Underneath the Skin: John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and You

Warning: This essay contains many spoilers.

A dozen men are holed up in a research station in the unforgiving wastes of Antarctica, caught up in a relatively peaceful life of scientific inquiry, casual camaraderie and boredom. The bleak landscape outside dominates John Carpenter’s The Thing, through both the isolation it imposes as well as the ambient hostility of nature it represents. These men will discover alienation and implacable violence here. After Norwegian researchers from a similar nearby station pay a disastrous visit to their camp, the Americans find an incredible discovery has been made: a massive ship, clearly of extraterrestrial origin, has lain buried in polar ice for thousands of years. The Norwegians, it becomes apparent, found not only this crashed vessel but also the frozen body of one of its inhabitants. This creature, thawed, proves to be a horrid, shape-shifting being, capable not only of eating whomever it comes across, but also of assuming their shapes and memories. Slowly, the men come to understand their situation: they can no longer trust each other. They may not, in fact, be able to trust themselves…

This is the premise of John Carpenter’s brilliant sci-fi/horror film The Thing. This 1982 production is a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) which was itself a butchered version of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (1938). The Thing was also more or less remade as The Thing (2011), a film which also serves (even more confusingly) as a prequel.[1] Carpenter’s Thing stays more faithful to Campbell’s vision, though it does render the creature’s violent transformations more vividly than censors of the author’s age would have permitted. Though its nature can be summed up in a sentence, the Thing in The Thing proves to be more psychologically and philosophically unsettling than many of its cinematic antecedents.

This monster’s talent for mimicry provokes some of the darkest questions. By foregrounding this capability and coupling it with our inability to discern mimics from the remaining men, The Thing focuses dread light on a question which has haunted thinkers for ages: the “problem of other minds.” How can anyone know if other people actually have selves? What would enable you to tell the difference between your neighbor and a well-programmed robot? Thinkers have posited answers (including the notion that its insolvable nature means we must move on from it), but the question has not been laid to rest. Indeed, the quandary has proven to be a cornucopia of paranoiac fantasies, an essential theme in science-fiction and horror in particular. The Thing shares intellectual DNA with movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, as well as literature by Poe, Kafka and virtually every piece of fiction penned by Philip K. Dick. This movie, though, has the distinction of being based on source material which pre-dates most of our great works of paranoia. Had The Thing stopped here, focusing on a hidden presence lurking beneath the face of friends and co-workers, it may have still been remembered as a fine work of psychological suspense. This movie brings something else to the cinematic table, a visual excess to counter-balance these narrative ambiguities. Carpenter, drawing heavily on the source material, rejuvenates the paranoiac nightmare with an infusion of gore and unexpected (almost unimaginable) violence.

The Thing’s metamorphoses are spectacular – hideous eruptions of half-formed limbs and mutated organs. It doesn’t appear to have a shape of its own, existing instead as endless bodily flux when it is not mimicking someone it has absorbed. Anna Powell, in her fascinating book, Deleuze and Horror Film, defines the “Anomaly” as “The anomalous ‘thing’ produced by the conjunction of singularities in a monstrous entity in perpetual motion, unfixed in its identity.”[2]  Though she wasn’t referring to Carpenter’s movie, she could hardly have described its central figure better. The Thing is possibly the closest a horror film has come to representing monstrosity in its purest form. It is not just this endless malleability which makes this creature so terrible. Every time one of the beleaguered researchers suddenly sprouts new eyeballs or bursts open to reveal fanged mouths and scrabbling limbs, we are confronted by a region almost as alien to us as that of another’s mind: our own insides. While many horror movies (particularly Saw, Hostel and the films of the “New French Extremity”) delve into images of the tortured and dismembered body, The Thing animates the resulting carcass. Every secret thing is not only revealed, it makes a grab for your throat. These revelation scenes, paired with the quieter paranoia surrounding them, make The Thing move dizzyingly between the unreadable exterior and the unspeakable interior. It is hard not to see this movement as a gesture at the “thingliness” of human beings, some uneasy paradox or intractable uncertainty within our nature.

