The alien is one of the most fearsome creatures in cinematic history and has become a pop culture icon like some acid-blooded Mickey Mouse or a mass-murdering Mario.
While it's hard to distinguish several decades of extra baggage from its original appearance, we'd argue that the alien was originally meant to symbolize fear in its most basic form. More specifically, it represents the source of all fear: the unknown.
The alien is the ultimate Other. Yes, with a capital O. So before we get into talking about the alien itself, let us take you on a crash course about the scariest monster in all of cinematic (and literary) history: the Other.
Mostly simply, the Other is a figure that represents "an individual who is perceived by the group as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way." This difference can manifest itself in different forms: race, nationality, religion, social class, sexual orientation, and basically any other category you can come up with. Generally speaking, the Other stands outside a group that looks down on him or her as an inferior, but the group can also view the Other as being immoral, inhuman, and a source of fear and anxiety (source).
Writers and filmmakers use the Other in a bunch of different ways. And we mean a bunch. Sometimes, they use the Other to point out the faults in categorizing people with labels such as "us" and "them." A good example of this is Tom Hanks' character from Philadelphia. An AIDS-stricken gay man, Hanks' character is fired by his law firm as his bosses fear and hate him as an Other.
On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers use the idea of the Other to suggest that some types of individuals should be feared and separated from the dominate group. An infamous, and altogether odious, example of this is the silent film Birth of a Nation, which suggests African-Americans are inherently evil and primitive. At one point, the KKK rides in like the Riders of Rohan as if they were doing combat with the forces for Mordor. Not only was this a real thing, but President Woodrow Wilson had a special screening of the film in the White House (source).
Post-9/11, Hollywood has often depicted Muslims in particular and Arabs especially in roles of an Other to be feared or at least wary of. Examples include Iron Man, Body of Lies, and The Hurt Locker. Not that they didn't do it pre-9/11, too. Remember The Delta Force and Executive Decision? We do.
In horror and sci-fi, non-human Others often stand in for or symbolize real-life Others. Sometimes the character is an Other separated by mental illness or physical deformity, like Anne Wilkes from Misery or the sideshow performers in Freaks. Other times it can be a more fantastical Other like Dracula from that one movie… whatever it's called.
Finally, extraterrestrials are Others in the sense that they are not human, but they also represent concepts of the Other. For example, the aliens from Invasion of the Body Snatchers weren't just scary aliens; they are often viewed as a symbol for fears of communism and conformity in 1950s America. On the other hand, the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still shows us that our fear of the Other can limit our ability to grow as a people and a species.
Alien to the Max
The alien from Alien is designed so that every aspect contains some sort of terrifying otherness to it. It isn't a mammal like a human being but resembles an insect with its exoskeleton, elongated head, and mouth inside of a mouth. Seriously, what is that? A proboscis? (Fun question to ponder: why are scary aliens often bug-like? Is that the absolute Other-ist thing film makers can imagine?)
In fact, its unusual reproductive cycle (well unusual from a human perspective) technically would classify it as a parasitoid, an organism that "develops on or within a single insect host, ultimately killing the host" (source). And before you think this is all science fiction stuff, check out the ichneumon wasp. Its reproductive cycle is seriously grizzly.
Also unlike human beings, which are social creatures by nature, the alien is portrayed as a solitary hunter. Ash calls it the perfect "survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality" (Alien). In other words, unclouded by the exact things that make us human.
Even its name points to how much of an extreme Other this creature is. The noun "alien" literally means "a foreigner" or "a person who has been estranged or excluded"; as an adjective, it means "unlike one's own; strange; not belonging to one" (source). It stands apart from the human characters, representing everything that they are not.
And here's the final, scary Other quality: the alien keeps changing. Unlike humans, who tend to keep the same form and general personality throughout their lifetimes, the alien morphs. It starts as a facehugger and then, soon enough, bursts from Kane's chest like a snake coiling to strike. Before long, it morphs into a more humanoid-shaped creature.
On the one hand, all this shifting around is scary because it means that you never quite know what you're fighting. On the other hand, it means that the alien is fundamentally unknowable. When the facehugger is on Kane, Ash says that he has "confirmed that [the creature has] got an outer layer of protein polysaccharides. He has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarized silicone which gives him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions" (Alien).
Great. That's useful info for trivia night, but it still doesn't tell us what the alien is. At no point does Ash name the creature, an act that would suggest he has an understanding of the creature.
Many Different Space Hats
We can say the alien represents an Other character. No problem. But that is still a pretty broad statement, and we need to narrow down exactly what kind of Other it represents. Is it an Other based on gender or sexuality? A racial Other? A social Other?
The truth is that viewers of this film have never been able to really pin this symbol down. Like an inkblot test, the alien changes based on who's looking.
For example, in Science Fiction: The New Idiom, Adam Roberts mentions two possible readings for the alien, neither mutually exclusive. The first is that of the "aggressive male" that "[penetrates] its victims in a violent coding of rape with a monstrous toothed phallus" and "impregnates some of its victims, placing a baby alien in their bellies." Lovely.
The second is that the alien represents racial tensions. He notes that the film "represents the alien as a black-skinned monster—played in the original film, by a black actor in a suit—who lurks in the bowels of the industrial ship, a symbol of the industrial city, killing via a ghastly combination of rape and violence" (source).
Barbara Creed reads the imagery of Alien as representing "the archaic mother." The alien itself "is more than a phallus; it is also coded as a toothed vagina, the monstrous-feminine as the cannibalistic mother." Creed reads the alien as an archetype of the feminine, like the Greek Medusa, shockingly Other and ultimately deadly (source).
Then again, as we argue in our Themes section, the alien could be seen to represent the more dangerous forces of nature, everything we see as inhuman and a danger to our survival. Not only is it always changing to adapt to its new environment, but in the kill or perish process of evolution, the alien is at the top of the class. Ripley is only barely able to kill it using the technology at her disposal.
In the end, you'll have to decide what the alien represents in your own personal reading of the film. So, what scares you?