Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

Advertisements

Doctor Moreau Meets Queer Theory

What makes humans human? Is it only our physical attributes, our bipedal stature, the sparsity of hair, and opposable thumbs? Is it more subtle than that, something in our mental capacity and our behavior? Or does humanity have any real essence at all? If slowly all his attributes were traded for a beast’s, would there ever actually be a single moment when the human became inhuman? And what if that experiment was reversed, if a beast were given the attributes of a man?

A Monstrous Vision

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of H. G. Wells’ science fiction classics, and one that treads close to the realm of horror. It features a biologist by the name of Edward Prendick who finds himself adrift after surviving a shipwreck in the year 1887. He is picked up by a passing boat, bound for a small island somewhere in the southwestern Pacific. Reaching the island, the captain of the vessel abandons him there with the cargo its inhabitant had requested—a shipment of animals.

Once there, Prendick realizes that the inhabitant of the island, one Doctor Moreau, fled more civilized regions for this abandoned place due to the controversial nature of his experiments. Prendick is not quite sure what these are, but from the abundance of animals and their tortured screams which endure for hours, he assumes it must include vivisection. Vivisection—surgical experimentation on live animals—was a very controversial topic at the time, and would continue to be for decades to come.

But it was not the cruelty of these live dissections that were the true horror of the island. As Prendick explores what will likely be his home for the better part of the next year, he comes across a group of people who vaguely remind him of pigs. Not long after, he is pursued by something bestial that, when seen in the open, is in the shape of a human, and is capable of standing upright. The next day, convinced Moreau is experimenting on humans, he flees into the forest. There he encounters an entire tribe of Beast Folk, resembling apes, dogs, goats, and things far more indescribable. They are led by a strange creature known as the Sayer of the Law, who chants out a series of rules which remind the Beast Folk how human beings ought to act.

Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the camp, and Prendick goes running. He is determined to kill himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. The doctor manages to talk him down, and explains that the Beast Folk are all animals, not men. He has taken the surgical sciences and tried to push them to their limits, using every imaginable operation to transform animals into men. Nor is he only altering their outward form—he is educating them to the point where they seek to act human. This is the meaning of the Sayer of the Law.

While this is decidedly horrifying, it does ease Prendick’s fears for his own life. He settles back in with Moreau and his assistant, biding his time until a ship comes along that is willing to offer him passage back to the civilized world. Before this happens, however, a series of misfortunes rock the island.

First, one of the Beast Folk is found to be breaking the Law. Rather than allowing himself to be captured and further modified by Moreau, he forces the men and animals to hunt him in a wild chase across the island. Prendick kills him, but the men suspect he is not the only one breaking the Law. Soon another rebellious man-beast kills Moreau, and not long after his assistant is also murdered. The humans’ dwelling places also goes up in flames, leaving Prendick alone on the island with the Beast Folk.

As the months pass, he lives among them. Initially, many were very human in appearance and behavior. But slowly each one begins acting more and more bestial, and their bodies slowly lose their human appearance. Moreau’s experiments could alter them for a time, but could not change them for good.

At last Prendick finds a way back to the human world. He is thought mad by many, and he has no proof of the fantastic tale he tells. Accepting this, he tries to settle back into civilized society. Yet something seems wrong. His experience on the island has forever changed his perspective.

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.

Plasticity

H. G. Wells’ monstrous vision has inspired no less than six film adaptations, some of them successful enough, and others as disastrous as Moreau’s experiments. Sequels and reimaginings have also been written, and more than one song features lyrics drawn from the Law and the events of the story more generally.

Despite its success in popular culture, Wells did not originally conceive of the idea as pure fiction. In 1895, he wrote an article titled “The Limits of Individual Plasticity,” in which he speculated that it might be entirely possible to totally alter an animal’s physical form through surgical and chemical means, to such an extent that it could no longer be recognized as whatever species it might belong to in a genetic sense. He mulled over this idea for some time. A year later, he published The Island of Doctor Moreau, reworking the gist of the article into the titular doctor’s explanation to Prendick of his doings on that island.

This radical notion stands close to the very heart of scientific materialism. Classical metaphysics—first explicitly described by Plato and Aristotle, and maintained by both Christian and Islamic philosophers—holds that everything in creation has a nature essential to it. A human is not human by virtue only of his outward form, but there is some nonphysical aspect of his being which makes him human and not a hairless ape. Modern empirical science is skeptical of such claims, finding little or no evidence for some spiritual, or at least nonphysical, essence that defines a species.

