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The Alien within

What makes the Alien so compelling? Andrew Tate gives his view of the meaning of Body Horror

The horror genre has always been prone to sequels, mainly because of the success of the monsters themselves. The monster of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) is now making another appearance on the prison planet of Fiorina 161 at a cinema near you. But what makes the Alien so effective that it deserves a third outing?

Some have suggested that the Alien is so appealing because it could mean anything to anybody. Whatever the nature of your fears or anxieties, they could be embodied in the Alien. The Alien could be the underclass or it could be Reaganism, it could be communism or it could be reaction, it could be feminism or it could be the Moral Majority.

A common conjecture about recent horror films is that they are about Aids: the monster as disease. As evidence of this preoccupation, critics have pointed to the trend towards the flesh itself becoming the spectacle and site of horror: in Alien 3 for example, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) demands an autopsy for Newt (her adopted child from the second film) on the grounds of suspected cholera, while really believing that instead of cholera there might be a baby Alien hiding in the body.

No doubt the international obsession with Aids does find expression in horror movies. But Body Horror has been around a lot longer than Aids: David Cronenberg has been making Body Horror movies for years. In Shivers (1976), a turd-like parasite invades its victims' bodies and turns them into sex maniacs. It is both plague and monster.

Of course, horror books and movies have always reflected the fears and anxieties of the age. But horror also works in a deeper, more unconscious fashion than simply giving expression to the latest moral panics and social problems. The rise of Body Horror represents a more fundamental change.

For example, it used to be that horror film monsters lived in foreign parts - in Transylvania, in Mitteleuropa somewhere. But then they started coming closer to home - to the isolated haunted house, to the Bates Motel. After having arrived in suburbia - at the High School Prom (Carrie, 1976), at the shopping mall (Dawn of the Dead, 1979) or into suburban streets (Halloween, 1978, Friday the Thirteenth, 1980)--the horror has continued this journey inwards.

In suburban Elm Street (1984, 1985, etc) Freddy Krueger started to inhabit his victims' dreams and even their own flesh was not safe. Horror about flesh and the body's interior became one of the main themes of the genre, from Rosemary's Baby (1968) to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The vampire's bite was replaced by the fully fledged flesh-eaters.

This horror is primarily about a crisis of self, an uncertainty and disquiet about the individual that appears as the body (and mind) betraying its victims, by being attacked and reduced to mere meat. The dehumanisation of the individual is a central preoccupation of Body Horror. And there is nothing more dehumanising than being eaten ('with Fava beans' as Hannibal 'the cannibal' Lecter added).

In Alien, the crew of the ship Nostromo are so dehumanised that they do not even notice an android among them, one who acts entirely as programmed by the other 'monster' of the film, The Company. In the Alien films, Ripley is always sandwiched between these two monsters, neither of which cares who must die. As Ripley exclaims to the 'company-man', Burke, in Aliens: 'I don't know which species [humans or Aliens] is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a percentage.'

In Alien 3, the inmates of the prison have bar-codes tattooed to the back of their heads - a sell-by/eat-by date perhaps? Ripley's response to this dehumanisation is to demonstrate her human emotions. It is not just for a plot device that she rushes across monster-infested territory to 'save' the ship's cat in the first film, and to save the child Newt in the second.

The theme of dehumanisation is also expressed through the view of technology. The future of the Alien films is dystopian to an extreme. Nothing could be further from Star Trek, where technology is friendly and controllable, and where the object of machines is to make life easier, and give humans more control over their environment.

Instead, in Alien technology is in control of the humans, and some of it actively sets out to betray the humans; particularly the android, Ash, and the ship's computer (which declares that the crew is 'expendable'). In Alien 3, the technology is in an even more degraded state. So little of it works that the inhabitants of Fiorina 161 have to use candles. This is a future society that claims to have eradicated cholera 200 years previously, yet the inmates are infested with lice and have to shave their heads.

