In the summer of 1982, getting my hair cut became a terrifying experience. I was only 9 years old, but it wasn’t the barber’s chair or the buzz of the clippers that spooked me. In fact, I had the best and coolest barber you could ever imagine: my father’s youngest sister. Aunt Barbara lived about two miles away, and every month or so, my slightly older brother and I would visit for a trim. In the summertime, she’d set up her chair in the backyard, drape a towel around our shoulders, and take her time snipping our manes as she asked us about our lives and activities. She had her own children, even younger than I was, but she loved to pick our brains about school and sports and movies that we liked. My aunt and her husband had HBO, a forbidden luxury in my own house, and she would often regale us with the plots of the latest hit movies that played round the clock on the nascent cable movie station. She was a vivid, imaginative storyteller, conveying all sorts of plot, character, and suspense to a kid who would commit every detail to memory in order to fit in with the cool kids who had cable and saw the movies he wasn’t allowed to see. In August 1982, Aunt Barbara saw Alien.
Needless to say, I had not. But like everyone else my age, I’d been changed forever by Star Wars and its first sequel, and begged to see every space movie that followed, like Disney’s The Black Hole and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Scary to me was Darth Vader cutting off Luke’s hand. Looking back now, I can’t remember if I pleaded with my aunt to tell me more after she teased the premise of Alien, or if she matter-of-factly spilled the story of the doomed Nostromo like the cool young-aunt that she was. Both are possible, and it really doesn’t matter. What I remember is being curious and oblivious, not unlike the ship’s crew that stumbled upon some strange pods in an abandoned alien spaceship while exploring an uncharted planetoid. In my 9-year-old head, the downed UFO resembled the one that took E.T. home or landed behind Devil’s Tower at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Would the aliens emerge and welcome them with music? My innocent imagination then absorbed a series of traumatic shocks: a creepy lobsterpus launched itself at one of the astronaut’s face, wrapped itself around his head, and bled acid that burned through the ship — before dying an offscreen death and allowing the astronaut to recover his health.
My haircut was finished. As far as I knew, the story was over. My aunt was checking to make sure my hair was even on both sides, brushing off a few clingy stray hairs before my brother jumped in the chair, when she said the words that would haunt me for years. “Then the alien burst out of his chest.”
That was how the story ended that day: the alien burst out of his chest. What in hell did that mean? The notion of such an injury was so far beyond what my sheltered imagination could fathom. If that iconic scene gave you nightmares after you saw it, I assure you that the mere description — “the alien burst out of his chest” — was even more unnerving, planting an Alien egg in my subconscious that refused to go away. In the nights that followed, in bed, I would rub my own chest and try to fall asleep with my mouth clenched closed. I couldn’t stop thinking: What did the alien look like? Did it eat the astronaut from the inside? I had to wait a month to find out.
When I returned to Aunt Barbara’s for my next trim, we didn’t immediately pick up right where the story left off. She had forgotten our last conversation, and I semi-patiently waited until the first lull in the conversation before I asked, “So what happened to the man with the alien in his belly?”
She stopped cutting my bangs and smiled.
Over my next two haircut visits, I learned the fate of Kane and Dallas and the rest of the Nostromo crew. I met Jones the Cat and started to root for Ripley (who hadn’t made a positive first impression because she wouldn’t let the injured Kane back on the ship). I remember Ripley racing to escape the ship before it self-destructed — my aunt counting down the minutes and seconds in her telling. Finally, I remember how that alien just refused to die — how it kept popping up every time Ripley thought she’d won. When she finally shoots it out of the shuttle’s airlock and then rocket-blasts it into space, I refused to believe it was actually gone and became panicked.
“But how does she know [the alien is really gone]?” I remember asking, a quiver of mistrust in my voice. Was my aunt ending the story this way out of convenience, because my haircut had been finished for a good 10 minutes by that point? Would I return in a month to hear that the alien had crept back on to the shuttle and devoured Ripley and Jones in their sleep? Or worse, would an alien burst out of her chest, like the unseen horror that I couldn’t shake?
I didn’t watch Alien until I reached college. I avoided it like the plague for as long as I could. As my peers discovered it during our teenage years, the famous chest-burster scene became an inevitable touchstone of gross-out coolness. Thanks to my Aunt Barbara’s storytelling, I could bluff my way through those conversations — but I had no desire to see what my brain had imagined. The alien. Burst out of his chest.
It’s a tribute to Ridley Scott and his team that when I finally watched Alien, the chest-burster scene lived up to the nightmare in my head. It’s terrifying to watch, but not just because of the sharp-toothed critter that punches its way through John Hurt’s T-shirt. Rather, it’s Hurt’s anguish, his writhing, his helplessness, the way Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto freeze at the first geyser of blood, and the way an overwhelmed Veronica Cartwright shrieks “Oh, my God” as the beast emerges that made me squirm. Because those human reactions to the horror were the emotions I’d wrestled with for a decade without ever seeing the sequence. The alien looked different than I imagined, but the humans I recognized too well. Those actors make the scene real in a way that reminds everyone of the scared 9-year-old inside.
Aunt Barbara continued to cut my hair until I went to college, and if I still lived nearby, I’m sure she still would. Her serialized stories helped make me love movies and eager to see if they were as good on the big screen as they were in her telling. But her take on the first Alien adventure was my own personal Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds. And now, with Alien: Covenant in theaters, it seems like the kid was right to ask the question: “But how does she know [the alien is really gone]?”