“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”(Carl Sagan)
We have all thought of something similar when gazing up at the vast night sky. It’s an existential dread that either elicits acceptance or fear. Cosmic horror, a blend of science fiction and horror, emphasizes this fear of the emptiness of space. But what if something was out there, an entity so ancient and incomprehensible that it makes us insignificant? This is essentially the premise of Carpenter's 1982 classic, The Thing. While cosmic horror is a literary genre credited to H.P Lovecraft, it has managed to make its way into film. Carpenter's remake of The Thing From Another World (1951) was a more faithful adaptation of Who Goes There? a novella by John W. Campbell. Campbell’s story is similar to Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, which also takes place in the Antarctic.
By examining The Thing through the lens of cosmic horror, the film takes on another layer of meaning that is often hard to put into words. Compared to the 1951 original, Carpenter's version is more nihilistic. By preserving the shape-shifting ability of the thing, he makes it indefinable. This blurs the line between humanity and the alien other. More importantly, Carpenter shatters the human-centric conception of the universe in favor of one that is far more terrifying.
The monster in The Thing (1982) is a shape-shifting entity from outer space able to absorb and mimic any organism perfectly. Throughout the film, it disguises itself as a husky (kennel-thing) and then every unlucky crewmember. What we see of the Thing before it assimilates its host are grotesque appendages, tentacles, heads, and eyes. In other words, it has no true form. It’s everything it’s ever assimilated but not really. Besides the brilliant special effects work of Rob Bottin, Carpenter captures this incomprehensible entity with the camera. With low-angle POV shots, Carpenter keys the audience into the viewpoint of an intangible presence making its way through the base. “With the strains of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ still audible we cut to a head-height shot by the surgical lights in Medical which smoothly moves around the operating table, subtly lowers its view height, and passes out through the door”(Conolly, 2021). It’s the dog, the kennel-thing! Combined with the heartbeat score of Ennio Morricone, you can’t help but feel something dark lying in wait.
No one is equipped to deal with The Thing but surely a bunch of scientists would have the best shot right? In a world that made sense, rational humans would find a way to vanquish the monster because of science. Yet, Blair, a biologist, cannot give the crew reliable answers when he dissects the kennel thing. He draws attention to a “furry, canine-like appendage, stating, ‘[t]hat’s not a dog. It’s imitation” (Brown, 2020). His observation assumes that our human conception of what a dog is applies to the thing. Everything they know about the thing doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of its true nature. When the crew finds the spacecraft excavated by the Norwegian camp, they estimate it to be 100,000 years old. How do you begin to fathom something so ancient? Our knowledge, culture, and identities are made so small in comparison. The crew is in the dark, desperately trying to shed a light on what the thing is and how to deal with it. However, just like in Lovecraft's stories, their predicament forces them to deal with an entity that is indifferent to their pain. It forces them to question what they are, both literally and figuratively.
A Blurring of Boundaries
The Monster in Carpenter's The Thing serves a different purpose than the original 1951 version. The 1951 Thing was a plant-based bipedal alien that embodied otherness (aka communism). This makes it easier to separate what it means to be human from the alien other. Carpenter blurs these boundaries by not giving the monster a true form. Childs asks a question that haunts the crew and the viewer to the very end, “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?” Usually, in this case, you would bring up a memory or a unique story. However, the film strongly hints at the thing having the ability to mimic that too.“If non-human agents can adopt human qualities (speech, thought, personality, personal memory) such that they go for the most part undetected among other humans, then what is the special privilege of humans?”(Brown, 2020). This is the existential threat the crew face. It’s more than just paranoia, mistrust, and fear rending the crew's relationship apart. The answer, in their case, is bleak. It all comes down to a blood test. The relief on Windows's face as MacReady puts the heated wire into his blood sample says it all.
The Thing (1982) also takes a different approach to its ending than The Thing From Another World (1951). Carpenter does not assert the triumph of the group over the malicious other but the insignificance of humanity. When MacReady blows up the thing and the entire base, it feels like the nightmare has finally ended. 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. Fans still theorize about this ambiguous ending. Some say Childs is definitely a thing, MacReady is also a thing, or that both are things. I believe both are still human. All they can do is take turns drinking, the embers of the destroyed base slowly dying in the distance. They’ll freeze to death with one eye open, the hope of rescue smothered by the blowing blackness of the Antarctic.
Brown, M. (2020). The Thing in the Ice: The Weird in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. Published.
Conolly, J. (2021). The Thing [E-book]. Oxford University Press.
By Alpha Bah