The central anxiety lies with the individual's identity in the face of his 'alienation' from society and technology. It is this anxiety on which the horror of the Alien films depends. This self-crisis can most easily manifest itself on a sexual level. The designers of the Alien devised it to be neither sex, but to represent both the male and female sexual parts. The ambiguity is rife throughout the films. The only time we can safely assume a gender is the alien 'queen' laying eggs in Aliens. Ripley calls it a 'bitch' in Aliens, and the lone monster in Alien a 'son of a bitch'. The alien has no trouble in reproducing itself from itself, which is why the lone alien in Alien 3 seems to act as both as father and mother.

The monster exhibits the only real sense of purpose in the film. It is certain about its fight for survival, and has no anxieties about itself. It is this purpose that galvanises the humans out of their rut into a fight to survive.

What is different about Alien 3 is that the humans and the place they inhabit are utterly dilapidated and without hope. The set exudes a sense of decay: the only decoration is what looks like 1930s stained glass windows. The inhabitants have no weapons with which to fight, and only Ripley and the 'priest' Dillon (Charles Dutton) show any real anger. We know that the majority will die. It is just a matter of when and how.

Mob rule

Kirk Williams suggests that the prominence of the mafia today has less to do with the strength of organised crime than with the weakness of the Italian state

The explosion that blew apart Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards in Sicily in May was a body blow to the Italian state. The highly charged popular reaction to the killing of Falcone, Italy's top anti-mafia judge, was directed against the government as much as against the mafia. At the funeral in Palermo's Basilica of San Domenico, 10000 Sicilians screamed abuse and spat at government ministers. The Italian president was lucky not to be lynched inside the church by the families of the dead bodyguards.

Assassinations of 'cadaveri eccelenti' (illustrious corpses) are nothing new in Italy. What is new today is the damage they are doing to the fabric of the Italian state. In 1982, for example, the mafia murdered Carabinieri general Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, who had been despatched to Sicily to sort out the mafia, having just helped to defeat the Italian Red Brigades. His assassination was a severe embarrassment for the government. But it did not lead to a major political crisis on the scale which has followed the assassination of Falcone in 1992.

So what's changed? The difference today is that the crisis of legitimacy afflicting the Italian state seems to have reached a point of no return (see A Harding, 'Viva Italia?', Living Marxism, July 1992). When 40 000 young people demonstrated in Milan after the Falcone killing, they blasted a political system which allows the mafia to get away with murder day in day out, and accused the authorities of being a bunch of idiots, cowards and murderers.

What looks like mafia strength is really a reflection of the weakness of the Italian state. Most of the time, the secret of the mafia's success is mystified. Films such as The Godfather suggest that the mafia derives inner strength from its archaic code of honour or even from its extended family. In reality, of course, there is nothing unique to the mafia's form of organisation which would make it more powerful than any other crime syndicate.

The mafia could only become what it is today in a society whose state institutions were incredibly weak. Until the middle of the nineteenth century there was no such thing as Italy. A modern nation state was eventually created largely through foreign intervention. But the authority of the state was circumscribed by the limited and uneven development of Italian capitalism. The Italian elite never managed to gain the authority which accrued to, say, the British establishment as a result of the organic development of its social system and state institutions over centuries.

The Italian state's inability to consolidate its rule, is clearest in the case of Sicily. Most Sicilians have never dropped their opposition to unification with the mainland. The experience of rule from Rome has engendered a profound mistrust of central authority. The state was never seen as a neutral body, but always as an instrument of Rome. This explains why the central legal system has never won support.

The mafia developed in this climate of mistrust of state authority. In the absence of a centralised legal system, justice came literally from the barrel of a gun. Groups of armed men could be hired by absentee landlords to deal with peasants demanding land reforms. The mafia was also used to deal with militant workers: in five years after the Second World War, more than 50 trade unionists were killed in Sicily. The town of Corleone, made famous in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather epic, was the scene of many brutal murders. In turn, many peasants and workers who felt let down by the state's inaction turned to the mafia rather than the police for revenge.

Unlike most other Western nations, the Italian state has never established a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It was never able to create a consensus for its right to rule among all sections of the population. In many parts of Italy people have given their allegiance not to the institutions of the state, but to bodies of armed men who dispense justice outside the jurisdiction of the state.

