One of the most horrific concepts from horror and science fiction is that of the parasitic alien, the creature that either uses the human body as part of its life cycle, or worse, enslaves the human will to do its unearthly bidding. The image powerfully combines gruesomeness with powerlessness, whether the hapless human becomes an incubating chamber or a mindless automaton.
Alien (1979) is probably the most familiar example of the former, with its novel larval delivery system of the skittering, spider-like ‘face-hugger’. Slither (2006) has some fun with the concept, featuring a male and a female of the species and an epidemic infection of space parasites that zombify, mutate and coalesce their human victims into a giant amorphous Lovecraftian creature. Movies like this seem to be loosely based on the natural life cycles of some insect species or more primitive organisms.
The other type of parasitic alien is not as acutely horrifying as the above, because physical death is not imminent. Yet it is every bit as disturbing and frightful. This is the species that is able to control the human mind and will, typically by attaching a part of itself to the head or neck area. Horror and science fiction entertainments that feature this type of alien are tapping into social or collective fears—the alien can be seen as a metaphor for conspiracy, subversion, even the evil of sin.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) comes to mind, as does Robert E Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). Roger Corman played with this theme in his wonderfully awful It Conquered the World (1956). It is the subject of numerous TV science fiction shows, among them Star Trek (in its various incarnations), and The Outer Limits. (As a child, one of the most horrifying episodes I saw of the original Outer Limits was the episode “Corpus Earthling” that aired in the fall of 1963. Ancient rocks became slithery, tentacular aliens at night, grabbing people’s faces and taking over their brains.) Where does the idea of parasitic species from outer space come from?
Certainly the notion was present in weird fiction by the early twentieth century, if not before. One of the best examples must surely be Clark Ashton Smith’s creepy The Vaunts of Yoh-Vombis (1932), originally published in Weird Tales. The exotic place name in the title might lead one to believe this a fantasy. The story does contain elements of the ‘lost civilization’ genre, and much of the initial action involves exploration of mysterious, colossal ruins.
But the ruins are on Mars, not far from the principle commercial city. The narrator is a member of an archaeological team on a routine mission to explore the ancient dead city of Yoh-Vombis. In other words, this is really a science fiction adventure story, and will remind some readers of numerous Star Trek episodes—the ones that begin with doomed landing parties. In the dark depths beneath the ruins, the narrator discovers something terrible and forgotten—and alive. It will change his life despite a narrow escape, and the inconclusive ending suggests the possibility of a fearful and troubled future for the rest of mankind. Smith’s The Vaunts of Yoh-Vombis (1932) is recommended reading for fans of science fiction and horror.