Scary stories have been a staple of popular culture since there has been popular culture. To be spooked, thrilled, horrified, and afraid has been at the centre of fiction for a long time.
Scary stories have always been a reflection of things that we fear in the real world. This is why for so long scary stories were about ghosts, monsters, and the supernatural. People were afraid of monsters. Stories about ghosts gave us chills, vampire stories convinced us that we should eat more garlic, Frankenstein’s monster reminded us that science is terrifying.
But now? What are these monsters now that we’ve lost our fear of them? Classic monsters are now often represented as antiheroes or love interests. We see them as the underdog, with the trait that originally made them scary now being used metaphorically to represent real issues. Ghosts often represent isolation—vermin to be sucked up Bill Murray’s ghost catcher. Vampires are the love interests in teen romances, and the thirst for blood often becomes a metaphor for drug addiction. No one has really been afraid of Frankenstein’s monster since the movie Young Frankenstein (which you should see if you haven’t already), and zombies are basically cannon fodder: bodies we can watch explode without feeling any remorse at all. They still make movies about monster attacks or hauntings, but we don’t seem frightened of these anymore.
So what are we afraid of now? Well… Look up. The truth is out there.
Aliens are the new monsters and the scary story of today. Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Five hundred years ago, the majority of people believed in the supernatural, while we now live in a more secular society where the belief in the supernatural is far less prevalent. Phenomena that were once blamed on ghosts are now explained by modern science.
Today, with what we know about the universe, it seems far more likely that aliens exist than ghosts, and belief in aliens is becoming more and more commonplace. But why does that make aliens the new scary story? Because while monsters have become relatable or overused, aliens remain terrifying in our culture. To explain why, I will look at several different types of alien stories.
A group of invaders discover a new land and go about systematically wiping out the life that was already there in order to claim it as their own. The aliens easily accomplish this by mobilizing their alien armies and using advanced, seemingly unstoppable weapons. Now think, did I just describe an alien invasion movie, or the colonization of North America? Well, both, actually.
Sure, we get the occasional nice, peaceful humanoid aliens in a story once in a while, like the Vulcans on Star Trek or the Doctor in Doctor Who. But even in these stories, the villain is still almost always a bigger, evil alien trying to conquer and destroy. Occasionally the position is reversed, and the humans are the conquerors coming and invading other planets. This type of story is a good way of showing the possibility that, instead of being the victims, perhaps human beings will be the villains.
Alien stories come from the fear that we’re next. Every civilization in history is eventually torn down by something more powerful and more dangerous. Our history is full of empires slaughtering and conquering throughout the world. Speaking as a species, we have quite a lot of blood on our hands. What happens now that the whole planet is one giant collection of nations? We have to think bigger. This is where aliens come in. Alien invasion stories are scary because they represent the fear that maybe humanity will be the next thing to be conquered. We are afraid that out there in the stars is something bigger, smarter, and more advanced than we are, and that it might be coming our way.
It would be impossible for me to talk about why aliens are scary without mentioning the movie Alien (1979). It’s deadly, it’s ferocious, it’s smart, and it is terrifying, but most importantly, it is inhuman. While all of the world’s old monsters have some connection to human beings—we become them after death or we are transformed into them via some kind of infection—the alien has none. The alien is the ultimate Other. It is a being that cannot be reasoned with, that we don’t understand, and that is definitely trying to kill us. What gives Ridley Scott’s classic monster its ultimate edge, however, is the fear that it might lay its eggs inside you, and that its babies are going to pop out of your chest. Thus taking the fear of infection we have with classic monsters, and giving it a new, horrifying, and (pun intended) alien edge. It is our predator, something that we would, honestly, be silly not to fear. The worst part is, it doesn’t matter if we kill one alien, because there are many more. In space, human beings are not at home, and something else is king.
Speaking of predators, this brings me to my next point. The movie Predator shows a race of advanced aliens hunting human beings for sport. Luckily for humanity, Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot actually be killed. But for the rest of us, the idea of aliens using humans for sport is terrifying. The predator does to us what we do to animals—keeps us as pets, hunts us for sport, and, in short, dehumanizes us. This can also be said to be true of the urban legend of alien abduction: advanced creatures waiting in the woods to snatch people up and experiment on them like animals.
This brings me to my conclusion. All of our scary stories throughout history, all of our monsters, have been about something taking away our humanity.
So we have turned to aliens. All of the things I have listed above fall into the fear that we will no longer be the dominant species, or that something will come along and treat us like animals, removing our humanity. Aliens are our fear of what awaits us in the future and out amongst the stars.
So admit it, we ain’t afraid of no ghosts! But mysterious lights up in the sky, on the other hand…
-contributed by Ben Ghan