If the materialist reading of metaphysics is right, then Moreau’s experiments should, theoretically be possible. If all that separates man from beast is chemical composition and the arrangement of tissues, then sufficiently advanced technology and methods should be able to transform one into another. Of course, it may require a great deal of work to achieve such a thing, and then you’re stuck looking a ManBearPig and asking what you got out of it. But, if you really wanted to, there’s no reason you couldn’t do so.

This is not just idle philosophical speculation, either. The question of essentialism is actually a pressing social issue. The same metaphysics which says that man is separate from the animals, and the animals from each other, also suggests that men and women are different. Gender essentialism is the belief that there are fixed spiritual and behavioral characteristics tied to whether one is biologically male or female. This is usually taken to imply that certain gender roles are natural and others are not, and that certain expressions of sexuality are natural while others are not.

Consider that wide gulf that separates materialist metaphysics from classical metaphysics. In the eyes of someone who holds to essentialism generally, and gender essentialism in particular, LGBT behavior is unnatural in a very similar way to what Moreau does. Boundaries are being crossed that ought not be crossed, the very nature of a person is being denied or altered. Whatever the motivations or the character of the person engaging in the behavior, the behavior itself is inherently transgressive.

Now flip that. In the eyes of a materialist, gender and sexuality are plastic. They are shaped and molded by social expectations, which evolve over time. With advances in science and technology, even a person’s anatomical sex can be altered. If those boundaries of gender and sexuality are so ephemeral, if they are subject only to the limits of the human imagination, then it is the person who holds to classical metaphysics that is monstrous. They seek to impose on others restrictions that are not themselves natural, not themselves a fixed element in the physical or social fabric of the universe. Such views appear prejudiced and oppressive, something that ought to be opposed.

Of course, not every materialist supports the LGBT movement, and not every person from a tradition that holds to classical metaphysics opposes it. It would, however, be surprising if we did not see some correlation between those belief systems and the cultural stances they suggest. Our beliefs about the nature of reality do, in fact, impact our politics and lifestyle.

It be a mistake not to mention the place of feminism in this discussion. The places of men and women in society are very much impacted by your views on essentialism. While essentialism can lead to a wide variety of relationships between the sexes, it does open the door to what is generally characterized as a more conservative view on gender roles. A materialist metaphysics, however, tends to open the door to much more radically feminist views. Cultures whose mythologies are inspired by these two different worldviews can be expected to look very different.

The Future of Humanity

While the question of plasticity is relevant to Millennials caught in the midst of the twenty-first century’s marriage wars, Wells would probably have found another implication far more interesting. If mankind is potentially subject to this degree of chemical and surgical modification, might scientists take the evolution of the human race into their own hands? Might they modify men to make them stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter? Might we accelerate our own progress and leap forward into utopia of supermen, impervious to the threats that once dogged our race?

In Wells’ own time, medical science was nowhere near advanced enough to bring this about. Human individuals could not be modified to such a great extent, and such modifications certainly could not be made to pass on to children. But the human race was conceived of essentially plastic, able to be molded. So scientists across the world, often backed by forward-thinking governments, sought to sterilize the unfit and, in some cases, promote the propagation of healthier bloodlines. Atrocities committed for the sake of human evolutionary progress have since earned eugenics a bad name, and rightfully so, but at the time it was considered a very progressive, humanistic enterprise.

While the molding of humanity through forced sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and mass murder are largely a thing of the past, not everyone has given up hope of transforming humanity with the aid of advanced science. Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to use our advancing understanding of human biology and genetics to transition the species from its current state into a “posthuman” future. This posthuman ideal is envisioned to have capabilities so far beyond that of modern homo sapiens, that it could not be mistaken for the same species. While gene therapy certainly forms an element of this movement’s ambitions, they also embrace technologies that will merely push individuals beyond merely human boundaries.

Both the eugenics of yesteryear and today’s transhumanism look on the plasticity of the materialist metaphysic as essentially good news. While these things may push us out of our comfort zone as a species, they also point the way to a more promising path for our evolutionary future.

