Academic Explores The Psychology Behind The Horror Of Ridley Scott’s Alien

The visceral reaction provoked by Ridley Scott’s Alien film is to be the focus of a paper being presented by a Wrexham Glyndwr University academic this week.

Dr Sara Louise Wheeler, who is a Psychology lecturer at Glyndwr, will be making the presentation as part of the 40 Years of Alien conference – organised to mark four decades since the release of the first Alien film in 1979.

The conference is taking place at the Pontio centre in Bangor and has been organised by the Centre for Film, Television and Screen Studies at Bangor university.

Despite being a keen film viewer, Dr Wheeler revealed she had been a reluctant viewer of the film she is set to discuss before the conference was announced – and that her presentation will be looking at the reasons she had sought to avoid the film and its sequels over the years.

She said: “I have never actually liked the Alien films – I found them so off-putting I didn’t want to engage with them at all. Then I realised that this conference was, maybe, a chance to sit down and reflect on why that was – what does Alien mean for me, and why do I have a problem with the film?”

“I seem to have an issue with seeing all the mucus and goo on screen – and not just the fact that there is goo, but that it seems to be so deliberately and gratuitously on show – why was that? And why didn’t other people seem to have the same issues as me with this? There was one guy in my student halls, back in my undergraduate days, who had Xenomorph tattoo.

“This film and its sequels are actually really popular, much loved and people go to great lengths to make convincing costumes to wear to ComiCon and similar events; you can even buy ‘battle-damaged’ xenomorph models, with goo oozing out of them.

“Clearly, I was missing something here. So, I started looking at works which examined the complex emotion of disgust, including how this is depicted in,

and elicited by, films; this brought me to the work of Julia Kristeva on abjection, which was really useful.”

Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher and psychoanalyst, set out a series of ideas in her work Powers of Horror which examine her theory of ‘abjection.’ Using Kristeva’s concepts, Dr Wheeler’s presentation will examine how the film generates horror in viewers – and remains powerfully repulsive, and yet in some ways strangely cathartic, forty years since its release.

She said: “Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis, Kristeva explains human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between the self and the Other – in this case, humans and aliens.

“Being confronted with certain ‘abject’ things, such as dead bodies, open wounds, sewage and even the skin which forms on the surface of warm milk, traumatically remind us of our own materiality, disrupting our sense of identity, system and order.

“Abjection has been applied to the Alien films by other scholars, most notably Barbara Creed, however she focusses on monstrous representations of the female and the ‘archaic mother’, whereas I’m more interested in the graphic depiction of the breakdown of bodies and the physical and cognitive responses this provokes in the viewer.”

“The theoretical underpinnings of ‘abjection’ lie in Freud’s classic concept of repression, developed on by subsequent psychoanalysts.

“If you study psychology, psychoanalysis will form part of your toolbox for understanding the nature of humanity – including our reactions to horror films!”

Find out more about Wrexham Glyndwr University’s BSc (Hons) in Psychology here;


Founded in 2008, Wrexham Glyndwr University is a young, bold and vibrant university based in north-east Wales. The university has two campuses in Wrexham, Plas Coch and Regent Street plus campuses in Northop and St Asaph. In 2017 the university was awarded the silver award in the Teaching Excellence Framework for the quality of teaching.

The university is driving academic excellence through a wide range of innovative and industry-relevant courses, such as Applied Science, Computing, Engineering, Creative Arts, Criminology and Psychology. Wrexham Glyndwr is now a Top 100 University, rising 24 places in the Guardian league tables – one of the top 10 risers in the UK.  The Campus 2025 strategy encompasses plans for new student accommodation, car parking and upgraded facilities in the next eight years.