The Horror and Sci-fi genres: General Theoretical Approaches Essay

From first attempts to transfer Horror fiction from the page to the silver screen, there have been moral panics in response to the horror genre. In 1973, “The Exorcist” (directed by William Friedkin, US, 1973) provoked outrage, and sections of the movie had to be removed in response to worldwide complaints and panic as to the overtly sexual and violent nature of it’s content, not to mention accusations of religious blasphemy. Similarly, throughout the 1980s, there were campaigns against so-called ‘video nasties’. Although no clear definition of the term ‘video nasty’, was ever agreed upon, it generally

Referred to examples of horror and pornography, and led to certain infamous films being banned in Britain for over a decade. Films such as “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, “Driller-Killer”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and others suffered such fates. Due to actions such as this, both the Genres of Horror and Pornography have suffered similar fates; the cultural tag. These tags have led to a common mindset; that these industries are ‘sick’ or ‘perverted’ forms, capable of contaminating the minds of their audience is, and thus wider society. This mindset has created problems.

Not only has it been used to support censoring legislation, but also it has prevented serious investigation of the forms or effects of these genres for a long time, due to their presumed negativity. However, this paper will attempt to correct this mistake, by looking at two particular classics of the newest Genre hybrid – The horror Sci-Fi mix. Whilst Aliens (Director James Cameron, US, 1986) and Terminator II (Director James Cameron, US, 1991) share many metaphors and symbols, of which I am going to discuss, T2 does so in far greater proportion, so please forgive me if my analysis tends to focus on it a little more.

Aliens’ and ‘Terminator II’. Like many films of their type, rather than being mere fetishism or ‘celebrations of gore’, these films have many subtle connotations throughout, using metaphor and symbolism to denote their messages. In this particular case, we are focusing on what these films say about family structures in modern society; and how these structures are changing to accommodate new attitudes in contemporary culture. When Director, James Cameron, visually pieced these two media forms together, how was he portraying the fabric of the Family today?

And more importantly, how obvious are these portrayals in the films themselves? Well, any serious investigation of the evolution of family life has to start with the Mother and Father, Especially in relation to Parental roles, and attitudes to female and male sexuality, in terms of family roles today. We look at some of these issues a little later, for now, we shall take a brief look at the two films in question, and broadly discuss some of the metaphors within them. As I have stated, the issues outlined above can be identified in the science fiction/ horror film hybrids of the 1980s.

In this context, the work of the writer/director James Cameron is of notable example. His films, particularly “The Terminator” (1984) and “Aliens” (1986), are now classics of contemporary sci-fi – horror. Their relevance to this essay cannot be overstated, as the similarities between them, and the issues explored, are undeniable. They both contain strong female leads; an interest in the family; concerns about scientific morality; killing machines, which lack conscious motivation; and forms of body/horror.

Obviously, for the purposes of this essay, the issues of femininity, body horror, and most importantly family-interests, take Precedent. “The Terminator” In The Terminator, a cyborg killer is sent to present day Los Angeles from the future in order to kill a young woman, Sarah Conner. In response, a lone freedom fighter from the future, Kyle Reese, is sent back also, to protect her. In The Terminator though, the fear evoked by the Cyborg killer, is a fear of mindless, systematic, rationalized behavior.

This is similar to other such Horror/Slasher/Killer movies of the time, such as ‘Halloween’, (Director John Carpenter, US, 1978) or ‘Friday the 13th’ (Director Sean S. Cunningham, US, 1980) Similarly, the theme of masking the killer’s face to hide his true nature, as seen in both of those films, is also witnessed here. The terminator is half human, and half machine. If most serial killers use masks to hide their human faces, the terminator uses human flesh to hide its artificial, robotic body. The Destruction of the traditional Family…..?

Along this line of artificiality, we have our first significant comment on the changing nature of Family life. Perhaps this is something of a leap of faith on my part, in my reading. However, the world created by James Cameron in both of the Terminator films, appears to be one valuing blatant materialism, in which the nuclear Family unit is slowly dying and human relationships themselves, both family and otherwise, are breaking down in favor of a new value system, one of identification with possessions and technology.

This could indicate an exchange of traditional family values, for a new reliance on society and technology for sustenance and education about the world, rather than one’s own parents. Much like the argument that children today are learning about the world from TV and magazines, instead of parents and siblings. Human relationships, in exchange for a regulated, efficient society? The film suggests that this evolution is only a natural result of current forms of rationalization. This can all be seen in the modern cities, shown to us in Cameron’s unique direction.