For Wells, however, at the beginning evolutionary naturalism’s heyday, these ideas still were still new and unsettling, sweeping aside things mankind once held certain. Behind the plastic veil of human flesh, he did not see the dawning of a superhuman future, but the dumb and snarling face of a beast, dressed in the trappings and taught to mimic the behavior of civilized man. Perhaps all our high technology and sophisticated cultures are merely a façade. Perhaps, he suggests, they merely conceal the Beast Folk that lie within.

 

 

 

 Post Script

In the coming weeks, I hope to touch on the idea of evolutionary progress in another of Wells’ works, The Time Machine, and to take a brief glimpse at the Planet of the Apes franchise. However, this particular theme of humanity, civilization, and our relationship to the beasts is a powerful one, and I plan on returning to it in further posts on Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian age and the stories of Conan the Barbarian, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned as the journey continues.

Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

Lovecraft’s Ancient Aliens

I

            Imagine a humanity alone in the universe. Imagine millions, even billions of years of evolution, struggling up from the slime that served as the cradle of some long-forgotten microbe, through countless eons of birth, reproduction, and death. Seas rise and fall. Continents shift. Meteors strike. Climate changes. Over the drifting generations we have ventured from sea to land, from land, perhaps, to the trees, and from the trees to the African savannah. We learned to hunt and gather. We learned to sow and reap. Cities were built, gods were worshipped, empires rose and fell. Through the long climb of progress, up through shifts in culture and technological innovations, we at last arrive at modern man. Our satellites sway in orbit, our telescopes look out at the stars. All our struggles, our pains and sorrows, the countless lost memories and forgotten lifetimes, and the end of every life, has all come to this.

And we are—utterly—alone.

All that we strove for, every empire and every nation, has ended in the dust. All of our great men have died, and though we know their works, they now know nothing. We have come as close to utopia as technology can take us, but still we fight, still we war, still we find reasons to suffer. All our gods, all the long history of great temples, enormous idols of stone, of gold, wreathed in diamonds and fine garments, of bloody sacrifice, all that has come to nothing. Even our gods were temporary, just another delusion on the road through history.

So stood the evolutionary naturalist in 1959. So stand many today. But in 1960, that all began to change. Before we go there, however, let us return for a moment to Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness brought us a strange vision of the ages that lie behind us. Somewhere in the geologically distant past, a race of aliens came out of the stars. They landed here, and found this planet to their liking. So they began to seed it. They created every kind of life: animal, vegetable, and things in between. Among these countless experiments were our ape ancestors. It was their act of creation that brought us to life, their purposes that animated us. In a very real sense, they gave us meaning. And for Lovecraft, of course, that whole meaning was a cruel joke.

In another of Lovecraft’s stories, which will receive more attention later, he adds to this picture. The Call of Cthulhu tells of an alien being made of a material we are to primitive to understand. Its powers lie beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our abilities as the Elder Things were above our simian ancestors. This thing, by its power, by the long memories of our race, and by the traces of the civilization it once ruled, reaches out and leaves an indelible mark on our consciousness. Those who know him, worship him as a god. For, in comparison to us, what else could he be?

Lovecraft returns to this theme of gods and creators from beyond the stars time and again. His fiction constantly drives at the point that mankind is not at the center of universe, that far stranger things may be far greater than us. But when he wrote those stories, he could not have foreseen the effects his fiction would have. This idea, the idea of a race of godlike aliens that came to the Earth in ancient times and created either our species, or much of our culture, gripped the minds of generations.

II

            By 1959, Lovecraft’s writings, never mainstream, had fallen from what brief popularity they had enjoyed. Few had heard of that master of horror, and his stories held no great place in the public consciousness. There were two, however, who had heard of him.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were two Frenchmen with a penchant for the occult. Both had lived through the Second World War. Bergier had actually participated in the French Resistance, and his work there may be an interesting tale in itself. They met in Paris, in 1954. In 1960, they published a collaboration that would change the world.

The Morning of the Magicians, as it is known in English, was a broad survey of a variety of conspiracy theories and occult topics. It was structured in an unconventional manner, and written in a personal tone. Louis and Jacques led their readers through a tour of issues as broad as ancient alchemists’ knowledge of the atom, the influence of German occultism on the Nazi party, and the Nazca lines. Most important of all, they made the suggestion that the Earth had hosted ancient civilizations founded by an alien race, and their influence had enormous effects on the development of humanity.

