Why is the horror and gore in Ridley Scott‘s sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien, so compelling? So fascinating? The film has become a classic that people return to. Are its fans sadists, reveling in seeing people hunted and mutilated? Or maybe masochists? If Aristotle were to sit down with a bucket of buttered popcorn in a crowded movie theater to see this film, his answer would be “neither”. He would observe something more mysterious and transformative going on with the film’s audience.
When Alien debuted in 1979, it was the era of George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which blockbuster aliens were mostly good-humored sidekicks like Chewbacca or benevolent, awe-inspiring visitors who filled the night sky with childlike color and music. Alien promised something entirely different. One producer, looking back at the early days of the film shoot, said, “If Star Wars was The Beatles, we wanted to be The Rolling Stones. Nastier, dirtier, sexier.”
The original poster – with its chilling tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream”, and the image of a just cracking open alien egg, spewing out a sinister green light – promised plenty of terror. And gore.
Malcolm Turvey, director of the Film and Media Studies program at Tufts University, who ranks Alien in his top three horror films, says “the beast within” is a common theory explaining horror films’ popularity. “This theory argues that an unconscious, repressed part of every human is actually savage; that the veneer of civility is very thin, and beneath that is essentially a monster,” he says. “According to this idea, although we consciously disapprove of what the monster is doing, deep down part of us enjoys seeing the murder and mayhem the monster unleashes—because if we could, we would do that.”
But the idea that people are really blood-lusting predators, who are thrilled at the core by the amorality of a horror film monster, is rooted in an outdated view of human nature, the social Darwinism that emerged in the west in the 19th century and dominated the 20th. Essayist Rebecca Solnit, an advocate of the ‘mutual aid’ movement, in a 2021 column for The Guardian, describes what she sees happening in American society as “a shift in worldview from the autonomous individual of hypercapitalism and social Darwinism to a recognition of both the natural and social worlds as orchestras of interdependence, of survival as an essentially collaborative and cooperative business.”
Indeed, as Aristotle observed at the dawn of western philosophy, “Man is by nature a social animal.” So maybe the ‘beast within’ is a myth, maybe people aren’t really monsters, walking around suppressing the impulse to mutilate, murder and rob. People can become monsters, but being a violent, selfish monster isn’t at the core of human nature.
We’re still left with the question – why the fascination with horror and gore? Aristotle was the first philosopher known to say that fear is a desirable emotion. Fear and, yes, as part of that, gore. Aristotle is all for the gore. In his essay Poetics, a touchstone for thinking about theater for centuries, one of the three necessary elements that go into the plot of a tragedy – the noblest form of theater – is suffering:
“Suffering is an action that involves destruction or pain (e.g., deaths in full view, extreme agony, woundings and so on).”
Alien vividly delivers on the suffering, most infamously in the scene where the Alien gnaws and claws its way out of Kane’s body, as he writhes and screams on the cafeteria table until it finally bursts bloodily out of his chest. To create as much fear and distress as he could in his actors, Scott secretly filled the bursting prosthetic chest with real sheep intestines and bloody offal. The horrified terror of the actors, splattered with real blood and guts, was as genuine as possible. This artificial yet visceral scene of suffering – of extreme agony and death in full view – graphically sets up the intensity of the gore that the Alien is capable of wreaking. We know it can only escalate from here: intensifying fear lies ahead.
In his definition of tragedy, Aristotle famously writes that it “effects through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.” What it means to purify pity and fear has been an ongoing debate – there has also been an ongoing debate about whether “purify” is even the best way to translate “katharsis”.
Malcolm Heath, a 20th-century translator and editor of Poetics, points to two other places where Aristotle uses the word, in one case describing people getting “as it were healing and katharsis.” In another instance, Aristotle observes, “precisely the same effect applies to those prone to pity or fear…for all these occurs katharsis and pleasurable relief.” So katharsis is not quite the same as healing, or pleasurable relief, though clearly closely allied and beneficial. Heath eventually throws up his hands and says the question of what katharsis means may be a question for psychology, not philosophy.
Setting aside, for the moment, what katharsis ultimately means, to provide it the tragedy must meet Aristotle’s standards. In Poetics, Aristotle analyzes what goes into a tragedy powerful enough to lead to the katharsis of pity and fear. Does Alien qualify? The structure of Scott’s Alien maps surprisingly well onto Aristotle’s requirements for a powerful tragedy, and even goes beyond Aristotle. Aristotle mostly dismisses audiences as having inferior intellects, but Scott shows an appreciation for what an audience has to contribute psychologically to the intensity of his film.
For the persons of a tragedy to be tragic, Aristotle writes, they must be worthy of our attention; they are like us, if sometimes nobler: “pity has to do with the undeserving sufferer, fear with the person like us.” Scott takes his time to create realistic characters. We spend half an hour getting to know the crew before the first encounter with the Alien. These are not glamorous heroes on a mission, but regular people, just workers, professionals, a bit bored, but conscientious and good at their jobs.
Scott brought together a cast of accomplished, older actors who were not famous enough to lead a film, but skilled character actors that make each member of the Alien crew distinct, memorable, and relatable. In his unsatisfying 2017 film, Alien: Covenant, you’d be hard-pressed to remember who is whom among the beautiful young crew that gets rapidly massacred. The seasoned, lived-in crew of Alien’s Nostromo meets Aristotle’s requirements for pity and fear. We think we know them and we feel for them as they get picked off.
Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the captain, is the first to try to hunt down the Alien, and his death is a selfless sacrifice for the sake of the crew. Parker (Yaphet Kotto), the engineer, also shows nobility when he tries to rescue Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) from the Alien and gets himself killed. But the noblest character in the film, the character who unexpectedly emerges as the hero of the film, is a heroine, Ripley, in the role that made Sigourney Weaver a star.