Faceless Monstrosities & the Horror Narrative: Decentering Humanity in Moby Dick and Alien
by Neil Patrick Connelly
Consider the white whale. And beside him, the xenomorph, sometime resident of exomoon LV-426. Both appear to be faceless, inscrutable blanks, and yet you can be sure both are considering you right back.
Both Moby Dick (1851) and the original Alien (1979) are stories that radically decenter humanity—and crucially, the straight, virile male—as the sole measure of meaning in the universe, via the introduction of the eponymous alien other—an enormous bull sperm whale; a parasitic bug-monster; both ludicrously freighted with a host of viscous Freudian associations.
The uncanny creature and its meanings are central to both works—indeed, both Moby Dick and the unnamed alien receive top billing in the title. And both exist in works that threaten us with the specter of a provisionally meaningless universe, unbound by any fixed notions of order, gender, or the integrity of the body. This is what grants both works their staying power, what has endlessly fascinated and exhilarated so many readers and viewers over the years, including me.
Ursula K. Le Guin, as usual, phrased it best in “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” saying: “What fantasy generally does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential. The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism.” The same could be said of the antagonist in a horror movie. In Alien the monster is protean, almost continually in shadow, changing form multiple times, remaining unknowable, but it is still a living animal, rather than something purely demonic or supernatural. This has always seemed to me a key to its continued fascination and terror—that we share the universe with such things may strain credulity, but hardly breaks it. The mundanity and thorough realization of the setting—a crew of tired space miners, arguing over their shares and griping about management—adds credibility to the inevitable horror.
What do we learn from a prolonged contact with the white whale, with the alien? In the novel, Melville seems determined to frustrate us, to exhaust us with cataracts of cetology as he extols every aspect of the whale’s physiology, temperament, mythic significance, and its place in the ecology of the 19th-century ocean. The novel itself is subtitled, meaningfully, The Whale, and indeed it is a whale—a vast, sprawling, mystifying conglomeration that overloads us with meaning and warns us against drawing any simple conclusions, of believing ourselves capable of capturing meaning alive.
I’ve compared Moby Dick to a fractal design before—each sentence, when pulled out, orphaned from its context, seems endlessly interpretable, and the key to the whole. Repeat the exercise for more than eight hundred pages, and the steam-blasted corridors of the Nostromo seem simple to navigate by comparison.
In Alien the xenomorph is similarly inscrutable—rapacious, all-devouring, sexually and viscerally horrifying, and fundamentally something not to be understood but evaded, or killed with fire, or blasted into the vacuum of space. The horror in the films lies in this: at our most technologically advanced—at our cleverest—we may still be reduced to prey, absorbed and devolved into a vessel for a monster’s young, our identity dissolved by the supervening physical needs of an inexorable alien nature. To the alien, humans are but a resource to be carnally consumed (in both senses of the term). Its constant shedding of forms and skins keeps the crew of the space tug, and the viewer, permanently unsettled as to what the thing is. If we cannot see it whole, or its whole is continually shifting, slinking, and bursting forth from the darkness, it remains as incomprehensible as the sperm whale sounding four miles deep.
The void, the terrifying meaninglessness of the world in both works is thus adumbrated by a consummate “monster”—a word I put in quotation marks because in both cases the monster is simply being what it is. Its monstrosity is only revealed in its intersection with, and vivisection of, humanity.
“I Say Again He Has No Face” — The Tail, Chapter 86
Here it feels necessary to return to the psychosexual meanings of the shapes of both
creatures. I called them “faceless, inscrutable blanks” above, but perhaps this needs some development.
Melville persuades us to see Moby Dick, and the sperm whale as a species, as a
purposive, living, and impenetrable weapon of destruction: “The front of the Sperm Whale’s head is a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever” (The Battering-Ram, Chapter 76). He is eyeless when confronted head on, as he in his final attack on the Pequod when he reduces it to flinders, killing all of the crew but Ishmael.
The alien is justly famous for the sheer freakiness and sexually revolting associations of its design. But what strikes me most in considering it alongside Moby Dick is this same eyelessness. Both as chestburster and full-grown monster, though equipped with a surplus of slavering, puncturing jaws, the creature lacks any visible organs of sight. Central to its horror is its ability to pursue, grasp, to puncture, to thrust forward those pharyngeal jaws, while betraying no indication that it can see us, and presenting no recognizable face to confront. Its head as sleek, smooth, and unfeatured as that of a whale.
The unavoidable sexual associations of both monsters lodge themselves deep in the reader or viewer’s subconscious, ostentatiously blatant and yet many layers deep. Moby Dick is an enormous battering-ram, yes, but one front-loaded with hundreds of gallons of a sperm-like substance. This massive sperm-torpedo is the whale’s primary defense, wielded against humans who would puncture it, and slaughter him, to consume the sperm within as their own source of energy (as lubricant, candle wax and more). Melville doesn’t stint on the groin metaphors when it comes to the human characters, either—Ahab has not just lost a leg in a previous encounter with Moby Dick—he has been “dismasted.”
