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Spiders and flies – the Gothic monsters of sci-fi horror

“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes, then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket” – W.H. Auden

You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film. After all it’s set in space with all the hypersleep pods and computer terminals and rumbling star-drives you might want. The story happens in some distant (but not too distant) future where humanity feels at home travelling the gulfs between stars. It is, perhaps most pressingly, called Alien.

You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film and it’s not an absurd position to hold. It’s just wrong.

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(Don’t forget to read part one in this series examining sci-fi horror through a Gothic lens: The universe is a haunted house – the Gothic roots of science fiction)

Alien is not a science fiction film because, despite all the sci-fi furniture it’s decorated with, the narrative of the film is not overly interested in the speculative concerns about the impact of technology and science that lie at the heart of sci-fi. Alien is not interested in, say, how those hypersleep pods and interstellar distances change the humans who interact with them, simply because it doesn’t change them. The cast of Alien are workers at the end of their shift, commuting home in a slightly larger vehicle than we might be used to.

What Alien concerns itself with is what happens to a small group of travellers when, drawn by a duplicitous summons, they stray from the well-trodden path towards a distant castle. What happens, Alien asks, if these travellers unwittingly awaken the ancient, evil thing that lurks in this mist-haunted place? What happens when that thing, mesmeric and terrifying, begins to feed on them and, eventually, uses their flesh to make more of its kind.

When we consider the film’s plot like this it quickly becomes clear that Alien is not sci-fi. Alien is Gothic horror and, when it comes to that, a very specific form of Gothic horror.

Alien is a vampire film.

Admittedly, the idea of Alien as gothic horror is not new. Roger Luckhurst refers to its “appearance in the liminal zone between science fiction and gothic horror” in his 2014 overview of the film for the BFI Classics series. A contemporary review of Alien’s theatrical release by Vincent Canby of the New York Times also refers to it as “A Gothic Set In Space”. Even the (perhaps unwitting) inspiration Alien takes from Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires – in which parasitic aliens seek to dominate the bodies of the spaceship crews who stumble across their dying planet – renders its vampiric pedigree as less of a revelation than I might like.

Yet a vampire film it is and, like the best vampire films, Alien uses the taint that lurks in its sci-fi bloodstream to talk about a trope that derives directly from Gothic horror: that of monsters. In fact, as a narrative about vampires, Alien has a direct link to one of the great Gothic novels, containing one of the great Gothic monsters – Dracula.

Yet all horror stories are surely about monsters and, in fact, monsters – from the tigers of cave paintings and Biblical demons onwards – have been a staple of stories as long as there have been, well, stories. What is it that makes the Gothic interest in monsters, an interest which has been taken on by sci-fi horror, something more idiosyncratic?

In order to understand this we need to first look at what monsters are, starting with the word itself. As Dr Natalie Lawrence explains in an essay for the University of Cambridge’s Research Horizons series, “[the] etymology of monstrosity suggests the complex roles that monsters play within society. ‘Monster’ probably derives from the Latin, monstrare, meaning ‘to demonstrate’, and monere, ‘to warn’. Monsters, in essence, are demonstrative. They reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so.”

Interesting, definitely, but what is it that these monsters reveal?

In his essay on Gothic motifs for the British Library, Professor John Bowen gives some further insight by explaining that:

“[the] Gothic is thus a world of doubt, particularly doubt about the supernatural and the spiritual. It seeks to create in our minds the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge. But that possibility is constantly accompanied by uncertainty. […] The uncertainty that goes with Gothic is very characteristic of a world in which orthodox religious belief is waning; there is both an exaggerated interest in the supernatural and the constant possibility that even very astonishing things will turn out to be explicable.”

Professor Bowen then goes on to state that this doubt is compounded by how “[the] Gothic world is fascinated by violent differences in power” with antagonists who “seem able to break norms, laws and taboos at will”.

The demonstrative, revelatory power of monsters is shown clearly in their use by both Gothic and sci-fi horror; they embody an imbalance of power (often physical, sometimes intellectual), that breaks “norms, laws and taboos” to reveal “the possibility that there may be things beyond human power, reason and knowledge”. Yet Gothic and sci-fi horror go one step further; both accept that the existence of monsters is not inherently any more (or less) threatening than the existence of wild animals or natural disasters; even giant, radioactive ants, for example, are still just ants. Gothic and sci-fi horror understand that it is not the fact of monsters that we need to be warned about but the becoming of monsters.

This is shown by the types of monsters they use.

The core Gothic monsters – the vampire, the revenant and the ghost – are all uncannily near-human. Indeed they once were human but this, ironically, only serves to heighten the horror of their true nature. Equally, the monsters of sci-fi horror – the alien, the robot and the AI – are direct analogues of the Gothic triad and are often at their most horrifying when they appear to act like, yet subtly unlike, people.

