The Thing opens with a man shooting at a dog. As the men in the helicopter dive lower in the harsh Antarctic winds to get a better shot, the sled dog stays one step ahead. It’s bizarre, especially the urgency of the violent pursuit. Something’s wrong here, and it’s clearly not the dog, right? It’s this false sense of security that makes the next revelation truly shocking. The husky is no ordinary dog. It’s a grotesque abomination, a withering mass of tentacles, heads, eyes, and alien appendages. By the time the men in U.S Outpost 31 have time to process this, the intruder has already made its first move.
The monster in John Carpenters’ 1982 classic is a shape-shifting parasite, able to absorb any organism and mimic it perfectly. This alien lifeform has probably assimilated millions of lifeforms throughout the galaxy before crash-landing in Antarctica 20,000 years ago. Compared to an iconic monster like the Xenomorph, the thing is not a sleek predator nor does it inspire that kind of fear. It wins by disguising itself and being one step ahead of its prey. And while the brilliant special effects work by Rob Bottin makes you feel sick to your stomach, there is something mundane about the monster. The thing is essentially a virus, a deadly pandemic waiting to unleash itself on the entire world. This means that for the majority of the film, the monster makes a handful of appearances. All are terrifying on their own but the real horror comes from the crew’s reaction to the monster.
One of the consequences of The Thing making itself at home in Outpost 31 is that each crew member becomes more isolated. The Thing’s shapeshifting abilities make it impossible for the crew to work together. While there is strength in numbers, the likelihood of being in the presence of The Thing dramatically increases when all the men are in the same place. Splitting up reduces the odds of being in contact with the thing but it’s easier for the monster to attack. What’s more, no crew member can be sure who is infected, so killing anyone acting suspicious means living with the odds of taking an innocent life. This is not like a zombie film where the protagonist can kill zombies indiscriminately because they are not human anymore. What ensues is the total collapse of trust between the men. Blaire, a scientist, destroys all communications and the last chopper to prevent the spread of the thing from infecting the entire world.
A certain kind of paranoia begins to set in as each member is assimilated. No one is sure at any given moment who the thing is. The monster is always one step ahead, sabotaging every attempt to devise a means of detecting it. Only when MacReady, the most paranoid and brazen of the bunch, takes over do things tilt in their favor. He ties up every crew member and tests their blood with a heated copper wire. Nothing happens until Palmer’s blood unexpectedly jumps from the petri dish with a shriek. None of them expected it to be Palmer, and neither do we. This cosmic game of cat and mouse plays out until MacReady blows up the thing and the entire base. MacReady is the last man standing until Childs shows up after disappearing moments before the explosion. Is Childs the Thing? The survivors, as well as the audience, are left with doubt. Paranoia and a total breakdown of trust have led to this moment.
The most obvious connection you can draw from The Thing is the pandemic. We all remember the isolation during quarantine, the fear of catching covid, and the shock of discovering asymptomatic individuals. Audiences back in the day would have made a connection to the Cold War. The reason why this film has stood the test of time is that it continues to speak to every generation in this way. Whether it’s post 9/11 America, the worsening climate crisis, or the fraying trust in institutions, one could argue that we are more afraid now than we have ever been before. The Thing is horror at its finest because unlike any other film it delves deep into the fear of the unknown and the human reaction to that fear in the forms of isolation, paranoia, mistrust, and assimilation.
By: Alpha Bah