What is The Thing?
~ short essay on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
To me, The Thing is the perfect horror movie. Not the scariest, and maybe not even with the best practical FX (though they are god-tier), or the best villain (though the shapeshifting alien is an incredible one). No, but in its premise, The Thing is the perfect sandbox for horror:
A remote arctic base is invaded by an extraterrestrial doppelganger capable of intelligently persisting via not just killing, but stealing life. A self-masking predator posing as former friends, language-less and with no true form and a degree of indestructibility, murders without remorse, until there are no more humans left to consume…
The *thing* can assume the shape of beast or man. By scientist Blair it is said to be capable of transmitting itself like a virus, to replicate during its bloodletting romp through the research station’s personnel (not unlike the xenomorph). MacReady correctly posits that the cells of the alien lifeform act independently of one another, as a collective of survivors that can shape and form and defend as though they were each their own being. He also guesses that it burns well. Also correctly.
Unlike the human being, who is a mind being carried by a body full of sensations — each cellular aspect of the thing is a fully automatized sense-making organism hellbent on survival and replication above all else.
The result is a hellish encounter between the alien and the men (and dogs) of the Antarctic base.
Rewatching the film got me thinking — what is the thing supposed to be? In the subtext, as a symbol. What does Carpenter’s thing represent? Just a bit of light-hearted interpretive analysis of mythic horror opera.
The Thing is —
Contagion: A hyper-contagious, hyper-deadly virus. The dread of what a supervirus might do to us.
Paranoia: the thing is the prospect that your friends are not who they say they are. It is your companions’ inevitable betrayal.
Fear: The thing is the ultimate unknown; it has no true face, only the forms of its surroundings, now made grotesque and predatory.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
~ HP Lovecraft
Idea: The thing is the force of a new idea’s ability to take hold in the minds of the people it comes into contact with, changing them and shaping them towards its ends, toward the perpetuation of ideology itself. An idea can shift someone’s mind without them even realizing it.
Consciousness: The thing is the infinitely malleable concept of consciousness itself. Consciousness devours and replicates and survives all for the sake of experiencing more, for the capacity to do more in the future. Consciousness operates through us without a way for us to stop it, and only alter it temporarily.
Capitalism: In Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, he gives a description that compares the thing to economic capital, the driving force of modern industry. Capital, suggested in this sense, is the dark possibility that market was the inevitable father of all social relations, placing our trust not in people but in an algorithm. The profit motive becoming God meant that we as mortal human beings no longer maintained control over our world, the prospect of endless growth did.
“In their account of capitalism, surely the most impressive since Marx’s, Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’. When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and redefined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact. Capital, Deleuze and Guattari says, is a ‘motley painting of everything that ever was’; a strange hybrid of the ultra-modern and the archaic. In the years since Deleuze and Guattari wrote the two volumes of their Capitalism And Schizophrenia, it has seemed as if the deterritorializing impulses of capitalism have been confined to finance, leaving culture presided over by the forces of reterritorialization.”
With the accumulation of capital (in the form of material wealth through possessions, investments, political power, border expansion) being the driving force of all social relations, everything becomes a part of its folding mass eventually. Commercialization is the awaiting fate of all industry, infrastructure, entertainment, healthcare, education, housing, food, companionship. Everything becomes a market and everything has its price.
What is the fate of the abominable alien thing? To consume humanity.
Altogether, under the lens of any interpretation, the thing is the … thing at the heart of a situation. The core conflict in the storyline. The dominant variable in a complex environment. The creature at the center of attention, out of necessity.
The thing is anything that challenges us.
In the film, Kurt Russell’s Mac takes center stage as the hero. His buff action man status and ability to think on his feet as an arctic pilot make him the most effective antagonist of the thing. His paranoia trumps everyone else’s. He and the thing are playing chess — each trying to outmaneuver and kill the other.
It is a zero-sum game with everything on the line. Mac evolves his tactics over time, after trial and error, after his life is threatened by his comrades through the alien’s ingenious duplicity (the thing plants a tattered MacReady shirt for others to find!) Mac must evolve his thinking unto the possibilities of his monstrous foe, and then immediately put those strategies into action. Every moment is life or death. Mac and the thing play the most dangerous game against one another. And because it’s a war of extermination, each is willing to sacrifice everything to win.
In this sense, the thing is the force of evolution, the specter of death itself.
At any rate, The Thing is the truest horror. Perfection in horror cinema.