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A Psychologist’s Take on the Alien Franchise and Primordial Fear

Dr. Frank Gaskill

Why has Alien become integrated into the pop-culture psyche in a way that very few other films have?

I was 10 and standing in an Eckerd’s drugstore in 1979. Hoping my mom wouldn’t catch me, I snuck off to the “forbidden” magazine looking for Famous Monsters of Filmland. I had heard the movie Alien was coming out and I had to get a glimpse of the monster. I knew I couldn’t see it until I grew up.

On one magazine cover was green aura of the title sequence for Alien, and with a quick look around, I picked the magazine up to find the gory centerfold I was hoping for and fearing. I can still see that alien bursting through the chest of John Hurt. And while I was terrified, I knew I needed to see this film. But why? Why has Alien become integrated into the pop-culture psyche in a way that very few other films have?

Fear of the Unknown

I think the answer is Jaws. Alien conjures within us a primordial fear of the unknown and an unknown which can kill us just like Great White sharks.

In 1975, the movie Jaws set the stage for Alien and only magnified the fear. Not only are we attacked by a soulless eating machine, but we are in space, far from Earth, and like the movie says, “in space, no one can hear you scream.” At least when Jaws was eating you, somebody could hear you. In space, no one can save you. Like Jaws, Alien represents the worst killing machine imaginable coupled with the isolation of space and the knowledge that no one will rescue you. In Ridley Scott’s breakout blockbuster, a formula was created which may have made the phrase, “jump the shark,” an impossible phrase to place upon the Alien franchise. Plus, Jaws and Alien films are nearly the same.

Jaws: Isolated boat, no contact for rescue, unseen threat, barrels used as tracking devices, “Smile you son-of-a-bitch!” and floating off to safety.

Alien: Isolated ship, no chance of rescue, unseen threat, electronic tracking devices, “Get away from her you bitch!” and floating off to safety.

It is with great anticipation and fear that the next installment of Alien is here. My hope is that with Ridley Scott’s return to his roots in Alien: Covenant, he will recapture that primordial fear found in a true monster movie.

Alien: Covenant opens nationwide today.

About the author

Dr. Frank Gaskill

Dr. Frank Gaskill

"Dr. G." is Comicon Panelist and Co-Author of Max Gamer, a graphic novel about a boy with Asperger's (www.maxgameronline.com). He is a contributing author to The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead and Star Wars Psychology. He is also a contributor to The Shrink Tank podcast.

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