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Corporate Personhood, Alien, and Chest-bursting Dreams

Blog post title text, "Corporate Personhood," along with the cover image of Be Scared of Everything, by Peter Counter

This has been a seriously joyful season for the launch of Peter Counter’s essay collection, Be Scared of Everything. The Globe and Mail recently included it in their selection of pop culture titles to gift this season, alongside Bernard De Koven (The Infinite Playground), Lindy West (Shit, Actually), Melissa Maerz (Alright, Alright, Alright), Claire McNear (Answers in the Form of Questions), and a big book on Alien. So, of course, we’re going to share “Corporate Personhood” from Be Scared of Everything, the essay that proclaims, “Corporate persons hijacked the means through which we process hope, joy, grief, and catharsis. That’s why we worship corporate-owned images: because they are the icons we use to contextualize our lives.” Enjoy! (And support your local bookseller by participating in The No-Sale Sale.)

“Ripley, she doesn’t have bad dreams because she’s just a piece of plastic.”
—Newt, Aliens (1986)

Violence came first. It must have, even if I can’t remember it. The kind of mindless cruelty that emerges from natural systems of procreation and evolution—like how some wasps lay eggs inside paralyzed rodents so their larvae can eat their way out in a grotesque birthday celebration. Actually, come to think of it, that’s almost exactly what’s going on, with an extraterrestrial spin. My chest is an incubator for a xenomorph, the monster from the Alien film franchise.

I know how this works. At first, I’ll seem fine, but then the nausea will hit. I’ll heave, I’ll hemorrhage, until a chitinous, snakelike creature explodes from my sternum in a shower of blood and bone fragments, hungry and squealing for release. My fate is inescapable, and I know it, so I start to come to terms with death before this scene plays out. When the hungry fledgling burrows out of my torso, my surrogate offspring will mature quickly, growing into a phallus-headed black monstrosity resembling a puma crossed with a scorpion.

There’s nothing I can do now. No one ever survives the chest-burster scene. In my final moments of meta-aware- ness that I’m succumbing to a movie plot device, I curse the shadowy multinational conglomerate whose obsession with weaponizing xenomorphs put monsters in contact with humans in the first place.

Damn you, Weyland-Yutani, I think. Then I wake up and scream.

The monsters in my dreams don’t belong to me. They are the intellectual property of large  media corporations.  As a child, I had nightmares of Vigo the Carpathian, the evil fiend from Ghostbusters 2. I dreamed his face started pressing through the wall next to my bed, which flexed like it was made of fabric instead of drywall with dinosaurs painted on it. As a teenager, my sleep was haunted by Michael Myers, the masked murderer from the Halloween films. Myers chased me through the streets of Clinton, Ontario, where my granddad lived. He inevitably caught up and stabbed   me to death at the base of the giant radar dish downtown. Once, I dreamed that Crash Bandicoot, the mascot for Sony PlayStation, eviscerated me with two giant razor blades in a dusty attic with a skylight and creaky wooden floorboards.

My chest-burster Alien dream is more common than those. I’ve had it my entire life, waking year after year, covered in panic-induced sweat, and jetting to the bathroom to chug cold water to try and drown the dreadful pressure in my esophagus. For the first thirty years, my slumbery scares were the property of 20th Century Fox. In 2019, Disney acquired Fox’s entertainment division, effectively staking a claim on my decades of restless sleep and phantom nausea. Next time I wake from an Alien dream, I’ll have a new company to blame: the one with the iconic mouse ears, the mother of xenomorphs, the proverbial alien queen and her puss-filled egg sac of nightmares.

Corporations are persons, according to law. They have legal rights and are treated in a similar manner to individuals when it comes to ownership of intellectual property.

Corporations have their own pronouns, referred to always as “it” in press releases. The CEO and chairpeople may speak on its behalf, but the corporation is an individual entity, not a collective.

