remember when I first saw Alien. As a 15-year-old horror enthusiast, I had already heard of the infamous chest-burster scene; the idea of it loomed large in my imagination in the same way that the death of Marion Crane in Psycho unnerved me long before I actually saw Anthony Perkins’ shadow darken Janet Leigh’s shower curtain. I was preparing myself for a movie moment that had become a legend in its own right and, of course, the legend did not disappoint. However, the chest-burster scene, in spite of its gruesome glory, was not the scene that ultimately unnerved and fascinated me the most. That honor went to the second-act plot twist, when Ripley and the rest of the Nostromo’s crew discover that mild-mannered, secretive science officer Ash is actually an android rather than a human.

The visuals of the scene are shocking, of course, beginning with Ash’s sudden, brutal attack on Ripley and his subsequent decapitation – but the most chilling part for me was his (post-decapitation) conversation with the crew in which he expresses fascination for the very monster that has been brutally picking off his crew mates one by one.

“I admire its purity,” he tells them. “A survivor ... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

His confession reveals something crucial: He is a machine, yes, but he is not simply a tool of the ruthless Weyland-Yutani Corporation. He is sentient enough to feel admiration and to have preferences – and he actively prefers the deadly Xenomorph to his human companions. The plot twist exposing Ash as a robot would have been terrifying enough simply for its shock value, but the decision to also give Ash enough intelligence to gloat at the Xenomorph’s biological superiority is a whole new level of nightmare fuel. The Nostromo crew are not only isolated geographically, but isolated as a species: Not merely pitted against the relentless hostility of the Xenomorph, but the malignance of a machine created by human engineering yet infused with a non-human consciousness and intelligence. In many horror narratives (think the charnel house in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Norman’s fruit cellar in Psycho), the trappings of death produce horror; in Ridley Scott’s Alien film trilogy (Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, and Alien) it’s the opposite: The discovery of new intelligent life is always a moment of jarring, existential horror.

While Scott’s obsession with life forms differs from the death-infested world of Tobe Hooper’s Sawyer family, it’s surprisingly not so far from the creepy, haunted vitality found in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. At first glance, nothing could seem more dissimilar than a futuristic spaceship and a haunted mansion or castle. Yet think of the crucial moment in every haunted-house story when the protagonist steps over the threshold and enters the malignant world of the mansion or castle: The moment is fraught with tension not because of the mansion’s history of death but rather because of the intimation of a sentience and vitality that is hostile, powerful, and omnipresent. Similarly, the crew of the Nostromo wake to a sentient environment that is alive with an inhuman, hostile intent. Critic Tony Magistrale in his book Abject Terrors (2005) describes the Nostromo as possessing an “infernal biology of its own,” noting the eeriness of the opening scene of Alien in which the camera pans through the corridors, forcing the viewer to watch the ship’s various mechanisms come alive while the human crew are still deep in cryo-sleep.[1]

Prometheus duplicates this eerie, pre-human awakening. The android David is the first to awaken while the rest of the crew continue to sleep and dream – a duality of sleeping and waking that Ridley Scott repeats a third time to horrific effect at the shocking close of Alien: Covenant in which (spoilers) Daniels helplessly falls into a cryo-sleep, realizing too late that the still very conscious David will kill most of the crew in order to preserve the Xenomorph embryos that he has smuggled onboard the ship. Inimical, inhuman aliveness is thus the source of terror in Alien.

Arguably one of the creepiest ways in which this haunting vitality is translated from the world of supernatural horror into the world of science fiction is through the organic quality of H.R. Giger’s set design. The dripping gooey aliveness of the environment on the derelict alien ship on LV-426 is suggestive of the critic Frederick Frank’s description of Gothic architecture in literature in which “place becomes personality, as every corner and dark recess … exudes a remorseless aliveness and often a vile intelligence.”[2]Giger’s set design creates a kind of techno-Gothic aesthetic in which technology and the organic are seamlessly blended: The Xenomorph has a chrome-like, mechanistic appearance, while the phallic cockpit of the derelict ship in Alien has a corporeal familiarity. The result is quite literally alien, akin to Freud’s theory of the unheimlich or uncanny: something that seems familiar yet still strikes us as strange and unsettling.

