The crew of the Nostromo is still adrift in hypersleep when MU/TH/UR, the ship’s AI, turns on the lights, the translucent petals of their cryopods mechanically unfurling in perfect symmetry. Executive officer Kane is the first to wake, and the first to rise. The others soon join him in the kitchen, starved after their long dream across the void. They think they are almost home.
I feel dead, Kane says to Parker, smoking his cigarette.
Anyone ever tell you that you look dead?
It seems cliché to say that a wound is a flowering of flesh, but you find the metaphor too perfect to forbid. One night, you dream your wound is a vaginal flower on your chest, your skin pulled back into petals, with a deep, black hole where the pistil would be. You should really get that looked at, your dream-mother says. Upon waking, you recall Kafka’s lovely gore: That flower in your side is going to finish you.
Some wounds are slippery when you try to catch them, like fish turned inside out, swimming past your hands.
Some wounds hide themselves to stay open, in love with their own hurt. You search for wounds in everyone and everything because you’re wounded in a nebulous way, and so you look throughout the world for the one that is a mirror or a twin of yours.
You can’t find your wound, but you know it’s there because you can feel the worms writhing against the inside, with little white whites, and many many little legs. You feel how alive they are in you, and the loneliness they breed—which cannot be killed, only outwitted.
What is this creature that hides like a shadow organ in your folds? You have long been in love with horror films, with scenes that open wide the human body for you, in suffering or in sex. Your doctoral research concerns the intersections of body horror and the sublime in art. Yet you have never been maimed, or even had surgery. You only remember the stitches you received for a dog bite at 9 years old. You feel like a freak.
One night, you learn that in Ancient Greek τραῦμα (traûma) simply means wound, and you cannot help but laugh. You’d spent countless hours reading theorists on pain and suffering—Freud, Lacan, Sontag, Bataille, Foucault, Girard, Scarry—and the revelation of your obsession had been waiting for you all along in the dictionary. A simple equation: Trauma = wound. Wound = trauma.
The atmosphere on planetoid LV-426 is almost primordial, reports Ash. There is a lava base in the deep cold, well below the line. On the horizon, a derelict spacecraft lies like a crashed sickle-moon, and deep through its intestinal tunnels, inside its cockpit, a skeleton sits fossilized and fused to the pilot chair, the bones of its ribcage centrifugally bent, as if it had opened from the inside, and quickly, the way a flower blooms in time-lapse.
When you close your eyes, you can feel it: the primordial place opening inside your chest, the cave where an ancient memory wakes in the cold. Sometimes you’re afraid of how deep that darkness inside you goes.
You’re attending therapy for stress-relief to help with your jaw joint, which has been locked for over a month. Your whole face is a charley horse; it hurts to talk, to eat. Why are you so fucking tense?
One day you’re talking about sex when your therapist interrupts you. Trauma, he says out loud to himself, as if he has, at last, solved a riddle about you. Multiple traumas. Complex. Layers and layers. You stare at him blankly. No, not you—the other you—the one who slips out of her body sometimes to escape who she is, to forget what her life has become.
Time’s up. You gather your things, say goodbye. Or do you? You aren’t sure which version of yourself you leave as.
Kane ropes down through a burned hole in the floor into the derelict ship’s cargo hold, where he discovers a garden or nest. Full of leathery objects, he tells the team. Like eggs, or something. A blue haze glows over them like the mind in the moment before falling asleep. He cuts through that floating pool of dream with his hand, then slips and falls below.
When he moves to touch one of the eggs, it releases a breath it has been holding for thousands of years. The organism inside trembles under its spoiled-milk shell. The egg opens for him like a tulip at the end of its life, its rotting petals near falling. Within that flower breathes a soft viscera veined with white worms, curled into itself.
The creature wakes and shudders. It leaps onto his helmet, burns through the glass, muffling his scream. He falls backward. The camera pans out to reveal the desolation surrounding him, which is the desolation that surrounds you, the dark theater of your skull expanding.
When your therapist first uses the word rape, meaning multiple, meaning chronic, the wound opens its blistered eye somewhere inside your throat. You cannot stand to look at him, turn your gaze to the floor. By the time you reach your car, you’re shaking. Your vision blacks in and out like a weak signal. You wait until you return to your body, then miss all your turns driving home.
You feel so broken and alone and you don’t know why, you’d told him on intake. You could never understand the undead feeling that crept through you like a river of rot.
For a long time, you felt as if you existed apart from everyone else, had talked to other people through a fogged pane of glass, or a film screen. After your therapist says the word rape into being, things feel different. Someone has turned off the film and forgotten to pull you back into the world of the living.
