“What makes things baffling is their degree of complexity, not their sheer size; a star is simpler than an insect.”
~ Martin Rees, Scientific American, 1999.
“The Alien franchise bases its Xenomorph life cycle on parasitic wasps on Earth,” Terry Johnson, a bio-engineering researcher at the University of California, told Popular Mechanics. “It’s a pleasure to see a film that acknowledges just how weird life can be.” But despite the blatant insectile nature of the Alien (specifically its four-staged life cycle and cocooning) and despite O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, Ron Shusett, HR Giger, and Ridley Scott being clear on the issue, fans have been reluctant to admit the insect influence on the original creature, instead brushing it off as an addition made by James Cameron in the 1986 sequel. However, in light of the evidence pointing to the original Alien makers being heavily and happily influenced by insects, attributing this to Cameron is akin to blaming wet streets for rain.
“Works of fiction weren’t my only sources,” explained Alien writer Dan O’Bannon in his reflective essay, Something Perfectly Disgusting. “I also patterned the Alien’s life cycle on real-life parasites … parasitic wasps treat caterpillars in an altogether revolting manner, the study of which I recommend to anyone tired of having good dreams…” The connection between the Alien and insect reproductive cycles was so crucial that O’Bannon identified it as of “core psychological significance” before quoting biology and science journalist Carl Zimmer: “when an alien bursts out of a movie actor’s chest … it is nature itself that is bursting through, and it terrifies us.”
“I modelled [the Alien] after microscopic parasites that moved from one animal to the next and have complex life-cycles,” Dan explained. “I just enlarged the parasite. I was interested in the biology of aliens, so I wasn’t interested in streamlining the thing below interest level just for the sake of economy.” Ron Shusett, Alien‘s executive producer and friend to O’Bannon, told Cinefantastique: “It was our idea that it would be the life cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyse it, and lay its eggs in the spider … that we did want it to be …. We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘yeah, an alien life cycle can be an insect life cycle.'”
Alien and Aliens conceptual artist Ron Cobb further explained the origins of the chestburster scene: “He got that from the paralysing wasp … it paralyses the spider and lays its eggs on the spider, then buries it in the ground so that the living spider serves as food for the wasp larva and you know, he always was so horrified at that idea.” Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon reiterated this with scpr.com in 2014: “It’s the chest-burster scene — that’s what we call it. That was his concept. Basically from an insect that he read about that laid its eggs in other creatures and burst out, so that’s where the inspiration came for that one, and it sure was horrifying.”
In the 1999 DVD commentary, Ridley Scott explains: “The whole notion of this [creature] was taken off a certain kind of insect that will find a host, lay its eggs, and then in that host it will bury its eggs, and then of course the eggs will grow and consume the host. So that’s the logic of it all. Probably what makes a lot of nature go around.”
“I wanted him [the Alien] to be insect-like. Like an ant. Because if you examine an ant under a microscope they’re kind of elegant, and I wanted him to be very elegant and dangerous.”
Ridley Scott, The Alien Saga, 2002 (archival interview from 1991)
“We decided to make a very elegant creature: quick, and like an insect.”
HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.
Many fans find the comparison to insects to be demeaning, probably because the words “bug” and “insect” are often used as pejorative terms (interestingly, nineteenth century writer Lafcadio Hearn documented that in China and Japan ants were considered to be Man’s superior in terms of social structure, longevity, ethics, etc.) But the insect world is one of complete brutality and wondrous, if not terrible, feats of strength and will and ingenuity. Murder, theft, displacement, and slavery is routine. Regicide is often simply a matter of succession. Like Mankind, ants are known to mobilise armies in order to annihilate rivals, a behaviour not even in the realm of our ape cousins, who in comparison engage in turf war rather than full-scale organised and destructive aggression.
It’s not that the insect world is a disordered one -creatures such as ants live in incredibly complex social systems- but that it is an amoral one, where even acts of reproduction require the painful death of a mate or parent insect. Praying Mantis’ devour their mates from the head down mid-coitus; pseudacteon flies lay larva which feed on a host’s brain before they decapitate and erupt from their heads; and botflies turn living bodies (animal and human) into colonies of larvae.Sex and insects weren’t new to fiction when represented in Alien, with the topic matter going as far back as the English metaphysical poet John Donne’s The Flea, published in 1633. Donne’s poem is narrated by a young man who watches as a fly suckles at his flesh, then moves to feed on a woman he desires. The poet’s language is very sexual throughout, and he notes: “Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee, and in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” The insect has brought the two together, and the two are now also part of the insect, the creature’s innards now their “marriage bed … cloysterd in these living walls of jet.”
