What Makes John Carpenter’s The Thing So Effing Scary?

Some masterpieces of cinema are simply doomed at the box office and destined to be savaged by critics. Very often the culprit is bad timing, or a weak marketing effort, or internal disputes at the studio. All three of those played a role in the brutal reception that greeted John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which is today recognized as one of the most effective, shocking, and suspenseful horror movies of all time.

I saw this movie at far too young an age (thanks, Mom and Dad!), and I was puzzled to find that the TV Guide description gave it a measly two out of four stars. In the ensuing years, I learned that the failure of this film left the brilliant Carpenter almost completely disillusioned with Hollywood, which drastically altered his career trajectory. Both the snooty film critics and the major horror magazines of the time decried The Thing’s nihilism and “barf bag” special effects. The sci-fi magazine Cinefantastique posed the question, “Is this the most hated movie of all time?” Christian Nyby, the director of the 1951 version, bashed Carpenter’s remake. Even the beautiful minimalist score by Ennio Morricone was nominated for a Razzie.

I realize that everyone had their stated reasons for not liking the film at first, but here is my grand unified theory to explain their massive error in judgment: the film was just too effing scary. It hit all of the major pressure points of fear, tweaking the amygdala and triggering a response so palpable that many viewers could only look back with disgust. And if that were not enough, The Thing’s meditation on despair was simply too much for audiences and critics. Its bleak, uncertain ending, a harbinger of death on a scale both small and large, was too much to handle. I can’t think of another mainstream blockbuster that even attempted such a thing, before or since.

It took a long time, a lot of introspection, and a lot of grassroots enthusiasm to rehabilitate the film’s reputation. Now that we’ve all had a chance to gather ourselves and process what’s happened, here are some of the key elements of horror that work a little too well in The Thing. Spoilers are ahead, obviously, but 2022 marks the fortieth anniversary of the film, so it’s well past time to knock this one off your list.

 

Fear of the Unknown and the Incomprehensible

The Thing opens with an absurd image, with no explanation or context. A helicopter flies over a wintry landscape, chasing a husky as it sprints across the snow. A man leans out of the side of the chopper, firing at the dog with a rifle. He desperately shouts in Norwegian to the pilot, imploring him to keep following. Panting, the husky arrives at an American research outpost, where the scientists and the support staff are baffled by the commotion. The weirdness escalates when the chopper lands, and the rifleman continues to chase the dog, firing wildly and screaming in what sounds to the Americans like gibberish. He tries to toss a hand grenade, but his errant throw destroys the helicopter, killing the pilot. Seconds later, a security officer shoots and kills the Norwegian, and the inhabitants of the camp gather round the body, confounded by what they’ve witnessed. In the background, the husky behaves like a normal dog.

Right from the beginning, we are trapped in a state of bewilderment alongside the characters. Rather than pursuing a mystery after a crime takes place, the mystery is thrust upon us. And from there, the unknown mutates into the incomprehensible. Later that night, we see the dog in its true form: a shape-shifting creature from the worst nightmares of cosmic horror. Gelatinous, gooey, tentacled, pulsing, and asymmetrical. A completely alien organism that can mimic other living things that it touches.

When we see the alien parasite moving from dog to human, a new kind of terror emerges. The half-formed imitations have an uncanny valley quality to them, forcing us to stop and try to grasp what we’re looking at. In one of many scenes cut from network TV airings of the film, the character Windows (Thomas G. Waites) enters a room to find Bennings (Peter Maloney) half-naked, covered in a viscous fluid, and wrapped in squirming tentacles. Whether this is an emerging clone or a person being digested is left to the viewer’s imagination. Later, the crew catches up with the Benning-thing. He unfolds his arms to reveal two pulpy stalks, while emitting an eerie howling noise. Horrified, the men burn the creature alive.

Oh, but it gets even worse. We discover that the cloned bodies can adapt when threatened. A man’s chest bursts open to reveal a gaping, fanged mouth. Another man’s head splits apart, forming a pincer-like weapon. Granted, there are a few shots in which the otherwise brilliant effects by Rob Bottin look fake—yet even those images still trigger our revulsion. They remind me of a similar scene in Aliens (1986), when the facehuggers try to latch onto Ripley and Newt. One of the spider-like creatures is tossed aside, only to flip right-side up again. It looks like a toy—but it works! It’s a broken toy from hell that keeps juddering about even after the batteries have been pulled!

