Welcome back to Shocktoberfest, and today we’re going to examine another one of my personal favorites that has become a cultural staple as one of the most recognizable monsters of modern culture: the xenomorph.
The inception of this creature came about in 1979 when Ridley Scott was directing his sophomore film, Alien. While kicking around ideas for the design of the alien, Scott was given a copy of Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s book, Necronomicon. Impressed with the grim and sexual tone of Giger’s work, Scott saw great potential with the designs and ultimately decided that the print called Necronom IV would act as the basis for the creature’s form.
The name “xenomorph” translates to “strange/alien form,” and was never spoken in the film. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley didn’t refer to them as such until the 1986 sequel Aliens. What makes the xenomorphs different from most modern extraterrestrial races in science fiction is that they are not part of a technological civilization. They’re nothing more than predatory beasts with no other motivation than to make their population grow and kill off any other life form that might pose a threat to their survival. Much like bees, they are a eusocial order with a single queen who breeds a hive of workers that mature over a four-stage life cycle. The queen lays eggs which hatch into larval parasites colloquially known as facehuggers. The facehugger projects itself from the egg onto the oral cavity of its host and impregnates it with its embryo. Once the embryo has been implanted, the facehugger releases itself and dies. As the embryo incubates, it takes on the DNA of whatever host it inhabits and grows into what is known as a chestburster, and just as the name implies, the creature violently emerges fatally ripping open the chest of the host. From there the xenomorph matures and grows to its adult form in a matter of hours .
One more note about the xenomorph’s design: the inherent androgynous features. Not only does the creature not have eyes–which is beyond creepy–but many of the protrusions and orifices found on its body are meant to look both phallic and vaginal. Why is this? Because if the Alien series is about anything, it’s about rape. (Not kidding)
To make the xenomorph even more frightening beyond it’s hellish appearance, Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon wanted to terrorize the audience on a psychological level as well. O’Bannon himself has said,
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'”
Besides the more obvious examples like the facehugger, the adult xenomorph, despite being larger and more physically-imposing than a human, hides in the shadows before it attacks and usually does so from around the corner to catch its prey off guard.
Seven years later, James Cameron was helmed to direct the sequel to Scott’s film and teamed up again with Sam Winston to redesign the aliens, although aside from making them a little bigger and having a slightly more detailed exoskeleton, they didn’t really look too different.
The biggest change in the film’s sequel was the tone. Scott’s film was claustrophobic, slow and suspenseful. Cameron’s film–having a whole army and queen of xenomorphs to work with–was more open, fast-paced and exciting, but that didn’t make it a lesser film. Sigourney Weaver was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress as Ellen Ripley–an honor she was not given from the first film–and solidified herself as a leading actress worthy to play any action hero.
Since the first two films, two more sequels have been made (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection), two crossover films (Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) and a brief appearance in the recent prequel to Alien, Prometheus.
Since 1979, the Alien franchise has gone on to make video games, toys, comic books, future Prometheus sequels and has even been parodied in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs with John Hurt returning to have another chestburster break through his ribcage. Only instead of killing everyone around, the chestbuster sings “Hello! Ma Baby” and dances off camera in the style of Bert Williams.
It seems odd that a character that represents such a dark taboo would grow to be so popular, but with its sexually-explicit mystique and esoteric nature, we couldn’t help it. The title Alien is meant, in a sense, to be both a noun and an adjective. Yes, the xenomorph is an alien from another world, but the essence of its existence is also something completely alien from anything we know. As time moves forward, we can expect to see this monster stalking us in the darkest corners of our nightmares.
Fun fact: Blondie’s guitarist, Chris Stein, was a close friend of H.R. Giger.