If our eventual destruction/enslavement at the hands of imperialistic aliens is the worst possible answer to the Fermi Paradox, the Zoo Hypothesis is the most horrifying. Horror movies capitalize on the suspense in the feeling of being watched, and very little can make you feel as vulnerable or panicky as the creepifying feeling that there’s someone right behind you, watching your every move.
And just think: that’s with a human as the villain – maybe someone crazy, maybe someone in a mask, and very possibly someone stronger, faster, and better armed than you. Movies and books branch out into the realm of monsters and ghosts, but at the end of the day – regardless of how much our irrational mind imagines all sorts of horrible creatures and ghouls in our blind spots – there’s some small sort of comfort in the repeated thought of ‘monsters aren’t real.’
In a universe with extra-terrestrials, however, that lifeline we cling to might no longer be available. The law of averages has to count for something: not all aliens would be physically terrifying, not all would be out to study or dominate us, and not all would even be our intellectual and technological equals or superiors. But some just might be. And if even they’re out there doing something as relatively benign as what the Zoo Hypothesis describes, that’s still plenty of terror to work with.
What is the Zoo Hypothesis exactly? It’s one possible answer to Enrico Fermi’s frustrated question from over 50 years ago: if there are aliens out there in the universe, why haven’t we found any evidence yet?
There have been countless responses to this. They range from the boring and standard – ‘there aren’t any aliens’ and ‘if there are aliens, the universe is so mind-bogglingly huge that any conclusive evidence will never reach us’ – to the anthropomorphic: aliens die out before we’re aware of them, either due to war or from attempting to master forces like nuclear energy that they couldn’t control. The Zoo Hypothesis says aliens are watching us and studying us, carefully keeping from us any signs of their existence so their observations can continue unimpeded.
And, really, that’s one of the scariest mind-fucks I’ve ever heard of... and that’s including the possibility that, with the multiverse and alternate dimensions in mind, there’s a world in which Sarah Palin became the president of the United States.
Of course, what makes it even scarier is through applying a couple of anthropomorphisms myself:
Undisturbed observation isn’t what we do. It’s just not – not even in actual zoos. Undisturbed observations can happen in zoos on Earth, yes, in the entertainment portion of the whole set-up. (And if this fairly innocent idea doesn’t creep the hell out of you, boy do I have a book you need to read.) So, in zoos of humans, I suppose some environments can continue on as facsimiles of original societies, but then there are the metaphorical bratty children and adults that would tap on the glass, feed us things they’re not supposed, and eventually throw rocks at us. There might even be a crazy alien or two that would make us aware of our imprisoned state and release us – violent, terrified, and not just a little bit ruffled in outrage – into the galaxy at large, where we would be summarily hunted down and killed for being menaces like so many wildcats or snakes.
None of those scenarios were what I initially had in mind, though, now that I‘ve imagined them, they seem particularly hideous and awful, too. No, what I was originally thinking about was the science side of animal captivity. We experiment; we introduce foreign variables to see the reaction on the environment and social structure; we test various chemicals and lobotomies. And when we’re done, we dissect or start some new experiment. When we don’t get the results we wanted, we cut the funding.
This isn’t an off-shoot of using aliens as a medium for change, either. I’m not saying we should stop animal testing everywhere and in all forms… well, I am a little. Mostly I’m just saying that if we do experiment on animals with the justification that they’re more expendable than humans, we shouldn’t be too indignant if a superior alien race is of a similar mind.
Of course, now that I think about the original topic – zoos – those sorts of science-based situations are not a particularly novel brand of horror. Human experimentation has been done – especially in all sorts of nonfiction, real world applications. We’ve all heard about the Stanford Prison experiment or Stanley Milgram’s experiment that fairly concretely showed the average person to be a bit weak and terrible, willing to electrify someone to death if an authority figure says so.
We also have Mengele’s testing on prisoners in concentration camps to keep in mind, as well as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment by American doctors. Human experimentation is reprehensible, but we know this. It’s known with rather horrible clarity and on the basis of a lot of evidence and examples. It, at its core, doesn’t have the mysteriousness that can creep on our imaginations. Books, several books, can be made about these ideas, but it doesn’t have the immediate and unexpectedly visceral conflict of the darker underbelly of a human zoo.
There are just so many elements for rising horror, it’s almost like a plot isn’t necessary. We know that animals in captivity adjust to accept their imprisonment – comfortably if the conditions are right, eventually even if they’re not. It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to see humans doing the same thing, even before the last generation of once-free humans dies out. But, in a typical zoo, the animals know about their situation to some degree – they know they’re surrounded by humans, at the very least. It’s the examples of when we want to make sure the animals can be reintroduced to the wild that are most like what an actualized Zoo Hypothesis may be like. Every so often there’s a viral image of baby pandas being fed by keepers in panda costumers, the idea being that pandas won’t become dependent on interactions with humans, and will spend the whole time thinking they’ve just been around other pandas. These photos are always followed by comments of how cute the whole set-up is.
Next step: people suits.
Apply it to the Zoo Hypothesis, and suddenly it’s not cute anymore – it’s an image that just might keep you up at night.
If you have a question, a worse possibility in mind, or just something to say, please be sure to leave a comment below!
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.