ALIEN RULES: A THEORY OF HORROR BASED ON RIDLEY SCOTT’S 1977 MASTERPIECE
While the bulk of this blog series serves to find hidden gems in the horror genre, there are some genre classics that I never tire thinking about, or revisiting at least once a year. Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite horror film is, my stock answer is Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. In fact, ALIEN does so many things right, it has become a bit of a horror Bible for me.
Today, I’d like to share some rules (well, okay — more like guidelines, really) that ALIEN follows perfectly. If more horror stories followed suit, I think we’d all be watching and reading scarier stuff.
ALIEN RULE #1: No guns!
What happens when you bring a gun into a horror film? It turns into a suspense film. Or, worse, it becomes an action movie. You can see the difference between ALIEN (no guns) and ALIENS (so many guns). Granted, the guns in ALIENS prove barely adequate, which keeps the movie effective, but I still feel a great deal of relief seeing a bunch of space marines fully loaded heading into battle with a horde of Xenomorphs instead of a ragtag group of space truckers with a couple torches, but is relief a feeling I want when I’m watching a scary movie? Not at all!
Guns either change the genre of the film, or lessen the tension. Get rid of ’em!
ALIEN RULE #2: No cops!
Not many cops out in space, so this is an easy one for ALIEN to follow. Still, how nice is it that they’re nowhere to be found aboard the Nostromo? Cops have this habit of cluttering up a horror story or driving it straight into invisible walls — by which I mean places where the storyteller needs to write around all the law enforcement that would normally happen if a cop were to get in the mix.
Obviously, some horror films have found ways to incorporate cops (or even make them the villain). I’m not saying it can’t be done. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is awesome. Rather, I’m saying they tend to introduce more problems than their presence is worth. Usually, cops are reduced to disposable or ineffectual characters, and that makes them boring.
Also, cops carry guns. For more on that, see AR #1.
Listen to your rap stars. F the police!
ALIEN RULE #3: No Villainous Monologues!
The Xenomorph may have two mouths, but it never utters a single human word. Clever. Clearly, this is the filmmakers’ sly criticism of the ubiquitous monologue where a villain explains his or her Master Plan of Crap to the protagonist.
The less a villain speaks, the more said villain’s mystique grows. And what’s with all the killers in other stories suddenly developing a case of verbal diarrhea when it’s convenient? You mean to tell me that before it became Explain O’Clock, the villain was happy to chase Protagonist X around the farm with a scythe, but now … now he doesn’t want to just kill kill kill? Why the heck not? What if Scytheface had killed Protag X forty-five minutes ago? His whole plan would have gone unexplained! So, what? He was okay with that possibility then but not now? It makes no sense at all!
The Xenomorph uses its mouth to punch a hole in your head and eat your brain meat. That’s pretty much what every villain should do.
Explanations are not scary. Never have been, never will be. Don’t believe me, go watch PROMETHEUS.
ALIEN RULE #4: No Researching the Threat on a Computer!
The Internet is the least interesting possible source of exposition in any given story. The Internet is awash with terrible stuff, but it is not terrifying itself. Horror works best for me when it’s about the things in the unknowable shadows. The minute you bring Reddit into the mix, you dispel a lot of mystery. The Internet puts your characters and your mystery squarely into the zone of Knowable Things.
Mother — the computer intelligence in the Nostromo — has precious little to say about the Xenomorph. This is a welcome use of a computer, where what it tells the characters is that the creature is a mystery and that their lives don’t matter to anyone.
Ah, if only every time someone in a horror story went to the Internet only to be told that everyone outside his or her terrible situation was hoping said person would die! What a genre we’d have!
ALIEN RULE #5: The Threat is Married to the Environment!
A lot of the genius of ALIEN is in how well-matched the Xenomorph is to the interior of the Nostromo itself. The creature’s design blends in with the pipes and mechanical junk of the spaceship so well, in the final scene you stare right at it and don’t see it until its arm shoots out toward Ripley. Its ability to camouflage itself practically anywhere makes every inch of every shot tense.
If you’re writing a horror story, you should choose an environment that plays to the characteristics of your threat. Alien does it ridiculously well. Another good example off the top of my head: DAWN OF THE DEAD, where George A. Romero (perhaps accidentally) found the perfect setting for a zombie film by setting it in a mall. Thematic reverberations for DECADES, my friends!
ALIEN RULE #6: When a Character Meets the Threat, That Character Dies
You know how many people survive even getting a glimpse of the alien? One. Ripley. And she only survives because she famously blows it out of the airlock at the very end of the film. Up until that point, the alien is a killing machine. When it’s born, it kills a character. Whenever it sees a character after that, that character dies almost immediately. All of the deadly encounters up until the final confrontation in the escape pod make that last scene incredibly effective and frightening. No matter how many times I see it, I never believe Ripley can get out of that situation alive.
Heck, even the dead facehugger’s corpse is dangerous with its acid-blood that can burn through several decks in a matter of seconds.
An example of an otherwise great film that breaks this rule is Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING. As much as I adore that film, it irritates me when Jack stops chopping down the bathroom door. He’s got Wendy trapped. She should die. But instead, Dick Hallorann shows up and distracts Jack. Jack leaves Wendy alone. Wendy escapes the bathroom, and the hidden hand of the writer is on full display. After this moment in the movie, or any moment like this in other stories, you know the character threatened is not going to die.
The alien makes no such mistakes until the sequels. I had a fit when Ripley was made basically unkillable in ALIEN 3, but that’s the sequel’s problem. In ALIEN, until the very last scene, whatever the alien sees dies.
And it’s terrifying.
ALIEN RULE #7: The Threat is Bigger Than the Threat Itself
In the way a single drop of facehugger blood can burn through several decks of a ship, one alien burns through the entire crew. And yet — there’s more where both of those things came from. The alien egg the crew encounter is one of MANY. And those eggs are still out there! Not to mention whatever homeworld the Xenomorphs come from! Alien shows the terror one Xenomorph can wreak while fully establishing a vast number we don’t see.
All horror should be the horrible tip of a greater iceberg of enormous, unknown malevolence. That’s how you really make people lose sleep at night and keep your monster scary beyond the duration of your story, where it could be defeated. I mean, sure, Ripley blew that thing out the airlock, but there are more Xenomorphs out there.
So, so many.
And that’s if the thing is even dead! Who knows if blowing it out the airlock even killed it! It could be floating out there, waiting to grab hold of another passing ship …
Yeah, just say no to job offers on deep space salvage crews.
These are only a handful of the things ALIEN gets right that I think could be extrapolated and used to guide other horror stories. There’s probably more, because, like Ash says about the Xenomorph itself — ALIEN is perfect.
Hard not to admire it.
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Kristopher Kelly grew up in Maine, but now lives in New York City where he works as a librarian. He’s the author of a collection of dark short stories, I Held My Breath as Long as I Could, as well as the novella Abraham Road, which he describes as “what might happen if H. P. Lovecraft tried to re-write Of Mice and Men.” You can find him on Twitter as @daukherville, or on his blog at www.daukherville.com.