Spidey’s Eyes, The Greys, and The Fourth Kind

The other day, a few of my students were talking about that dreadful colostomy bag of a film, The Fourth Kind. Apparently some of them — including, most surprisingly, a science major, and by that I mean a student majoring in the hard sciences — had fallen for the fake “real footage.”

We (gently, mind) had a little talk about a few things:

  • The cultural concentration of alien-abduction reports, which suggests that they, like sightings of ttokaebi, are manifestations of culturally-determined imagination or delusion, rather than factors in the real world. (The fact that so few alien abduction accounts originate in Korea, or Czech Republic, or India, suggests that they’re happening inside people’s heads, not outside of them.) Also, the fact that UFO and alien-abduction reports both spiked directly after entertainment media first presented these narratives in fictional form.
  • The problematizing fact that alien abduction stories share so much in common with the psychological terrain of child sexual abuse — a figure impossible to resist repeatedly abducts one in the dark of night, from one’s bed, submits one to anal probing, and then returns one to one’s bed, “vanishing” and also being unreportable in the morning. In a society where it was impossible to even raise the issue a decade or two ago, it wouldn’t be surprising if some reports were simply the outpourings of people who’d been traumatized in much more, shall we say, terrestrial ways.
  • The obvious riffs on extant alien-abduction “literature”, such as for example the use of memories of owls (large-eyed and somewhat ghostly-looking/sounding beings) as stand-ins for memories of aliens. This is a trope which, if it doesn’t come from earlier, exists at least as far back as horror author Whitley Strieber’s supposed true-life (but obviously fictional and con-man-ish) book Communion. This particularly shocked them. They were so disappointed to discover that the owl thing had been done before.
  • The fact that the “true life” events the film claims to be based on are, well, some distance from the truth.
  • The fact that, as I mentioned not long ago, The Fourth Kind rips off Erich von Däniken (who ripped off some French dudes, who ripped off H.P. Lovecraft), and Zerchariah Sitchin (who probably fits into that chain of ripoffery somehow too) in the idea that ancient religions formed when humans were still the helpless, powerless slaves of aliens who had bioengineered them from their less-sentient hominid ancestors. All that Sumerian stuff?  Er… so Sitchin and soooo very HPL, via von Däniken.
  • The significant difficulties involved in believing that aliens would come all the way to Earth — in all apparent likelihood (from what we know of the physical universe) apparently using energies so vast that anyone with the cleverness to harness them would likely know there are much better uses for such energy — to kidnap us, shove probes up our backsides (and perform other kinds of wacky interstellar sexual molestation), kidnap our kids and not give them back, and hang around outside our houses fucking with our heads.

But somewhere later on in the day, I stumbled across a thought that surprised me.

What’s with Spider Man’s eyes? He looks enough like those classic Grey aliens (The Greys) to certainly be considered a possible partial inspiration for their own appearance. Spider Man was created in 1962. Barney and Betty Hill’s famous and archetype-launching description of the Greys came in 1964, by which time Spidey was already a major comic book character, and probably unavoidable in America. While it’s likely, of course, that the connection made with an episode of The Outer Limits is also likely, it seems to me maybe some residual memories of Spider Man could have contributed.

And what about those eyes? Why do Spidey’s eyes extend around the sides of his head, and taper odd at a slant like they do? It’s an interesting question. Are the eyes supposed merely to be nonhuman? Are they supposed to gesture towards some sort of oriental “slanted-eye” concept? Or is it just whatever Steve Ditko came up with in the process of designing Spidey’s look? I don’t have time (or the resources, or the interest, to be honest) to research it further,but I’d be curious to hear if anyone has seen something about it.

My point, though, is that things like this take shape in really strange ways. Bitlets float around, cropping up in unexpected places and ways. Cultures are funny that way.

10 thoughts on “Spidey’s Eyes, The Greys, and The Fourth Kind

  1. I find myself thinking about reading Solaris recently (didn’t finish it; the English translation is via French and wow, I think I may read it in French instead as parts of it are virtually unreadable), and how the alien manifestations (who did not know they were aliens, at least at first, and in fact one of them tried to resist it) were women and children. One of the women was black, as well.
    This is a book written by a white man in Poland in the early 1960s. A man who in his other books has said some fairly racially insensitive (at the very least) things, no matter how thoughtful he is and no matter how much I love his work. Women have no depth in his books, where they appear.

    He said the point of Solaris was the alienness of the alien, how one could not communicate with it, or make sense of it — its towers and structures, its solid neutrino pseudo-familiar excresences. That was something the movies didn’t get, he said (I admit I’ve only seen the Russian one). That the point of the book was not the love story.

    And I can buy that. But then, why are all of the aliens that we see and can interface with women and children?

    I’ve read other work by Lem, but mostly it seems when he is talking about aliens he’s being silly, or it was something the characters imagined. He allows for AI, for emergent sentience, but Pirx’s only brush with the alien (for example) is some passing empty ship which he wasn’t able to get a recording of . . . I suspect Lem agreed with Fermi, and if I tried to look it up, too, I’m sure I could confirm that.

  2. Tarkovsky explored his own concerns using some aspects of Lem’s story. He never claimed to have made an accurate version of the book.

