James Cameron Knows Exactly What Makes the Monster in Alien So Terrifying

According to the director, the key was a particular feature in the creature's face. Or rather, the lack of it.

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James Cameron, the director of 1986's Aliens 1986, had to carefully analyze all the elements that made Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie in 1979 a landmark of horror cinema. Based on the success of its sequel, Cameron clearly did something right, even though his approach leaned more bombastic action than the exquisite exercise of tension seen in the first installment.

In any case, one thing is clear–Cameron clearly did his homework on what made the xenomorph monster so terrifying. He discussed his findings in the special features of the Blu-ray edition of Aliens: “One of the things I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about is, very simply, the design of the alien. It’s all mouth. There are no eyes. There is no sense of any kind of consciousness there that you could deal with. It is so different from us. Even when you look at the face of a crocodile or a shark, you see eyes, you see a sentience there that you think is in some way a little bit like me. At least it's from this planet.”

According to Cameron, the xenomorph is incredibly scary because its appearance is completely foreign from that of humans: “When you look at the alien, it is completely another thing. It is the unknown. But it has teeth, and it has even more teeth behind those teeth. So there’s something so primevally terrifying about it that it’s really a predator rendered down to its simplest [form]. The last glimpse that you have in life, if you get eaten by a predator, is the teeth. So [the design] works at such a primal level that we probably don’t even understand it.”

Finally, Cameron also goes on to say the kind of phobias the xenomorph triggers in people, explaining that the idea was to go beyond the common ones like darkness, insects, and suffocation: “The design was intended not just to play upon the obvious primal fears–fear of little scuttling things, fear of insects, fear of suffocation–but there’s also a whole other level to it, which is a kind of psychosexual fear. There’s a kind of Freudian fear underneath the whole thing. You know, the fear of something growing inside you, which is the fear of pregnancy and, therefore, the fear of sex as a whole.”

“There’s a whole thing that it taps into that no science fiction film, I think, ever tapped into previously, and it’s inherent in the design. It was a contribution made, I think, in conjunction between Ridley Scott and Hans Rudi Giger, the designers of the alien and the facehugger. All of his imagery has this kind of primal sexual component to it, you know, which I think is what made it all very fascinating to people,” Cameron concluded.

Image | Disney

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