I watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again yesterday, and I honestly think I could watch that film maybe once a week for the rest of my life.
Of course, I then started to think about what makes it so effective, and what I like so much about it, because I can’t enjoy a horror movie (or any kind of movie) without then analyzing why it works.
So why does The Thing work? Why does it work so brilliantly?
Identity. It’s a recurring theme in some of the most effective and poignant horror and science fiction films of the last half-century. The theme recurs in quite a few versions — The Thing, in which an alien life form imitates humans in order to hide among them and overtake them; Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its many incarnations, with a similar premise; and in the resurgence of zombie fiction, in which the monsters are all former humans and often loved ones. In all these stories (there are many more but I’m struggling to shake further examples out of my brain), the people you trust may not be trustworthy, and worse still, you might be made to join them.
All of them take on a special significance for individualist-heavy American culture, or when applied to greater themes like freedom and free will. Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers can be read as a critique of communism, couched in the world of 1955 when it was published, or it could be equally applied to conformity a little closer to home. But at the heart is the loss of identity, of the very freedom to be who you are, and some of the creepiest moments in any of the movie versions are those in which one of the aliens tries to convince one of the humans that they’d be better off if they just gave in.
We can’t help but wonder — would they? That’s the worst of it: our own self-doubts that perhaps the grass really is greener when you turn into a plant. Maybe individualism and freedom are more trouble than they’re worth.
Zombie fiction does something similar, playing off the emotional bonds we have with one another. A zombie is a walking corpse, sure, but the best zombie fiction explores the idea of zombies on an individual level. Is a zombie still a zombie when it’s your mom, or your boyfriend, or your daughter? Is it okay — is it right — to bash in the skull of another freshly turned zombie when there might be some way to save it? What about shooting in the head those people who haven’t turned yet? Where do you draw the moral lines?
Still more frightening: What do I become when I become a zombie; Am I still me? Which answer to that question would be worse?
The Thing is a phenomenal case, because it mixes the insidious violence of the creature with its ability to turn your trust against you. I’m sure at this point I don’t have to draw the parallels to the Alien xenomorph (I can hear you muttering: God, can he just shut up about the goddamn alien already?), a creature that is violent and also turns the host body against the host. In that there is pain, but there’s no loss of identity. Your friends stay your friends, they don’t turn into hidden monsters who would murder you when your back is turned. And worse than being killed, maimed, or otherwise destroyed, is the idea of being robbed of the self. When I become something else, what happens to the “me” in me?
I think it always gets back to questions of the soul — the fundamental essence. What happens to the soul of a pod person; are they truly dead? What happens to the soul of a zombie; is it released? Bound to the body? And what happens to the soul of a person slowly assimilated and digested from the inside until they are no longer a human being; is it too consumed?
Probably the most fearful question, the most fundamental terror of all these scenarios, though, is the question every one of them begs: Is there a soul to begin with? What is it that makes me me, and will it one day cease to exist?
Also, The Thing has some of the greatest practical special effects of all time, and the best monsters probably ever. Seriously, so cool/awesome/frightening/disgusting.
I recently discovered a video game version of The Thing (it’s actually a direct sequel that had Carpenter’s approval) that I’m investigating for a horror games series I intend to do leading up to Halloween for Game Front. The game has a great time exploring concepts of trust and fear, with your computer-controlled companions capable of freaking out when they see weird things, calling your judgment (and your humanity) into questions when they don’t agree with your actions, and turning out to be goddamn monsters themselves. I played a little of it before it stopped working on my PC, but it was a pretty damn cool concept from what I saw.
I’ll leave you today with “Who Goes There?”, the novella by John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart). Carpenter’s take on The Thing is much less a remake of the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, and much more similar to Campbell’s original story. The novella was also published in 1938, which I believe puts it in the public domain — and that means you get it for free. Download a text version right here. You can also Google around for it. It’s worth reading, especially given how similar it is to Carpenter’s take. (Although I’m thankful Carpenter didn’t portray MacReady, Kurt Russell’s character, as a bronze statue-god the way Campbell does. Repeatedly.)