Aliens infiltrate some of my first memories. The second house we lived in and the first one I remember sat way out on a country road with a long, unkempt field of tall grass colonized by vicious yellowjackets. Behind that, sprawled woods inhabited by snapping turtles and coyotes that had bred with wolves. In that house, I would look up at the ceiling, certain they could see through the roof, hear my thoughts. In school, I was distracted enough, but upon arriving back home, I affixed twist-ties to the handles of drawers or cut out drawings of various figures, stand-in’s for myself, as offerings to the aliens, to keep them satisfied, to keep them away.
UFOs often littered the backgrounds of my drawings at the time, a saucered sky behind a unicorn — I had no sense for genre until I grew older than six or seven. I delighted in their depiction at the same time as I sat up at night, in fear, watching the lights of cars and trucks that rattled down the road outside my house as they coasted along the ceiling. With each flash, I clenched my jaw and balled my little hands into fists around my blankets, dreading the moment I was sure would come, when the light would stay, then brighten, drown out the room with white, and I would be taken.
Where did I get this idea? This fear so early on? It had to be some amalgamation of my dad’s paranoia, his fear of stranger danger, of kidnappings. That, and my parents’ insistence on watching The X-Files, where, we learn in season one, Mulder’s sister was taken in the night by aliens, right from her childhood bedroom, in the same way I feared.
The X-Files, starring bicon Gillian Anderson, is arguably a science-fiction show, but the horror elements are visceral, threatening. Often, the genres slip into each other, slick and sliding along the same wet latex extraterrestrial skins. I’ll never forget the episode, “All Souls” where half-human, half-angel children (Nephilim, also featured in The book of Genesis in the Bible) are found dead, arms raised up to a terrible God, eyes burnt out of their skulls like what they had seen in the sky was too beautiful for flesh to perceive. The episode featured heavy notes of Catholicism, something that fit neatly into the world of my Catholic upbringing and made everything seem much more grounded in reality.
I remember, vividly, Scully discovering the traces aliens had possibly left behind under her skin, her body forever altered by her encounter. When the theme song came on, it chilled my tiny body with fear and delight. The X-Files, a show that was formative for me, not just for Gillian Anderson’s chokehold on this queer heart, but also because the images in that program inspired fear that stayed with me into many sleepless nights. It didn’t help that my dad told me the show’s introduction music itself had been composed by ghosts.
“That’s why it sounds so scary,” he told me over his beer, the three of us, him, my mom, me, sitting on the couch, watching the show. I must have been four.
“No,” I shook my little head, thinking it is impossible to have music made by ghosts themselves, playing on the TV.
“It’s true.” He never backed down. He liked jokes like that. Sometimes, while we were coming back from somewhere, along some wooded, dark road, he’d pretend to see something in the trees, stalking us, running after the car.
We were a sci-fi house, and some of the most crystal clear memories I have of spending time with my mother were when we’d watch Stargate SG-1 together, a terrible, jingoistic science-fiction series that seemed like it had taken the chest-burster from Alien and asked: But what if it lived inside you forever and controlled your body like a puppet? The show trafficked in Ancient Aliens-style racist theories that ancient civilizations, especially, in the show’s case, Ancient Egypt, were only as advanced as they were because the people were actually aliens, or given technology by aliens, or whatever. Not because [spoiler] ancient humans are still the same humans as we are and humans are relatively smart and capable. When I think about the aliens that worm their way into your body, about thoughts that infiltrated my mother’s skull, I have to wonder: Did it start there?
I’ve scoped out the documentary series Ancient Aliens and the streaming channel Gaia, both because of my familial connections, and for work, going so far as to draw up a “Lizard People Briefing Doc” for Autostraddle after Demi Lovato’s dive into this side of conspiracy theories. It’s not just a racist anti-semitic space; it’s also a homphobic, transphobic space, and I’m unclear of the benefits any queer/trans/nonbinary person — like Demi — could get from a place that revels in its fascistic connections, both past (many a Nazis+UFO’s documentary exist) and present (MAGA / QAnon conspiracy theories rely heavily on the notion of “aliens among us”). Nevertheless, here we are.
In 1988’s They Live — based on “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson — at once derided for playing into the anti-Semitic cabal theory and, at the same time, intentionally released around the presidential election as direct criticism of absolute monster Reagan (things are complicated — the director filmed the opening scene in an un-staged unhoused community and paid those who appeared as extras as a direct cricism of the administration), the unnamed main character (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) finds a pair of Hoffman glasses (likely named after the first man to synthesize LSD, Albert Hoffman) that reveal that celebrities, politicians, cops, and people controlling media are in fact mostly aliens who’ve infiltrated and continue to control us. Director John Carpenter (of Halloween fame and so much more) brings horror to the alien — the aliens themselves look like death warmed over and are purposefully modeled off desiccated corpses. At the same time, he shines a light on the conspiracy theory realm. The film, it turns out, serves as a great way to explain what QAnon and adjacent conspiracy theorists believe. The only thing I need to add is that, apparently, according to these theorists, being trans is also a part of being an evil alien overlord. Conspiracy theorist Sherry Shriner, when I listened to her radio shows, harped on the idea that our world’s leaders — except for Trump, who she knew she couldn’t touch without losing her audience, I imagine — were often trans, and that was somehow linked to their extraterrestrial nature and lack of trustworthiness. Her breakdown of who is supposedly transgender in Britain’s royal family is, especially, mind-boggling (everyone but Princess Diana and her kids and Megan).
