As the weather gets colder, all I can think about is the impending holiday season. I am talking, of course, about Halloween. As a horror movie fan, I take the opportunity to snuggle up with a blanket and scare myself for fun. When I’m feeling this way, a movie I inevitably return to is John Carpenter’s The Thing. (Spoilers for a 40-year-old horror classic.)
For a long time, I wasn’t sure what it was about The Thing that I loved so much. The movie is about a group of scientists at a remote antarctic outpost who encounter a dog being chased by a man trying to kill it. As any sensible people would do, they shoot the enraged man with the gun, and take in the dog. Unfortunately for them, this is a horror movie, and that dog isn’t a dog at all. It’s an alien that can shapeshift into other organic creatures, seamlessly integrating itself in order to consume and consume and consume.
This movie, released well before the era of reliable computer graphics in 1982, is a technical achievement. All of the horrific ways that the titular thing distorts its body are done with animatronics. Even now, they make my skin crawl. The scene where protagonist MacReady, played with an acute hostility by Kurt Russel, figures out that he can tell who is human or not by testing their blood is a particular favorite.
The way the thing distends dripping blood from its orifices and splits its head open to become a teeth-filled mouth scares me every time. But the creeping dread that permeates the movie is caused not just by the threat of alien infiltration, but by how it sows paranoia amongst this cast of characters.
In life, you’re probably not under threat of having a friend or colleague replaced with a murderous alien. All the same, they can hurt you when you’re least expecting. Childs, played with a quiet intensity by Keith David, is pitted against MacReady from the start of the film. While he may very well be the thing, it’s his distrust of MacReady and his methods that position him as a villain in the narrative. In actuality, Childs wants what MacReady wants—for everyone to be safe and for the thing to be found and disposed of—but they can’t or won’t trust each other. Without that trust, they can’t work together.
By the time that Childs and MacReady can trust each other, it’s far too late for them. They’ve allowed suspicion to poison their minds and slowly destroy everyone else on their base. But the world as a whole will now live because two men finally found a way to see eye to eye. The Thing is a vision of how humanity might lose itself to distrust. No matter how much I might dislike a person, I have to trust them, believe that they’re human, or we might as well burn all that we’ve built to the ground.