We use anatomical language to describe corporate persons. They have branches and arms with heads and back ends. Disney and other large corporations are like colossal, invisible plant-animal hybrids, cultivating symbiotic relationships with us humans. As it grows, Disney generates new appendages, subsuming more humans into the memetic superstructure. It merges with other corporations, expanding dramatically, hoarding precious assets while shedding staff and other dead weight along the way. Merchandise is sold, language is hijacked by jargon, ideas born in human brains proliferate and are absorbed. That’s how the Disney-monster came to own Star Wars, Marvel, and Alien.

In our current era, the comedies, tragedies, and hero journeys central to human self-reflection are modernized and distributed through conglomerates. Corporate persons hijacked the means through which we process hope, joy, grief, and catharsis. That’s why we worship corporate-owned images: because they are the icons we use to contextualize our lives.

We create fan art and adopt proprietary characters into our own personal narratives, foregoing the creation of something new and unowned in favour of iterating the property of a non-living entity, occupying our brains with Luke Skywalker, the Avengers, and Elsa from Frozen. Once upon a time, these creative assets were as transitory as the corporate worker. Prior to corporate personhood, an artist’s work was subject to public-domain laws, meaning that after a certain period of time, the work belonged to the people who dreamed about it. But corporations are immortal and can eternally lobby for the renewal of copyright. I’ll die before Disney relinquishes ownership of the baby alien continually killing me in my dreams.

I’m reminded of the H. P. Lovecraft story “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which a god sleeping beneath the ocean invades the dreams of humanity and, prior to his awakening, compels them to use new words and celebrate his image. Not because I worry we will soon be terrorized by a giant Mickey Mouse with tentacles, but because of the famous line “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die.”

Disney’s Alien franchise is about humanity. In all four of its mainline canonical films (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection), protagonists try to not be hijacked by a non-human entity for purposes that work against their species. This is the surface of the text. The aliens procreate parasitically, using human bodies as incubators. A motif in the franchise is seeing a human become impregnated with a chest-burster and, not wanting to pay it forward, begging for death by rasping, “Kill me,” before being euthanized in a flurry of bullets and flame.

But the xenomorphs are just a physical manifestation of the monolithic non-human entity at the heart of the series’ conflict: the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. When- ever human-on-human violence occurs in Alien movies, it’s between those acting sincerely on behalf of humanity and those on the payroll of an enterprise whose interests run counter to those of our species. At the end of each film, series hero Ellen Ripley defeats a xenomorph menace and is put into a preservative state in which she slumbers for decades. In each successive movie, when she is awoken from hypersleep or resurrected as a memory-retaining clone, the corporate ideology is still there. Even in Alien: Resurrection, set two hundred years after the events of Alien 3, in which Ripley self-immolated in front of a Weyland-Yutani executive, the company doesn’t exist in name, but a government has taken up the anti-human torch, acting in the exact same meta-malicious way.

As futile as Ripley’s generation-spanning quest seems, the Alien movies are optimistic. They are about confronting the invisible entities that manipulate us through greed and destroying their most toxic assets. Ripley literally dies trying to keep xenomorphs out of the hands of an industrial monstrosity, and as of 1997, when she last appeared onscreen, she looks to have succeeded. It’s a beautiful thought, to imagine human camaraderie triumphing over the invisible tendrils of corporate greed. But when that message itself is a vector of a real industrial being that invades my dreams, it undercuts the hope.

Toppling our multinational overlords with teamwork and a flame-thrower taped to a grenade launcher is an inspirational idea. I want to rally behind the image of Ripley in a robotic exosuit, confronting the alien queen grasping for Newt, her surrogate daughter. But even that thought belongs to Disney. The anti-company champion I look to for hope of liberation is part of the same media product portfolio that abuses me in my sleep. Like Ripley, I want to stare the enemy in its toothy face and spit, “Get away from her, you bitch,” on behalf of future generations who will also suffer invasive corporate nightmares. But it’s too late for me—my brain’s compromised; even my dreams of freedom are on the company dime.


Excerpted from Be Scared of Everything, by Peter Counter. Peter Counter is a writer exploring ideas of faith, violence, horror, identity and memory though criticism, creative nonfiction, and playwriting. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner, their grumpy cat, an old rabbit, and his family Ouija board. Find more of his writing at EverythingIsScary.com.

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