Given the historic weakness of the Italian state it has always taken a pragmatic attitude towards the mafia. Governments have sometimes made an issue of organised crime, but they have never seriously set out to destroy the mafia. In effect, an unwritten compromise exists in parts of Italy, with the state turning a blind eye to the activities of the mob. Indeed, everybody knows that the mafia operates as an arm of the political establishment.

The modern mafia was born in the postwar reconstruction of Italy, when the close relationship between the mafia and the Christian Democratic Party was established. Throughout the postwar period the Christian Democrats ruled with the assistance of the criminal underworld. The mafia delivered votes in the elections in return for political patronage of its business interests.

In Sicily, three of the most famous Christian Democrat politicians came from the ranks of the mafia. One of the less publicised of the recent mafia murders was that of Salvatore Lima, killed in the run up to the recent parliamentary elections. Lima was a former mayor of Palermo, a Euro MP and a right-hand man of the prime minister Giulio Andreotti. He had also been cited no fewer than 149 times in criminal cases. It had been like having one of the Kray twins in the Conservative cabinet.

Last year a government report admitted that the Italian state had never established its right to rule in the regions of Campania, Calabria and Sicily. This year, the legitimacy of the Italian state is being questioned far more widely. Italy is suffering particularly acutely from the national identity crisis engulfing the whole of Europe after the end of the Cold War. The mafia may be a beneficiary of this crisis, but it is not its cause.

Why shouldn't athletes mix sport and drugs? Alan Harding takes issue with the hypocrites


The Barcelona Olympics proved to be the most politicised games for years. The Serbian competitors were denied the right to participate in the opening ceremony. Meanwhile, the Croatian tennis player, Goran Ivanisevic, was feted as a national hero in the West. Even more so than usual, the competition between athletes in the Olympic stadium became a sporting parody of the competition between nations in the international arena.

And once again the drugs issue became the primary focus for the manipulation of sport for political ends. A young sprinter, Jason Livingston, had his career blighted because the British authorities were more confident about establishing their superiority through a holier-than-thou morality than through competitive excellence.

For anyone who doubted the hypocrisy that surrounds the drugs issue, compare the intense media focus on the banning of two British weightlifters for taking a substance not on the official banned list with the camera moving quickly away from a shot of a German lifter inhaling just prior to a lift that won a gold medal.

My sole concern about the use of drugs in sport is the health of the athlete. Will they pay the price of disability or death because failure is impossible to countenance?

I remember watching Tommy Simpson on a blazing July afternoon in 1967, as he rode higher and higher on the exposed, precipitous slope of Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France. His legs turned slower and slower. His bike swerved from side to side. His eyes glazed over. His mouth was open and gasping for oxygen. At a certain point his body gave out but his brain did not notice. So Simpson kept going and he died as a result. Perhaps it was the dope which killed him, along with his mental stamina and physical bravery, holding off the pain until it was too late.

The physical danger to the athlete makes the hypocrisy of the sporting authorities on the issue of drugs even more difficult to stomach. Athletes were expelled from the Barcelona Olympics as a moral face-saver for sporting and political bodies which themselves have created the conditions in which drug use is both necessary and illicit.

The competitive pressure to succeed, both for national prestige and for commercial success, ensures that most first rank athletes have no choice but to maximise their chances in any way possible. The dynamic for the medicalisation of sport does not come from the individual athlete, but from the association of sport with national superiority, and from the financial priorities which dictate schedules. In this scenario the well-being of the athlete is a matter only of national pride and financial reward.

At the same time, the powers that be are obliged to step up a phoney drugs panic because of the importance of the issue in a broader social context. Drugs panics are used to divert public attention from pressing social problems, and to strengthen the repressive powers of the state.

In sport this leads to bizarre, arbitrary and invented distinctions in order to justify certain practices. The history of anabolic steroids serves to confirm this. Widely used by field athletes from the 1950s, they were banned by the Olympic authorities only in 1974, by which time they had been superseded, and the techniques for hiding drug use were more advanced.

