Why some people don’t like goo
This year, the original Alien film celebrates its fortieth anniversary, having spawned a series of sequels and prequels, as well as a lucrative franchise of books, models, video games and other products. So what made this film so successful and why is it still so popular today? Well, love it or loathe it, it’s difficult to ignore this film’s contribution to popular culture and the genre of horror, with its shocking scenes and dark concepts.
Following the idea introduced in the film Dark Star, of an alien relentlessly pursuing a human crew around a deteriorating starship, director Ridley Scott brought to our screens the perfect monster. There is no reasoning with the xenomorph, as it strives to achieve its ultimate goal of reproducing – using human beings as incubators. The birth of the aliens involves bursting forth from the human body, causing the tearing and scattering of human flesh, violent shaking and haemorrhaging.
In watching this film, we are confronted with the degradation of the human body – a reminder of its fragility and the inevitability of death, including our own. This is made all the more horrific by the idea of an alien species which invades our flesh, reminiscent of real-life parasitic creatures, such as botflies. We are presented with the aliens’ blood, which is a corrosive acid and thus lethal to our own delicate skin; it is also a mucus-like, gooey substance, reminding us of our bodily functions and waste.
Audience reactions to this imagery varies widely, along a continuum of acceptance and disgust. Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘abjection’, or subjective horror, can help us to unpack and explain our somatic and emotional responses. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Kristeva explains human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between the self and the Other – in this case, humans and aliens. Being confronted with certain ‘abject’ things, such as dead bodies, open wounds, sewage and even the skin which forms on the surface of warm milk, traumatically remind us of our own materiality, disrupting our sense of identity, system and order.
The theoretical underpinnings of ‘abjection’ lie in Freud’s classic concept of repression, developed on by subsequent psychoanalysts. If you study psychology, psychoanalysis will form part of your toolbox for understanding the nature of humanity – including our reactions to horror films!