In storytelling the ‘I’, ‘me’ (plus the reader, or audience) usually empathises with ‘we’ and ‘us’ against ‘them’. Who are ‘they’? They are the ‘other’.
In the TV series Lost ‘The Others’ (who were literally known by that name) appeared to be a mysterious and violent group living on the other side of the island. They were an unknown quantity, frightening, mysterious. The characters we knew (the survivors of the aeroplane crash) were unable to work out what motivated ‘The Others’, and why they were acting hostile. It was later revealed that they were not what they seemed to be, they were a beneficial force. And yet, the survivors had formed a social group and a social identity, which ‘they’ did not belong to. They viewed ‘The Others’ as fundamentally different. Their newly formed group bonds had created an environment where anyone else was perceived to be an outsider. A threat. In constructing ‘we’ and ‘us’ they had, by necessity, created a mutually exclusive group and projected their fears onto ‘The Others’. Group identities have fascistic tendencies, but it’s impossible to think about people without societies and cultures. After all, we are social creatures. Where there is ‘us’ there will always be a ‘them’. Stories always have ‘us’ the hero, the characters ‘we’ (the audience) empathise with against the ‘baddies’, the monsters, the enemy. Imagine a story without a frightening antagonist. Where’s the drama? ‘We’ need the ‘others’ to make us feel like ‘us’.
The ‘other’ can take many forms in storytelling. Usually we know a lot more about ‘us’ and ‘we’, and a lot less about ‘them’. Also, the other is likely to be a bad actor (manipulative, cheating, treacherous, a spy, a criminal, a pervert, a murderer, etc). Therefore ‘we’ struggle to empathise with ‘them’. We identify with the integrity, decency and vulnerability of ‘us’ and we’. We fear the perceived threat that ‘they’ possess. Whoever they are: they are dangerous.
Who are the others?
They are a threat to decency and normal behaviour. They may be an identified the enemy, we may be at war with them. They may appear from another planet, from outer space, or have swum out of a black lagoon. The might look weird — or they could appear just like us. In many McCarthy era Hollywood films they are communists. They look and act like us, but they are traitors, imposters, spies. In The Thing the alien entity can mimic the human form; it’s almost impossible to know who is human and who is a monster. Count Orlok in Noferatu is the monstrous other, a lusting, blood-sucking vampire, followed around by a plague of rats. Horror is all about ‘us’ (human) and ‘it’ (inhuman): the thing, the beast, the machine.
The fear of the other is the fear of being overwhelmed, of being taken over, subsumed. We are afraid of them because we worry that they might wipe us out. Even if the threat is not existential, they are dangerous enough to threaten our lifestyle, to steal our prosperity, or to become a burden.
‘They’ will always be a problem.
In Aliens the ‘other’ is a violent, monster from another world. It will lay its eggs in us, hunt us down, kill any remaining people. Its threat to ‘us’ is at the extinction level. It’s a severe threat. The ‘enemy’ is another severe threat. In war films the enemy want to inforce their lies and injustice on us. To destroy our way of life and our belief systems.
The ‘other’ can also be the mechanisms of state repression. In storytelling, anything that reduces ‘personal freedom’, individuality, and free expression becomes the ‘other’ — the enemy of humanity. Whatever the ‘other’ is, ‘we’ are always right and ‘the other’ is always wrong. We identity with ‘us’ — we are a tribe. They are another tribe, if we allow them to have a label. They may only be known by a derogatory nickname.
The ‘other’ can be the people we live next-door to, our neighbours. They may come from a different class to us, speak differently, or have a different culture. In The ’Burbs and ‘Rosemary’s Baby ‘we’ (the protagonist and the audience) believe that they are part of a satanic cult; in Artlington Road that they are terrorists; in Pacific Heights they are a psychopath; and in Rear Window they’re a murderer.
The ‘other’ can mean different things in different stories. For Joseph Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, ‘hell is other people.’ What Garcin means is that our preoccupation with worrying about what other people think of us limits our own freedom. We objectify ourselves by seeking their approval. The ‘other’ can, it seems, exist within ‘us’.
Stories can deliberately subvert the audience’s perception of the ‘other’. There’s a whole slew of unreliable narrators, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, or Mort Rainey in Secret Window. While in Metamorphosis (an early ‘body shock’ horror) the central character is forced to rethink his relationship with his own body. In Space Precinct and Alien Nation alien cops work alongside their human colleagues. In American Psycho, an outwardly successful business executive turns out to be crazy. And, in Amistad we learn that the ‘other’ is ‘us’; we are one and the same thing — humans.