On June 25th, 1982, John Carpenter released one of the most enduring films in his library, The Thing. Todays marks the film's 35th anniversary, and though it has aged, Carpenter's opus of Antarctic #horror is perhaps now more relevant than ever before. In today's world of political and racial divides and highly polarized opinions, #TheThing and its themes of paranoia and mistrust may well be the perfect horror film for these troubled times.
12 Men Discovered Something
The Thing tells of the 12-man crew of United States Research Outpost 31, located in Antarctica. During their first week of winter, the crew finds themselves besieged by an alien creature just released from 100,000 years of hibernation beneath the Antarctic ice. This creature has the ability to re-shape its cells to mimic anything it kills.
The men of Outpost 31 know that one, perhaps more of them, may not be what they seem. Aware of the beast walking among them, the crew of Outpost 31 begin to turn on each other, each openly accusing the next of being the deadly interloper that threatens to consume them all. As the men fight among themselves, the beast feeds off their conflict, picking them off one by one.
The Scheming Chameleon
Unlike most villains in horror, the Thing is not a character who prefers to attack in the open. It doesn't charge with knives or other sharp implements, and it only tears into a victim by tooth and claw as a last resort. Its real weapon against the men of Outpost 31 is not force, but fear.
The Thing is a creature that understands its situation. It is outnumbered by people who'd like nothing more than to see it dead. #KurtRussell's heroic lead R. J. MacReady says it best:
"This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open."
The Thing is a vulnerable stranger in a strange land. In order to survive, it uses one of the most tried and true strategies in war: divide and conquer. It openly accuses people around it of being the monster, and sabotages any efforts to weed it out of hiding. After its initial reveal, it seldom openly attacks anyone, only doing so when its identity becomes clear. It's noteworthy how that the beast's most successful attack against the heroic MacReady isn't an attack from the front, but when it uses Mac's own allies against him.
MacReady is a strong character, and it's his strength that helps the men to regroup. Sensing a threat, the Thing plants evidence that Mac is an imposter in his shack, then lures him and another crew member there by deliberately leaving the lights on. When the crew finds the evidence, they abandon Mac outside and locks the doors, nearly freezing him to death in the snow. The Thing is a chess master, using fear to move the men of Outpost 31 around like pawns on a board. Only when the crew breaks free do they stand a chance.
Survive Together Or Die Alone
Prior to the beast's arrival, there are no real villains in Outpost 31. Though they have the occasional gripe (as anyone often will), the 12-man crew is friendly with each other, operating with relative harmony. It's this harmony the Thing sees as a threat.
The Thing uses many clever methods to remove potential threats. When Copper, the camp's doctor, proposes a blood test, it seems promising that the Thing shall be unmasked. The Thing responds by stealing the keys to the blood storage tank, sabotaging the samples, then returning the keys to their owner. This act casts suspicion on doctor Copper and camp commander Gary, the only two who have access to the keys. The frightened crew ties up both Gary and Copper, removing Copper's medical expertise and Gary's leadership from their arsenal, and making the Thing more powerful.
From there, the men prove their own worst enemy. Rather than being in the company of friends who can protect them, they insist on staying apart from each other, leaving themselves alone and vulnerable. They're practically gift wrapping themselves for when the monster comes calling. The Thing even uses the men to commit murders. One of the first people accused of being the monster is later shot and killed, revealing his innocence only in death. This not only removes another potential threat, but creates further animosity among the crew.
The men have a shot at victory, but only after they're unified. In the most famous scene of the film, MacReady devises a test to reveal who's human and who isn't, not only unmasking the monster, but clearing the names of himself and his crew mates. It was precisely what the Thing was afraid of. The blood test proves the humanity of several survivors, and thus unites them all for one last stand. Only once their bickering stops and the men trust each other does victory seem possible.
Why This Matters Now
The themes present in John Carpenter's horror classic are perhaps the most relevant they've ever been since the film's release. In recent years, one can't help but get the impression people have become increasingly paranoid of those with different political, religious or racial backgrounds. In many ways, the people of Outpost 31 are all of us, a diverse group of people stuck in a small place together with no way out, and no choice but to get along. Regardless of whether or not these impressions are true, it's the paranoia surrounding them that does the damage.
The Thing can be viewed as a metaphor for that lurking suspicion many of us feel whenever we encounter someone different from ourselves. The monster isn't the real villain of The Thing, but mistrust. The crew's paranoia about each other sat below Outpost 31 like a stick of dynamite, and the Thing lit the fuse.
The ending of The Thing says it all: The survivors of Outpost 31 have destroyed the world around them and will soon freeze to death in the snow. They recognize the futility of their conflict, but by then it's too late to do anything but watch the camp burn. While it may not have been Carpenter's intention, the movie now seems a desperate plea. Difficult though it may be, we must set aside our differences and find common ground. If we don't, it doesn't matter what threats we face. Like The Thing, they'll have already won.
What other social commentary did you pick up on in Carpenter's The Thing?