Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 2:  Fear Learning

[For Part 1: Biology, see last week’s post]

Besides the sheer biological improbability of humanoid aliens, why do I care whether or not aliens in movies are effectively scary?  

We can learn a great deal from what scares us and what doesn’t.  My original thesis was that the scariest aliens are the most, well, alien, and that we are more frightened by the other than we are of the malignant same.

Which does not necessarily make sense.  We may be frightened of the other, but we are also guarded against it.  We are much more likely to be hurt or killed by someone we know than by a stranger.  We are much more likely to be killed by a fellow human than eaten by animals.  And if that is true on Earth, how much truer it is of the universe as a whole.  To date, there has been no confirmed killing of a human being by an extraterrestrial.  Finding aliens scary is not terribly rational.

But the human fear of the other betrays itself in many corners of our thinking.  Many of humanity’s darker moments involved the demonization and destruction of those we consider alien.  Those behaviors were predicated on the idea that those who are different from us are therefore less safe or less trustworthy than those who are like us.

Of course, neophobia doesn’t belong to human beings alone.  Animals, particularly social animals, display it.  And something which is unknown may present unknown dangers.  But there is a difference between that which is unknown and that which is known but different, and it is a dangerous human error to confuse the two.

It is perhaps a little glib to draw parallels between genocide and space aliens.  But fear distorts our thinking and constrains our lives, and it’s worth giving some thought to what scares us and why.

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