As a sweeping generalization, I’m scared of horror (as discussed). “Isn’t that the point of—” The kind of scared where I can’t consume it, I mean, not the enjoyably or cathartically scared that the creators of said horror intend to elicit. The other kind of scared.
All the same, I’m drawn to certain types of horror in both writing and reading. With my novels Beneath the Rising and its sequel A Broken Darkness (as well as a couple dozen short stories), I told everyone I was simply writing fantasy with monsters and gods; ‘dark fantasy,’ probably. “Nope,” people told me again and again. “These are horror.” As I began to read more about it, I realized that swathes of my writing might not only be horror, but fall into a specific sub-genre of horror: cosmic horror.
And soon afterwards, I started to think of my favourite film franchise of all time, Aliens, as cosmic horror ditto. It was a neat way to explain its unique exception to my staunch “No, I’m afraid of everything” aversion to horror. To be clear, I don’t mean the xenomorphs themselves make the movies cosmic horror; I feel the world of the movies presents itself as cosmic horror, and I find both the points of familiarity and of difference intensely appealing. The Aliens universe exemplifies the kind of horror I want to write as well as the kind I like to feel.
“But they’re just animals!”
Absolutely they are! Yes! Like big, variably intelligent, extremely aggressive ants! (That can swim! Which was a wonderful scene in the otherwise somewhat iffy Alien Resurrection! But I digress!)
When I’m asked how I define cosmic horror, which happens fairly often, my (ever-evolving) answer always relates to the ‘bad guys.’ That is, on the big tree of horror, I feel like you can outline each branch based on its individual formula of ‘what the villain is’ compared to ‘the ability of the human characters to save themselves from the villain.’
For example, say in slasher horror (Scream, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the villains are (admittedly, very determined and persistent) humans, so theoretically they’re sort of manageable by other humans. In creature horror, the villains are giant creatures (Lake Placid), too many creatures (Kingdom of Spiders, which was a big letdown, let me tell you, based on the cover of the DVD; we thought they were going to be huge spiders, not a busload of ordinary ones—like, king-sized spiders, you know?), or otherwise dangerous creatures (Deep Blue Sea—okay well I’m stretching the horror definition here, but you know what I mean).
In cosmic horror, meanwhile, the villains (whom I am going to refer to as The Horrors, to distinguish them from other villains) are built on a vastly different scale along many possible axes. Often, they’re millions or billions of years old; they’re immune to weapons; they’re able to modify the laws of space and time; they have other powers that humans don’t have and can’t acquire; and they’re just generally so over-the-top Every Adjective In The Dictionary that humans often can’t even look at them (or think about them, depending on the story) without losing their grip on reality.
Finally, and crucially, the reason they’re The Horrors is because they don’t care about humanity (or if they do, you’d rather they didn’t). Because we’re so far below their regard, this tends to go one of two ways: destruction ensues because we’re so below their notice that we’re accidentally destroyed; or they do notice us, and destruction ensues for that reason. Usually this is the result of there being no good way that humans can harm, kill, or even reason with The Horrors. The source of the fear in these stories is that we are insignificant, our lives are meaningless, no consideration will be taken to preserve our existence, and we have no agency to alter that. In the world of Beneath the Rising, in which there has been magic on Earth since its earliest days, humans can at least cast protective spells hoping to keep things out, or eject them once they get in, but it’s never a sure thing and there’s less magic in the world year after year.
When I go through the list of cosmic horror tropes, I see things that first of all probably warped my developing mind (I am sorry, past me!), but also many aspects of the Aliens world. (With the disclaimer that I saw Alien vs. Predator but I did not finish watching Alien vs. Predator: Requiem because while I am a fan, I am unwilling to damage my actual soul trying to become a superfan. Toys, yes. Novelizations, yes. Comics, yes. AVP:R? Noooope.) It aligns well with what I think of as the markers of cosmic horror, and diverges from them in some interesting ways as well.
To quickly summarize:
- A space crew bumps into, is parasitized by, and eventually almost entirely murdered by a xenomorph, partly because the company android wants it to be returned for study;
- Later, because the company hides information about the first incident, an entire colony (save one very lucky, brave kid!) is wiped out by xenomorphs. Space marines are sent to help, fail to help, and are entirely killed off except for the kid and one civilian;
- The civilian, now bearing a xenomorph queen, crash-lands on a prison planet and tries to kill herself and the queen, but doesn’t manage it;
- The civilian is cloned into a human/xenomorph hybrid by the company, and when the captive xenomorphs get out, tries to crash the ship she’s on to destroy them before they get loose on Earth.
- In prequels we discover, briefly, that an ancient and very advanced race (the Engineers) were developing bioweapons that could have (and probably were intended to) wipe out the human race on Earth;
- And the xenomorphs were a bioengineered project carried out by a company android (don’t ask, it’s a hot mess).