In the following year, they began to publish a magazine responsible for, among other things, bringing Lovecraft back into the cultural awareness of French audiences.

III

            The Morning of the Magicians cast forth a wide sphere of influence in the early sixties, reaching the UK in 1963, and the United States in 1964. The burgeoning counterculture took hold of many of the ideas it suggested, bringing an air of the esoteric into the movement. It was not the English translations which were most important, however, but the German edition of 1962. This found its way into the library of Swiss man by the name of Erich von Daniken.

In 1968, von Daniken published a book titled, “Chariots of the Gods?” His work drew heavily on that of Pauwels and Bergier, but had a tighter focus. It called the reader’s attention to artifacts throughout the world whose creation was far beyond the powers one might easily ascribe to primitive man. He pointed to the pyramids, to Stonehenge, to the Piri Reis map and the Nazca lines. He wrote of ancient myths, of legends handed down over centuries. He reminded his audience of the cargo cults of the South Pacific, how stone age tribes had mistaken modern sailors and airmen for gods. It all pointed towards one conclusion.

At some point in the past, beings from the stars had visited the Earth. They bestowed gifts on us: technology, information, and ideas that could have been gotten nowhere else. And we had remembered them as gods.

At first, the book had little impact outside of circles already interested in the paranormal. Even there it produced few notable shockwaves. But in 1973, von Daniken had a stroke of luck. His book was picked up by Alan Landsburg, who called on his friend, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, and got him to narrate a new documentary. In Search of Ancient Astronauts was broadcast to millions of American homes in 1973, introducing the ancient aliens hypothesis to mainstream pop culture. The documentary became a series, hosted Leonard Nimoy, which would help sustain a growing subculture of people interested in the paranormal.

IV

            This hypothesis, rooted, it would seem, in the fiction of Lovecraft, would go on to have a long life. The Stargate universe owes its existence to the idea, as do various Doctor Who plotlines, much of the X-Files mytharc, the attempted revival of Indiana Jones, Alien vs. Predator, and Prometheus. It also forms the plot of the often overlooked Hanger 18, a little gem my grandparents have in their movie library as a result of it being filmed in a town they spent a lot of years in. It’s worth watching, and rumor has it there’s a MST3K episode of it out there.

The idea not only impacted the world of fiction, but also found a home in many new religious movements. New Age beliefs have always looked to the stars, hoping for enlightenment, or interstellar saviors. While not every UFO religion can be credited to von Daniken’s influence, his work certainly helped create the culture in which such ideas were thinkable.

Return again to that lonely evolutionary naturalist. Now he looks out at the stars and can see more than empty space. He sees the houses of his neighbors, perhaps even the long-forgotten home of our race. Looking back at the gods of our past, he is no longer disillusioned. Instead, he is inspired, for in those gods he sees friendly visitors, or distant relations from a far nobler stock than the ape-men he once called his ancestors.

In a strange twist of fate, Lovecraft’s horror literature, meant to dethrone mankind from the center of the cosmos, has given them a new place in it. Instead of terror at the vastness of the black unknown, he has given them something new. He has given them new connections, transcending the short memory of our petty nations and the thin heavens of our fragile earth. He has given them a past. He has given them friends. He has given them hope.

It is strange what may grow from the well-placed seeds of a myth.

 

Jason Colavito first made the connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the ancient aliens hypothesis in popular culture. The majority of the preceding story can be found in his article here, originally published in Skeptic, or in far more detail in the book which he wrote afterwards.

At the Mountains of Madness

There are few modern myths so exciting as the journey of discovery. The thrill of blazing trails into some unknown land, a land from which no rumors have come, of which no stories are told—such a thrill is only matched by that wild moment when one discovers the ruins of some ancient and vast civilization, so glorious past that has lain undiscovered for eons.

H. P. Lovecraft lived on the tail end of this era. Few truly unknown civilizations were being uncovered in the 1930’s, but the British empire had reached its zenith at that point, carrying back rumors of the distant east, of Tibetan lamas, and the highest mountains in the world. Rumors drifted back of yetis, and of Shambhala. The first successful expeditions to the north and south poles had already taken place as well, and with the advent of both submarines and airplanes, man began to push himself to greater heights, and more profound depths.

