Modern Horror in Science-Fiction:
Recent decades has seen a true cross-pollination of film genres, as what were once clearly defined movie categories have started to merge together. In 1979, Alien helped to redefine the horror film by placing the action in a science-fiction setting, as did The Thing in 1982. Not only can these films be defined as horror by their use of monsters and dark, creepy atmosphere, but they follow the necessary requirements to be defined as "modern" horror as well, where the narrative confronts us with our own subconscious fears by showing us transgressions to our everyday world.2. DEFINING ALIEN AND THE THING AS HORROR
In his book The Philosophy of Horror Noel Carroll tries to confine the genre by stating that something supernatural has to be at the base of the actions being subjected upon the protagonists. If these events are explained in any scientific sense, they are no longer part of the realm of Horror1. This seems to be too narrow a definition: in Alien and The Thing (and indeed in much of horror / sci-fi) the role of the typical ghouls, demons, and undead creatures are taken over by entities so alien to us, so strange, so terrifying (and ones that are, indeed, never really satisfactorily explained in any real or even pseudo-scientific sense in either film) that they become in a sense almost supernatural to our eyes.
Robin Wood provides a more general definition of the horror film as a collective nightmare where "normality is threatened by the Monster"2. An easy definition to follow for both of the sci-fi films we will discuss, as Alien and The Thing present two of the most memorable monsters of cinematic history.
All horror films, be they "classical" or "modern" need what H.P. Lovecraft calls the necessary ingredient for a good horror story: a good sense of atmosphere3. It is not the mechanics of the plot nor even the film-maker’s original intent that is the dominating factor, but the emotional response of the audience, their feeling of dread towards unknown forces revealed by the story’s development and description of a palpable, terrifying atmosphere. With dark interiors, contrasts of lights and shadows, remote and desolate landscapes, good camera work, and a constant feeling of tension and suspense, Alien and The Thing deliver atmosphere in spades.
3. ALIEN AND THE THING AS MODERN HORROR
The modern (and post-modern) horror film (that is, horror films made after the mid-60’s) is described by Isabel Pinedo in her article "Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film" as having four main aspects4: There is a disruption of normality (1) and a violation of boundaries (2) that disrupt the social order (3) with an open-ended final outcome (4).
3.1 Disruption of Normality
As Gregory Waller puts it in his introduction to American Horrors5, modern horror tries to make the horror more palpable, more "real" by situating it in the everyday world, one populated by people we can relate to.
3.1.1 Creation of Normality
In science-fiction, situating the action in the everyday world is rarely feasible: for one, the overall locations are usually extra-ordinary (such as the space-ship in Alien or the Antarctic location in The Thing) and the situations where we meet the protagonists are just as extraordinary. Normality, in the case of the Nostromo, is in the crew’s dull routine of freighting cargo; in the case of the Antarctic base it is in the casual tediousness displayed in their attempts at alleviating boredom. It is in the development of their respective characters (even one-dimensionally), by showing them as typical working-class John or Jane Doe, having a beer, sharing a joke, worrying about their cash bonuses, that they become familiar and that the audience makes a connection to these people, all the better to make what happens to them more shocking.
3.1.2 Violent Interruption
Isabel Pinedo stresses that the interruption of normality (in this case by the threat of the alien presence) is usually violent and shocking in its disruption6.
In Alien, the first hints of this interruption is when the crew realizes that they are receiving a signal from an alien intelligence and explore the eerie catacombs that have become the alien ship’s remains. Our first shock is without doubt when John Hurt’s character, Kane, first gets attacked by the "face-hugger", but it’s a shock that is half-expected. The true violent interruption of normality, though, is the moment the crew is enjoying a meal around the mess table, when they think that they have escaped danger. Just as they are relaxing back into their routine (and the audience is lulled back into believing they are witnessing a quiet moment) the Alien entity bursts out of Kane’s chest. It is one of the most clear-cut and cringingly violent interruptions of normality ever put to film, and has probably caused more than its share of nightmares. Even today, the bloody and convincing special effects sequence has a way of involuntarily repulsing us – there is no mistaking that normality has been shattered.
Once again thanks to ever-evolving special effects, The Thing provides a sequence that is just as impressive, if not quite as shocking. There is already a certain constant tension building in the first half-hour of the film before the Norwegian husky enters the dog cage and the other animals start barking their dismay at the intruder. When the men finally run into the room and manage to shed some light, they witness their first glimpse of the Thing: an outrageous scene as the dog’s shape has been turned inside-out into a frightening lump of alien biology seething out tentacles from every side. The men are stunned at this breach in their familiar reality, and it is no less shocking for the audience to see such a monstrosity discarding the normal physical boundaries of a common house pet. Similar scenes are repeated during the movie with increasing horror, culminating in the scene where the doctor tries to administer CPR to a team member and the dead character’s chest opens up revealing a set of jagged teeth that chomp down on the medic’s arms and sever them at the elbows. In the ensuing confusion the dead man’s head splits from its body, drops to the floor, sprouts legs and skitters across the floor. It is a shocking sequence that screams irrationality, and one that breaks the boundaries of human experience.