Similarly, the physicality of the Xenomorph is humanoid yet robotic, incorporating familiar facets of human technology and corporeality while remaining disconcertingly inhuman and hostile in its intent. The architectures of the Overlook Hotel and the houses in The Conjuring universe enclose and channel the vitality of the awakened dead through the mortar and stones of a building; in a similar fashion, Alien creates a sense of terror and the uncanny by juxtaposing intelligent organic life with mechanistic brutality. The Xenomorph doesn’t seem like an ordinary animalistic threat like Cujo or even the resurrected prehistoric terrors of the Jurassic Park films. Instead, it is something more unsettling: It is like us, just more destructively capable. The Xenomorph is less non-human and instead, like the dead of the Overlook, more inhuman.

Weyland-Yutani, the Company that sends the Nostromo to her fate, is another weird, inhuman hybrid as well. Controlled by human moneymakers yet always geographically distanced and embodied by technology, the Nostromo’s AI “Mother” is the most chilling on-board representative of the Company. Unlike Ash, Mother has no humanoid form and refuses to converse save in terse transmissions, all of which communicate the Company’s destructive orders. It is useful to contrast Mother with the human villainy of Carter Burke in James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens. Burke is an unethical and unscrupulous company man and serves as a terrific foil for Ripley, but as a living and breathing human, he is not as chilling an antagonist as Mother. Mother, the hybrid creation of technological advancement and corporate greed, suggests the idea that Weyland-Yutani has evolved into a form of conscious life that is more than human: something incomprehensible, hostile, and alien to humanity.

If the environment of the Alien trilogy is the sci-fi equivalent of a haunted castle, embodying a hostile vitality that the crew must struggle to survive, then the androids Ash and David are the futuristic Mary Shelleyan monsters who desire the destruction of their creator-masters. Yet while the Creature in Frankenstein resents his creator because he has been abandoned to a hostile world, the androids in Scott’s world are far more enigmatic. Their attitude towards humanity is more like contempt than hatred: While Shelley’s Creature rages, demanding a bride-companion to save him from loneliness, Ash and David bide their time and wait for the inevitable destruction of humanity at the hands of a superior species. In Prometheus, David makes it clear in his conversations with the crew that he does not wish to resemble humans “too closely” and when a drunk Holloway reminds him that he isn’t “a real boy,” David responds with grim amusement rather than offense. Likewise in Alien, Ash makes it clear that his preference for the Xenomorph is based on his belief that he is siding with the superior, more admirably “perfect” species. The androids are not angry so much as they are chillingly indifferent to humanity’s survival.

By establishing the androids as intelligent, conscious beings rather than simply hostile machines (such as James Cameron’s Terminator in the first film of that franchise), the Alien trilogy characterizes synthetic beings as a new type of hostile life-form as unnerving and incomprehensible as the Xenomorph itself. At first, the androids seem to be simple, emotionless beings: David is introduced as a stoic functionary, learning new languages and checking on the crew in cryo-sleep, and Ash is a close-mouthed scientist, distrusted for his lack of empathy and fear. In a deleted scene, Ripley even asks Lambert if she has ever slept with Ash, both suspecting him of eccentricity precisely because of his seeming lack of desire. Yet this superficial lack of desire is actually a red herring that makes the androids’ sudden revelation of curiosity and preference all the more shocking. Like their human counterparts, they possess desire and ambition: “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams,” David says. His dream of creating a new life form from the vital mutating black liquid that the Engineers left behind is every bit as ambitious as the mission of the Prometheus’s human crew and it is linked to an interest in creation and the origins of life as well.

Michael Fassbender as David in "Prometheus." You know what he's thinking ...

The same can be said for Ash, who plays the part of the dispassionate observer only to reveal (ironically at the very same moment that he is exposed as a synthetic being) that he has been actively admiring the destructive perfection of the Xenomorph. Indeed, it’s very likely that Scott developed his idea for David’s character from earlier drafts of Alien in which Ash’s interest in the Xenomorph is articulated in greater detail. In an extended conversation between Ash and the Nostromo’s crew (later included in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the film), Ash shares his perspective with a chilling, philosophical eloquence:

“You gave me intelligence. With intellect comes the inevitability of choice. I have had the rare honor of witnessing one of those moments when a major evolutionary step is taken. Two highly successful species in immediate competition for resources and survival. I am loyal only to discovering the truth. A scientific truth demands beauty, harmony and above all simplicity. The problem between you and the Alien will produce a simple and elegant solution. Only one of you will survive.” [3]