For all the excesses of its appearance, we learn little of the monster itself. During its metamorphoses it tends to scream, to howl in what sounds like either agony or some vile pleasure. What it will not do is speak, except in order to mimic its prey. The Thing’s silence, as well as its bizarre mode of reproduction, arouses the question (in certain sorts of viewers) “What does it mean?” Two answers suggest themselves immediately in our times, and both relate directly to the cast, to the same facet. The Thing is about men, a few more than a dozen of them. The absence of women was realistic for its time. Now, thirty years later, we’ve come so much closer to egalitarian ideals that women were obviously needed in the recent remake. Even the original film, The Thing from Another World, manages to include a plucky female secretary. Carpenter’s movie does not draw attention to this gender discrepancy, but once noticed it can seem significant. The Thing, with its mutable nature, its omnivorous appetite for men, and its foregrounded physicality, can certainly suggest ancient patriarchal fears of “devouring women.” That aggressively nauseating organic presence it has recalls Julia Kristeva’s theory of the “abject,” those alienated parts of ourselves with which we have problematic relationships.[3] Kristeva argues this order of beings (somewhere between self and non-self, living and dead[4]) is often equated to or associated with the feminine, the foreign or whichever other categories fall outside those privileged by any given society. Another way of seeing this gender imbalance, more obvious to our age than to John Campbell back in the 30’s, is to see it centering on the specter of unexpected homoerotic desire. The Thing hides among these men, moves through them, melding and reshaping them according to the dictates of a hunger foreign to their world. Rather than homophobia, this may be a terror of uncontrollable desire in the abstract, lending itself nicely to a feminist reading as well.[5] These politicized interpretations, while interesting, run the risk of reducing the polysemic terrors of the Thing to a caricature. We find a more profound terror below these historically contingent ones, a fountain of fears which patriarchy and hetero-normative traditions use in order to foster their myths.

This monster is an image of the formless, the faceless and rapacious void seething below our illusions of a fixed nature. It is pure alterity wrapped in the most familiar of disguises. It is the unknown made flesh and given the face of your best friend. It is a reminder of death, as well as the chaos from which we arose, but its most disturbing connection may be to our everyday nature. Campbell inadvertently boiled down the most awful implications of modern science into this picture of the ever self-perpetuating and senseless striving of the living flesh. It is no surprise that the movie ends on such a bleak note: against such a panorama of such hideous possibilities, who could really expect a ride into the sunset?[6] The Thing (nothing in itself, a transformative process, a fanged algorithm) parades our nature before us: a mysterious exterior, unreadable but for behavioral clues, paired with an alien, slippery interior. We are as unknown, as weird, as most anything we are likely to find in the dark abyss of space. Though our societal organizations find ways of distracting us from the stranger aspects of our nature (usually by encouraging us to project them onto “undesirable” groups), they can never fully obscure the mystery below our skins.

The educated men of this research station find themselves as helpless before this creature as cavemen would have. They perform autopsies and turn their microscopes on it, but learn nothing more than the brute fact of its methods. Even their power as a community must break down in the face of a creature which can copy them so faultlessly. One character, Childs, even acknowledges this epistemological problem explicitly: “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?” They cannot solve the mystery of this ravenous visitor anymore than they can read one another’s minds.[7] The Thing thus suggests a broader quandary. Our way of gathering information and arranging it, for all the technological grandeurs it enables us to create, fails at answering some of the most important questions we can pose. In the face of some mysteries, the scientific method even backfires. By investigating this monster, these men not only learn nothing, they start to lose faith in the knowledge they thought they had of one another. The Thing, the anomaly, the unknown, shakes their certainties just as it should our own.

Carpenter considered The Thing to be the first in an apocalyptic trilogy. The second, which followed five years later, was the underrated Prince of Darkness. Here, quantum physics and Gnostic myth are crossbred in a story about an essence of evil which was bottled and stored long ago. Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong play two men, one of faith and one of science, who are determined to understand this force and prevent a global catastrophe which recurring nightmares promise will soon take place. In 1995, Carpenter completed his vision with the hilarious, bizarre In the Mouth of Madness, which concerns a popular horror writer whose novels may be the key to the resurrection of primal and malevolent entities. It was in this movie that Carpenter let the influence of H. P. Lovecraft finally come to the surface. It was an apt ending to the trilogy, in that Campbell’s Who Goes There? bears remarkable similarities to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, published a mere two years before the story which would serve as the basis for all three Thing movies.[8] As entertaining, even thought-provoking as the later movies are, The Thing stands out as the consistently excellent film. To be fair to the later pieces, it does deal with a narrower range of concerns as well as a single monster, one whose basic characteristics becomes abundantly clear early in the film.

The Thing is a masterpiece of paranoia and monstrosity. It manages to combine a slow burn of tension and suspicion with bright flashes of inventive violence. Beneath these surface pleasures hide disturbing questions about what we truly know of one another and ourselves. It flaunts incredible special effects, still impressive (and frightening) after thirty years. The cast is filled with several familiar faces (including Wilford Brimley and Keith David), led by Kurt Russell as a grimly determined helicopter pilot. Carpenter’s direction is tight, often insidious, remorseless. He can disturb an audience with a shot of a torn pair of pants, or shock them with violent acts of which they’ve (probably) never dreamt. The movie was derided as a mindless gore fest by many critics when it was released. They may have felt The Thing lacks restraint, the cautious approach which relies on the unseen and merely hinted at. This hideous, amazing being, though, aims a double-barreled threat at us, a combination of inscrutable minds with unspeakable mutations. The film, likewise, marries the subtly creepy to impressive and bloody special effects. The Thing is now recognized as one of the greatest horror films of the last fifty years and its reputation is likely to only grow as it absorbs new generations.