Where Donne’s poem was somewhat comical as well as sexual, O’Bannon’s Alien would focus not on sexual love, but rape, and not on bonding via the transmission of fluids, but on parasitism, all derived from the horrors of the insect world.
“[The Alien’s acid blood] reminded [Dan] of these ants that spray jets of acid to combat enemy ants … At the time of Alien, he had to consult books, watch documentaries, and it took time, but today you just have to explore the web for videos or amazing photographs that make you exclaim, ‘but who designed this?’ before you remember that it is the work of Nature.”
~ Ridley Scott, L’Ecran Fantastique, 2012.
And, as O’Bannon attests, horror abounds in insect circles. At roughly 1700x bigger, it’s easy for a human being to miss the potency and lethality of an ant. Relative to their size, ant muscles are bigger than those of humans, which enables the creatures to lift objects up to fifty times their own weight.
Driver ants, also known as army ants, live on the move, only stopping to establish temporary colonies formed entirely out of their own bodies, much like the nest structures seen in Aliens as well as in Alien’s deleted material. The ants link together using their mandibles, as well as spines and hooks attached to their limbs. These living nests are called bivouacs, can shelter a queen, and come complete with walls and tunnels. When it’s time to move on, the nomadic army ants dissemble and become marching columns that swallow anything in their path, often killing literally thousands of other creatures in a single day, from other insects and spiders, to birds and other large mammals. The ants’ mandibles are solely for killing, crushing, cutting, maiming, and dismembering, as the creatures are only capable of swallowing liquids.
“Gordon Carrol and I talked about this many times,” Ridley Scott explained, “You know, should we indicate the Alien has intelligence? Or great intelligence? Or is it just a time bomb, is it just a war machine? Are those eggs simply war machines? … Ants have, I think, no sense of beginning or end. They just are born, run around doing this thing like everybody else in the community, and die. And I think that may have been the Alien. So, maybe the Alien had no intelligence except pure intuition about survival. Right?”To sum up the insectile traits of the Alien:
- The parasitic life cycle: The Alien is a parasitoid, needing a host in order to reproduce, like parasitic wasps. Ron Cobb identified the paralysing wasp as influencing O’Bannon. These wasps paralyse potential hosts and implant their seed along with a virus that suppresses the immune system which allows the larvae to grow undetected by the host. The large, formidable looking ovipositor of the Ichneumon wasp is not used to sting and wound, but to sting and impregnate.
The Alien can be more accurately described as a protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”
- Larval, pupal, and adult life-stages: From the egg comes the facehugger, the first stage of the Alien life-cycle. The facehugger’s function is to locate, subdue, and impregnate a host via its proboscis. The impregnated host is the pupae stage. Once the Alien violently emerges from the host it must shed its skin and grow in order to become an adult. Butterflies go through a growing process known as Complete Metamorphosis – meaning its adult stage is completely different to its larval stage, as is the adult Alien from its infanthood as a chestburster. Once the chestburster has shed its skin (as most insects do, usually shedding exoskeletons numerously into adulthood) it leaves behind the instar stage of its life and becomes an adult.
- Cocooning: The Cicada Killer Wasp cocoons its prey near the eggs of its young so that the newly hatched wasps have a food source. In Alien, the Alien cocoons Dallas and Brett not to feed on them, but for reproduction (though in early scripts, the Alien did eat parts of its cocooned hosts – it even ate Lambert whole in one version.) In Aliens, the colonists are abducted, subdued, and embedded into the walls of the hive to await death. In scripted, but unfilmed, portions of Alien 3, the prisoners were to come across the Alien’s nest, where they discover a cocooned Superintendent Andrews along with other half-eaten bodies. The characters identify the nest as a “meat locker”, presumably where the Alien stores hosts and food for its inbound Queen.
All of these elements bar the cocooning were present in the theatrical release of Alien. We see the Alien progress through the various stages of its life, getting a glimpse of some shedded skin along the way and even hints of the creature’s limited lifespan – “I wanted a sense of a timeless, slightly decaying creature that, maybe, only has a limited life cycle of, maybe, four days like an insect,” said Ridley Scott, adding: “the Alien lifeform lived to reproduce … [Ripley] killed it, but it would have died soon anyway. It’s like a butterfly.”
The Alien’s apparently impending demise was telegraphed through its lethargy aboard the Narcissus shuttle, in addition to a (hardly apparent) disintegrating paint job on the creature suit. In Aliens, the creatures at Hadley’s Hope are weeks old, scuppering the idea of a severely limited lifespan – with this in mind, we can easily chalk up the original Alien’s lethargy to it entering hibernation, much like the Aliens within the Atmosphere Processor before they are disturbed by the Colonial Marines.