But Lovecraft, being Lovecraft, took this theme of discovery and made it terrifying. Though many of his stories deal with curious scientists and scholars, At the Mountains of Madness is perhaps the closest he comes to Indiana Jones. It begins with a man named Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts informing us that he is publishing this account of his expedition to Antarctica only to dissuade another expedition, the Starkweather-Moore expedition, from daring to enter that frightful region. With great reluctance, he begins to recount what proves to be a uniquely disastrous and horrible journey of discovery.

The Miskatonic University expedition consists of twenty-five men and fifty-five dogs, four airplanes, and some modified former whaling ships. Their voyage is already a long one before they reach Antarctica, and they are not long there before their drilling into the bedrock of the icy continent yields intriguing results. One of their number, Professor Lake, decides to lead an advance group of the expedition farther into the mountains, with Dyer and the others to follow after. We have already seen these mountains in exploratory flights, and there is something strange and foreboding about them. They jutted higher into the atmosphere than the fabled Himalayas—at the time of Lovecraft’s writing, Mt. Everest had not yet been summited—and their slopes bore oddly regular geometric shapes, artificial in appearance.

Lake sends back reports of the things they find there, including strange creatures deep in the rock, at a depth that defies contemporary understanding of the geologic timescale. They are simply too old. And what is more, they are a strange blend of animal and plant, perhaps even fungus. Their barrel shape and starfish heads are unlike anything ever seen, and their bat-like wings prevent the scientists from categorizing them as some form of sea life. At any rate, while six of these strange creatures are wrecked, the bodies of the other eight are in pristine condition, having endured countless eons without decay.

Already Lovecraft is playing with the limits of human knowledge, taking the best of our science at a time when we are most proud of it, and punching holes in it. All it takes is a few strange specimens and our whole account of the history of life on earth is wrecked. For now, though, Lake is excited. To him, this is not a setback, but the beginning of a scientific revolution for which he will get credit.

Things soon take a turn for the worse. Dyer loses contact with Lake’s party, and goes forward to investigate. He finds the camp destroyed, the bodies of men and dogs horribly mangled. One man in particular, and his canine companion, bare unmistakable signs of having been dissected. Books, largely picture books, are found lying open around the camps, and various articles have been fiddled with. Outside, there are six mounds, under each of which are buried one of the six damaged specimens. The other eight are nowhere to be found. The explorers try to pass this off on a man named Gedney, who is missing, and they assume has gone mad.

Disturbed, but not quite deterred, Dyer and his companions fly deep into the titular mountains, into a vast city of odd, yet strangely familiar architecture. They set out into the city, exploring its fabulous ruins. The whole thing appears to have been hastily abandoned, emptied of everything mobile, and most of the shutters closed. On the walls they find remarkably clear pictures which tell a startling story about the inhabitants of the city, creatures which resemble the Elder Things of the dreadful Necronomicon.

It seems the Elder Things were a highly evolved species, capable of flying on their bat-like wings through space and sustaining themselves on distant starlight. Through the vast reaches of the black abyss they came to an empty planet, the Earth as it existed not long after the Moon separated from it. It was empty, barren of all life. The Elder Things settled there, but they were in need of servants, of slaves to do their hard work for them. And so they experimented, creating a variety of lifeforms, animal and vegetable. Some proved to be good for food, others for other purposes. Last of all, they created their slave race, the Shoggoths. These fulfilled their needs, and other beings were allowed to escape their notice, where unchecked evolution worked on them, and they began to grow more recognizable. Among these was a vaguely simian creature, unmistakably human in certain ways, which served as an entertaining joke to its careless creators.

This radical relativization of humanity is truly startling. Man is not the descendent of gods, or even of some noble lineage of creatures struggling its way up through eons of Darwinian combat to achieve dominance. Man is a buffoon, a byproduct of the leftovers of experiments of a race that is foreign to this planet, and whose concerns are alien. Indeed, it is terrifyingly clear that these Elder Things are far more highly evolved than mankind, both biologically and technologically far more advanced than the scientists could ever fathom.

If this does not seem so startling in a culture that, for the most part, eagerly accepts unguided evolution and countless millions of years of bloody struggle for survival, think how it must have felt to a society still largely in the grip of an explicitly Christian worldview. Merely being told scientific facts means little. One can still imagine man having some sort of special place in the universe. One can still believe our apparent dominance over the other known lifeforms is somehow natural, the way things have always been, and should always be. Lovecraft denies us this. Man is not special. Indeed, as we will see elsewhere, not even the Elder Things have some sacred or unique place in the cosmos. Even our accidental creators are not the most powerful entities on the scale of being.