Capitalism, according to those right-wing theorists, is also not inherently harmful — which stands in opposition to the thesis of Carpenter’s film. These sentiments lead to the way that my mother once remarked to my sister that Michelle Obama was “a man in disguise” as though that was what being trans was, as though this were an indictment of Obama as a person, as though this makes all things in her worldview make sense.
When I was leaving offerings for the aliens, when I was paranoid and looking over my shoulder, was it because I had developed a sense of being observed constantly, a fear of being watched? I rarely went unsurveilled, in those early years. My mom was a stay-at-home mom from the time she was fired from her job as a substitute teacher (and so could never teach again) until I was in the first grade, at which point she got another job. While I cannot discount the fact that she did her best to provide an enriching environment for me as a kid — we took quite a few walks, she baked and cooked with me and came up with craft projects — she also monitored me closely and subjected me to constant scrutiny. I couldn’t look at something, watch something, hum something, without it being noticed. By the time I was in first grade, my best friend ultimately just preferred to have me over to her place because my mom made her so uncomfortable.
According to my sister, at a recent outdoor gathering, my mom’s friend pulled out her phone to show the table her son, at home, in his living room, playing video games, monitored by a camera. This woman’s children know when they are being watched. The camera clicks, a ring of infra-red lights visible when she turns it on to view through her phone. Still, she never says anything when she watches them. The kids point out that she could say hello, but she sees no reason to. My mom, apparently, remarked that she wished she could have had the same setup and that watching the children like this means that her friend “really loves them.”
I imagine a nightmare of a childhood, more fear, more paranoia, not even so much as being allowed to sit on a couch without observation. I remember things, many things, but as one example: being made to keep the bathroom door open when I bathed, even as old as twelve, because she could not stand to have me unmonitored — and my mother’s fits when I dared to get up and close the door so I could bathe by myself. If cameras were involved, I wonder if I would have run away for real and not just for a little while.
The concept of aliens, not aliens in the sense of Star Trek, where they’re far away, worlds to be encountered, relative equals meeting in the field of space — but of The Grays, of UFO’s, of Men in Black, They Live, The X-Files and Fire in the Sky — requires at least one party that knows. That watches and observes and that holds the power of secret information over another. So, too, my mother has always sought to hold the upperhand when it comes to surveillance over others, especially those in her household. She loved Stargate SG-1, which I think I remember most fervently because my dad looks kind of like Richard Dean Anderson and had some of his mannerisms as portrayed in the show, even as he served as a nurse in the Army during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000’s. In his first years, he operated on soldiers (US, Canadian, British, Iraqi, Jordanian and more) and injured civilians alike. The horror, more than anything else, was the one in four survival rate — because they helicoptered people who could make it out of the camp to hospitals farther away if they could. My dad still talks about going to other camps and trading their Gatorade rations for extra antibiotics because they weren’t supplied with enough. The man ultimately wound up with a medal you can only get for operating for 30 minutes under “enemy” fire while trying to save someone’s life. During the first almost two years, we only had letters to and from him, never email and maybe one phone call. All the letters were months late. Every time I got a letter, I’d wonder if he was already dead by the time I’d gotten it. I had to read them aloud to my mom and my sister because I was the only one who could interpret his handwriting. I’d watch Jack O’Neill in Stargate and feel a tinge of warmth, of home when he did something goofy.
In a post-9/11 world, the series imagined Egyptian-coded (or canonically Egyptian, I guess) aliens that lived inside of human hosts and sought to conquer the universe. Americans, new entrants to an ancient universal power struggle, imagine colonization as the spread of democracy. Mostly, I would categorize the show as sci-fi, except for the central horror, the gaping wound in each host, bearing a cross-shaped slit, a wound of Christ almost, inhabited by a perpetually fucking phallic alien worm. The fear is becoming feminized, vulnerable, coerced, unmanned and unpatriotic. To, essentially, venture into the nonbinary when it comes to gender, to venture into transness, becomes inherently unpatriotic in this universe. And it merits mentioning, again, because my mother loved it and all of its propaganda. It is antithetical to Star Trek (her first sci-fi love) in countless ways, a swing backward, an imagining of a world where the military keeps us safe, as opposed to the bountiful future of Star Trek where as many people as possible set aside their weapons.