In Both Terminator films, we find ourselves in a modern-day Los Angeles, one of many American cities. Within the film machines dominate these modern cities. They regulate people’s work and leisure activities, and the terminator is able to use communications systems such as telephones, telephone books, and answering machines to locate his target, Sarah. The implications of this situation are suggested by the identification number which Kyle, the freedom fighter from the future, has imprinted into his flesh.

Not only are people identified through these machines, they are also identified with them. Sarah’s flatmate, Ginger, is never seen without her walkman; and the only indication that Sarah Conner has any kind of relationship with a man is the Porsche which he owns. Not only is human interaction given second place to societal function and accumulation of material objects, but the role of family and such is severely played down. If one looks at the behaviors of the characters within the films, all these aspects can be identified.

As opposed to other Early Horror-Sci-Fi movies, such as ‘Jaws’ (Director Steven Spielberg, US, 1975), ‘The Omen’ (Director Richard Donner, US, 1976), ‘The Shining’ (Director Stanley Kubrick, US, 1977), or even ‘Halloween'(1978) which denoted the importance of family throughout, and in which the main characters familial relationships with others was an advantage and a source of strength, Terminator displays a world in which people act in ways that are almost robotic themselves. In such a world, the terminator does not seem too out of place.

It can calculate and predict the appropriate forms of behavior and pass for human. In Terminator 2 (1991), these implications are made even more explicit. The humans are often more insensitive and unemotional than the reprogrammed cyborg sent back to protect John Conner. This cyborg learns the human emotions and values which most of the other characters within the film have long forgotten. As a consequence, Sarah recognizes that ‘in an insane world’ such as the present, the terminator will make a better, more caring father for her son than any man she has known.

However, to be fair, this is where Cameron seems to portray the changing nature of Family existence, rather than it’s complete destruction. Rather than just a metaphor for the death of human relationships and human interaction, which has been argued with the increased use of Cyber-interaction and mobile phone usage, the Terminator can also be seen to act as a distinction, highlighting what the future of human family relationships could become. For instance, on occasion the human characters display the very things rationalization acts to suppress.

It is Kyle’s growing love for Sarah Conner that distinguishes him from the Terminator. It is a love based upon the fact that one’s self is incomplete alone and needs to interact with others. A need the Terminator does not share. And this leads us on to the next stage of the changing nature of family life, Parenthood and reproduction. Parenthood and Reproduction: The future of family. These issues are addressed through the film’s metaphorical representations of reproduction. The terminator is a product of an asexual process of mechanical reproduction in which human flesh is mass-produced, in an efficient, factory-like process.

It is a clean, precision-like process, producing a parentless offspring that can never attain an interactive relationship with others of its kind. They are all replicas of one another, and merely follow the programming of the computer systems which produced them. It is only through reprogramming and interaction with humans that the cyborg in Terminator 2 can be ‘humanized’. Again, in direct contrast to the Terminator, Sarah, the terminator’s target in the original film, is dangerous to the machines specifically because of her reproductive capabilities.

In the Original film, it is Sarah’s evolving relationship with the soldier, Kyle Reese, that leads to their feelings growing for each other, and their eventual copulation, leading to the human reproduction process, resulting in her son, John Conner. The film stresses that human reproduction, unlike mechanical reproduction, is based on interaction. The child is a product of two human beings and can learn awareness of it’s own individuality, separate from it’s parents, via a process of interaction.

Masculinity or Femininity: Mothers or Fathers? It could be argued, especially in today’s scientific age of Genetic Manipulation, Cloning and Artificial birth methods, that there is also a distinction in both Terminator and Aliens as to the role modern mothers and fathers play in reproduction. It has always been the accepted view that the female of the species plays the largest role in the birthing process, whereas the male role is considered, in many ways, far more mechanical and mundane.

In The Terminator, for example, the process of rationalized, mechanical reproduction is associated with powerful masculinity through the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Aliens, it is associated with a mechanized femininity. The alien mother is a giant reproductive machine. But even in Aliens, there is an association with masculinity and the military. The alien species is identified as the ‘ideal’ soldier, a pure killing machine which is not distracted from its biological needs by greed or selfishness or other desires.

Just as the humans place ‘atmosphere processing plants’ on alien planets in order to create the conditions necessary for colonization, by converting the human body into a mere vessel for their own reproduction, the aliens are also related to patriarchy which has traditionally defined women as vessels for the reproduction of the male seed. It is for this reason that it is a woman who is not only the aliens’ main adversary, but also the figure with the resources required to resist them.

Unlike the men, Ripley and the Alien are both capable of acting as natural vessels of reproduction, without which, the family unit, Alien or human, would not exist. If one watches Aliens, and it’s predecessor, the deaths of the central characters follow a patriarchal order; the men are killed first and foremost, with the women surviving until the very end. Although my focus here is Aliens(1986), One must also acknowledge the original movie, to fully understand Cameron’s depiction of such family issues. The original, “Alien” (Director Ridley Scott, US 1979), takes us to the influential themes of motherhood and birth.