3.2 Violation of Boundaries
In his article "Dread, Taboo and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film"7, Stephen Prince stresses the importance of social language to construct an environment that tries to eliminate ambiguity and sets systems of clearly delineated order. Social prohibitions are perceived as dangerous because their existence, their lack of obvious categorization, threatens the socially constructed order. It is this ambiguity that arouses the greatest fear and that horror films exploit, by manipulating the boundary relation of the self and the world. The monster, Prince argues, represents the unmapped areas bordering the outline of our social structure.
The basic theme of The Thing is, in fact, the transgression of boundaries. The first such boundary is a geographical one, as the Thing breaks in from the outside (the Antarctic defined as cold, void of life (death), a desolate place where there is an absence of human / social distinction) to the inside (the camp, shown as a place of warmth, alive and teeming, a dynamic place where some form of social order is maintained). The second is much more physical in nature, that of the human form itself. The Thing, by invading the human body and replacing it, erases the boundary between what is human and that which is non-human. The members of the Antarctic team can no longer define who are their teammates and who is a Thing.
To a lesser extent, Alien follows the same lines in terms of boundaries. The Alien is brought from the inhospitable planet surface (the outside) on board the ship (the inside) and it, too, invades the human body by using Kane as a host.
The monsters in both films are, themselves, a transgression of boundaries. The Alien changes shape to its best advantage, first as a face-hugger to impregnate a host, then a chest-buster to break free from its human shell, and ultimately to its final shape as a perfect killing machine. The shape-changing Thing takes this idea one step further by completely ignoring any specific physical boundaries and changing form to suit its need. In fact, we are left to wonder if it even has a shape of its own.
3.3 Social Order Destroyed by Irrational Forces
The breakdown of social order is also a common underlying theme in the horror genre, and nowhere is it better portrayed than in these two films, but in very different ways.
Paranoia plays a large part in the dynamics of this breakdown in The Thing. As the Thing takes the place of the different expedition members, the men can no longer trust anyone else and even the familiar figures of authority (the commanding officer, the medical doctor, etc.) are seen as possible enemies. The usual chain of command, and therefore the fragile social order of the Antarctic community, is broken. Unable to define itself, the community falls into ever-increasing paranoia, with everyone selfishly vying for a way to survive. Soon enough, the small community finally disintegrates. In so doing, the expedition members lose the only chance they might have had of surviving against the outside threat and become, themselves, just as much of a threat. Finally, to maintain the distinction between human and Thing, the survivors must break the same boundaries as does the Thing and destroy themselves, their own humanity.
In Alien, the social structure is broken down not by paranoia towards each other, but by the ineffectuality of the crew’s plans to stop the creature, and the discovery of a hidden agenda kept secret from the rest of the crew.
In Alien, the basic precept of society, that of grouping together for common survival, proves to be pointless in the face of a superior killing organism that kills the crew one by one. The crew’s place in the greater social order, defined by the Company and the crew’s place in its corporate structure, is also given a major blow as the crew realizes that they have become expendable in the eyes of faceless policy makers. This is a point brought home by the medical officer’s blatant disregard for the crew’s lives, a man who, we finally find out, is actually an android planted by the Company.
3.4 Lack of Narrative Closure
The Thing ends on a very ambiguous note: Mac and Childs are the last two survivors, both eyeing each other suspiciously as the camp burns around them. Has the Thing been killed? Is Mac or Childs (or both of them) the Thing? In either case, the human is tired and defeated. As shown at the beginning of the film, the Thing, on the other hand, can survive frozen for years until another expedition stumbles upon it and gives it a chance to escape. Even if neither of them are the Thing, the two men will still die from the elements. In any case, the ending is a morbid one, and one that is truly open-ended.
As for Alien, though the ending sees Ripley blowing the creature into space and surviving her encounter, her fate is not clear cut, either – will she ever be picked up or will she spend eternity drifting under suspended animation? And either way, the Nostromo’s crew was killed by only one of these monsters, but hundreds more are still waiting on the planet for some other passers-by to fall prey to them. Again, the return to "normality" seen in classical horror films, that of a return to what passes for everyday life (even extraordinary ones by our standards), does not return.
The modern world is often described as a place where traditional categories and social structures are slowly breaking down, where boundaries blur, and where our beliefs, and even our own humanity, comes into doubt. Under the disguise of entertainment, the modern horror film confronts us with this very same reality.
As public tastes mature and movie-goers demand different and more exciting thrills, the horror film has had to expand its horizons and has delved into other genres. Alien and The Thing, typically seen as science-fiction films from the basis of their settings and their creatures’ origins, can more readily be defined as true modern horror films, ones where other-worldly monsters have indeed violently breached our fragile social structures, irrationality has prevailed, and the open-ended narratives have left us hanging in suspense.
NOTES / WORKS CITED:1. The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart by Noel Carroll (New York, Routledge, 1990).
2. Wood, Robin. "Return of the Repressed", Film Comment Vol. 14, no. 4 (July-August 1978), pp. 25-32.
3. Supernatural Horror in Literature by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. (Dover Publications, Dover Reprint Edition 1973).
4. Pinedo, Isabel. "Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film", Journal of Film and Video Vol. 48 no. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996), pp. 17-31.
5. Waller, Gregory. "Introduction", American Horrors edited by Gregory Waller (University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 1-13.
6. Pinedo, Isabel.
7. Prince, Stephen. "Dread, Taboo and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film", Wide Angle 10.3 (1988), pp. 19-29.