Many fans of The Thing blame its box office failure on Steven Spielberg’s E.T., which dominated 1982. The friendly alien in that movie resembled a child, with its big eyes and dopey grin. In contrast, The Thing toyed with the incomprehensible. To this day, I wonder: how many people ended up watching it simply because E.T. was sold out? Those viewers must have been the most appalled.

 

Fear of the Other

I’m writing in 2021, which requires me to compare our current real-world predicament with The Thing’s depiction of infection, quarantine, and paranoia. The critic Gene Siskel—who defended the movie against his colleague Roger Ebert—noted the “Cold War mentality” of the script, with its fears of infiltration and assimilation. Both are on display in a scene in which the head scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley) runs a computer simulation showing how quickly the alien could mimic the entire crew, which places a ticking clock on the action.

Yet as grim as this movie gets, the humans do not outright betray one another. Nor does anyone go Full Brockman, conceding defeat to curry favor with the enemy. Ironically, the people who go too far to fight the Thing are Blair, the smartest guy in the room, and MacReady (Kurt Russell), the film’s protagonist by default. In some ways, MacReady’s actions are similar to the drastic unilateral decisions that Ben has to make in Night of the Living Dead (1968). In his desperation to survive, MacReady assumes control by threatening to destroy the entire camp with dynamite. From there, he establishes a mini-dictatorship, with round-the-clock surveillance of the crewmembers, along with a blood test to prove who is infected and who is safe. When the gentle Clark (Richard Masur) tries to resist, MacReady shoots him dead, only to discover later that the man he killed was still human. By then, MacReady is so focused on the task at hand that he moves on, shoving poor Clark out of his mind, his own dehumanization complete. And despite that effort, MacReady’s plan goes sideways when the test succeeds in revealing the Thing. Now exposed, the creature reverts to its transitional form, killing a member of the crew. After all of that sacrifice, all that setting aside of morality and trust, they achieve nothing.

 

Suspense: a sidenote

While many of the scares come as a shock, the aforementioned blood test builds the tension slowly in a scene that is a masterwork in suspense. While cornered, desperate, and fighting off hypothermia, MacReady uses a flamethrower to keep the others at bay. He forces them to cut themselves with scalpels and drain some of their blood into petri dishes. One by one, he applies a hot needle to each dish. His theory is that the blood of the Thing will react when threatened, thus revealing the host. The red-hot needle touches the first dish, and the blood squelches the heat. As MacReady works his way through each of the samples, we grow accustomed to the squeaking sound it makes each time, accompanied by the howling wind outside.

As we allow ourselves to hope that we might make it through the scene without any further mayhem, Carpenter misdirects our attention by having Garry (Donald Moffat)—the outpost’s security officer—start an argument with MacReady. “This is pure nonsense,” Garry says. “Doesn’t prove a thing.” With the needle in one hand, and a petri dish in the other, MacReady reminds Garry of why he’s the most suspicious person in the group. “We’ll do you last,” MacReady says. Which makes us anticipate the moment when we can finally prove that Garry is the Thing.

And then the needle touches the sample, belonging to an eccentric but relatively quiet man named Palmer (David Clennon). And all hell breaks loose. The blood instantly turns into a bloody tentacle, squealing in agony as it tries to escape the heat. Palmer mutates into what could be described as a giant walking mouth, its teeth snapping like a bear trap, while MacReady and Windows scramble to burn him with their flamethrower. But it’s too late. By the time they dispatch him with fire and explosives, another person is dead, another wing of the outpost is destroyed, and the paranoia intensifies.

 

Fear of Isolation

Here’s another reason why watching The Thing in 2021 may be tough. The characters are stuck together in close quarters and cut off from the rest of the world. Even before the mayhem begins, we catch glimpses of how the routine is slowly becoming unbearable. MacReady destroys a computer chess game when he loses, claiming that the computer somehow cheated. Many of the characters self-medicate, with J&B Whiskey as the painkiller of choice. Others have been watching VHS tapes of the same TV shows over and over, apparently for months on end. It helps that Carpenter prefers to shoot in a widescreen format, which allows him to cram more people into the frame, making some of the interior shots downright claustrophobic.