The crew of the spaceship is woken from suspended animation; they are reborn in preparation for death at the claws of the alien. In this case the alien face-hugger rapes the male body, which then becomes the site of birth for the alien. The male body is finally invaded/violated and killed. As individuals or as a group the men cannot fight the alien, it is the woman who is able to outsmart and evade the alien. The sexuality of the alien is ambiguous, as a face-hugger it could be seen as a homosexual or female rapist, as a fully-grown alien it takes on male characteristics.

In the final scenes Ellen Ripley is fighting what appears, metaphorically, to be a giant penis; and in this light we can see the mise-en-scene of the spaceship (tubes, corridors, dampness, darkness) as a feminine space invaded by the male monster who is allowed in because of male greed and stupidity. If Alien shows that Ripley and her crewmembers are allowed to die due to the weakness of the patriarchy, then the sequel Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) shows that Ripley has to fight both patriarchy and the alien matriarchy.

Ripley cannot find peace in the current Male/Female, family-social structure. Therefore she must evolve into a new situation, an alternate structure of family existence. This can be seen in Cameron’s handling of the sequel. In Aliens, Ellen Ripley rejects rationalization and mechanical reproduction which define human beings, and particularly women, as objects or vessels to be used and controlled. She also highlights the active female component in human reproduction, which male forms of authority can be said to deny or repress. She stands for interaction in opposition to rationalized order.

Metaphorically, her battle against the Alien queen, reproduction machine (which is quite poetic, by the way! ), and eventual destruction of its reproduction system, and it’s rational, mechanically-created offspring, coupled with the sexual tension and overall interaction with Corporal Hicks (male lead), can be said to support this. Shared parental Authority, or Patriarchal domination? So, does this mean that in this changing Family structure, women take a more hands on role, like that traditionally attributed to the male figure (Father/husband)?

Perhaps what Cameron is describing in these films is actually a tendency for women to emulate traditionally masculine traits, in a bid for ever-increasing equality, in a traditionally patriarchal world. Perhaps this constitutes a rejection of motherly instincts and paternal nature, for more active and powerful roles in a new society, and therefore a new family structure. Certainly, the presentation of women in these two films does not convey women in the traditional role of mothers.

While the female leads in both movies (Sarah Conner and Ellen Ripley) both are seen in motherly roles at times (Sarah Conner’s protection of her son John, and Ellen Ripley’s same protectiveness towards the young survivor ‘Newt’), Barbara Creed claims that in Aliens, Ripley is not really a woman at all. 1She argues that Ripley loses her femininity, as she undergoes the male journey, through the Oedipus complex in the film. By destroying the alien mothers’ reproductive organs with a phallic-shaped gun, Ripley is construed as separating herself from the maternal, and identifying with masculine positions within culture.

When one looks at these scenes in that light, Creed’s claims seem to carry much weight. However, she ignores certain paternal actions of female heroes such as Sarah and Ripley. While these female characters are associating themselves with masculinity, via a metaphorical rejection of traditional matriarchal behavior, they also perform activities that are usually associated with paternalism, although admittedly they are usually masculine paternalism. When Ripley aims that phallic gun at the Alien Mothers Womb, she is also engaged in the maternal protection of a newly adopted daughter.

Perhaps then, that is an aspect of Cameron’s changing nature of Family. Not just a change in familial interaction, but also in parental roles; an erasure of distinctions between masculine and feminine activities, and male and female parental roles; thereby denoting a transformation of the meaning of matriarchy, patriarchy and parental action through the course of the films. These aspects, such as a breakdown in parental roles, matriarchy and patriarchy, etc, are mostly repeated in Terminator 2.

While Sarah starts off as a victim in the original film, in need of masculine protection, signifying the ‘damsel in distress’ and epitome of Female weakness, she slowly comes to recognize her own potential, she is both stronger and more central to the action in the sequel. Considered now insane by society, she is presented as the only sane person in an insane world as she struggles to halt humanity’s drive towards self-destruction. Must Mother now become Father? A conclusion In essence, Sarah Conner struggled to ‘give birth’ to a new world, again in a mother figure like role.

Could this be a metaphor for a partial return to traditional gender roles? This time, it is the young John, not Sarah who is the terminator’s target. For example, while it is clear that Sarah is capable of defeating the new terminator at the end of the film, it is Schwarzenegger who ultimately saves the day. For once, the strong female hero does not save herself in the last instance, but is saved by a ‘male’ hero, just as it is, in fact, the ‘Male’ John Conner that would most directly ‘give birth’ to a new world, not Sarah.

