Submerged: The Story Beneath the Story

A Loaded Symbol: Departure of the Winged Ship, Vladimir KushWhen you watch a great movie, read a really good book, or are in some way exposed to a nice piece of storytelling, you may have often had a sense of shifting layers of meaning underneath the surface scenes and characters. Indeed, there are entire disciplines devoted to ferreting out the “real” meaning of stories. Some of the disciplines that propose to be able to decode these occult and secret layers are semiotics (and other deconstructionist philosophies), psychoanalysis, and anthropology.

In relation to narrative, these disciplines propose to show what the author of a story really meant when they wrote their work. There is merit in what many such practitioners of dissective practices say — yet it is important to take such hair-splitting with a good dose of critical distance. Because, as Freud (a noted hair-splitter and egregious misinterpreter) is often quoted as saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

The purpose in understanding such hidden layers of symbol and meaning is, of course, for you as a writer to be able to consciously utilize such ideas as thread in your story-loom. It is, however, extremely important to note that symbols are so packed with meaning as to render them extremely weighty, in the narrative sense. What this means, is simply that it is very, very easy to cross lines of taste and practicality when using symbols in a story. A symbol used badly or obviously is clunky, transparent, and laughable. If such is your intention, you can misuse symbols for highly comedic effect.

But to use symbols seriously, as tools to deepen and enrichen your stories, and particularly your themes, they must be delicately and purposefully applied.

To illustrate this discussion, I have decided to take apart one of the most symbol-laden films ever made; Alien.

“Here, kitty…”

The best of the four Alien films in terms of outright meaning-packed imagery is the first. The film, thanks to Ridley Scott’s brilliant direction and H.R. Giger’s inspired alien designs, is simply dripping with symbols.

Let me throw out a question for you at this point. What is an early filmic precedent for the themes contained within Alien? Some of you clever sci-fi junkies out there might point out that Alien was inspired by the 1958 film It! The Terror from Beyond Space (which was in turn inspired by the A.E. Van Vogt novel Voyage of the Space Beagle, the plot of which he actually borrowed from his own 1939 pulp story The Black Destroyer.) Plotwise, also of inspiration was Mario Bava’s brilliant film, Planet of the Vampires. If these are your answers, you’d be wrong — because these sources have absolutely nothing thematically to do with Alien.

If you grasp what Alien is really, truly about underneath its gothic-horror atmosphere and lovely, gooey special effects, you might come up with my answer. I submit to you that Alien’s filmic precedent (drum-roll please…) is Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic Cat People.

Both Alien and Cat People share the same theme. This theme is borne out by every single element in Alien, and is is endlessly deconstructible and recursive, like a fractal pattern; symbols within symbols that all lead back to the main idea.

That main idea, our shared theme, is fear of female sexuality.

And now the dissection begins. Scalpel, please…

“Mother wants to talk to you.”

Can we talk symbols, here?

A computer named Mother (nudge, nudge) awakes the cryo-sleeping crew (her “children”) and informs them that she is receiving a distress call from a nearby planet. The crew takes a tug-module down to the planet’s surface to investigate.

Three of them set out, wearing spacesuits because of the harsh environment. The crew discovers the source of the transmission; a very organic-looking alien spacecraft. This introduces one of the main themes in the film, that of technology (which is equated with masculinity) versus nature (which is equated with femininity). The tug is all hard angles and edges, the alien craft is composed of rounded biotic shapes.

In a procedure remarkably like reproduction, the white-spacesuited “sperm” enter the alien craft, and walk through a long “vagina”-like tube. Once inside, they find a dead elephantine alien, which like a stillborn child, warns our intrepid heroes that this “womb” can only breed death.

One of the crew, Kane, descends down a smooth vertical shaft, a “fallopian tube,” and finds an “ovary,” a massive egg-filled chamber with a mist-covered floor. Kane examines an egg (here’s where it gets strange) and it abruptly launches its contents into his face. Kane is symbolically “raped” by the beast inside, a creature which forces a tube, a penis-like appendage into his mouth. Its effect is not only shocking, but disgusting. Why? Because suddenly with the “rape,” the symbols of feminine procreation, already portrayed as darkly foreboding, are now inverted.

An egg, symbol of fertility and creation, has been turned inside-out to become a symbol of parasitism, destruction, and ultimately, death. In addition, the egg has penetrated the sperm; another inversion.

