Death of an Alien Sex Machine

The cyberpunk life and times of HR Giger.

May 13 2014, 9:15pm
Necronom IV

Many artists are driven to creativity by their own demons, but none so literally as H.R. Giger, the Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor who died yesterday, from injuries sustained in a fall, at the age of 74. 

Giger left behind, literally, an entire gothic castle full of art—the Château St. Germain in Gruyères, Switzerland, which houses the H.R. Giger museum. But he will largely be eulogized for his work on Ridley Scott’s Alien. The film franchise’s phallic endoparasitoid alien was inspired by a Giger print called Necronom IV (pictured above), which Scott cherry-picked for its particularly unsettling brew of sex and horror.  

The Alien alien, like many of Giger’s creations, is a nightmarish amalgam of sex and death; it’s an eyeless, genderless creature that’s equal parts insectoid phallus and gnashing, metallic vagina dentata. With its mouths-within-mouths, the alien evokes a kind of fractal body horror. “It could just as easily fuck you before it killed you,” explained Alien producer Ivor Powell, which made the creature “all the more disconcerting.” 

Jodorowsky's Dune

Giger came recommended to Ridley Scott by Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon had worked with Giger for almost two years on the visionary Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film adaptation of Dune, which was eventually shelved by Hollywood for being about a century ahead of its time.

For Jodorowsky’s Dune, Giger was responsible for all things Harkonnen; he was to design the Harkonnen planet, a “planet…ruled by evil, a place where black magic was practiced, aggressions were let loose, and intemperance and perversion were the order of the day.” It was the perfect venue for Giger’s horrorscapes—his sketches and models for Dune remain among the great unrealized visions in cinematic history.

His visions were so pointedly abject and gruesome that it’s surprising just how broadly his work seeped into popular culture. Beyond his Oscar-winning turn on Alien, he made music videos and album art for Debbie Harry, Danzig, and Dead Kennedys, designed electric guitars for Ibanez, published two bestselling books (Necronomicon and Necronomicon II), created lushly horrific spreads for Omni magazine, and designed the interiors of three Giger-themed bars, two of which are still open for business in Switzerland. The third, a semi-official spot in Tokyo, shuttered in the mid 80s. William Gibson tweeted today that it “must have been the coolest single theme bar ever.

Giger also worked on two computer games, point-and-click horror adventures called Dark Seed and Dark Seed II, released for Amiga, DOS, Amiga CD32, Macintosh, Sega Saturn and PlayStation. In the games, which were terrifying but besieged by crashes, you play Mike Dawson, a man who wakes up from a terrible dream only to discover the existence of parallel universe called the “Dark World” ruled by macabre ancient aliens—a nod to the turn-of-the-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose books Giger greatly admired.

Giger’s emphasis on the cold merger of human bodies and machines—he used the word “biomechanical” to describe his style—was a massive influence on the cyberpunk science-fiction writers of the 80s and 90s, who understood (presciently) that technology is not distinct from humanity, but rather something that is part of us, ready at any moment to intrude into the flesh of our brains and under our skin. William Gibson is a particular proponent, hiding easter eggs about the artist in his novels: a character in Virtual Light has Giger’s New York XXIV tattooed across his back, Japanese buildings in Idoru are described as Giger-esque. 

Giger suffered from night terrors, a relatively rare parasomnia disorder that causes inconsolable feelings of dread during the first few hours before REM sleep. When he began painting in the mid-1960s, after studying industrial design at the School of Commercial Art in Zurich, it was as a form of art therapy. The terrors continued, and eventually he made peace with the nightmarish. “I have a different feeling about things,” he explained in a 2007 documentary, H.R. Giger’s Sanctuary, “skulls and such are something pleasant to me.” 

Giger Museum

That Giger would be comfortable with the macabre comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen an interview with the guy; in the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune and the much geeked-over Alien Anthology DVD/BluRay box sets, he comes off every bit the grisly, otherworldly weirdo. Dressed in black, pale as a ghost, and perched on chitinous ebon furniture of his own design, he speaks with a high-pitched Swiss accent that is equal parts evil genius and helium balloon.

Giger’s artwork—fueled by night terrors and colored by the airbrush of a very singular human being—resonates with people not because of its strangeness, but somehow in spite of it. Beyond the insectoid genitalia, the pistons and phalli, the monster skeletons and tenebrous gothic landscapes, Giger muddled with something deep, a primeval dread that transcends genre. No doubt it will transcend death, too.