Still, as in Aliens, Cameron makes a valiant effort to avoid patriarchal metaphors, as opposed to the traditional view of the family, where the Male was the foundation of the family, the strength, and the unit could not operate without him. Not only does the film carefully distance Schwarzenegger from positions of authority and place his character in the Feminine role of John’s self-sacrificing and nurturing protector (in contrast to Sarah’s masculinized authoritative female), it also needs to destroy him at the end.

Not only is he a potential threat to the future of humanity, but also to Sarah and John’s independence. Cameron finds he cannot completely separate him from associations with male authority, but he denies the connotation that John and Sarah will come to rely on him, or need his masculine presence to survive. Overall, there most likely is no definite plan laid out for the future of family existence in either film. Cameron, it seems, is merely acknowledging the changing nature of the family world. Father no longer necessarily represents the ‘king of the castle’ or ‘lord of the manor’.

In contemporary society, the distinctions between ‘mother-roles’ and ‘father-roles’ are as blurred as is masculinity and femininity today. However, this does not mean there will be no need for mothers and fathers, simply that familial interaction is merely evolving. Let me explain this, in Terminator II, for example, Sarah Conner is now a strong and powerful figure. She has learnt many combat skills, is highly adaptable, and, save for the new Terminator (T1000), there are few male characters in the movie that can challenge her.

In essence, she has become the traditional ‘father-figure’. Strong and powerful, and highly protective of her family (John, and later Schwarzenegger’s Terminator). Still, to stay true to form, and accurately reflect the changing family today, Cameron has to resist the connotation that women have to become like men to achieve success. She must be separated from associations of male authority and domination. Cameron successfully does this metaphorically in two interesting ways. The first is Sarah’s recurring nightmares about the Nuclear apocalypse to come.

Every action she takes is in direct opposition to the (male-driven) Violence that will bring about the end of humanity (And thus the family unit! ). The second is the way in which Sarah’s actions constantly distinguish her from all forms of male authority in the film. When she discovers the name and location of the (Male, father-figure) scientist that will eventually develop the technology to bring about the end of the world, she sets off to Assassinate him and insure the Male-violence does not come to fruitition.

Whilst attempting this, she suddenly realizes she is no better than the single-minded Terminator in the first film. This realization now complete, she collapses in an emotional state. The significance of this, is that it brings her away from her strive for masculinity, and back to the paternal matriarch role of the mother, as John is the only one who can coax her out of this state and, as she comes back to reality, she is finally able to interact with her son.

Obsessed by the future, she has lost contact with her feelings for her son, and her ability to interact with him. She has lost all paternal instinct. She has become authoritarian as she tries to train him for his future role, and she has classified their personal feelings as secondary to his future mission. This behavior has caused John pain earlier in the film, particularly after he has tried to save her from the mental institution in which the authorities have imprisoned her.

By rejecting the role of the terminator, she dissociates herself from masculine positions, and rediscovers the importance of human feeling and interaction, not to mention her own femininity. If Sarah, John, and the terminator do form a kind of family group during the film, it is one which is clearly distinguished from the ‘normal’, patriarchal family of tradition. There is no clear authority figure-certainly no patriarch-and they are placed in clear distinction to the ‘normal’, middle class, family unit who act as John’s foster parents at the beginning of the film.

If Sarah, John, and the terminator compose an ideal family group, it is one, which is made up of a mother whom is neither completely masculine, nor feminine , that society has defined as insane, a son who is a juvenile delinquent, dependent on no one, and a father who steers away from patriarchal authority, indulges traditionally ‘feminine’ traits, and simply tries to understand his son, whilst being careful not to invite reliance on himself as a father.

Rather than presenting the family as a radically different unit from what it once was, Cameron has highlighted the currently changing structure of our traditional family unit. This essay has discussed the ways in which it has dealt with the process of rationalization, the changing nature of social institutions, particularly the family and parental roles; and it’s questioning of concepts of ‘normality’. In the process, it has also shown how the changing nature of family life has created a current crisis of identity, in terms of family roles in contemporary society, highlighted by the very films discussed here.

While these issues are frequently related to issues of gender and sexuality, I have examined the ways in which they relate to adult roles within the family unit, particularly in terms of paternalism, patriarchy and matriarchal power. Horror texts of the last two decades have often questioned forms of male power, and so given greater and greater focus to female characters, particularly in the role of the hero. It is for this reason that horror has not only been such an important and enduring area for the exploration of the changing nature of femininity, but for the state of flux of Family relationships and human interaction.