When the crew brings the unconscious Kane back to the tug-module, Ripley refuses to let Kane on board, citing infection protocols. She rightly puts the safety of the ship and crew before that of the wounded man. This is part of her arc, as you will see below. She displays cold logic, rather than emotion, and shows her male side. Ash, the science officer, ignores her order, and lets the crew back on board.

Ash discovers that the creature is keeping Kane alive. He tries to remove the creature, which holds fast to Kane’s face, but finds it has acid for blood, so it can’t be cut off.

In a seeming bit of good fortune, the creature simply leaves his face, then dies.

Kane seems fine, but dies spectacularly in another inversion of symbols, as the alien baby bursts out of his chest in a mockery of birth. Because the alien baby is the byproduct of a rape, and born of a man’s body, the “pregnancy” is completely unnatural. Thus, its birth is an extension of the twisted process, and becomes a mockery of the real thing, and causes the death of Kane. Birth has become death.

Our hero is Lt. Ellen Ripley, the second-in-command of the Nostromo, an ore ship that looks permanently pregnant, with belly-like ore-bays which hang from its undercarriage. The ship’s interior is also incredibly womblike, with dark, moist alcoves and dripping, ridged passages.

Ripley is a woman who acts like a man. This has nothing to do with her sexual preference, but everything to do with her character arc as it relates to the theme. Ripley is a woman who lacks femininity, which includes demure behavior, soft-edged beauty, and nurturing skills. In other words, she lacks the qualities which society expects women to have. Ripley is afraid to show femininity, which might be interpreted as weakness. This internal dichotomy becomes her arc.

Ash describes the alien as “bisexual or hermaphrodite to be precise.” This could also serve as a symbolic description of Ripley. What better adversaries that a masculine woman versus another creature of ambiguous gender, a creature which destroys like a male, with piercing tail and phallic stabbing jaw, yet procreates like a female?

Ripley also has another nemesis; Mother. This ironically named ship’s computer is also an inversion, that of a mother who is willing to sacrifice her children (because of Company directive) to preserve the alien specimen. After the captain, Dallas, is killed by the alien, Ripley assumes command, only to discover Mother’s true intent. Mother sends her “true” child, Ash, an android (a fellow machine), to kill Ripley. The result? Another inverted “rape” scene, as Ash attempts to shove a rolled-up magazine down Ripley’s throat. Crewman Parker saves the day, by bashing Ash’s head from his body. These transactions also serve to reinforce the technology-against-nature theme.

At this point, Ripley’s arc must also come into play. By assuming command, she must put the well-being of others before that of herself or Company property. Like a true mother would, she decides to ditch the ship and save the kids.

The crew sets the Nostromo to self-destruct — the twisted Mother must die. Mother calmly counts down her demise with a matronly female voice. While attempting to flee, the remaining crew, except for Ripley, are killed off. Parker is pierced by the alien’s phallic tail (there’s that rape again) and stabbed through with the alien’s jabbing jaw (you get the idea). Lambert is an interesting case. She is killed because although she looks somewhat androgynous with her short hair and sexless clothing, her indecision and paralyzing fear when confronted by the alien mark her as actually female. Thus, she cannot successfully confront the alien as only someone with truly ambiguous gender can.

Keep in mind that weakness and indecision are symbolically feminine characteristics, not literal ones, and it is very important to separate the two. Men can also have feminine characteristics. A perfect example is Fox Mulder of X-Files fame. His character is inductive, i.e. he posits a theory and finds facts to fit it, which is usually considered a feminine trait. This tendency also relates to intuition, also a feminine trait. It counterpoints Scully’s deductive nature; she looks for facts first, then pieces together a theory — the scientific method. This combined with her skepticism marks her approach as masculine. This role-reversal is one of the reasons the show is so fresh and effective. But back to our story…

It is now up to Ripley to escape alone. At the last second, she realizes that she’s forgotten to grab Jones, the ship’s cat. At first viewing, this act seems stupid and suicidal. This ship is about to blow, a process that can’t be undone, and a deadly nemesis could jump out at her from any corner. In this life-or-death situation, would you go back for a cat? But, at second glance, this act makes perfect sense. Remember Ripley’s character arc; her transformation involves embracing her feminine side. What more feminine an act than to save a child even though it puts your own life in danger? In this respect, the cat, helpless and unknowing, is a symbolic baby.