    Lem’s recurring treatment of aliens, at least in his serious stories, is that actual aliens would be so different from us that it would be impossible to make any conclusions about their actions or intentions. In Solaris, it was never clear whether the manifestations were attempts by the “ocean” to communicate, methods of study, aggression, or just a by-product of humans being in its vicinity. This kind of indeterminacy is present in His Master’s Voice and even Fiasco.

    I don’t know, but Spider Man’s eyes seem to suit his costume. I was trying to imagine other possible designs (round, or a Lone Ranger style mask, or …?) and none really seem to work.

  3. To turn to Lem first, well, V, I actually posted a reply over on LJ, where you first posted this comment. (Lots of discussion over there, makes me wish I could port the comments over here.)

    What I wrote there was:

    You know, I haven’t actually read Solaris yet, nor very much of Lem. It’s a hole in my knowledge, but I can say that whatever the works’ other virtues may be, weakness in depicting women and children is far from rare in older SF.

    One easy answer is: women and children (and people of other races) are easier to construe as “alien” or “other” for a male writer of a certain generation.

    There may be another answer, though, a bit fairer. From the films and discussions I’ve seen, and the BBC radio-play adaptation I listened to last summer — unfaithful as I’m sure they’ve all been to the book — all of the (human) characters are male, and their “visitors” seem tied up with the core of whatever pains them or whatever they deny, ignore, and seek to suppress. It’s not too great a stretch of the imagination that women (black or otherwise) and children would show up as “visitors,” is it, given all that?

    That, and the fact that for most men, despite real communication being difficult with humans of either sex, the communicative problems that trouble us most are those with the sex we’re more concerned with. And there are certain slight but notable differences in brain architecture that may make it harder to communicate between the sexes, as mentioned here among a million other places. This fits with the theme of the difficulties of communicating with an alien consciousness: we can barely talk to one another, how can we hope to talk to aliens?

    (Which doesn’t erase the problems in the text: humans have achieved interstellar flight without having advanced to the point where one of the scientists on Solaris could be a woman?)


    Ah, you’ve read more Sagan than me!

    (Though I have that book somewhere, maybe in Canada. If I had it, I might photocopy that chapter and pass it to the students in question. Or use it as reading material in the class, even. (It’s a writing course, and Sagan could be presented as a good example of clear and effective writing.))


    You’ve read more Lem than me!

    In any case, I suspect Spidey’s eyes suit the costume in part because we’ve seen that face so many times. It’s existed and been widespread since before my (and I assume your) birth. So it’s hard to say whether it works because it just works, or because it’s so familiar we cannot imagine anything else.

    For my part, I can see something more like big reflective glasses, or slightly convex but opaque lenses, working. Or very small eyes. As long as it’s not slits — that would never work.

  4. I’ve never seen the Fourth Kind, but the discussion here reminded me that scientists are not very good at picking out fakes. Rather, the people who usually succeed are magicians (The Amazing Randi, Johnny Carson, Penn & Teller). Apparently it takes a trickster to catch a trickster.

    I have the Sagan book, so if you want that chapter copied, let me know. Also, to toot my own horn…

    I had the honor of meeting Carl Sagan once when I was in Cornell in a fairly small class setting around 1986. (A friend of mine was taking a history of science class in Cornell, and they invited Sagan to speak; and they also invited outsiders to attend. There were less than twenty students in all). He just basically repeated material from “Cosmos”, and I didn’t work up the nerve to say anything. Looked and spoke just like he did on TV, though.

    I’ve read two books by Lem, (Solaris and The Futurological Congress) didn’t like it much and I’m not particularly interested in reading more; but from what little I remember, it seemed like he was more interested in talking about human failings (a la French philosophers) rather than what we would think of as the usual stuff of SF. (Because aliens in Solaris was basically manisfestations of his memory and experience, he was forcing meaning on aliens who are basically incomprehensible)

  5. Junsok,

    Well, but most scientists I know are pretty unimpressed by claims of alien abduction. SF authors, too, tend to be pretty skeptical. More tricksters?

    I’ll hold off on the Sagan for now (till I can read the whole book), but thanks for the offer.

    Wow, meeting Sagan. That’s cool, and especially with so few people in the room. My most exciting science-poppularizer encounters were with Penrose (who was not so impressive, especially since I was near a bunch of physicists who were critiquing his claims quite convincingly, while he was disclaiming most of his assertions as “highly speculative”) and Steve Pinker, who was freaking amazing in person. But in both cases I was in giant lecture halls at McGill University. Thank goodness for posters being put up at my Uni by some generous soul.

    Lem: yeah, human failings. That rings a bell in terms of the various adaptations of Solaris I do know. He seems also to do some Borgesian kinds of things. I have read bits of his A Perfect Vacuum, which amused me — it’s all book reviews of made-up books, and good fun. But yeah, if you get no glee out of postmodernism, not even seeing it goofed about with teasingly, that side of Lem may not impress you any more than what you’ver already read.

    By the way, a week or so ago met someone who’s apparently the Korean expert on UFOs. When I heard he was a professor I wondered what department he taught in. Turned out it was engineering. (Not at our Uni.)

  6. I’m great! I got married in November, work is going really well, and I’m out and about, having fun.

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