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How H.R. Giger Gave Us Better Nightmares

Hans Rudolf Giger is dead at 74. In addition to being the first artist since Hieronymus Bosch to effectively blend surrealism with horror for a mass audience, he showed us how weird the natural world can get by disrupting our old fears and giving us new ones.

Consider how Alien would have gone without Giger: a BEM gets loose on a spaceship and kills the passengers one by one. Put somebody in a lizard costume and you can still preserve the basic elements of that plot. But Giger’s xenomorph was much more frightening in its design, and what really set our jaws on edge was the facehugger, which made the crew potential incubators for—and, indirectly, accomplices in—their own deaths. We expect to be food. We don’t expect to be cocoons. And the fact that we already are for so many species, and that there are several wasps that do far more to other insects than what the facehugger and xenomorph would do to us, doesn’t make the idea any easier to accept.

But what really made Giger stand out for me is the way he marbled beauty and disgust, the mechanical and the biological, so completely that we lost our bearings. Take a look at this gallery of Giger designs and you’ll see some recurring themes: faces where you wouldn’t expect to see faces, genitalia where you wouldn’t expect to see genitalia, ribs and vertebrae where you wouldn’t expect to see ribs and vertebrae, circuitry and tubing where you wouldn’t expect to see circuitry and tubing. Look at an average wall or floor in a Giger design and ask yourself if it’s sanitary. It probably isn’t un-sanitary, but you wouldn’t want to eat off of it.

As we enter a future that will change our concept of what it means to be human, and reach out into a universe that will most likely change our concept of what it means to be alive, Giger’s designs will have broadened our aesthetic boundaries and desensitized us to the unfamiliar. You can’t ask more from a surrealist artist than that.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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