The arachnoid organism attached to Kane’s face pulses in a deep sleep, tightens its tail around his neck. An x-ray reveals a tube inserted deep down his throat and into his lungs. It doesn’t make sense, says Dallas. It paralyzes him, puts him into a coma, and keeps him alive?
He slices a knuckle with an electric scalpel and then (as the script dictates) a urine-like fluid begins to drip from the wound, a blood that burns through the med-bay floor, and then through another floor, threatening to let the vacuum of space inside the hull.
When the organism finally crawls from Kane’s face to search for a quiet place to die, you know it will return somehow, like a nightmare that returns to the mind that birthed it, years after its inception, distorted but still recognizable to the dreamed self.
Trauma is an organism, not an idea. The notion of disorder in complex post-traumatic stress disorder fails to capture the sensation of it, which is unique to everyone. For you, its presence feels as if you’re simultaneously imploding and exploding, as if your body exists just above crush depth: a perpetual pressure against your bones, threatening to break every one of them at once.
In your research you find many words to describe what psychosexual trauma has made you—the abject, yes, but also fragmentation, distortion, chaos, disintegration. The theory is that during your traumatic experiences, your existence blurred and cracked, split you somewhere between your past and present, your self and No One, living and annihilation.
The psychologist Judith Herman comes very near the feeling with deformation and corrosion. You add contamination to the list. The contamination is what the wound exhausts like mushroom spores, the floating black cloud of toxic dust in you that you want to escape, that makes you want to tear out of your body and leave your skin behind.
A heartbeat courses through the film. It beats faintly behind the dinner scene, but you can still hear it pulsing against the chatter and laughter of the crew around the able. Awake now, Kane is in good spirits, stuffing spaghetti into his mouth, joking around with the others, when he begins to cough. And cough.
When the coughing becomes violent, morphs into cries of agony, the others realize something is wrong. They hold his convulsing body down on the table, and he screams and screams, arching his back. A red stain erupts in the center of his white t-shirt. Then, as the script directs, a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The bodiless heart still beats in the background. Kane’s screams had masked it, but you can hear it again now, in the quietness of that red bloom, before his convulsions drown it out again.
When you first watch this scene, at 9 years old, you’re transfixed by that stain, and then by the chest sucking back into itself—by the threat of breakage—and then by the breakage overflowing like a spring. The creature pushes through the pool of blood, a toothed worm.
You believe that’s when you fell in love with the sight of the wound.
Your heart beats inside you as if you’re still alive. Some nights you can’t sleep because it throbs so loudly in your ears you forget to breathe, your mind writhing with all the shadows you had buried deep in its necrotic garden, not understanding that they would grow new roots. You focus on your rapid heartbeat until it becomes a flower opening and closing inside your throat.
Kafka theorized his insomnia was his fear of death. He wrote: I tread a terribly tenuous, indeed almost non-existent soil spread over a pit full of shadows, whence the powers of darkness emerge at will to destroy my life.
You think you have already fallen through the soil, down into the deep cold below the line, and are now desolate and infertile ground—a desolation that reproduces itself into gardens of severed parts, flowerless stems like black veins with no outlet, bleeding fluid into the air, as if on another planet.
It doesn’t make sense.
Are you awake or dreaming? Alive or dead?
Dallas is a blue light on Lambert’s motion sensor. Now another blue light crawls toward him on the screen, but he can’t see what she sees, can’t hear the ambient heartbeat of the ship over the sound of his own breathing. But she knows where the light is. You know where the light is.
Then the light vanishes.
You’re going to have to hold your position, says Lambert. I’ve lost the signal. He crouches in the umbilical darkness, looks up and down the vent. Then his hand trails through a glittering, gelatinous substance, something like semen or the amniotic fluid that coats a newly born thing.
And you know what will come next. The signal returns, a little blue comet pulsing on the screen, and Lambert is yelling at him to get out of there, but not that way, the other way, and Dallas turns once more to face you, and a strange form looks back at you from the mirror, opens its arms.
The radar goes dark.
Some nights you can’t sleep because you feel phantom men moving inside you. You use your phone to illuminate the room, remind yourself nothing is there. It’s just a flashback. You’re safe now. Try to relax. But the uncanny pain still pushes against your pelvis, the back of your throat—yes, something is there, something will always be there—and your breaths become short and shallow, as if the alien presses its growing body against the back of your lungs, turns over in that veiled sleep between its lives.
Ash’s severed head sits upright on the floor, surrounded by a creamy substance, like vaginal discharge or the sap inside a milkweed’s stem. Ripley yells his name and his eyes flash open, a stream of the white blood cascading from its mouth. A synthetic artery still connects the head to the rest of the body.
There’s got to be a way of killing it, she says.
At the moment the android’s head severed, the noise of insects had flowed from the neck, as if a plague had been unleashed. Now it speaks as if its throat is full of the wasps that had not escaped it. You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
You admire it, Lambert interjects.
