Spoilers for Alien are included in this post. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back. It was released in 1979, but I promise it holds up.
What any individual person takes from a piece of art is shaped by their views and experiences. Two people can read the same book, see the same movie, or view the same sculpture and take different inspiration from it. This can be true even when the intent of the artist is fairly clear, because we all view art through our own unique lens.
That being said: Alien is a horror movie. I’ll tell you why.
The Alien/IBD Connection
The screenplay for Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon is also known for writing and directing Return of the Living Dead, writing Total Recall with Ronald Shusett, and writing and starring in John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star.
O’Bannon also lived with Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s disease is an incurable, chronic condition that affects the digestive system. It is characterized by patchy inflammation that can cause deep ulcers. Other signs and symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation, and sometimes bleeding. Along with ulcerative colitis and indeterminate colitis, it is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
One of the most famous scenes from Alien is the “chest burster.” The aliens in the movie use other living beings to gestate their young. One character in the movie is forcibly implanted with an alien and after the gestation is complete, the newborn bursts from his chest in an unexpected, gory, and horrifying fashion.
In 1979, IBD Treatment Was Bleak
O’Bannon based the depiction of this alien birth on his experiences of living with the pain caused by his Crohn’s disease. Now, Alien premiered in 1979. This was long before the first biologic was approved to treat Crohn’s disease, in 1998. Without knowing exactly what was used to treat O’Bannon’s disease, we can guess that it was probably a combination of steroids and immunomodulators and potentially some drugs that we’ve since learned don’t work well for treating Crohn’s. In other words: Crohn’s was not well managed in the pre-biologic age.
It’s clear, upon viewing Alien, that O’Bannon experienced significant pain from his Crohn’s disease. To the point where he expressed this pain through his art, fueling some of the most iconic scenes and characters in film history. To him, Crohn’s disease felt like being assaulted by an alien, implanted with an embryo, and being forced to grow it until it was ready to burst forth out of his abdomen.
Sci-Fi, But Make It About Violation
Alien takes place in space but it is not about space. On the most basic level, it’s a “haunted house” movie or a “monster” movie, where the heroine perseveres through grit and determination. However, looking a little deeper, it contains elements that were unusual for the time and even now in more recent films. Some of the themes in the movie include powerlessness, morality, feminism, and respect for life and nature. Knowing the screenwriter’s health history adds more layers of meaning, including the loss of bodily autonomy and body horror.
For myself, Alien has always been a favorite, even before I knew the IBD connection to the screenwriter and to the (second) most memorable scene. The movie is a slow burn, pitting humans against each other, against artificial life forms, and eventually against the xenomorph. The heroine, Ellen Ripley, portrayed with subtlety, intelligence, and vulnerability by Sigourney Weaver, was like no woman we’d ever seen before on film. She’s an iconic character, and served as a confident role model for the girls and women of my generation.
“Is the Pain Really That Bad?”
Sadly, O’Bannon passed away in 2009, at the age of 63. His wife, Diane, has since linked his death to complications from Crohn’s disease.
O’Bannon took the pain of his illness and turned it into an art form in a spectacular and memorable way. In his life, Crohn’s disease was an alien invader that violated him, took over his body, and caused him extreme pain. For these reasons: Alien is a horror movie.
For those of us who live with an IBD, it’s often difficult to translate the experience to those who don’t live with a chronic digestive disease. It’s one reason why meeting another person with IBD is so impactful and has a profound effect: the shared understanding leads to a shorthand that can’t be obtained any other way.
O’Bannon left the IBD community with a legacy. He gifted us with an odd but effective way to describe the pain that IBD can cause.
“If you want to understand what having IBD feels like,” you can tell others, “watch the movie Alien. That’s how it feels.”
Dan O’Bannon. Internet Movie Database. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0639321/?ref_=tt_ov_dr