Alien has been called Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space, as it’s the quintessential – ahem- alien movie for many people it can be hard for some to see why. Now clearly the Nostromo is not a house, and the xenomorph baddie is anything but dead, the comparison comes from the movies themes. You might think that because the crew technically lived on the ship that’s where the comparison comes from but that only gets you half way there. Haunted house stories are about more than just our fear of dead people hanging out rent free. It’s about our location becoming an inescapable part of the terror. The beast is usually representative of some other kind of fear, which the xenomorphs did.
Think about it the physical house in haunting stories isn’t to blame for the ghost inside it, in the same way that it’s not the ships fault an alien is killing everyone inside it. What makes a “haunted house” story is being trapped in said location making the resolution be harder than just leaving the house. Alien excels at that because it’s not as though the crew can just sit outside in their spacesuits until someone comes to gets them. While they do have a shuttle, it’s not a lifeboat. They have a choice of external environment that will kill them or internal environment with a monster that will kill them. Conversely, if they do manage to kill the xenomorph it’s acidic blood could breach the hull and then space will kill them all. They way those trapped in a haunted house probably wouldn’t be served well by lighting the walls ablaze. Setting this story on a ship in space brilliantly and terrifyingly limits the choices the characters can make.
Ghosts have been used as a representation of a lot of different things, not just our fear of the unknown but also things in our past that we can’t get over. The limit to what ghosts can represent is limited to the writers creativity. In the Alien, it’s clear from the amount that Scott kept the audience from seeing all of the monsters that he wanted to play with the viewers fear of the unknown. There’s also the fear of the vastness of space, which is clear from the movies tagline “In space no one can hear you scream”. While it became more apparent in later installments to the series, one of the big fears the movie was playing with was big business valuing profit over employees.
Remember the crew aren’t scientists or soldiers they’re employees of a company. There wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Ripley had gotten her way in the start when she refused to let the face-hugger infected crew back on board because quarantine regulations. Ash overrules her. Later we find out Ash is an android sent from the company to convince the crew to capture a xenomorph and bring it back even at the expense of the crews’ life. We can assume from both the order and what Ash says about the alien that the company is well aware of its murderous capabilities. The company as we see in the sequels is apparently good with a body count. When Ripley confronts Ash about his directive to bring the alien to the company he attempts to kill her. In this way, Ash becomes one of the ghosts on the ship. His presence is as much a threat to the crew as the xenomorph.
Science fiction is looking at all human issues and topics through a fresh scientific lens. With its combination of old and new fears, Alien manages to blend horror and science fiction in a way no one has mastered since. It shot the haunted house trope into orbit, and we are all better for it.