- Also, in Alien vs. Predator, the Predators (yes, the ones from the Predator movies) come to Earth at specified times to hunt xenomorphs in a ritualized battle, which is presented as a good thing.
So basically, the early movies are pure cosmic horror: The xenomorph is ‘awoken’ from torpor (like a sleeping god); its origin is unknown; once it gets going, it can’t be communicated or reasoned with; it seemingly can’t be killed; scientists/the company wish to study or use it to benefit themselves, but die in the process; oh, and it sees human beings strictly as food, an obstacle to acquiring food, and incubators. After failing to kill it, the only response remaining to the crew is to flee; and the great divergence from the usual hopeless ending is that when the xenomorph makes the crew’s escape impossible, the crew manages to remove it from themselves.
Similarly to the cults and scientists of those older stories, the idea of humans (agents of Weyland-Yutani, mostly) believing they can understand, control, or even profit from The Horrors recurs again and again, with varying success. By Alien Resurrection, they’re well into human-xenomorph hybrid clones as well as trying to ‘train’ a group of captive xenomorphs (acquired, of course, by implanting embryos into trafficked humans). More on the cult mentality side, in Alien 3, one of the prisoners causes a cascade of disasters by deciding to ‘worship’ the ‘dragon’ living in the complex.
I love that any attempt to gain superiority on The Horrors ends in gouts of blood and acid; it’s a beautiful narrative shortcut back to the fundamental cosmic horror theme of humanity’s powerlessness, flimsiness, meaninglessness, and hubris. We’re taught from childhood that profit and power are good, that forbidden knowledge (say, about ancient and not-very-nice life forms) is desirable, and all the more so when others don’t have it. But the movies repeatedly emphasize that this really only works if you are dealing with something that you can understand, and humanity does not understand the xenomorphs. Their intelligence is so different from ours that our assumption that we’re ‘smarter’ than them reliably ends with us being forcibly reminded that our definition of ‘intelligence’ is no guarantee of success.
As well, the ancient temple forming the major setting of Alien vs. Predator, and the ritualized combat and calendar carved into the walls, duplicates the cosmic horror standard of ‘Remember, all these (hideous, wiggly, etc) things predate human history and their development, achievements, and evolution were superior to ours.’ In this movie, and in Prometheus, the scale and the presence of dangerous traps intimidate the characters, reminding them that the universe (even our safe little planet!) is crammed with things bigger, older, stronger, and meaner than us. We should live in a state of fear or at least respect. (For some reason this does not apply to the Predators, who are very hard to intimidate into a sense of existential despair and might be Horrors of their own. Or Horrors-adjacent, what with all the ritualized hunting and the skinning people in very hot summers and so on.)
As we move on to Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, we are introduced to the Engineers, who are ancient and immensely powerful. The Engineer’s motivations can only be deduced rather than understood (as we see when the single woken Engineer responds to being asked about said motivations with stupendous and practically instantaneous violence; it’s very tempting to see it as a response to, frankly, human presumption, a sort of ‘How dare you.’ Not that David is human, but you know what I mean). The implication in Prometheus is that the Engineers miscalculated some things, but they definitely wanted to destroy their progeny (humans) as a species; in the best Horrors tradition, they don’t care about human life—or they did at one point and then they stopped. (Of course, where the entire franchise falls apart is with the explanation of the xenomorph’s existence in Covenant, which removes the mystery by explaining them as, more or less, bioengineered organisms created by a human-built android. I’m still ambivalent on being spoonfed the solution to the mystery of my favourite monster, but honestly, I dislike that movie for so many other reasons.)
The movies also, in my opinion, have some interesting (and barely subtextual) commentary about expansion, colonization, and empire. In the prequels, the xenomorphs get ‘out of control’ and take over entire planets when they’re not meant to by their creators. In the later movies, when they’re encountered by human colonists in turn, they seem to resemble the ‘lower races’ sneered at and feared by early cosmic horror authors. They seem to have no art, no culture, no noble intentions; their only goals are to eat, breed, and protect their Queen. And yet in response to the arrival of humans intent on overtaking their habitat, what do they do? Implant themselves square into chest cavities, under bone; they colonize the colonizer not as a moral lesson or as retribution or revenge, but because they sense, somewhere under their exoskeletons, that this is the right and good response to the presence of strangers in xenomorph territory. It may be an instinctive response, but it gives the visual impression of something else.
In more modern cosmic horror, especially by authors of colour, we explicitly see the reversal of colonized and colonizer (Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone; N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became). In my debut novel, Beneath the Rising, without giving away too many spoilers, when it’s revealed that the Earth has been colonized for millennia by the so-called Ancient Ones, it’s a character of colour who pushes back against it—rather than either inviting or accepting it to happen in the hopes of personal gain.
