They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious.  We do not need to know something’s source to know its value.   This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.

And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things.  We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.

But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories.  This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?).  And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.

Necronom IV

The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’.  It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction.  It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.

The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect.  Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth.  But the same process which made us, the same process o280px-Alien_movie.jpgf selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine.  Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.

But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy.  The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*.  These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid.  Got that?

A facehugger

Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary.  No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us.  We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!

Why must we always do this?  Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine.  We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.

7786379422_la-premiere-affiche-d-alien-covenantBut the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies).  The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.

Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power.  It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness.  The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible.  We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.

*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.

Hugh Welch Diamond

In the 1850s, an Englishman named Hugh Welch Diamond took a remarkable series of photographs.

Diamond was a doctor; he studied at the Royal College of Surgeons.  When he decided to become a psychiatrist, he was appointed as the Superintendent of the female department of the Surrey County Asylum.

Diamond was an enthusiastic practitioner of the new technology of photography; he would become one of the founders of the Photographic Society of London in 1853.  In his capacity as a physician, Diamond came to believe that taking photographic portraits of psychiatric patients would aid the diagnostic process.  He even published a paper on the subject (though in a photographic, and not medical, journal): ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomy and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’, The Photographic Journal (July, 1856).  He believed that the particular madness which afflicted each of his patients would show itself in their physiognomy, and that by studying their photographs, he would be able to diagnose them more accurately.

Diagnostic photography has not flourished, in all likelihood because it does not work.  However, Dr. Diamond is owed gratitude for the portraits he left us.  I was unable to find biographical information on the women in these photographs.  These may be all that remain of them.

Here are only a few.

Diamond Patient 1

Diamond Patient 2

Diamond Patient 3

Diamond Patient 4

Diamond Patient 5


Saturn Devouring His Own Son

First came the chasm, according to Hesiod, and then Earth.  Earth “bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven”.  With Heaven, she had many offspring, who were the Titans, the youngest of whom was the “crooked-schemer Kronos [Saturn in the Roman tradition], most fearsome of children”.  Most fearsome, perhaps, but all the Titans were gnarly, and their own father loathed them from the beginning, so he locked them all away underground and refused to let them out into the light.

Earth fashioned a reaping hook of adamant, and approached her terrible children.

“Children of mine and of an evil father, I wonder whether you would like to do as I say?  We could get redress for your father’s cruelty.  After all, he began it by his ugly behavior.”

Only Kronos was willing, and he ambushed his father Heaven and castrated him.  Freed from their cave, the Titans had many children of their own.  Kronos lay with Rhea and fathered Hestia, Demeter, Hera, and Hades.

However, Earth and Heaven told Kronos that he was fated to be overthrown by one of his own children, so when each of them was born, he ate them.

This mythic episode inspired two disturbing paintings, one by Rubens, and one by Goya.


Rubens - Saturn Devouring His Own SonSaturn Devouring His Son (1636) – Peter Paul Rubens

Goya - Saturno Devorando a Su HijoSaturno devorando a su hijo (1819 – 1823) – Francisco Goya

Goya’s depiction, the more frightening, was painted between 1819 and 1823, as one his Black Paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his old age.  He never named the paintings, and in all likelihood he never meant them to be displayed.

Eventually, Rhea, overcome by grief for her lost children, tricked Kronos.  When she gave birth to Zeus, she wrapped a stone in cloth and gave that to Kronos, who swallowed it whole.  Rhea raised Zeus in secret until he was old enough to battle and defeat his father and free his siblings, who had been trapped, apparently also whole (despite the artistic imagination), in their father’s stomach.

Hesiod’s Theogony.