[1] This recent film has its positives as well as negatives. The CGI employed throughout permits for some incredible mutations, but simultaneously suffers from a shiny, artificial appearance. This is most obvious when compared with the grittier, more realistic look of the 1982 production’s monstrosities. The prequel does add some welcome female presence to the story, as well as ending on a note possibly more disturbing than that which Carpenter’s film does.

[2] Powell, Anna. Deleuze and Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 210.

[3] Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

[4] And which includes, but is not limited to, blood, excretory products, reproductive fluids and the like.

[5] Which has been  thoroughly explored by Noah Berlatsky here: http://gayutopia.blogspot.com/2007/12/noah-berlatsky-fecund-horror_12.html

[6] One of the redeeming qualities of the prequel was its climax. Carpenter’s movie ends on a note of nihilistic weariness, somewhere short of defeat yet far from salvation. The prequel suggests an awful possibility which (to its credit) does not draw overt attention. This question depends, as does so much of the original, on the problem of the unknowable, on an ambiguity. In the recent film, the problem is an ethical one, but the monster (in the novella and both of the recent movies) forms a more ontological and fascinating riddle.

[7] The best they can do is come up with a test to detect the presence of the alien cells in blood. To say this testing goes poorly would be an understatement.

[8] At the Mountains of Madness concerns an expedition to Antarctica, the discovery of frozen alien entities and the presence of hideous, shape-shifting monstrosities known as the shoggoth. This piece suffers some from repetitive plotting and over-the-top acting, but also boasts one of Sam Neil’s most entertaining roles. The movie also introduces the unforgettable Stephen King/Lovecraft hybrid Sutter Kane, and a meta-fictional self-awareness which was soon brought to the mainstream by Wes Craven in The New Nightmare as well as his Scream films.

8 replies to “Underneath the Skin: John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and You

  1. Thank you for this review! A really nice think-piece, will revisit the movie with fresh eyes (no pun intended) at my soonest opportunity.

  2. Pingback: Other Things: The 12 Days of Monsters Celebration Comes to an End | Ann and Jeff VanderMeer | Weird Fiction Review

  3. Not trying to be snarky, but in the first paragraph the word “unthawed” is used. It should be plain, old “thawed”.

  4. Pingback: Underneath the Skin: John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and You | Matthew Pridham | Weird Fiction Review | Science Fiction Research | Resources | Scoop.it

  5. Good to hear, JE… I hope you get something new out of it every time you watch it. I do…

    And thanks, Jeff P. I think I started to write “unfrozen”, shifted to “thawed” and then, well… that happened.

  6. Great points, although I’ve always felt that the true “prequel” to Carpenter’s film is Scott’s “Alien,” in that it meditates on the same constellation of themes, three years earlier. (I saw both films in the theater when initially released, so for me they were linked experientially/historically.)

    By removing the women and exponentially “othering” the monster, “The Thing” takes the given thematic, aesthetic and phenomenological notions to their logical endpoints. (The ambiguous ending of the latter film troubles the semi-triumphant, humanistic finality of the earlier film.) 

    Also, I think what’s often overlooked in analyses of both films is the fact that all of the human characters are working-class. Each suffocatingly tiny laboring society is neither young nor pretty (as well as culturally, educationally and racially eclectic). Both films plunge us into the miserable grind of physical and psychic discomfort of “wage labor,” which disallows friendship, intimacy, closeness, as well as actual sex.

    Worse, the mundane yet precarious life of these explicitly American “blue collar” workers are beholden to faceless corporate/national entities that have no interest in protecting them – and in the case of “Alien,” use them, post-Tuskegee, as receptacles for the study of malignant physical invasion.

    Both monsters can be posited as physical manifestations of relentless, rapacious, protean, inhuman and destructive capitalism. The Thing is, in its multiplicity, the perfect corporation – both infinite and unified. (I think “The Thing” is more closely linked to “They Live” than either of the other “apocalypse” films.)

    Exploring “new life and new civilizations,” which had previously been framed as a “bold,” exciting, and enriching activity, is, post-Vietnam, the road to helpless, paranoid, violent, self-destruction. Humanity (individually and collectively) is nothing more than physical and psychic cannon fodder for the triumph of nameless, unknowable, malignant entities.

    A more Marxist reading, maybe.

  7. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Remakes Tuesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!