One of the most obvious ways the Aliens world differs from older cosmic horror is in the presence of women and people of colour as major characters who drive the narrative from beginning to end, and I think that’s an immensely important change. If Ripley doesn’t kill the alien in the first movie, it’ll wreak havoc on Earth; if Lex cannot help her Predator ally to defeat the xenomorph queen, again, all of humanity is at risk. Some of those early cosmic horror authors regarded their fellow human beings as ‘other’ enough to be literally no longer human: they were animalistic, incomprehensible in speech and motive, invasive, either Horrors themselves or likely to work with The Horrors. The only characters who met the standards of participating in a narrative were the interchangeable, virtually personality-less white male author-surrogates of those older stories: academics; scientists; doctors; writers; journalists; and so on. Even most of the supporting cast was often white men. Non-white men got whatever roles were left over for characters who needed to be traitorous, weak of will, susceptible to manipulation or needed for physical labour, or literally needed for self-sacrifice in the service of the white men. Where women appeared it was usually as a vessel for evil (with miscegenation constantly on the mind, malign pregnancies are legion in those old stories, such as Lavinia Whateley’s), worrying wives whose husbands wouldn’t come home, and the occasional witch or potential witch (or self-hating women who wanted to be The Horrors but unfortunately couldn’t be, what with being a woman and all, such as Asenath Darby).
In Aliens, despite not always making the best choices (or having any good choices available, honestly), a diverse cast of space marines brings their humanity and flaws to the narrative. Does this make people of colour, traditionally colonized, the colonizers? It’s complicated. It’s certainly stated several times in that movie that the space marines are not there because they’re seeking out glory or prestige; they’re the same as many young people in the military now, who have signed up for a reliable paycheque, training, and opportunities for advancement and travel, while understanding that they will be asked to fight, kill, and oppress people. The idea of space colonies, which they state that they’ve visited several times already, doesn’t seem to bother them; colonization, at the very least in the sense of these ‘company towns’ meant for mining or resource extraction, isn’t challenged. I felt it was challenged at least implicitly in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, where the ‘explorers’ who arrive on planets with preexisting life forms are themselves impacted by those life forms, suggesting that the age-old narrative of ‘We’re the ones subjugating this new world’ is being subverted.
I always assumed that, given the immense cost and difficulty of moving colonies’ worth of people into space, humanity is leaving Earth because Earth has become functionally uninhabitable, not because we want to. (See Alien Resurrection again and Johner quipping ‘Earth. I’d rather stay here with the things, man!’ He also refers to it as a ‘shithole,’ which is probably fair at that point; but people stay in shitholes, because leaving a planet we know we can live on for planets we don’t know we can live on is probably a matter of necessity rather than desire.) So, while that implies that we’ve chosen to take over somebody else’s home rather than trying to return ours to habitability, without it being overtly stated it lends a certain pathos: We have nowhere to live; we’re sad wanderers just trying to find a new home.
But no matter our motives, the end result of expansion is not merely that the colonizers bring disaster to the colonized world, but that disaster is waiting there to greet them. We’re wrong, so wrong, to assume that this expansion will be like the empires of Earth’s history: in which colonization is considered by the colonizer to be an unalloyed good, in which even already-occupied lands rightly belong to the colonizer (through a combination of ‘We want it and will fight you for it’ and ‘Now that we’re here, it’s time to eradicate your existing civilization and replace it with ours, I mean, uh, civilize you, because we are nice good people, and you should aspire to be like us’). The xenomorphs are having none of it, and reasonably so.
Finally, the biggest difference, to me, and the best and noblest update to the old cosmic horror tropes, is that in the Aliens movies (at least a few of them), humanity defeats The Horrors. The endings (of a few of them) evoke a sense of hope, as opposed to the resignation, frustration, and fear at the end of older narratives. The message (of a few of them) is ‘This looked hopeless, because many solutions were tried and not found, but eventually a solution worked.’ This is a message I try to convey in Beneath the Rising too: human ingenuity and resilience has historically been enough to reject the invaders and save lives, and it may be again, if only the characters can work together.
I think there’s a sense, especially right now during a global pandemic, as well as humanitarian disasters and climate change, that ‘the problem’ is too big to solve, so we’d better hoard our efforts and stop trying. And this is the case in many older cosmic horror stories too: the problem is presented, investigated, and when its true magnitude is realized, the instant conclusion is that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Conversely, what I love about Aliens is this realization that things that look hopeless might not be. Oh, and that sometimes the best option is to take off and nuke it from orbit. Just saying.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. She is the author of novels ‘Beneath the Rising’ (Crawford, Aurora, and Locus Award finalist) and ‘A Broken Darkness,’ and novellas ‘These Lifeless Things,’ ‘And What Can We Offer You Tonight,’ and ‘The Annual Migration of Clouds.’ Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues and she can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus and on her website.