One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest. The movie, of course, is Alien. The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead. Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979. I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me. I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original. It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention. Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.
Science fiction and horror are closely related genres. They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse. Consider the most famous scene again. Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face. The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid. Then it falls off and dies. Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved. He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress. Something is eating him from inside. The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed. That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.
Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease. He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life. Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s. In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses. It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise. I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment. It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person. If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.