What is the difference anyway between special dietary preparation to enhance muscle tone and a controlled muscle building programme that relies on new discoveries rather than traditional pasta? Why is it legitimate to use cortisone to compensate for a groin strain, but illegitimate to enhance your performance when you are fit? Performing while unfit is much more dangerous for the athlete.

If we want to be pure about athletic performance, javelin throwers should be given pointed wooden sticks rather than the aero-dynamically honed items they throw such great distances today. And British competitors should be given steel boneshakers rather than the carbon fibre super bikes on which they won their gold medal.

Am I in favour of athletes popping pills left, right and centre? Wouldn't this make a mockery of that fine balance between physical and mental effort which makes the great achievements in sport so compelling? These questions assume a context which does not exist.

Sport is a social not a natural activity. The necessity to win is dictated by the demands of national prestige and not just by the desire to prove a mastery of mind and body. That intense social pressure explains why so many athletes take drugs.

At the same time as Ben Johnson was disqualified from the Seoul Olympics, over 100 top class athletes were asked to respond to the following scenario. You can have a new wonder drug. You will win for five years. Then you will probably die. Do you want the drug? Over half said yes!

What I do know for certain is that the athlete should not take the rap for conforming to the unwritten laws of modern competition. In an environment in which the athlete was the centre of concern, and in which greater human possibilities could be further extended, my answer would be yes to the pills and no you wouldn't lose the edge.

Don't believe the hype

After the photofit...the novel. Emmanuel Oliver on the latest addition to the Yardie hype

I suppose it's about time that someone other than the police, government and gutter press cashed in on the Yardie (Jamaican gangsters) phenomenon. Yardie, the debut novel of Victor Headley, is the first attempt to make a legitimate buck from the anti-Jamaican hysteria whipped up by the establishment.

Over the past five years the Yardie threat has been built up to such an extent that it now rivals the mafia as a symbol of ruthlessness, violence and greed. According to the police establishment, they have become a crime syndicate which spans the Atlantic. From Kingston to Miami, from LA to New York, from Toronto to London and round again, Yardies are said to be making big bucks organising the trade in crack and cocaine.

Given that the Yardie tale has been told so often, it was always going to be a difficult novel to write. Headley's Yardie occupies the lower end of black British literature. It has more in common with Richard Allen's horrendous Skinhead books of the 1970s than with Caryl Phillips' novels.

Headley has a tendency to glorify the conservative side of survival. He gives a sort of 'man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' feel to the Yardies, turning desperation into a virtue. As well as removing any humour from his one-dimensional characters, Headley ends up broadcasting a profoundly pessimistic message. You have the choice of staying in Jamaica and dying poor or becoming a drug dealer and dying young. Not much of a choice.

What is striking about this first novel by a black British writer is his almost complete lack of interest in Britain. He does not even deal in traditional images of Britain, never mind attempt to convey the black British experience in all its variety. Most of the action takes place around the dreary council estates of east and north-west London. For D, the main character, London is Britain with Hackney as its capital city.

The book itself has been given the seal of authenticity from a range of unlikely sources. Stories abound about how Headley is now in hiding from real Yardies who feel he has given far too much away. This is more likely to be hype than fact (I spotted Headley in Hackney recently, so he can't be that scared). In any case, if you have been following the lurid Yardie tales in the London Evening Standard, The Voice and the Hackney Gazette over the past few years you will know that Headley has given very little away, and that you could probably have written just as good an account.

Other Headley fans include the police, among them detective superintendent John Jones from Peckham, who has commended the novel for its supposed true-to-life content: 'The violence and the state of mind of the central characters tally exactly with how we see many of these people.' He might have added 'and every other black face in London'.

If you missed the Yardie scare in the pages of the gutter press, here's your chance to catch up with the story that has played a big part in criminal-
ising London's black community. If you believe it, either Victor Headley or the Metropolitan Police will have done a good job.
  • V Headley, Yardie, X Press, £5.95 pbk

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992



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