Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Horror Tropes in Alien


alien 1979

I have said this before, to me Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien is much more a horror movie set in space, than scary science fiction show or even an example of the  subgenre of horror/sci-fi. Today I am going to demonstrate that by going over the horror tropes used in the movie.


What is a trope, you ask? I am glad you asked, a trope is a metaphor used to explain something. In storytelling it is a building block of a story. Plots are the overarching narrative of a story, a trope is the nuts and bolts of the story. Examples are, he damsel in destress, the comedy relief, or the evil empire. Like all genres horror has its own set of specialized tropes.


Whenever I see a movie I rush home and look it up in the awesome website TV Tropes (formally TV Tropes and Idioms). I love that site and this post is obviously inspired by it. I use the name of many of their codified tropes. But at the same time I didn’t want to just cut and paste the information in it. So I did consult that site but most the commentary and many of the terms I use here are original.


The trope of taking something and placing it in a science fiction setting is called In Space!.  So Star Trek is Wagon Train in space. Star Wars is a Kurasora movie in space. You put Miss Piggy in space you get Pigs in Space!, you get the idea.  The very description of Alien as a horror movie in space, is the prima facia argument and the ultimate description of the movie.

pigs in space

Pigs in space!!!!!!

The monsters of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos are codified in the trope Eldritch Horrors. The xenomorph of Alien fits perfectly in this trope. Remember in despite their horrific nature, mythos stalwarts like Cthulhu, the Mi-Go and the Great race of Yith, are really just advanced aliens.  Steven King described Alien, as instead of Lovecraft’s abominations coming to earth, we are traveling to them. Part of what make the titular alien so scary is that its biology defies even twenty second century science. The old gent from Providence used this quite effectively four decades before the movie’s release.


Mi from Lovecraft, are these that far away from  a xenomorph.

The Xenomorph can also be reduced to a Slasher. Maybe it’s not the traditional knife wielding slasher but in the same vein that shark from Jaws or the stuntman in Death Proof are slashers. Work with me on this, the crew of every day Joes are trapped in a claustrophobic situation where they cannot out run this killer who is bent on doing them in, one by one. Alien came out a year after Halloween, but before Friday the Thirteenth, and Nightmare on Elm Street, it was firmly in the golden age of slasher flicks.

jason in space

Jason in space. 

If Alien is a slasher movie then Ripley is its final girl. The final girl trope is when everyone else is killed off there is one female cahrachter left to square off against the shows big bad. She is often more virtuous than her deceased companions. In this case it is Riply’s professionalism that sets her apart form he rest of the Nostromo’s crew. If they had listened to her and not let Kane back in the ship until after a twenty-four hour quarantine period it would have been a very short movie and only one person would have died. It is also important to realize that the crew is killed off pretty much in reverse order of their actor’s popularity in 1979. Finial not convinced, Steven King has commented that in the Alien is killed by a woman in her underwear with a harpoon gun, and you don’t get much more of a horror girl ending than that.

final girl

Final girl.

the final girl

Jamie Lee Curtis one of the first final girls.


The opposite of a finial girl is the Scream Queen, many people see Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert as this. She basically screams and freezes as parker sacrifices himself, only for her to freeze to be slain by the xeno-morph.  I see this as an example of a different trope, Failed Your Sanity Roll. FYSR comes from horror RPGs, when a play sees an eldritch horror they have to roll their dice, if they don’t get the right roll, they basically go crazy. Lambert had seen so much and when she is finally confronted with the alien in the end, she crit failed her sanity roll. With Parker’s self-sacrifice all she had to do was flee out the shuttle, but due to her FYSR, all she could do was stand in fear.



Cosmic Horror  was pioneered by HP Lovecraft, it is basically that the universe is full of a lot of things that are more powerful than mankind, and if you attract their attention they will kill you in brutal and horrible way, and in the long run universal prospect the universe doesn’t care whether you survive or not. This is seen in Alien, the xenomorph doesn’t attack the Nostromo’s crew for personal reasons,  it just part of the creatures food chain.


But not only does the universe not care neither do the humans. Wayland-Yutani the company that sets everything in motion, also cover it up. The tragic and life shattering events that happened to the ship’s crew is buried. They even build a colony on LV-426, near the crashed space jockey ship.  So when Ripley shows up in cryo-sleep 86 years later, a new generation of Y-W corporates send an expedition to start the whole mess over again.


Even the crew seem to be aware of the irony of their situation. They are trapped in a relatively small ship, just outside of the Nostromo’s hull in the infinite expanse of space, yet they are trapped in the claustrophobic ship. There was a cut scene in the original script where Ripley finds Dallas in the shuttle, looking about into space. In that scene he seemed to be understanding the great vastness of space and the insignificance of mankind.


When the crew finds the Space Jockey’s ship they are basically discovering a tomb.  A Tomb is a standard horror trope. It is the place of death, where mortals trespass releasing an agent of death. This time it is just updated in an alien science fiction setting. Let me also take this time to say the thing that I hate the most about Promethean is that it took this awesome elephantine psychic and evil 9in the comic books0 beings and made them the engineers, a pale bald white hominid.

space jocky

Space Jockey not engineers. 


One of my least favorite tropes is the Jump scare. It when something unexpected jumps out at the camera, scaring the movie goer. But even this old hat was one new. This happened twice in Alien, the first is the classic chest buster scene, when the alien forces itself out of Kane’s body. The other example is the cat popping out at the crew when they are looking for the xenomorph.


In the original trailer for alien it was advertise more as a horror movie than science fiction.


7 comments on “Horror Tropes in Alien

  1. For Tyeth
    May 4, 2017

    Hi Dave, great analysis of the film. It brought back a few memories too. Around the mid 90’s a book about the Alien films was published in the UK and a book tour went round the country. Fortunately I knew one of the book’s contributors and so was invited to look at some Alien/s props including a real life Xenomorph maquet/puppet used for stop-go animation! It was a gorgeous piece of art. Thanks for reminding me (and the visit to my site)

  2. aaforringer
    May 4, 2017

    Thanks bud, you educate me so often I might nickname you The Proffessor. ☺

  3. leggypeggy
    May 4, 2017

    I’m not much for horror movies, but I really liked the Alien movies. Thanks for the insight.

  4. ducksam
    May 4, 2017

    Your analysis of horror tropes in *Alien* is enlightening, and your examples of these common plot elements made me think of other films, some quite enjoyable, some not–to me. I suppose, as individuals, we respond to these tropes in at least somewhat different ways–perhaps according to our fears, tastes, prejudices, and experiences–and the writers are trying to maximize our emotional investment by using those that seem to work with a wide audience.

    Originality, of course, becomes a problem when too much repetition saps the effectiveness of these tropes. Some tropes seem to retain their potency indefinitely, while others play out quickly and set audiences to booing, parodying, and maligning.

    Oh, but those most powerful tropes, especially the lasting ones, lurk in unreachable dark places in our minds–ready to jump out and attack our sanity AT ANY TIME.

    Thanks, Dave.

  5. Richard Klu
    July 9, 2017

    Very cool. I hadn’t thought about it like this. There’s a lot of lovecraft.

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