Monsters are what we might be, if we were not us. Most horrifyingly, they are what we might yet become.

Gothic and sci-fi horror asks what happens when the membrane between the human and inhuman is not only reached, but breached?

I say “membrane” here, a very specific and unpleasantly organic word, because it links this discussion with a philosophical concept that illustrates Gothic monsters almost perfectly: Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection. Abjection is a complex theory of the tension between the Subject (myself, for example) and the Object (for all intents and purposes, other things which are not me). This is often rendered down to ideas of uncleanliness – even Kristeva herself talks of “[the] repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and muck” – and the way we deal, or fail to deal, with those things which are most unclean; spoiled food, bodily waste and human corpses.

However, it is more properly “not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order”. The simple existence of the unclean is not abject as long as there exists a system which defines the separation between the clean and the unclean; spoiled food is not abject in itself, only when it is found in a place where spoiled food should not be.

True abjection occurs once the membrane between the two – clean and unclean, humans and inhuman, self and other – becomes permeable or ruptures entirely.

Kristeva outlines this in a phrase which will become key: “The abjection […] reaches its peak when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things”.

It is when these clear delineations between “identity, system, order” – we could easily say when the “norms, laws, and taboos” of Professor Bowen’s Gothic definition – start to break down that we move away from the simple being of monsters to the more complex process of monstrosity, the becoming of monsters.

Alien and Dracula are hugely concerned with the taboo of abjection and, appropriately enough for vampire stories, the piercing of this membrane between the Subject and the Object.

Jonathan Harker sees many unsettling and unpleasant things during his stay with Dracula but it is when he watches the vampire climb down the outside of the castle – “just as a lizard moves along a wall” – that he asks with a singular sense of disgust “[what] manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man?”. Harker realises that Dracula is an inhuman creature that exists in the place of a real human. Dracula’s abject uncleanliness is also driven home not just by his diet of human blood and his need to sleep in a coffin filled with dirt but his revulsion when faced with traditionally purifying elements, namely flowing water and sunlight. Alien’s so-called xenomorph is as identifiable by its jelly-like drool and corrosive blood, both corruptions of recognisable bodily fluids, as it is by its rending claws and vampiric teeth. Similarly, as violent and frightening as the xenomorph is, there’s something even more profoundly repellent about the gushing, seminal fluid that smears across both the revelation of Ash’s synthetic nature – making him also a “semblance of a man” in the place of a real human – and his subsequent resurrection (Ash’s revenant nature is not only exceptionally Gothic but also abject; the membrane between what it means to be living and dead has been sundered).

Yet, strictly, these are all lesser abjections. Dracula, the xenomorph and Ash always were the inhuman things they are revealed to be, even if we did not always know.

Alien and Dracula both contain pivotal scenes of true abjection, however, where the membrane between the human and inhuman is ripped apart and, to paraphrase Kristeva, death interferes with that which is supposed to save us from death. Surprisingly, these scenes focus on characters who could never be considered minor but are also neither main protagonists nor antagonists. 

Ladies first, then, and we shall speak of the death, and undeath, of Lucy Westenra.

Lucy is described by everyone who knows her in positive terms – she is “honest-hearted” and “sweetly pretty”, kind to the elderly and animals – yet, over the course of Dracula, Lucy’s strength and beauty mysteriously fade. Despite the best attempts of her suitors – Dr John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood – and the Dutch professor Abraham Van Helsing, she eventually dies. Dr Seward quotes unwittingly prophetic lines of Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Death-Bed” – “We thought her dying when she slept/And sleeping when she died” – and makes an aside to Van Helsing: “Ah, well, poor girl, there is peace for her at last. It is the end!”

“Not so.” Van Helsing replies darkly. “Alas! not so. It is only the beginning!”

Van Helsing’s concerns are justified because Lucy has, in fact, been infected with vampirism by none other than Dracula himself. Mina Murray, Lucy’s friend and Jonathan Harker’s fiancee, unwittingly disturbs this nocturnal process when she shouts Lucy’s name at a “half-reclining white figure” she spots on Whitby’s West Cliff and “something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes”. She has, however, no way of understanding the significance of what she has seen. Dracula, and the process of vampirism, is allowed to proceed unmolested.

Five days after Lucy’s death, on the 25th September, the Westminster Gazette prints an article stating that:

“During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young children straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. In all these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligible account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a “bloofer lady” [most like a childish slurring of “beautiful lady”, given that she is later described as “winningly attractive”]. It has always been late in the evening when they have been missed, and on two occasions the children have not been found until early in the following morning.”

