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.

That’s My Penis!

Would you like to read a terrifying paragraph?

“A popular interpretation of genital-shrinking allegations was as genital theft, and people reacted to these allegations as they would to other forms of theft.  In many cases, this involved a practice referred to in Ghanaian English as instant justice.  People who suspected theft shouted an alarm and enlisted the aid of bystanders in capturing the suspected thief, whereupon the assembled crowd beat the suspect, often to the point of death.  Although almost certainly underestimates, news media reported at least eight deaths from this practice during the 1997 outbreak in Ghana, eight deaths during the 1997 outbreak in Senegal, 14 deaths during separate outbreaks in Nigeria in 2001, five deaths in Benin during the 2001 outbreak, and one death in the Gambia in 2003.”

Just to be clear, the “outbreaks” referenced above are outbreaks of alleged genital-shrinking.  At least 36 people were beaten to death in West Africa between 1997 and 2003 because someone accused them of stealing their genitals, despite the fact that, according to the authors of the quoted paper, “investigations into allegations of genital shrinking typically revealed an intact organ.”  They then noted that, “confronted with this disconfirming evidence, affected persons typically expressed surprise.”  According to another estimate by Jean-Jacques Mandel, between 1990 and 2008, some 300 people were killed, and 3,000 seriously “wounded”, in Africa as punishment for stealing genitals.

A few weeks ago, I wrote somewhat glibly about the accusations of penis-theft leveled at witches in medieval Europe.  How often, I essentially asked, could that possibly have happened?

Well, evidence for actual genital theft by magic remains thin, but it turns out that the convicted belief that one’s genitals have been purloined by magical means is not unusual.

There are several conditions which feature the belief that one’s genitals are either shrinking, retracting, or have been stolen.  The most commonly known is koro, a culturally-bound syndrome typically seen in Southeast Asia, which is characterized by the belief that the genitals are retracting into the body and that, when they do, the sufferer will die.

One of the interesting things about koro in Southeast Asia and the incidents of alleged genital theft in West Africa is that both conditions often behave like epidemics, and both seem to afflict members of the population without prior mental illness.  This has caused some to suggest that these are better characterized as mass psychogenic (or sociogenic) illnesses: the rapid spread of symptoms of an illness among members of a group without known or identifiable organic etiology.

If koro and genital-theft are examples of mass psychogenic illness, they would be unusual examples in that the patient populations in both cases are overwhelmingly (though not entirely) male, and, in general, women are thought to be more susceptible to MPI than men.  Female sufferers of koro become convinced that their nipples are retracting, or that their vaginas are sealing shut, and, while that sounds pretty horrifying, there is something about the aggressive, delusional, and accusatory panic of penis-theft that is distinctly male: ‘This penis, it’s MINE, MY penis, and it’s VANISHING, because of YOU.  I don’t know how, but I know you did it!  Maybe magic!  It used to be BIGGER!  BIGGER and LONGER!  You made it SMALLER even though it was MINE!  My PENIS!  I’m going to beat you until MY PENIS is BIGGER and LONGER the way I know it’s SUPPOSED TO BE!’  See?  Pretty damn male.

The quoted article is ‘Understanding Genital-Shrinking Epidemics in West Africa: Koro, Juju, or Mass Psychogenic Illness?’, by Dzokoto and Adams.