The next step deeper into this world where man is no longer at the center comes with a subtle but profound reimagining of Lovecraft’s mythos. Out of the stars descends Cthulhu and his octopus-like spawn, to challenge the dominance of the Elder Things on the planet. These new creatures drove the Elder Things down into the sea, and took the land for themselves. After eons, peace was made. Then, suddenly, the lands in the Pacific, included the fabled city of R’lyeh, sank into the sea. The Elder Things alone ruled the Earth once more, except for a nameless fear of which they did not speak.

At first glance, this may not seem so radical. In earlier stories, however, Cthulhu appeared to be a dark god, perhaps from another dimension, some plane of reality humans could not fathom. His influence was psychic, and the whole story had occult overtones. The terror it inspired came from the fact that despite being so alien, he was so near, and had so profound and subtle an influence on the humanity he threatened. Now, however, he is truly alien. Any mystical or semi-divine properties he had are placed back in a decidedly naturalist, evolutionary context. Cthulhu and his spawn are merely another species struggling for survival, and not invulnerable, though certainly strong beyond the reckoning of men. We may perceive him as a god, but he is on the same scale of being we are, though unutterably high above us.

But when Cthulhu goes to sleep beneath the waves, this does not mean the dominance of the Elder Things is assured. Over generations they forget their old methods of creating and manipulating life, and become dependent on the Shoggoths that already exist. And, as all things wish to survive, to control their own destiny, the Shoggoths grow restless under the iron tentacle of their masters and revolt. This rebellion is swiftly put put down with atomic weaponry, and from that time forward they are tightly controlled.

Still, the struggle of the Elder Things is not over. Out of space descends another race, the half-fungus, half-crustacean Mi-Go, first mentioned in The Whisperer in the Darkness. As part of their campaign, the Elder Things attempted to launch themselves into space as they had done countless times in the past. Something, however, had changed, and in the millions of intervening years, they had forgotten the secret, The Mi-Go were victorious, driving the Elder Things back into the sea, from which they retreated to the last remaining free continent—Antarctica.

In this account of repeated assaults on the alien civilization, always from their point of view, Lovecraft seems to be evoking a certain measure of sympathy for the terrible creatures. Despite their wildly inhuman aspect, and despite the terrible implications of their existence for the human race, they have a will, they have a personality. They fight, they struggle for survival, they explore, they experiment, they build great civilizations. And they are, after all, our ancestors in some sense of the word. Lovecraft even compares the matter which composes them to the exotic, almost phantasmal stuff of which the Cthulhu spawn and Mi-Go are made. The Elder Things are, in a grander cosmic sense, very like us.

This impression is confirmed in dramatic fashion not long after. The explorers realize that the Elder Thing civilization, undergoing a slow decline into decadence, found itself unable to withstand the increasing cold of the Antarctic region. They descended into a deep abyss, where they built a new city. The carvings on the wall showed the explorers how to get there.

They set off at once, deep into the bowels of the city. They uncover the unmistakable signs of travelers having recently gone before them. Eventually they find a camp in which are items taking from Lake’s advance party. Here, covered by a tarp, they at last find Gedney and the missing dog, both remarkably well preserved, in the manner of specimens kept for scientific study. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a loud noise. They realize quickly it is the squawking of penguins, but of a variety which are pale, eyeless, six-foot monstrosities, adapted over eons to life underground. What, they wonder, could have disturbed them? What could have driven these chthonic creatures up to these shallow regions?

They descend once more, through vaster, stranger subterranean regions, until at last they come to a part of the tunnels where the art has a new, alien quality, like some barbaric imitation of what went before. Forms appear in the darkness, on the floor of the tunnel, and they explorers recognize them. They are Elder Things, crushed and warped, and each missing its starfish head. The ichor oozing in pools around them indicates that the kill was recent. After a moment’s recollection of the carvings seen higher up, Dyer realizes that the creatures have been killed by Shoggoths. He is caught up in a sudden rush of sympathy.