This is followed immediately by an “extra special” addendum:

“We have just received intelligence that another child, missed last night, was only discovered late in the morning under a furze bush at the Shooter’s Hill side of Hampstead Heath, which is, perhaps, less frequented than the other parts. It has the same tiny wound in the throat as has been noticed in other cases. It was terribly weak, and looked quite emaciated. It too, when partially restored, had the common story to tell of being lured away by the ‘bloofer lady.'”

In the wake of this, Van Helsing asks Seward if he thinks “that those so small holes in the children’s throats were made by the same that made the hole in Miss Lucy?” Seward states that he does and is rebuffed despairingly by the professor: “They were made by Miss Lucy!”

As Van Helsing has warned, Lucy’s apparent death was only the beginning and the group must face the now-vampiric Lucy and destroy her. They do this in the graveyard where she is buried, a place where “[never] did tombs look so ghastly white; never did cypress, or yew, or juniper so seem the embodiment of funereal gloom; never did tree or grass wave or rustle so ominously; never did bough creak so mysteriously; and never did the far-away howling of dogs send such a woeful presage through the night”. Even the acceptably funereal identity of a graveyard has started to break down into something monstrous, infected and made abject by the greater abjection of the undead Lucy.

Seward describes their meeting with the fledgling vampire:

“When Lucy – I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape – saw us she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares; then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew. At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing […] With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone.”

Lucy has become a monster who uses her vampiric powers – “beyond human power, reason and knowledge” – to break the “norms, laws and taboos” against harming children. Yet she has also gone beyond this. Lucy has succumbed not just to the uncleanliness of vampirism, hiding in tombs and feeding on blood, but the disruption of identity. Worse than Dracula, whose identity is entirely that of his vampirism, vampirism has rent apart the young woman’s innate Lucy-ness.

The membrane between Lucy-the-Human, the young and life-loving woman at the start of the book, and Lucy-the-Inhuman, in whom “sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty”, has been rent apart. She is both Lucy, still recognisable as such to Seward, and simultaneously a “thing” which “bears her shape”, unrecognisable enough that Seward is forced to use animals as reference points in describing her.

Her ordered place and being in the system of the world has collapsed into abjection, into monstrosity. Lucy has not only become undead, an unclean thing, but is now a death which kills one of the things that, as Kristeva says “is supposed to save me from death”; children and motherhood.

One of the most shocking scenes in sci-fi horror
One of the most shocking scenes in sci-fi horror

Lucy’s equivalent in Alien is Gilbert Ward “Thomas” Kane, executive officer of the M-Class starfreighter USCSS Nostromo. Like Lucy, Kane is well-liked by his compatriots and, like Lucy, Kane has an enthusiasm which the more cynical crew members confuse with naivety. It is this enthusiasm which sees Kane volunteer to “be in the first group to go out” and discover what the Nostromo has been drawn to; ship’s captain Dallas is unsurprised and responds with a wry “that figures”. It is this enthusiasm which makes him press on despite the “griping” of Lambert and the obviously alien, sinister nature of the crashed space ship they discover. It is, in many ways, this enthusiasm which sees him somewhat rashly investigate the clutch of eggs stored within it. Kane is, famously, ambushed by the contents of one of the eggs – the creature that has become known as a facehugger – and implanted with an alien embryo.

The June 1978 revised script for Alien, by Walter Hill and David Glier, is stark in how it outlines the sense of horror the discovery of this implantation generates:

ASH: We better look inside his head.
Ash punches three buttons.
An X-ray image appears.
A color depiction of Kane’s head and upper torso.
The Alien is clearly visible.
A maze of complicated biology.
Kane’s jaws are forced open.
The creature has extruded a long tube down his mouth and throat.
The appendage ending at the base of the aesophagus.
BRETT: It’s got something down his goddamn throat.

This in itself delves into the abject. Infection and infestation, along with ailments like cancer,  break the membrane between our Selves and the Other. Specifically, like vampires, they all corrupt their host into more of themselves. The Self is warped into the Other. 

Yet, as Van Helsing warned, this is only the beginning. 

Similar to Lucy, Kane’s affliction seems to wane once the facehugger apparently dies and his strength recovers with little more impact that a memory of “some horrible dream about smothering” followed by a burning hunger. What follows, in the ship’s mess, is perhaps one of the finest, most shocking scenes in sci-fi horror. Kane starts to cough and choke, then spasms onto the communal table. Believing him to be having a seizure, the crew hold him down and force his mouth open with a spoon.

Again, the staccato script outlines the next few moments:

A red stain.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The crew shouts in panic.
Leap back from the table.
The cat spits, bolts away.
The tiny head lunges forward.
Comes spurting out of Kane’s chest trailing a thick body.
Splatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
Then the Alien being disappears from sight.
Kane lies slumped in his chair.
Very dead.
A huge hole in his chest.
The dishes are scattered.
Food covered with blood.

