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Meet Mitchel Ring, a Coloradan poet whose evocative blog posts caught my interest recently. When he mentioned in his bio that he enjoys old movies, I thought, “I wonder what he thinks of Alien?”
I emailed to ask him that very question, and what follows is his engaging response:
Films of a Decade I Never Knew
It isn’t what Alien (1979) shows the viewer that makes it terrifying. Rather it’s what the film keeps hidden—all that lurks in the shadows, moving in the blurred background ever closer to characters who are blind to the death creeping toward them.
The first time I watched Alien, I was alone. I had seen plenty of horror movies, and so I thought I was fairly desensitized to them. What I wish I’d known was that none of those movies were Alien. When it was over, I found myself checking shadows twice, unable to think about anything but that iconic image—the facehugger wrapped around Kane’s head, inserting the equally iconic chestburster deep within its new host.
As a decade of horror films, it’s hard to beat the 1970s. Apart from Alien in ’79, the decade saw such flicks as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), Suspiria (1977), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and countless others. I’m far too young to offer up any respectable opinion on what cultural forces might have been fueling the creation of these dark pictures, so I’ll keep that to myself and stick to watching, enjoying, and writing about them.
All of the films named above are milestones of the genre in their own right, but in my opinion none of them rise to that level of visceral fear which Alien evokes with its depiction of human vulnerability against the harshness of space and the acidic, armored carapace of the Xenomorph.
In my final term of undergraduate study at the University of Washington, I enrolled in a seminar called Psychology of Film. The purpose of the course was to dissect the techniques film directors use to craft a viewer’s state of mind. What is it about the imagery of a film that lends itself to the creation of emotional and psychological states in the viewer? That was the question we sought to explore. It was the best class I took in college.
For our final assignment, we had to design a study that utilized movies in some way to answer a psychological question. My idea was to use film imagery to see if it was possible to replicate the “overview effect”—a cognitive shift which some astronauts report experiencing after they see Earth from space. I can’t say whether it was an idea that would ever have worked in practice, but I had a lot of fun with it anyway.
My thought was to use scenes from science fiction movies that evoked a sense of wonder in the viewer—think 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Interstellar (2014)—and present them after administering a measure of an individual’s worldviews and attitudes. A second measure would be administered after viewing the films. Comparing the results from before and after would hopefully reveal a shift in a participant’s thinking toward broader, more open ideology.
As I gathered films and extracted scenes that I could use, I kept coming back to one that didn’t quite fit: Alien. I began to wonder if a film like Alien might have a sort of reverse overview effect on a viewer. Could attaching horror to space make the human mind close off from that vast unknown, and the unfathomable mysteries that might be waiting there—that might be watching us from out among the stars?
Maybe. Of course, I never actually did the study, so I guess we’ll never know.
Alien, like all good horror movies, reminds our mind on some primal level what it is to be prey. It plays with the ancestral fears that are in all of us. For some, it is a deeply unsettling experience. For horror film lovers, the fun is in letting those fears take the wheel for a bit.
Thanks to Mitchel for taking time to share these thoughts, and the interesting idea of that film study.
Read more of Mitchel’s writing as his blog, The Light is On.
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