By Siobhan Eardley
Released in 1979, “Alien” has continued to captivate and terrify audiences for forty years, the infamous ‘chestburster’ scene is still one of the most shocking moments in cinema. The combination of horror and sci-fi, the incredible practical effects, the wonderful build-up of tension and the gruesome and ruthless Xenomorph is what makes it one of the classics of twentieth-century cinema and why it has morphed into such a large franchise of films.
Part of the horror of the series lies in its monstrous and abject depiction of reproduction and the female body. Abjection, according to philosopher Julia Kristeva “disturbs identity, system, and order” and “does not respect borders, positions or rules” and can be applied to the maternal monstrous-feminine in the horror film.
The horrific portrayal of birth is one of the most memorable and iconic elements of the series. After the grotesque ‘pregnancy’ inflicted upon the host by the face-huggers, the ‘birth’ is even more gruesome and violent. The alien fetus literally bursts out of the chest of the host, subsequently killing the host in the process leaving a deep open cavity.
“Part of the horror of the [Alien] series lies in its monstrous and abject depiction of reproduction and the female body…The horrific portrayal of birth is one of the most memorable and iconic elements of the series.”
This birthing process is horrific, yet it isn’t without its similarities to human childbirth. The blood and pain are all part of the human birthing process; the alien that is ‘born’ from the chest is not unlike babies that come out of the womb, covered in blood, and the trauma from real human childbirth is still evoked in these images.
Although the Queen Xenomorph is not featured in “Alien”, her presence if implied in the egg chamber where Kane (John Hurt) is impregnated by the face-hugger. The thousands of eggs that lie undisturbed for years provide a vision of a monstrous mother figure; leaving the question, what and where is the layer of these eggs? A question that is answered in the sequel, “Aliens”.
In “Aliens”, we witness the source of the eggs and she is a definite monstrous and abject presence. The Queen Xenomorph resides in a large chamber surrounded by an alarming number of her eggs. The egg sac attached to the queen is almost as big as she is, mass-producing eggs like a machine in a factory. The visual image of the Queen is horrific, parodying the largeness of the pregnant body, making it seem overly large and unnatural, the ‘womb’ is visible, the audience comes face to face with the source of the horror.
However, it is not just the Queen that is pretested as a threat in the “Alien” franchise. In “Alien3”, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), after crash landing on a planet inhabited solely by male prisoners, awakens to find Newt, Bishop, and Hicks dead. Although Ripley’s femininity is seen as a huge threat to the prisoners, it is ultimately the threat of the xenomorph, which the men associate with Ripley to be the main issue
Yet it isn’t only her femininity that they are threatened by, Ripley is impregnated with the very thing that she sought to destroy in the previous film; a Queen. The Queen is seen gestating inside of Ripley, in a very similar way to the ultrasounds of pregnant women, instead of seeing a happily pregnant woman with the reassurance that her baby is safe, we see despair from Ripley on the discovery that she is ‘pregnant’ with such a destructive force.
Each film in the series takes the notion of monstrous motherhood even further and “Alien: Resurrection” provides one of the most gruesome images of the series. The Queen having been cloned from Ripley’s DNA, is endowed with humanlike qualities resulting in a human/alien hybrid pregnancy. The Queen’s pregnant form is reminiscent of a human bump but with the likeness of the reptilian Xenomorph eggs. This form is wholly abject, taking the original horror of the alien into the familiar, human form but twisting it so much that it is purely disgusting to behold.
“Each film in the series takes the notion of monstrous motherhood even further…What makes “Alien” so effective and timeless is the simplicity of the chestburster, at the time horror, hadn’t seen anything like it and after all this time it never gets old.”
The image we are greeted within the birthing chamber is rather extreme, with the Queen lying on her back in an agonizing labour, Dr. Geidiman (Brad Dourif) plays the role of an encouraging midwife, lending words of comfort whilst marveling at the pregnant Queen, in an almost comical manner, whilst he is cocooned by the aliens ready to be a future host for an egg. We see the Queen struggle with what can only be described as contractions as she is giving birth and the ‘child’ as it pushes itself out of the pregnant stomach like a sac that is attached to her.
The birthing scene in “Alien: Resurrection” places these two images of birth together, causing a horrific contrast of the two, it perverts the human birth even further by combining it directly with the alien birthing system we have become familiar with in the films.
This conversion of familiar images of human pregnancy of pregnancy and birth into the realm of horror is what makes the “Alien” films truly horrific, with each installment perverting it further. Leading to a question of how far will the series in trying to shock audiences? In the most recent instalment of the series “Alien: Covenant” we are assaulted with a plethora of downright disgusting images of the Xenomorph being born from various new places on the human body that actually enters the realm of comedy, much like those seen in “Alien: Ressurection”.
What makes “Alien” so effective and timeless is the simplicity of the chestburster, at the time horror, hadn’t seen anything like it and after all this time it never gets old. Its simplicity makes it so effective in creating the feeling of abjection and is why the newer Xenomorph ‘birthing’ scenes don’t have the same effect and often feel comical.