Once inside the escape shuttle, Ripley hurriedly blasts away from the doomed Nostromo, and just in time. The ore carrier explodes with the force of a small supernova.

Ripley breathes a sigh of relief, she sets Jones in a sleep chamber, then strips to her underwear in preparation for her own hypersleep. She is now revealed to be very female, wearing only panties and a tank-top with no bra. She has effectively embraced her feminine side. But her masculinity is far from gone.

Lo, the alien is onboard the shuttle, hidden amongst the ducts and wiring of the craft.

Ripley cautiously backs into a storage closet which is filled with spacesuits. Quietly, she slips one on.

Outside, the alien investigates Jones through the glass of the sleep-chamber.

Ripley grabs a spear-gun, and steps out to meet her adversary. She slams open the airlock, and the alien grabs onto the doorframe. She fires the gun right into its midsection, a piercing, stabbing, masculine act of counter-rape against this terrifying space-rapist, which knocks the creature into space. To defeat the alien, Ripley has become like the alien; not only in the brutal non-technological manner with which she dispatches her foe, but also in the fact that she has donned a suit of armor just like the alien’s own hard shell.

She shuts the airlock door, but it catches the line from the spear, preventing the alien from drifting away from the ship. The alien now attempts to climb inside of one of the shuttle’s exhaust ports. Ripley punches the thrust, burning the alien out into the void of space.

Ripley’s arc is now complete; she has integrated her male and female side, and no longer fears her femininity, or her sexuality, represented by the demon she has just slain.

Here is a list of many of the themes contained in “Alien”:

  • Femininity versus masculinity.
  • Technology versus nature.
  • Life versus death.
  • Gender specificity versus hermaphrodism.
  • Parent versus child.
  • Self-interest versus selflessness.
  • Intellect versus primitivism.

There may be more, but these are the most evident, and most prevalent in the story. You will note that these symbolic themes are always expressed in a dichotomy of opposition. Opposition equals drama. Or, as Aristotle points out in Poetics, thesis (an idea) + antithesis (the idea’s opposite) = synthesis (the fusion of the two extremes to bring about a new middle course). It is important to note that many of these themes are not thoroughly cultivated in the screenplay, but instead, are brought visually to fruition by astute direction and intelligent art design. However, the writer can still exert some control over these visual directions by weaving a strong enough symbology into a screenplay to suggest a film’s artistic direction.

This extreme level of symbolic meaning in Alien also leads me to want to label it a dark fairy tale, rather than either simply horror or science fiction. Because in its most stripped-down form, the story is nothing more than a tale of a knight who finally dons a suit of armor to slay a dragon.

“What is Special Order 937?”

These symbol inversions are literally the symbolic breaking of taboos. Metaphorically speaking, Alien shows us male and female rape, infanticide, parricide, cross-gender procreation, and for you hardcore sci-fi fans, the film even manages to break all three of Asimov’s laws of robotics.

Cat People is about a woman who fears her own sexuality and sensuality so much, that she believes that she turns into a deadly, carnivorous panther if she has intercourse. The beauty of the film is that the viewer never sees anything. Unlike the campy, heavy-handed remake, we never know if this woman is so afraid of sex that it’s driven her mad, or if she really does turn into a bloodthirsty cat. Director Tourneur only suggests the cat to us by shadow and reaction. It’s a brilliant masterpiece of psychological horror and understatement. In Cat People, the taboo in question is sex itself, as 1940’s standards were not as outlandish as those of the 1970’s.

So how does this help you, the writer?

Firstly, the author of any work of depth should know about levels of meaning that are not immediately apparent to the viewing or reading public.

Secondly, symbols, because they are shorthand for all-encompassing meanings and ideas, are excellent shorthand for screenwriters who only have 120 pages to tell a story, and no space to waste.

Thirdly, film is a visual medium, and as much as possible in screenplays, you need to convey ideas visually. This is exactly what symbols do.

But you need to be careful. Symbols are like nitroglycerin. Too much, and you blow your story to smithereens. Note that the symbols in Alien take one of two forms. The first form is the basic and most common way to use symbols. A symbol is a stand-in for an idea. In the language of deconstruction, the symbol is the signifier (a rose, a skull), while its meaning is what is signified (love, death). By using a symbol, you are transmitting an idea to us by making our brains generate the thought. In effect, the viewer/interpreter does the work of making the symbol carry meaning. This is just like how a web-browser interprets HTML; the browser takes a little, in the form of simple text code, and turns it into a lot at the receiving end — formatting, fonts, and colors.