I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…
You think you understand what he means. The organism is like your own distortion in the mirror, the muscle and sinew of your emptiness, which is a wound with two mouths: one of which is always consuming you, and one of which is always hungry.
You have never fully understood Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror,” but you have still always loved exploring it. Abjection. As in, the piece of filth, waste, or dung from which we turn away. As in defilement, sewage, and muck. The sensation when the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk, or a wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay.
This is you, now. When you look at your body in a mirror, you know you are at the border of your condition as a living being.
You tell your therapist about the abject sensation crawling inside you. What color is it? he asks. You tell him it is the color of bile. You tell him you need to escape yourself, want to claw out of your body to get away from this feeling, which has infested you like cockroaches. You don’t quite know what the abject is, but you know you are abject.
You had a name, once. Now you have a wound.
The wound is diseased.
No one wants to touch you.
Why would anyone want to touch you?
You are 9 and playing with your neighbors in their yard when their dog bounds through the door—ears back, teeth bared—and you freeze, and before you can think of unfreezing, it pins your body to the grass, tears flesh from your arm. Pain blossoms there, several layers of epidermis torn away to reveal an extraterrestrial landscape, subcutaneous sand dunes the red light of your blood is flooding.
Later, when the clinic doctor begins stitching, you turn away, unprepared to see the needle moving in and out of your person, for that uncanniness. In the memory, you’re not crying, you’re brave, but your father later remembers you screaming. As the doctor stitches, he tells your father the dog was going for her throat.
For weeks, you watch the skin purple around each stitch, then lighten as the wound turns into the pearlen smear of its scar: an elliptical galaxy. You tell everyone who asks what the doctor said. The animal was going for your throat. It wanted to kill you. You survived.
You have wanted to be Ellen Ripley since you were 9. A survivor. Not like Lambert, who crumbles at a critical moment. The alien hovers over her quivering form, an oil-slick shadow, its four rows of teeth glittering with saliva. The ship’s heartbeat transforms into the mechanical, crawling drone of insects.
Parker screams at her. Get out of the way, Lambert, it’s going to kill us, Lambert for Christ’s sake get out of the way. She stands there crying and screaming. He pleads with her again to get out of the way so he can fire the flamethrower, his mouth already dripping with his blood, and then tells her once more to move, as if tearing his voice out.
The alien thrusts its secret mouth through his throat.
You can hear the ship’s heart beating in the background again. Its biomechanical walls undulate like the alien’s viscera would if you could cut it open, and so when Ripley runs panicked through the tunnel that is also a vein, her footsteps are the pulse of your heart beating faster.
You are still alive. And Ripley is the final girl, the wounded one, marked and illegible, and she will bear the scar of illegibility forever.
The MRI machine is like a sleeping pod on a space vessel. It feels safe in here, where all you need to do is stare at the dark of your eyelids and listen to its whir, more soothing than any yoga or meditation exercises your therapist recommends.
You’re in here because sometimes, for hours, you feel as if you are trapped inside a dream. Sometimes it is waves of dreams, a version of déjà vu that repeats over and over in clusters, little blooms of another reality. Everyone gets déjà vu, you tell yourself. Everyone spaces out.
You can’t remember when you first began dissociating. I feel I’m always walking in a cloud, that my hand goes straight through things, you wrote in your journal 10 years ago, in a different life. Sometimes I feel outside of my body and I want to feel good in my own body, to cast out whatever sickness is inside me.
One cloudy afternoon, when you’re (sleep)walking across the street, a car almost hits you. Your spine twitches like a worm in the dirt, tingles up to the back of your neck to deliver a tiny shock at the base of your skull. The moment contains two nanoseconds at once—the one in which you’re living, and the one in which you’re dead—and the two realities pull each other toward collapse inside your chest.
Maybe what draws you to deep space is this species of terror: evidence of your vulnerability, but also of a primal intelligence inside you, a reminder that you’re still a feral animal somewhere within this misshapen human form. Yes, you’ve evolved miraculously across billions of years to be here. The numbness falls away to erotic desire and you are suddenly, remarkably alive.
The flamethrower’s glow reveals the secretion on the wall, a muscular webbing like a gangrenous, mutated garden of matter. Dallas moans from inside it, his torso mutilated and legs gone, his remaining flesh morphing into a strange form. An egg. Soon his skull will be the shape of the arachnoid parasite inside the ovoid, his brain the embryo incubating in a chest.
The perfect organism.
He asks Ripley to kill him, his voice slow-moving, as if it too is becoming ooze. She has never looked so terrified, so close to broken. This face is the most vulnerable one she will ever reveal, the one she reveals only to the dying or dead. Then the look on her face transforms from desperation to resignation.