Kane, meanwhile, is orally raped by the xenomorph, is forced to bear live young (the android Ash at one point calls it “Kane’s son”), young that throughout its life cycles maintains the penile, thrusting head, and the devouring jaws dripping clear lubricant. Both monsters, therefore, primarily violate their victims by attacking our most vulnerable, tender bits, and befouling our feelings about our sexuality.
“Your Identity Comes Back in Horror”— The Mast-Head, Chapter 35
The unsettling of sexuality, of the primacy of traditional maleness, plays its part as well in the lives of those who survive each work. Ishmael and the harpooner Queequeg famously establish a kind of fraternal marriage, a queer union forged after one night sharing a bed in a Nantucket inn, and Ishmael alone escapes the final maelstrom of the Pequod’s destruction. And Ripley, of course, is one of the trope-defining examples of the Final Girl, a minor character who rises to the occasion when the male captain, whom audiences have been conditioned to embrace as the hero, has himself been summarily dispatched, embraced by the alien in a cramped air duct.
Does Ishmael survive because of this queerness? He does not establish it only through connection with his fellow crew-members. At the start of the novel he declares he is “quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in” (Loomings, Chapter 1). He yearns for communion, for understanding, comprehension, of all the world’s monsters, even Moby Dick. And here he echoes Ash, who, like the xenomorph a non-human, admires the creature’s perfection, its purity. But coexistence with the alien is inconceivable in the course of the film; the only union possible is one of violation and terror.
Most horror stories, on paper or film, primarily work on us by exploiting our most visceral fears without necessarily interrogating their bases. Alien attempts, and succeeds, on many levels, at unsettling its viewers, and perhaps especially the male viewers, by the sheer disgusting nature of Kane’s violation, as well as by leaving only a woman (and a cat) alive at the end. The film’s imagery of the punctured, screaming male is one that has rarely been equaled in horror. As a queer man, however, these twists are still shocking, and revelatory, but at this distance, a tad regressive, too. The male who has been penetrated can only be a victim—penetration is victimhood, and vector of infection—and the consequence of this penetration is to end one’s life in convulsive, bloody horror.
Val Plumwood, the late Australian philosopher of ecology and feminism, interrogates some of these same themes in her essay “Surviving a Crocodile Attack.” In what I would consider necessary reading for humanity-at-large, she recounts the experience of surviving a saltwater crocodile attack, and the violent jarring apart of her framework for understanding humanity’s place in the world. She glimpses “the world for the first time ’from the outside,’…as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.” She stresses that the media, her friends, and others who initially hear of her experience promptly attempt to interpret it in terms of what she calls “the masculinist monster myth: the master narrative.” In this framework, the brave human struggles against an uncanny creature, and vanquishes it, or escapes, through cleverness or superior firepower.
But she sees her experience partly as a warning against such hubris. “It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain… Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life… This concept of human identity positions humans outside and above the food chain, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters of it…”
Ahab’s mad quest is driven by a version of this same master narrative, a masculinist myth of vanquishing a monster, by an ethic of pursuit and consumption. And finally, by a monstrous narcissism, a dignity ludicrously wounded by the natural world itself. He perishes in pursuit of this goal, dragged beneath the waves by Moby Dick and a tangle of whale-line, and brings about as well the deaths of all his crew save one. Ishmael stays afloat on a coffin, and lives to tell the wondrous, terrifying tale.
Ripley makes it out alive, too. Though Alien assaults us with a vision of the wider universe terrifying in its meaningless cycle of consumption, rape, and dismemberment, Ripley re-establishes a recognizable order by her ingenuity and sheer guts. There is little bravado in this triumph, but a kind of sated peace as she finally lounges, vulnerable in only underwear, cradling the cat and narrating her ordeal to the escape pod’s computer.
Is it only our clinging to our identity, to our sense of being humans, and thus masters, that leaves us open to the horror that can be visited on us by a Moby Dick, by the alien? Is there a way to neutralize such horrors, to be social with them as Ishmael aims to do at the beginning of the novel? Plumwood cautions us to remember that we are parts of a whole, and that our sense of coexistence with the natural world yields to our self-conception as masculine masters only at our peril.
Maybe at a safe distance, through the pages of a book, or the medium of a screen, we can habit ourselves to the presence of such creatures in a universe where we are not the center, and in some measure contain all that most disturbs us about that reality.
Though as we all know, such monsters have a habit of rarely staying put.
Neil Patrick Connelly is a queer fantasy writer born, raised, and currently living in the Bronx. His writing explores the intersection of dreams and reality, our fraught relationships with other worlds, and the search for spiritual meaning in works of fantasy and horror. He's currently at work on a YA dark fantasy novel. Follow him on Twitter @NonPlyblCharctr.