Eventually, I gave up Stargate for horrors that made more sense in my world. By the time my dad had asked me (and my high school Microsoft Office skills) to help him edit a military training Powerpoint featuring photos of people who’d been torn apart by shellfire, I’d also stopped being afraid of aliens. My greater concern was surviving the constant surveillance, the unceasing need to justify my every action, to be recognized as a living, feeling being. I usually did this by avoiding being home as much as possible. I delighted in working late and coming home after my mom had gone to bed and spent as much of my non-school time with friends as was possible.
Truth, untruths, conspiracy, and the nature of memory are central to the plot of the 1993 film, Fire in the Sky, based on The Walton Experience, a book by Travis Walton, a man who claims to have been kidnapped by aliens while working as a logger in 1975. The movie’s slimy, goopy, eye-piercing probing scene is horror at 1993’s finest, but the true star of the movie is the question: Is it a hoax?
The movie, apparently, handles the question with a lot more both-sides-ism than the actual records surrounding the true events indicate was warranted (sound familiar?). In fact, the crew boss apparently recently admitted it was a hoax. On the other hand, Travis Walton has committed to the bit for life, going on the Joe Rogan Experience (yes, I watched the Joe Rogan show for this article, all condolences accepted) to talk about his alleged experience. That’s the thing about conspiracy theories. As they wind and unwind across the years, who is ever following up to get the facts, to check in with reality? You can just cherry-pick what you want to believe and go with it. The most important thing, as is evidenced in this conversation between Joe Rogan and known QAnon endorser / blackbelt / gym owner Eddie Bravo, is that the whole point of the conversation is this addiction to knowing “more” than “other people.” We know what’s actually going on. We’re the smart ones.
This is the appeal of this line of thinking for so many MAGA followers: that they’re actually on the inside of something, that they aren’t just being trampled on and disenfranchised by capitalism, that they have a chance at withstanding corporate greed and white supremacy without actually confronting the roots of their problems. It also makes that task of pulling someone out of this mire near-impossible because of the extent to which they’d have to admit being misled in order to re-enter rational life.
Regardless of the obvious garbage that comprises these conversations, they maintain a hold on a certain community, and that’s worth recognizing. It was in the early 2010s that I noticed my mother going over to this side, well before Trump and QAnon, but when YouTube videos of lizard people were circulating, when you could watch a slowed-down video of George W. Bush or Barack Obama flash a snake tongue from his lips, or blink, for a moment, over slitted reptilian pupils. “I’ve seen things,” she would say, with an air that was somewhere between conspiratorial and prideful — because that was the goal. That sense of being smarter also makes these folks infinitely difficult to deprogram. To backtrack would be an insurmountable blow to the ego.
When I came out as genderqueer, when I first asked my sister to use they/them pronouns for me, we were about to continue our mutual pandemic watch of The X-Files. I’d picked the episode “Gender Bender.” When she navigated to it and hit play in time with me, I saw her face turn to the screen.
“Did you choose this on purpose?”
In the episode, the victims of the gender-bending alien respond by vomiting, spewing up blood as they die. I am all too familiar with the loss of bodily autonomy that comes from being sick like that, from vomiting uncontrollably. In Fire in the Sky, Travis is subjected to experiments, his body bound (rather kinkily) by a sheet, his mouth and eyes probed for information, all of it, presumably without anesthetic, without care for his internal life.
I recall at least one instance of being fed raw meat by our mother. There are subtle ways to abuse a child who doesn’t know any better. In my most generous moments, I think my mom rejected her mother’s Depression-era cooking, a complete obliteration of the meat, no chance for pathogen and no chance for flavor — something ultra necessary if you’re living in a Polish neighborhood in Buffalo and cooking with older meat or less-than-ideal cuts. My mother rebelled and undercooked her chicken, her pork, her beef. At one point, I remember sitting at our wobbly table with my grandmother and baby sister, being served by my mother. I dug my fork into my portion of chicken, separating the hot, pink flesh, adding salt. I put it in my mouth, happy to be allowed to salt each mouthful to combat the flavorlessness that came from its being boiled. My grandmother cut in and declared, “it’s raw!” and I leaned over, looked at her fleshy, red-veined chicken and at my own. It was similar to many preparations I’d had. “No, it’s not. It’s good,” I defended my mother against hers. “It’s. Raw.” she insisted, and then, she pushed her plate toward mine, pried the bird apart with knife and fork and told me to look inside, “It’s raw.”
The chicken did, in fact, look uncooked. My mom huffed and took ours back, returned it to the boiling water. If my grandmother had not been there, I would have just eaten it. I spent countless days sick with “stomach flus” that my classmates never seemed to get. I would vomit until my stomach could give nothing more (something I would later associate with food poisoning). Vomiting, as a child, was almost a characteristic of mine. What if it was a conspiracy of two, of three, of four that made me as sickly as I was?