She cries quietly as she fires the flamethrower across his swollen face, setting the whole cocoon aflame. This deleted scene did not appear in the original release of the film, but it is essential. It is the moment Ripley—trembling with gritted teeth, her face wet with sweat and tears—becomes the human animal, and so, it follows, can die.
One summer night, you’re walking home alone at 3 in the morning from a friend’s party. You left happy, feel safe with this friend. But now alone with yourself again, you’re crying and manic, as if a scared animal cornered by your own thoughts. A familiar sensation crawls back into your brain: You don’t belong here. It’s a too-drunk thought, like a distortion ringing against the curve of a bell. Or maybe like the dream that returns to you distorted, and your dreamed self is not quite sure if it has already met its shape, if the dream is eternally repeating. Have you been there? Have you been the formlessness outside of time?
Sometimes you want to be the shape of the invisible, the breath against a lung instead of the thing that breathes.
The alien has also fled with Ripley to the shuttle, crawled into the wall and curled up in a nest of tubes and wires, its biomechanical form camouflaged in the circuitry. Asleep, it reaches a hand toward her, like a black dahlia toward the sun. She startles, freezes. Then snaps out of it. She climbs into the spacesuit, loads the harpoon gun, while singing herself calm: You are my lucky star. You. Lucky lucky lucky.
In the director’s original vision for the ending, the alien decapitates Ripley now, killing her instantly: a reminder that no one is safe, and especially no woman, no vulnerable thing. But in the revised version, she incinerates the alien in the shuttle’s jets. The final image we see is her form tucked into the warmly lit ovum of the sleeping pod, her face glowing with starlight. Immaculate.
Two years later, the sequel begins in the sick fluorescence of a hospital room, as an alien fetus pushes its head through Ripley’s chest, and she screams herself awake. What is born from the wound cannot be killed. It is immortal. You may destroy one of the shapes it takes, but it will only resurrect again, covered in your blood, ugly and small.
And then it will grow again.
Maybe what actually draws you to deep space is not terror but awe: its promise to return you to the beginning, before you became this mutant, abject thing, this alien to your self. A time when you were pure and blameless and still loved the things of this world. When they still loved you back. The passing of time is illusory: you still exist in every form your matter has ever been.
As a little girl, you loved tornadoes, cyclones, and whirlpools, any vortex of unknown dark, but the black hole was your obsession. Cross-legged on your bedroom floor with your astronomy book, you stared in awe at the illustration of a black hole consuming a blue star, as if stripping it of its skin, its viscera. Nothing can escape the force of that collapse, you learned—not you, not even light.
You still love imagining the force of this void breaking the weight of a star’s light over millions of years, tearing it like a bundle of ligaments, until all that remains is a mouth inside another mouth. That is how long it takes to break a thing down into nothing, to deform it until it is no longer form.
Sometimes it feels this is the work of your loneliness: a slow crushing of the body and mind, until you’re formless at the cellular level, so far from home you’re a blur through the observatory telescope. No one understands your composition, how you’ve become so small and silent, this light-echo. They don’t know how time warps where you are, that you’ve already merged with the dark thing at your core—a singularity that is, to call on the poet Rilke, a beauty that is the beginning of terror.
The crew of the Nostromo lands on planet LV-426 at dawn and return to space at dusk. After the storm, as Dallas and Lambert drag Kane’s comatose body back to the ship, the late sun floats as a ghost through the dense blue clouds. The ship’s floodlights churn the fog thicker, deepening the dream from which the crew will never wake. That planet follows them until it becomes a part of them, burrows inside of them, consumes them cell by cell until no human trace remains, until they too are undefinable xenomorphs: strange (ξενος) forms (μορφή).
For years, you could not define your wound. When you were alone long enough with it in silence you could almost feel the petals scrape against your ribcage like teeth. You would lay awake with it all night, listening, trying to understand why it would not heal. Knowing it, naming it, has not healed it. Some nights you’re resilient. Some mornings you wake in the deep cold below, and the wound deepens its root, its teeth, and for one desperate moment, you want to merge finally with its form.
But you’re good at slipping past it—almost as good as it is at slipping past you.
What’s the last thing you do remember? Ripley asks Kane after he wakes from his coma. He seems fine even happy. I remember some horrible dream about smothering. Anyway, where are we? he says. Right here, she soothes. We’re on our way home.
Those nights you want to disappear from the earth, when you know no home will have you, you step out into the backyard, find a star and stare until the sound of your heartbeat merges with its distant pulse, a tremoring that grows inside your chest, and your ribcage opens its petals like a mouth, and, with your ear pressed against the night, you listen as the darkness speaks to itself.
–Sara Eliza Johnson (from Bright Wall/Dark Room)