            Poor devils! Alter all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them – as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste – and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia … poor Lake, poor Gedney… and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

This horrified response reveals in a startling way Lovecraft’s own values. What matters is not how the creatures look, how monstrous they seem. No, these were scientists, creatures of intelligence and persistence, bravely facing the incredible. They were explorers, creatures of curiosity and rational thought. And in Lovecraft’s mind, that’s what counts. That’s what makes them men.

But the horror that consumed them is not far behind. An insidious piping issues from the depths, and up rushes a wounded Elder Thing, the shambling, protoplasmic bulk of a Shoggoth hot on its trail. Dyer and company turn and run, fleeing from the same peril that now threatens what not long before had seemed to them a monster. Now they have a common enemy, a mass of viscous, bubbling, sentient slime, barreling down the narrow tunnel like a freight train, eager to run them over. They move as fast as their legs can carry them, and the Elder Thing is unable to keep up. It is consumed. Soon they find themselves running alongside panicking penguins, and then bursting forth into the outside air. Some dumb luck, some fortuitous chance, has left their pursuer far behind them, perhaps having taken a wrong turn. They rush back to the plane and ascend into the thin air of those high mountains, free from the horrors of the deep.

Yet the nightmare is not quite over. Thought those Antarctic mountains were higher than the Himalayas, they were not Earth’s highest. The carvings of the Elder Things told of a range far higher, one just beyond that great polar range, shrouded in perpetual mists. Until now that translucent covering had shielded them from view, but now one of Dyer’s companions looked back, and saw beyond the thinning mists to those highest peaks, and what lay beyond them. What he saw drove him mad.

Lovecraft does not tell us what was seen. He gives us hints, speaks of Kaddath, the colour out of space, the original, the eternal, the undying. Whatever it is, the man who saw it will not say, though we know he is the only member of the expedition that has read entirely through the Necronomicon. There are good guesses to be made, but all we know for certain is that it was mystery deeper and more terrible than anything they had yet seen in those mountains of madness.

This is significant. Dyer’s expedition has plumbed the depths and uncovered things which shattered our preconceived notions of reality, yet not even this is the end. There remain darker, vaster, more maddening mysteries still, so far beyond the comprehension of mankind as to be unutterable. Our scientific inquiries, our journeys of explanations, all our great victories of rational thought come to nothing in the end. The universe was not made for man; it is not interpretable by him. We are a grim joke, an accident of experimentation irrelevant to our makers, themselves now doomed. Why should we expect to be able to understand what is out there?

From first to last, At the Mountains of Madness is dedicated to dispelling the illusions humanity has about its own place in the universe. In a naturalist world, there is no god or pantheon or primal force to give our existence meaning. We are no more unique or special than the monstrous spawn of distant stars—and they themselves are not privileged. Calamity may descend on them as on any other creature.

Note Dyer’s reaction, however. It is one common to other protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories. He warns us away. He does not ask us to seek to alter our precarious position in the cosmos—that is impossible. He does not point us to outside help, either. In an ultimate sense, there can be none. All lifeforms are independent of each other, are bound together by no purposeful cosmic order. They are all engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival, and all—so it seems—subject to eventual destruction. Nor does he ask us to come to terms with this knowledge. It cannot help us. He simply asks us to accept our position. Humanity must embrace its ignorance, for it is the only thing capable of keeping us from going mad.

There are, of course, other takes on evolutionary naturalism. Some are far more optimistic. This, however, is inspired by the same facts, the same set of beliefs. Here is a world without any supernatural reality. Here is a world where life develops primarily via natural selection. For Lovecraft, the implications of such a world are unspeakably horrific.

At the Mountains of Madness is a stunning Lovecraftian tale, and it has had an immeasurable—if not widely acknowledged—effect on the popular consciousness. In the near future I want to explore those effects, tracing the influences of this and similar stories, such as The Shadow Out of Time, on fringe science and Hollywood. Lovecraft’s legacy there is an enormous one, and he is to be credited for determining the shape of much of popular evolutionary naturalism. Stay tuned for the next step on our journey.

Alien vs. Aliens

Ridley Scott’s Alien is pretty universally considered a sci-fi horror classic. It’s tense, it’s strange, it’s dark, and it’s fairly original. It was so good, it sparked the thirst for sequels. This thirst was not quenched until the fourth installment, wherein the reincarnated Ripley kills her weird-looking, lumpy, pink, giant alien baby by letting it get sucked through a tiny hole in a space window. And after that weirdness, there was still enough interest in some quarters to spawn two AVPs and one prequel (so far). But we’re not going to talk about all that. Instead, let’s take a look at the only direct sequel I can stand: Aliens.