““Gender Bender” comes early in The X Files’s run. I have a lot of scifi and horror shows to thank for paving the way in terms of gender queerness. But here’s the thing: I never felt like what I was doing or thinking or feeling was unfounded because I had a deep grounding in sci-fi and especially the intersection of the alien genre and horror.
The episode is gender-bending, and it isn’t. It switches between one gender and another, never lingers outside of the binary. It starts in a club, with a hookup, a thing that comes not without risk. As with the first Alien film, the tables are turned when the man is the one assaulted, when he spews blood, when his body convulses. The alien takes the form of their partner after sex, always going after the person of the binary gender opposite them. It turns out they’re a part of a community of these aliens who have largely kept themselves apart. This one is a rogue actor. It’s another situation where doctor Scully is asked to believe in something more, exposed to the conspiracies Mulder’s mired himself in, a kind of gender-queerness, a kind of transness, a queer sexuality associated with aliens.
There are aliens that are more flexible, more generous in their gender-shifting and queerness: Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Leguin, Kurt Vonnegurt, countless others have imagined them, but those exist more in the realm of science-fiction.
But when there is horror — bodies torn asunder, shape-shifting stealthy lurking deceptive beings, danger among what should be God-Fearing towns or cities plagued by crimes of passion and poverty these stories are woefully heteronormative. Even when they try to imagine new expanses of gender, they grind deep into the gut of white supremacist anti-imagining. They imagine mutilation, violation, incarceration in endless permutations, and never anything beyond man / woman / intersex being, penis-to-vagina coupling. A white man and a white woman are sent to investigate.
What is the particular extra layer to alien horror of disbelief, of realities denied, of conspiracies? Somehow, aliens come hand in hand in our consciousness with disbelief. Sure, the priest in The Exorcist doubts at first that the girl is actually possessed, and Rosemary’s Baby centers on gaslighting. But for some fucking reason, when it comes to aliens, we aren’t just denying that something terrible is going on; the FBI shows up to deny it.
When I saw a UFO, I was 18 and it was the night before prom. My friends and I had dropped acid in a town with an Airforce base known for its shady business. We had snuck into a park after closing and were sitting on a tall cliff overlooking the town. What I remember is suddenly being aware of a red light in the distance, then watching it zoom close to us, mere feet away. It hovered in the air at face level. Everyone was silent, transfixed. If we weren’t on acid, we might have reacted faster. Instead, we all sat still and just…watched. I saw it hover then recede in a wobbly but horizontal way — similar to how a drone might fly today. We paused there, the three of us, before turning to one another.
“The red light?”
We’d all seen it. We’d all thought it was a hallucination, but, friend, I know this story is hard to hear, I am no stranger to hallucinations — and this wasn’t one. I’ve never had anyone actually share a hallucination that wasn’t something else, not while using drugs. At the time, in the era where flip phones were still fancy, we did not have accurate language beyond “UFO” to describe this. But now? When I think about it? That particular red hue that is of infra-red lights is all too familiar. We saw an infra-red light, attached to something. The question is: what?
When the files about UFOs were released recently, I thought, considering my early fears and obsessions, I would be all about them. But, I haven’t even looked. I’m just…honestly…incurious.
I know all I need to know about this fear. That it’s something that will have torn apart my family and ultimately have taken my mother from me. That it’s something that will rip apart the working class of our country and further strengthen white supremacy. That I am mostly too old to be afraid of being abducted in the way a child is (and trust me, people tried).
Space exploration, and the horrors innate in that, whether you consider Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or any number of other seminal works is, inevitably, going to be a crushing venture fueled by capitalists. It won’t be fun. It will hurt. And, frankly, I don’t consent, not as things stand. But, still, the horror is the way these conversations are used in these insular communities in order to foster support for a movement that strips queer and trans people — and especially kids, fucking kids — of their rights. When I consider that so many QAnon and MAGA beliefs are based on…alien conspiracies, I just. Simply.
Part of the reason my mother and I rarely speak now, except for, mostly, text messages about what objects of mine are okay to throw out or not, is because I realized that interacting with her would never lead to her recognizing even the smallest shred of my humanity. But…here’s the thing. It’s not like this is new. She didn’t recognize my humanity even before I was queer. We never had that, and it was never, really, taken away. If we had it, it was early, before the conspiracies took over everything. And why should I bother to remember things no one else is interested in preserving? Why, when the Travis Waltons, the FBI’s, the elites of the world will just continue to press their reality in around us, should I engage, participate, offer my love? Is the horror just the hollow that they leave you, like the aliens took something when you were blinded by their beams. Do you feel lighter, inexplicably, some flesh taken for experiments you have no investment in, and is that then, somehow, also weighing you down?
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.