The second form Alien’s symbols take is that of inversion. It reverses symbols (woman as man, mother as destroyer), or turns them inside-out for thematic or horrific effect (eggs as death, an impregnated man). In doing this, it forces us to experience psychological or philosophical discomfort, because we are confronted with a thing that has taken on qualities of its opposite. This is powerful stuff.

“I should reach the frontier in another five weeks.”

Cultivating symbols in your own work should come after you have already fleshed out a story’s outline, or have written a treatment, or better yet, after a first draft. If you try to work symbols in too soon, they will bog you down, and may even take over the narrative. They’re greedy that way.

Rather, the proper approach is to first have a deep understanding of your material, your characters, your point, and then a really good grasp of your theme. Theme is where symbols live and thrive, and where they best serve your story. Once you know what you are trying to say, you will already begin to see symbols suggest themselves.

Some questions to ask are:

What symbolic relationships exist between my characters?
Father-Son: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back
The main theme of their relationship is that of a boy’s desire to kill his father (how shockingly Freudian!), and holds true even before Luke knows that Vader is his parent. This is a common relationship for antagonist and protagonist to have, the antagonist having the position of an authority figure who must be overcome or beaten, thus exceeded, by their “offspring.”
Teacher-Pupil: Jacob and his chiropractor Louis in Jacob’s Ladder
Jacob’s chiropractor literally adjusts Jacob’s body, therefore “adjusts” his attitude.
What symbolic situation is my character in?
A wealth of goods, but a poverty of life: Michael Douglas in The Game
The course of the story takes him from one extreme, that of a rich man with a cold life, to the other, that of (seemingly) total poverty, but living on the edge. This same theme is played out in The Edge. The theme of both thus becomes rebirth through confronting death.
The desire for action: Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia
He has a penchant for letting matches burn down until they scorch his flesh. It symbolizes both his tolerance for physical extremes and his need for extreme stimulation.
What symbolic traits does my character have?
Nosy: Jake Gittes in Chinatown.
He has his nose slit open for prying.
Passionate: Ada in The Piano
Her piano is a mirror of herself, specifically her “voice” and her feelings. In a moment of marital infidelity, she sends a piano key to her lover with a note inscribed upon it. Her husband’s revenge is an attempt to silence her passionate “voice,” and he chops off one of her fingers, making her the symbolic mirror of the damaged piano.
Truthful: Graham in sex, lies, & videotape
Previously a pathological liar, Graham now strictly tells the truth. In perfect symbolization of the trust engendered by truth, he has very few keys, which are a symbol of distrust.
What is my theme? What is the story really about?
Self-determination: Thelma & Louise
The two women seek the right to determine the course of their own life, a course that is denied them as women in a man’s world. In killing themselves, an ironic symbolic rebirth, they finally gain control of their destinies.
Humanity: Blade Runner
The replicants are constantly equated with children (unformed humans) and animals (non-humans).

  • Child symbols: their appreciation of toys, play, and the photos they collect in order to hold on to their brief past.
  • Animal symbols: the glowing red-eyed glances of the replicant owl is mirrored in several of the replicant humanoids. Zhora is covered with scales after her snake dance as if she were the snake, then tries to strangle Deckard with his tie — as a snake would constrict its prey. Roy howls like a wolf as he chases Deckard.
  • Deckard is symbolically equated with a replicant, in that he begins as an emotional cripple, has a large collection of photos, constantly interfaces his world via machines, and is also a cold-blooded killer. He finally finds both feeling and humanity, ironically because of the replicant Rachael.

Is your head spinning yet? These points will give you a lot to think about, but don’t be overwhelmed. Rather, begin to look for the use of symbols in the films you watch and the stories you read in order to see what they are and how they work. Once you have gained a working knowledge, you may find that you are then able to think of the kinds of symbols your own work could contain.Play with them, revel in them, but use them wisely. When properly utilized, symbols are a powerful elements of thought-provoking narrative.

Theme: Soul of Story Screenwriting Essentials To Avoid Hackery →