From 'Alien' to 'The Thing,' body horror exposes the deeper evils that capitalism has left to fester

“Listen to me,” Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) says in 1974’s Alien. “If we break quarantine, we could all die.” Weaver speaks the lines in tight, clipped tones; calm, urgent, and dripping with toothily ichorous foreboding. Sure enough, the crew member with the alien clinging to his face is brought into the ship, quarantine is broken, and soon everyone (except Ripley and a cat) is devoured by infection, monstrosity, and a catastrophic failure to observe social distancing protocols.

As the coronavirus spread across the United States, everybody (including me!) rushed to watch the 2011 film Contagion, a fairly realistic portrayal of a global viral pandemic. Body horror movies like Alien or The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with their tentacles, deformed births, vile growths, and vats of unidentifiable fluids haven’t received as much attention, perhaps simply because they’re more fanciful and so seem less directly relevant. 

But the same oozy formlessness that keeps body horror from quite fitting into a pandemic framework makes the genre, in some ways, a more perfectly paranoid and ugly metaphor for a time of escalating trauma and skittering hate. Body horror is a queasily apt representation of infection precisely because it isn’t just about infection, just as our own coronavirus tragedy has bulged and rippled with other burgeoning horrors.

“But the same oozy formlessness that keeps body horror from quite fitting into a pandemic framework makes the genre, in some ways, a more perfectly paranoid and ugly metaphor for a time of escalating trauma and skittering hate.”

Alien is a good example of how body horror opens its hideous maw of evil to reveal another evil nestled inside. The movie is about disease and blood and monstrous symptoms. The alien facehugger that affixes itself to the USCSS Nostromo’s executive officer Kane (John Hurt) impregnates him, and its bloody progeny tears out of his chest in one of the most famously repulsive scenes in film history. 

The disease on the Nostromo is an alien with acid for blood stalking through the corridors to rend and kill. But the disease is also capitalism. The Nostromo is a commercial vessel, and it’s ordered to investigate and retrieve the alien in the first place because its corporate owners think there’s a profit to be made.  The science officer Ash (Ian Holm) violates Ripley’s orders and brings Kane and his face attachment into the ship on company orders. He violates quarantine for profit, like all the conservatives calling to sacrifice grandma to the economy. The alien is a kind of capitalist itself, exploiting Kane’s pregnancy/labor for its own hunger and growth. The crew is devoured by both infection and lust for wealth. Inequity is the virus which incubates in humanity’s womb before tearing its parent apart.

Body horror films thrive on this kind of fecund meaning, as they birth clotted, shambling doubles. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example, is generally seen as a metaphor for communist takeover. In the 1954 version, alien seed pods land on earth, hatching exact duplicates of the townsfolk of Santa Mira, who then absorb the personalities of their others into a hive mind. 

“But the disease is also capitalism.”

The 1978 version follows the same plot with more gelatinous special effects, and a less cheerful conclusion. In the last scene of the film we see our hero, health inspector Matthew (Donald Sutherland), walking along the street quietly, apparently in good health. But then one of his former human resistor allies approaches him, and he turns on her, his finger extended, his voice raised in what we’ve come to know as the hideous alien pod person shriek. A world permeated by infection is also a world driven by a kind of animal urge to stigmatize. The virus is hate.

The common fleshy ground for all body horror is disgust and paranoia. In films like John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s Shivers, parasites burrow into and transform people into something else. The world is filled with wet, pulsing, crawling things, trying to turn you into them. “Trust’s a hard thing to come by these days,” the protagonist says cynically in The Thing. Anyone can get you with their microbes and guns. Hell is other people, not just because humans are vectors for disease, but because humans are a kind of disease. Stand too near and you’ll be covered in great gouts of hate and desire.

Covid has been horrific not just because of its deadliness, but because it coexists with so many other human dangers lurking among us. The virus exploits preexisting social fissures of class and race and political division. But those preexisting hates exploit the virus. In George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, for example, the Black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) spends the film fighting a zombie plague. Finally, in the morning, with the monsters destroyed, he goes outside, only to be shot by a white posse. You could say that the posse mistook him for a zombie. Or you could say that the apocalypse serves as a convenient excuse to murder more Black people. 

Body horror is not a hopeful or uplifting genre, in general. There may be some provisionally happy endings, as in Alien. But the main takeaway is still that scene of the thing tearing through Kane’s chest, its head swiveling to take in its new, red world. At the end of Contagion, people figure out how to vaccinate for the virus, and the world returns more or less to normal. In body horror, though, there is no normal. Humans had already infected themselves with hate, fear, cruelty, and bodies even before they broke quarantine.