlines the cultural, geographical, and religious ways in which monsters can be born. I will be using these theses as a scholarly source in my monster analysis essay and to analyze the reasons and ways in which my monster, the xenomorph, was created. This source is reliable because the author is the Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University and co-president of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.
  4. “An Analysis: Alien.” YouTube, uploaded by The Long Take, 8 October 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmIBeK6fYAQ
    This video tells about the Alien movies’ sexual underlying themes. The narrator also explains how the movie grabbed so much attention and what the xenomorph itself represents. I will be using this video as my second scholarly source and to fully understand the monster behind the movie.
  5. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. “Some Things We Know About Aliens.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2007, pp. 1-23.
    This journal article is an examination of aliens from sci-fi films. It raises the question of how we can design creatures to be as non-human as possible, yet to still have human traits. I will be using this journal article as my third scholarly source and to analyze how the monsters we create can still be human somehow. This source is reliable because it is a scholarly journal published by the Modern Humanities Research Association.