The walls close in tighter once the danger becomes real. Blair, who realizes early on that they are all doomed, destroys the communication equipment and sabotages the vehicles. No one can leave, and no one can call for help. The remaining crew is on their own, holed up in a building that will be their tomb. With no Netflix!

In a strange bit of dark humor, we see Blair again after his meltdown, and after the crew has locked him a separate building. “I’m all right,” he insists. “I’m much better and I won’t harm anybody.” While he rambles, a hangman’s noose dangles behind him. No one comments on it. It’s just there to remind us that Blair the rational scientist has carefully weighed his options while isolated in this meat locker.

 

Fear of Nature

Even if it had no alien in it, The Thing reminds us of how powerless we are in the face of nature. A major plot point involves a storm pummeling the outpost. Despite the weather, the characters insist on taking their chances indoors. I can easily imagine them many months earlier, sitting through some tedious orientation for their jobs, in which a trainer explains to them all the ghastly ways that hypothermia and frostbite can shut down their bodies and scramble their minds.

There are other ways in which the film invokes our fears of the natural world. On several occasions, the Thing mimics the animals that have terrorized our species. The petri dish monster strikes outward like a viper. A severed head sprouts legs and crawls about like a spider. Near the climax of the film, the Thing takes on a shape that resembles a snake or a lizard. The original script and storyboards included an even more elaborate “final boss,” which would incorporate several icky animals. Part squid, part insect, part rabid dog. The film’s budget would not allow it. But by then, it makes no difference. A mere glimpse of the monster is enough to conjure more frightening shapes lodged in our imagination.

 

And Finally, Fear (and Acceptance) of Certain Doom

The Thing is the first of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, which continues with Prince of Darkness (1987) and concludes with In the Mouth of Madness (1994). All three films combine Lovecraftian cosmic horror with late twentieth-century concerns about societal breakdown and World War III. Together, these themes and images explore the erosion of order and identity, leading to the end of all things. The Thing can be said to represent the unstoppable forces of the universe that have no concern for human well-being. As many critics have noted, it is never made clear what exactly the Thing wants. It may in fact be such a mindless, viral organism that it doesn’t even know it’s an alien once the imitation is complete. No one can bargain or plead with such an entity, in the same way we cannot reason with the forces that may lead to our extinction.

At the end of the film, the hopelessness of it all leaves the lone survivors, MacReady and Childs (Keith David), sharing the bleakest drink in the history of cinema. Though the monster has seemingly been defeated, the entire camp is left burning, and neither man knows if the other is infected. As they both acknowledge, they are in no condition to fight anymore. Their best bet is to doze off as the fires burn out and never wake up again. “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens?” MacReady suggests. What else can they do?

As they take their last sips of J&B, Morricone’s score begins again, with a piece titled “Humanity, Part II.” The thudding sound resembles a heart beating. Is this a defiant assertion of humanity, or the final pumps of blood? Or are we hearing an imitation, mimicked by an incomprehensible force that has no regard for human life?

 

A Legacy of Fear

Nostalgia for 1980s popular culture has certainly helped to renew interest in films like The Thing. Still, there’s something special about this particular movie, something that helped it rise from the ashes of its initial failure. While a film like The Day After (1983) was scary enough to change our defense policy, its specificity to the nuclear arms race makes it more of an artifact of that era. In contrast, the fears invoked by The Thing are figurative, visceral, and universal, and can be applied more easily to any point in history, from the Cold War to the pandemic and political strife of the 2020s. In another generation, I expect people to rediscover it once more, applying it to whatever keeps them up at night. And they will continue the debates about which characters were infected when, whether the infected characters even know that they’re the Thing, and whether the alien is truly dead or merely hiding in that final scene. In the end, the film leaves its paranoia with us. We’re infected, and the safe world we’ve tried to build for ourselves will never look the same.

Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press, and occasionally teaches for the Gotham Writers Workshop. Repino is the author of the middle grade novel Spark and the League of Ursus (Quirk Books), as well as the War With No Name series (Soho Press), which includes Mort(e), Culdesac, D’Arc, and Malefactor.

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