Ash’s gloating dispassion serves as an important contrast to Frankenstein’s Creature. While the Creature is similarly aware of his status as a created being with a fallible maker, he still craves the human companionship that he has been continually denied: “Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” The Creature’s hatred and fury towards humanity is thus the product of his lovelessness: “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” [4] Ash and David differ from the Creature in one significant and eerie respect: They have absolutely no desire for human companionship and feel nothing but contempt for their human masters. Ash spends as little time as he can with his fellow crew mates (part of the reason why they find him strange and treat him accordingly, furthering the emotional distance between them). David is treated as a servant by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), but responds with a dismissive, amiable air of condescension rather than anger. Consequently, at the first sign of a form of intelligent life that is potentially superior to humanity, the androids respond with curiosity and interest. The horrific genius of Ridley Scott’s take on sentient androids is the way that he both hearkens back to and subverts our knowledge of the classic Frankenstein tale: The Nostromo and the Prometheus, rather than haunted by a monster with Daddy issues, are confronted by intelligent creations that have efficiently and brutally judged humanity lacking. The androids, like us, are intelligent beings with preferences and desires, but preferences and desires that either disregard our existence or actually entail our destruction.

The grisly relics of death in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s butcher shop and the stuffed corpses in Deranged will always inspire a crawl of fear in viewers. But Alien’s intimation of a post-human future inspires a different yet equally powerful terror. Whether it is Weyland-Yutani’s alien hybrid of corporate greed and technology, the Xenomorph’s brutal elegance and hostility to human existence, or the androids’ delight at seeing their weaker masters destroyed by a superior species, the world of Ridley Scott’s Alien trilogy is one that is haunted by powerful and charismatic manifestations of life, all eerily indifferent to human existence.

Yet, finally, much of the magic of the Alien films is the fact that they do more than simply raise a bleak, existential question. As Giger wrote in his memoir Giger’s Alien, describing his mental process while working on his design of the Xenomorph, “When you work on any object, you must love it, you must be possessed by it.” [5] The intelligences and worlds discovered in the Alien trilogy are terrifying yet possess an undeniable beauty and eerie fascination, thanks to Giger’s masterful design work and the cinematography that intriguingly reveals and obscures the Xenomorph, never letting us catch a full glimpse. If we share the Nostromo’s terror, then we also share a certain measure of both Ash and David’s curiosity. Provocatively, the films invite us to experience both terror and intrigue, offering both perspectives as viable responses to the discovery of intelligent life.

This dual response of terror and wonder are the beating heart of the Alien films. One of the most haunting scenes in Alien: Covenant is the moment when David is communicating with the fledgling Xenomorph, only moments before Oram (albeit understandably given the circumstances) opens fire on it. The scene is evocative of another moment from an earlier version of the Alien script in which Ash offers up a similar dilemma of choice – one that haunts but is never answered.

“Maybe it’s intelligent,” Ash says, perhaps mockingly, perhaps sincerely. “Maybe you should try to communicate with it.”

“Did you?” Ripley asks.

“Please let my grave hold some secrets.”

[1] Magistrale, Tony.Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern andPostmodern Horror Film. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005: 90.

[2] Frank, Frederick,S. “The Gothic Romance: 1762-1820,” HorrorLiterature (New York: Bowker Company, 1981), 14.

[3] https://www.avpgalaxy.net/files/scripts/alien-1978-10-04.pdf

[4] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: W.W. Norton& Company, 1996: 88, 98.

[5] Giger, H.R. Giger’s Alien. Beverly Hills: MorpheusInternational, 1979: 54.

Colin Harker is both a scholar and author of horror fiction with a particular taste for tales of Gothic terror. Several of her stories have been performed by the award-winning No Sleep Podcast, she won a screenwriting award at the 2017 Women in Horror Film Festival, and her published works have appeared in anthologies such as The Book of Blasphemous Words and Dreams of Desolation. When she is not penning a new tale of necromancy gone horribly wrong, she is fangirling over obscure penny dreadfuls from the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly those penned by Mary Shelley's eccentric philosopher-father William Godwin. Follow her on Twitter at @LordSteerpike.