Multiple parts of this scream abjection. Kane’s tipped shirt, as a prelude to his rent-open skin. The alien creature “spurting out” of his chest. The smearing of a once-hygienic dining area with “fluids” and “food covered in blood”.

There is also the very clear intention that Kane’s impregnation and the xenomorph’s “birth” are almost a mocking inversion of human reproduction, specifically human female pregnancy. This is an important element of Alien, and its sequels, given that it is a film suffused by imagery that often evokes themes rape and sexual violence.

Again, though, I turn to Kristeva’s statement that the abject is the death of those things which are supposed to “save me from death: childhood, science, among other things”. Kane is on a space ship, with an advanced medical suite operated by a competent science officer. Yet none of these things can save him. In fact, it is the collusion of that science officer, the synthetic human Ash, that leads to his death. Kane’s abjection, his rendering-down from a moral and thinking human into an amoral and unthinking monster, is the death that kills our surety in the protections of science.

(It is interesting, as an aside, that as much as it takes a breaking of “norms, laws, taboos” to create this duo of abjections it also takes one – violence against a woman, in the case of Lucy, and a woman committing violence, in the case of the xenomorph – to cleanse them.)

Which is all very interesting but what it the point of these Gothic monsters, this abjection. To return to Dr Lawrence’s definition of monsters, what is it they they “reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so”?

Firstly, monsters show us the mundane threats that exist in the world. In their most simple state monsters are not just threats to our bodies and minds but, with the potential to destroy both, they are also threats to our existence.

Secondly, monsters reveal the threats that exist to not just our existence but the way in which we exist. When Lucy is transformed into a vampire she still, in some way, exists and the book never truly addresses how much of Lucy-the-Human remains within Lucy-the-Inhuman. Seward explains how, once Arthur pierces Lucy’s body with a wooden stake, that, “in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate… but Lucy as we had seen her in her life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity”. Lucy-the-Human is recoverable, even if only in death. Equally, the survivors of both stories now have to live with the revelations of those stories; they have survived encountering their monsters, but their realities have not. Stories rarely talk about this, as films end and books are closed, but the Alien series is very much about how Ripley deals with her trauma and survivor’s guilt.

Thirdly, most importantly, monsters portend what what happens when we trust too deeply in the networks of “identity, system, order” that they rip apart. Lucy is innocent and childlike because the system she exists in expects that from her; Quincey Morris repeatedly refers to her as “little girl” even though she is nineteen years old. Similarly, because that system portrays her as someone who needs protecting she expects that she will be protected. This is also why the much more active sexuality of the vampiric Lucy repels her once-suitors so much – Lucy approaches Arthur Holmwood with “a wanton smile” and “a languorous, voluptuous grace” which makes Seward “shudder to see” – and there is, in fact, an argument that Dracula has freed one aspect of Lucy from the shackles of Victorian decorum as much as he has enslaved another to his will. Lucy is killed because she threatens the stability of that system – a system which has become monstrous to her, as much as she has become monstrous to it – perhaps more than because she threatens the characters of the novel.

MU/TH/UR 6000 or “Mother”

The crew of the Nostromo also trust too heavily in their technological systems and, like Lucy, are rendered childlike by that trust. It is not coincidental that the computer that runs these systems for them – a MU-TH-UR 6000 182 model 2.1 terabyte AI mainframe – is known as Mother. Not just this but, as mentioned before, that system of science kills them as assuredly as the xenomorph does, as Lucy’s own system killed her. The scientific aims of Ash and his corporate owners to capture the xenomorph for their own ends and Mother’s support through Special Order 937 – “Priority one/Insure return of organism for analysis/All other considerations secondary/Crew expendable” – also become monstrous (ironically, for Kristeva, because objectivism has become subjective). The system that “is supposed to save me from death” – science’s ultimate aim is surely to improve the lot of humanity – has been killed by those who operate that system.

The monsters of Gothic and sci-fi horror ultimately have the same warning, a warning which is as valid in sci-fi’s future as it was in the Gothic’s past: if you put your trust in the human, be sure that it is not inhuman.

Or, written another way:

Trust not too deeply in the monsters who say they will save us from monsters.

Next we will look at the environments of Gothic and sci-fi horror and how, rather than humans becoming inhuman, there is a place where the inanimate can become animate.

Watch your step, because this place is a tomb…

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By Daniel Pietersen

Daniel Pietersen is a writer of weird fiction and critical non-fiction on horror and horror theory. When not writing articles or preparing conference papers, you will find Daniel still trying to complete Dark Souls 2. Daniel is on Twitter as @pietersender and much of his work can be found through his website.

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