The Alien and bacteria: Ash describes the facehugger as having “an outer layer of protein polysaccharides.” The polysaccharide comment may be a nod to bacteria, which are known to secrete protective slime layers usually composed of polysaccharides and protein, which helps the bacteria protect itself from antibiotics and even chemical sterilisation. Such layers also aid in attaching bacteria to other cells, and also as food, or rather, energy stores. The facehugger’s protective coating not only serves to protect the organism, but also helps any regenerative healing properties and keeps the creature energised (they do face a potentially long hibernation)… Either that, or the scriptwriters thought it merely sounded like an intelligent thing for Ash to say.
Insectile additions to the Alien life-cycle in the sequel:
- The hive: like ants and most wasps (not all are eusocial), the Aliens adopt a functionalist, hierarchical social system. Contrary to popular belief, this does not consist of drones and warriors. Cameron scripted Alien drones in his 1983 treatment but cut them in the next draft. When JamesCameronOnline asked John Rosengrant if the drones even reached any preliminary design stages, he answered: “Not really, as far as I remember.” Cameron himself explained that the term ‘Alien Warrior’ was not to denote two different kinds of Alien (as is often mistaken) but was merely “my term for the single adult seen in Alien.” The expanded universe and fanon generated the idea that domed and ribbed head Aliens represent two different castes, but this has no basis in the release version of Aliens and perhaps belongs and owes its popularisation more to the comic books and games.
- The Alien Queen: The Alien society within the hive consists of adult Aliens and their mother, the Queen. Unlike ants or termites, the Alien Queen does not have a need for a male counterpart (ants employ drones, and termites have kings to impregnate the queen). Like the creature in Alien, the Queen is ambi-sextrous, a hermaphrodite, capable of reproducing without the seed of a male. “There are insects like that [androgynous, asexual]” Ridley Scott said of his Alien, “so we based that on a little bit of good old Mother Nature.” The original creature was at first envisioned as a female, before becoming thought of as a hermaphrodite by Scott once Bolaji Badejo was cast (initial efforts to cast a tall, thin woman failed). The Queen likely carries a feminine title (just as the first Alien was dubbed “Kane’s Son”) for clarity and because we tend to struggle without gender-specific labels (though it should be noted that Cameron referred to the Aliens in a male/female capacity – though he also noted that they can change gender if a Queen is present or absent).
It’s usually thought that the insect elements began and ended with Cameron, but in fact not only did they begin with Dan O’Bannon, but they were continued and pursued even by David Fincher for Alien 3. The parasitism and Queen (or an embryo, at least) returned from previous installments, but the third film’s Alien seemed to have picked up new abilities – firstly, we see it spit a wad of acid into a prisoner’s face, very much like some warrior ants who can even ‘self-destruct’ upon injury, drenching their enemies in toxins in the process. Furthermore, climbing, crawling Aliens in Aliens tended to need support, especially when crawling upside down, as the invading Aliens do during the Operations attack in Aliens. Fincher’s Alien, however, didn’t need any support at all:
Alien 3 also carries the dubious honour of being the first film in the series where a character outright calls the creature a bug, seen when Morse mocks the lead-drenched Alien, calling out, “I hate bugs!”
Ridley returned to bugs to help with Prometheus’ creature concepts. Writer Jon Spaihts told Empire magazine: “Ridley is a great and ghoulish collector of horrible natural oddities, real parasites and predators from the natural world. He had a tremendous file of photography of real, ghastly creatures from around the world – they’re chilling, some of them! He would tell these tales with relish, of wasps that would drill into the backs of beetles and plant larvae, or become mind-control creatures. Terrible things happen, especially the smaller you get. As you get into the insect world or the microbial world, savage atrocities are perpetrated by one creature on another. And Ridley was thrilled with all of them. They inspired a lot of the designs and a lot of the ideas we tried.”
From the fears and morbid interests of Dan O’Bannon, through Ridley Scott’s research into insects, and Ron Shusset’s declaration that an insect life-cycle was the intention, it cannot be denied that the Alien is an amalgamation of horrific insectoid sexual aesthetics and traits, which contributed not only to the nightmare inducing nature of the creature, be its abilities, its visage, its growth cycle, but to its integrity as a space dwelling avatar of death as well. Strip the monster of all insectile traits and nothing reminiscent of the series’ Alien is left. Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3 managed to equilibrate the sexual and insectile overtones to create a startling, original beast, an equilibrium upset in the expanded universe and spin-offs, which saw a dilution of the creature’s sexual elements and subsequent diminishing returns.