Requiem for a Cliché

One of the hallmarks of the sci-fi horror genre is its tendency to generate instant clichés. In the digital age, the lag-time between the initial appearance of an innovative and genuinely frightening cinematic moment and its inevitable end in yawn-inducing familiarity is extraordinarily brief. Of course, this is not surprising. A scare by its very nature needs to be unexpected. Once we are able to see it coming, its potency is lost. But, like all good monsters, it dies at least twice, its double-death inhering in its especial vulnerability to parody. Thus, the truly disturbing creature created for the Alien films by H.R. Giger, a nightmarish meld of the mechanical, the bestial and perverse sexuality, before it descended into the unbelievable crassness of the Alien vs. Predator spinoff franchise twenty-five years and some half dozen films after its debut, had actually already reached its use-by-date as a scare tactic by the time of the first sequel. Within a year of 1986’s Aliens, Mel Brooks had the monster burst from John Hurt’s stomach once again, this time to perform a Looney Tunes-style rendition of “Hello, Ma Baby” complete with a straw boater, in Spaceballs.

Its ignominious future notwithstanding, back in 1979, Giger’s alien design was revolutionary because it departed from the tentacled type that had become the well-worn and utterly expected shape assumed by extra-terrestrial lifeforms in cinema. Giger’s alien found its monstrousness by drawing upon resources from outside the folkloric tradition. In this way, Giger mirrored the earlier radical break that had given rise to the very kind of alien-octopus he sought to distance himself from, the kind of creature epitomised by those that appeared in the later tales of the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). As China Miéville notes, “rather than werewolves, vampires, or ghosts, Lovecraft’s monsters are agglomerations of bubbles, barrels, cones, and corpses, patchworked from cephalopods, insects, crustaceans, and other fauna, notable particularly for their absence from the traditional Western monstrous.” Cephalopods were a favourite of Lovecraft’s, with the tentacle becoming his default type of monstrous limb but one which had previously seen proto-iterations in the fantastic horrors of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo (Miéville 512).

20000 Leagues Under Sea

Engraving of Captain Nemo viewing a giant squid from  the Nautilus submarine, originally featured in the Hetzel edition (1870) of 20,000 Lieues Sous Les Mers

It is not difficult to point to concerns in contemporary culture that may have given rise to Giger’s seductive biomechanical alien, such as the deepening in the complexity of our understanding of gender and sexuality, and our increased dependence on technology and machinery for our very existence. We may similarly speculate as to why the correlation between the alien and the octopus might have had stronger resonances within the nineteenth-century consciousness. I would posit a connection between the tentacle – this flexible, elongated, and generally highly receptive organ – and the new pervasiveness of the nervous system in nineteenth-century constructions of modern life. This is made quite clear by the frequent conflation of tentacles and nerves in the portrayal in the period of alien and monstrous races.

Like the human-eating ‘Sea Raiders’ of Wells’s 1896 short story,  the bizarre creatures to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), and the monstrous squid in Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) and later in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the creatures that inhabit aliens worlds are complex masses of brains, tentacles, coils, and nervous centres, and they evoke the disturbing sense that they conceal an intelligence superior to humanity behind an alien, unknowable form. Explicitly compared to the octopus by an eye witness to their invasion, Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds are, like the cephalopod, comprised of highly complex nervous systems arranged around a comparatively large and almost transparent brain. Each Martian is approximately four foot in diameter, the majority of which consists of “the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear and tactile tentacles”. Similarly, the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites in The First Men on the Moon is simply a “marvellous gigantic ganglion” that relays sensations and neural commands across the vast network of Selenite minds.


M. Dudouyt’s vision of the Martians from the 1917 edition of War of the Worlds

This, then, might be the third death to which the genuine thrill is doomed. Since its efficacy depends upon its ability to tap into anxieties and preoccupations of its specific historical moment, once these conditions that supported it no longer exist, it is left to flounder as ungainly as a squid out of water.

--Melissa Dickson