I never knew the creature as the “xenomorph”, despite having seen Aliens–the movie where the term xenomorph was first used–before seeing Alien. My friends and I were far more informed by the titles of the film franchise than by the scientific designation tossed out by everyone’s least favorite space marine, Lieutenant Gorman. We knew that the scariest creature to ever crawl across a movie screen needed no fancy descriptor. It simply was the Alien. The Alien.
To date I’ve had more nightmares about the Alien than anything else, with tornadoes taking the silver and Bloody Mary a distant third. I’ve had nightmares about the first two well into my adulthood, and in fact had my most recent dream of an Alien swarm just a few months ago. I don’t remember much of the dream, just that the Alien infestation was so massive and devastating that the entire west coast was being evacuated, and it was roughly 100x’s more intense and frightening than any zombie apocalypse could be.
The violent purity of the creature that the android Ash expressed admiration for is, of course, what has always terrified me so much about it. Well, that and the fact that it’s a lousy cheat. On top of being relentlessly hostile, living only to attack, breed, attack, and then maybe rest up a short while so it can get back to attacking some more, its biology makes killing it potentially hazardous if you’re within spatter range. Acidic blood potent enough to eat through several levels of a spaceship is some bullshit. Sure, the Predator is a sore loser, but it isn’t genetically designed to self-destruct upon defeat. That which fuels the Alien’s very life is also there to take you down with it if you’re close enough and careless.
I saw Aliens as a child, years before I saw Alien, so naturally my first nightmare saw me as part of an overwhelmed commando team trying and failing to stem an endless tide of Aliens attacking us from every angle. The images of them attacking through the ceiling and floors, unstoppable and unending, fed that dream, which took place in some large, unidentified red room. It was, obviously, a long time ago, and a dream to boot, so most details escape me, but I do remember losing my machine gun and having to resort to my six-shooter embarrassingly early in the fight. Suffice to say I spent most of the fight dodging, running, trying to hide and watching my colleagues get slaughtered or abducted, one by one. You’ll have to forgive my dream-cowardice; I was a kid with a wild imagination but didn’t quite imagine myself as tougher than a futuristic space-marine at the time. Maybe if we were fighting a horde of Critters or Gremlins I could have imagined myself as the hero. But we were fighting the Aliens.
I knew I was dead.
In each Alien nightmare since, that’s been the worst of it. I don’t remember any point of inevitable death that occurs just before waking up in any of those dreams. I might have survived all of those dreams for all I can recall, but that would just be me surviving one chapter of a doomed saga, then closing the book before getting to my violent end. Because the violent end is coming. The Alien assures it.
The “surprise” return of the Queen aboard the escape ship in Aliens probably first planted this idea in my head. One moment, you’re Bishop, receiving kindness and thanks in return for making a last-minute rescue. A second later, a long, sharp, black tail has gored you, and then an eyeless giant has lifted you up and ripped you in half. This was only reinforced in Alien, whose chest-buster scene had reached mythical status in my mind by the time I saw it. I actually expected an even gorier, more over-the-top mess, which might have been part of why it so disturbed me. This was not the cartoonish spectacle I had built up in my head. This was about as close as we might ever get to seeing what it would genuinely be like to have a determined, overgrown parasite bloodily headbutt its way through sternum.
As a kid, Alien 3 seemed like the most anticipated movie of my young life. Godfather 3? I had no clue what the big deal was. Terminator 2, awesome, but also kind of a weird change-up, like if they made a Cujo 2 where the big, powerful St. Bernard was now the heroic protector of the mother and son, fighting against an evil, lean doberman. The returning Alien in Alien 3 would be just as bloodthirsty, sneaky and violent as his kindred from the previous two movies. And me being a fear junkie, I was as excited to see it in action on the big screen for the first time (as opposed to cable and home video, where I’d seen the first two films) as I was fearful. And yes, in hindsight, the movie might be one of the biggest missed opportunities in cinematic horror history. For starters, they never came close to trying to live up to the promise of this first teaser…
But at the time, to my pre-teen self, Alien 3 did everything I could have expected of it, including sparking a fresh round of nightmares. The cruel killing of Hicks and Newt–a slap in the face to most fans–did accomplish one thing for me; it reinforced the idea that living through an alien attack did not mean you were safe. One would get to you eventually, even if it had to work from the inside out.
It would have you.
It was inevitable.