Friday, 6 November 2015

Sci-Fi Month | Is Alien Gothic?

Sci-Fi Month is hosted by Rinn @ Rinn Reads, and this year I'm participating!

Alien is probably one of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time, but is it also a Gothic story? Well, I would argue it is!

(If you've never seen Alien and you want to, I recommend you watch it before you read this because I will be talking about things that will spoil the ending for you!)

The rise of Gothic literature began in the latter half of the 18th century, with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, being regarded as the very first Gothic novel. Gothic has stayed around ever since, becoming hugely popular during the Victorian period; proven by the popularity of Penny Dreadfuls, and the publication of staples of Gothic literature such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Even before the Victorian period there was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, and earlier still was the work of Ann Radcliffe, author of books such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).

Even Jane Austen had a go at the Gothic novel in her somewhat tongue-in-cheek friendly parody, Northanger Abbey. Though it was one of the last novels of hers to be published, it was the first one she wrote, and something of a homage to much of the Gothic literature Austen was probably reading at the time.

Later, in the 20th century, Southern Gothic emerged as a new strand of American literature; stories which took place in the American South, and include authors such as William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Anne Rice.

Today we have contemporary Gothic, and tributes to the older work of a genre that we simply haven't let go of. Shows like Penny Dreadful are proof of how much we still love Gothic, and Guillermo del Toro's latest film, Crimson Peak, is a homage to all of those Gothic stories that have inspired him since childhood.

That's all well and good, Jess, but where the hell does Alien come into all of this?

Well reader, let me explain!

Something can only really exist as a genre if there are tropes and similarities between the various stories. Jane Eyre is Gothic, but Agnes Grey is not, and yet both of them are Victorian novels about the life of a governess. So what makes one Gothic while the other is not?

Gothic saw the rise of the monster in literature - from Frankenstein to Carmilla to The Were-Wolf - but the setting is also incredibly important to a Gothic novel. You're not about to open a Gothic novel that's set in a quaint little country bakery, or in a busy, bustling city centre; isolation is vital to a Gothic novel, as is a character who must be isolated and, perhaps most importantly, threatened.

Naturally, that isolated, threatened character, more often than not, is a vulnerable and (probably) virginal young lady. She's Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall; Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey; Emily St. Aubert in Udolpho; Mrs de Winter in Manderley; Ellen Ripley in Nostromo.

There's a lot of cross-over between Gothic and horror, though the two aren't the same. In Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's brilliant 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods, they talk about the archetypes in horror - The Whore, The Athlete, The Scholar, The Fool, The Virgin - and how it is always The Virgin who either survives or dies last. This idea translates to Alien, too, and it must be one that's been influenced by the pool of Gothic heroines from the 18th century and beyond. By the end of the movie Ripley is the only survivor from the Nostromo, starting a franchise that has given us one of the best action heroines in film history, but only after she's fought her way free from the Nostromo and the monster lurking inside it.

The Nostromo might not be a manor house, but it's certainly an isolated, claustrophobic setting. After all, where is more isolated than outer space? The Alien might not be as sophisticated as Dracula or as tragic as Frankenstein's Monster, but she's still become one of the most famous monsters around. Ellen Ripley might not be defenceless and innocent in the same way someone like Catherine Morland is, but she's certainly a descendent of those earlier Gothic heroines; a mixture of vulnerability and capability, and downright determination, that have made her one of the most genuine heroines to come out of '70s movies.

So, is Alien Gothic? Yes - and it's brilliant!


  1. I looooooove Alien! I've never considered whether or not it is Gothic though - but you've made some really interesting comparisons here :D

    1. Thanks Rinn! Alien's such a great movie, isn't it? It doesn't matter how many times I watch it, it still makes me jump!