 

The Shift in Vision

From the ground up, Aliens is totally different than its predecessor. Directorship shifted from the gifted hands of Ridley Scott to James Cameron, fresh off of the success of Terminator and the second Rambo movie. With this change of directors we received a change in genre. Where the first movie was a claustrophobic nightmare, the second would be an action-packed adventure complete with space marines. The tension of slow pace and a monster wreathed in darkness was replaced with a guns-and-talons, race-against-time shoot-em-up. The apple falls far from the tree, and the consequences are profound.

Conservation of Ninjitsu

There is a theory of fight scenes running around the internet called “The Conservation of Ninjitsu.” It runs like this: in any given fight, the amount of ninjitsu (general combat awesomeness) for any given side is finite. This means that while one ninja might be extremely deadly, a hundred ninjas will get mowed down indiscriminately.

When Aliens set itself up as an action movie, this law took effect. In the first movie, one Alien took out the entire crew of the Nostromo, and was only defeated when Ripley opened an airlock so that it was sucked out into the vacuum of space. In the sequel, any given soldier is able to take out several of the beasts. Heck, they come crawling in a giant mass through the ceiling and still  people manage to get away. Let’s not forget that a child survived for ages in a part of the compound we are later shown the aliens can easily get to.

Characterization

When Ridley Scott introduced us to crew of the Nostromo, it was sort of a slow unrolling of their personality. Each scene tells us a little more about the characters, and some of their motivations are not fully explained until the show is almost over. James Cameron did something different, and I can’t pin it down exactly, but if you watch the movie you can feel it. There’s a lot of noise and multiple conversations going on early in Alien, making our growing understanding of the crew seem almost incidental. Those scenes are as much about setting the mood as they are about introductions. In Aliens every new character is distinct, loud, and showy. We are getting a performance. That, at least, is how it came off to me.

The Others

Sexual themes and gender roles are a big part of the series in every incarnation. There are other themes, however, equally worth exploring. The very word “alien” refers to a concept of “the other,” of something foreign. The people involved in the production of both movies were very aware of this concept.

The driving force behind the horror of the first movie is that we fear what we do not understand. Scott seems to deal with this consciously not only in how he treats the monster, but also in how he deals with the crew. Two of them work below decks, and they are not getting equal shares with everyone else. This causes tension as they try to get a better deal. Early on, one of the two men comments that “It’s us versus them. That’s how they see it.” This minor rivalry between the grimier workers below decks and the skilled laborers pales in comparison, however, to the big reveal concerning Ash. Ash is an android, a robot put there by the company who is ultimately willing to kill off all the humans or just let them die to ensure that the monster makes it back home to be studied.

Throughout the first movie, the invasion of the creature and the eventual reveal concerning Ash all serve to unite the crew. They must confront their rivalries and differences in the interest of surviving. This is because their differences are nothing next to the horror of the unknown which confronts them.

In James Cameron’s take on the mythos, this is not so much the case. A minor point is made that Vasquez is Hispanic and a woman, but it never gets in the way of the unit’s working together. Like Ash, Bishop is an android, but the movie goes to great lengths to teach Ripley that he is to be trusted. The man she cannot trust, Burke, is not an “other” so much as he is a jerk. Even the aliens aren’t really an unknown, seeing as the space marines have all killed off aliens before. This is just a particularly nasty variety. The whole idea of the uncanny other generally gets set aside in favor of a more action-movie ethos.

Was It Worth It?

There is no doubt that the first sequel was very different from the original. It does very well as an action movie, though it is far from a masterpiece of the genre. On the other hand, the first movie was truly groundbreaking and has a timeless horror to it. It might be said that shifting genres and undercutting the original themes did a disservice to Alien, but I doubt it. What Alien did was unique, and trying to recreate that would have just been a cheap disappointment. The changes may have prevented Aliens from living up to its predecessor, but that is not something it ever could have done. Indeed, because it was so different, it gave the brand a chance to live on through further sequels and crossovers as that universe was explored from different angles by different directors. So, yeah. While I can’t say I loved Cameron’s take on Scott’s creation, I have to say he did a good job.