Greatest screen villains
“Evil imitating science”
Film analysis by Rob Ager © 2015
Lately I’ve been putting together some new videos about my favourite horror movie, John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s right, not The Exorcist or The Shining – THE THING. And this article you’re reading now is an in-depth second instalment for my Greatest Screen Villains series, being that the Thing is also my favourite movie villain of all time.
The basic premise I’m going to present here is that the monster of the movie, an “alien” that physically absorbs and perfectly imitates other life forms, also represents spiritual evil. It isn’t just a biological organism. Now I have a lot of very specific info in support of this interpretation, but I’m going start off by talking about the overall structure and mood of the film. And before I do that I just want to say that I’m pretty sure that lots of things I’m going to say in this article may not have been consciously intended or openly discussed by the film makers. The Thing invites all kinds of fascinating interpretations, so that’s what I’m going to give you, combined of course with some detailed observations and a bit of production history research. So if there are interpretations in this article that you disagree with don’t let it get to you. My aim is to stimulate your perceptions of the film rather than transform your thoughts into an imitation of my own.
HORROR IMITATING SCIENCE FICTION
The movie, in its narrative structure, is basically science fiction. And what more evidence could we have for that than an opening shot of a UFO with spinning strobe lights? However once we get into the movie the 1950’s sci-fi implications of the opening shot give way to one of the creepiest and most downright gory movies ever made. It shows what could arguably be called sadistic animal cruelty (the dog kennel assimilation scene), it’s got buckets full of blood and slime, autopsies, stomach churning sound effects, some utterly bizarre murders (the deaths of Windows and Garry are especially bizarre and other-wordly), and what I think can justifiably be called the most cold as ice depiction of paranoia and distrust ever put on film.
As a HORROR film The Thing was so effective that many critics and audiences found it too disturbing to watch, resulting in some very short-sighted, negative reviews. And according to co-producer Stuart Cohen’s blog (who incidentally I received a thank you email from years ago in response to one of my early videos about the thing) even some of the cast and crew who worked on the film found the first screening too stomach-churning and thematically dark to enjoy.
In other words the film was a victim of its own success as a horror piece. Even the incredibly dark The Exorcist had at least a half-happy ending in that the possessed child is freed from her torment and is reunited with her mother. Imagine the negative impact on the film’s reception if the girl had died at the end? Well, that’s the problem with The Thing’s ending. Imitation or not, we know that our lead hero is going to freeze to death. The fact that he might well have saved humanity from certain destruction is a positive compensation in my view, but the film’s ending doesn’t emphasize that point. Which we could say was perhaps a marketing error rather than an artistic failing. Maybe some audience-appeasing sub-plot about him having a child back home who he wanted to save from the Thing might have helped with the marketing, but it would also distract from the pure horror element.
Furthering the HORROR factor is the relentless air of impending doom throughout the movie, the feeling that we are sort of descending into hell. The opening of the film shows the last survivors of the Norwegian camp dying as they try to stop the Thing from spreading to cause further contagion. The guy who is shot by Garry, with his beard and goggles, even looks somewhat like MacReady who will be the last man standing at the end of the movie.
The characters and audience are shown the remains of the Norwegian camp, which features a bloody axe embedded in a door – later we’ll see Childs axing a door down as he tries to kill MacReady. Dr Copper sees a Norwegian suicide victim frozen in eternal terror and I’ve no idea if it was intended, but the frozen guy’s face reminds me of Copper’s own expression of terror when he dies (his hands bitten off by the Norris-Thing). And the Norwegian camp is burnt and left in cinders, which is what will later happen in Outpost 31. So despite the time-and budget saving function of the Norwegian camp sub-plot, being that the film doesn’t have to waste a great deal of energy on having the camp occupants discover the alien vessel themselves, the destroyed Norwegian camp serves as a foreshadow of where things are headed; an omen that everyone is going to die and that the last creature standing will be a dog imitation. In fact that’s almost what happens. The creature that bursts out of Blair-thing’s stomach at the end of the movie is a fresh imitation of a dog being formed (the concept art work during production shows it as being much more clearly dog-like than what we see in the film). It’s like the plot is about to come full circle being that the thing entered the camp as a dog in the opening scenes. I’ll also add that the very clever inclusion of a Norwegian to English language barrier between the two camps means that nearly all this foreshadowing is done non-verbally instead of being boringly spelt out in overt dialogue.
Incidentally, a feature about the dog-Thing worth mentioning is that, rather than accidentally finding Outpost 31, it probably knew the camp’s location from maps it had seen in the Norwegian camp, and at the end of the movie the new dog-Thing probably knows exactly which camp it will be running to next.
Other subtle signs of impending doom include the following:
Again these are like bad omens. And this theme of unavoidable doom is consistent with horror rather than sci-fi.
There’s also an interesting statement from Palmer. Watching a video of a game show with Childs he says, “I know how this one ends” and changes the tape, but WE don’t know how the movie ends because it’s left open to interpretation. This might well be a nod from the film makers about The Thing’s cleverly crafted re-watch value.
The Norwegian camp plot device, which wasn’t in the original short story by John W. Campbell, also largely eliminates the broader sense of positive feeling that would inevitably accompany a UFO discovery. Instead, that factor is reduced to some fuzzy and soundless video clips of the Norwegians viewed in Outpost 31 and a single sentence from Bennings, “We can’t burn the find of the century. That’s gonna win somebody the Nobel Prize”. The Norwegian camp sub-plot is a very clever set up because it means the sense of imminent danger is present from scene one and isn’t detracted from by laborious UFO discovery scenes.
Realistically, the film could also have gotten away with having several team members get excited about their frozen monster discovery brought back from the Norwegian camp, but all of the characters react with disgust and fear, consistent with the horror intentions of the film. None of them attempt to describe the monster in front of them and none of them ask any questions about it. Repulsion and fear are the dominant emotions.
Ok so that’s enough for now about the general emotional tones of the movie. Let’s get down to specifics.
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SPIRITUAL POSSESSION PARALLELS
There’s a conceptual crossover between what the film refers to as a person being an “imitation” and the popular horror genre concept of spiritual possession. Again, let’s refer to the example of The Exorcist. A demon spirit takes over the body of a young girl and uses her body as a vessel to torment others and commit evil acts. As her actions get worse she appears more and more monstrous. Now something The Exorcist does very well is that it starts off by exploring scientific rational for the girl’s freakish behaviour and, as the film knocks each scientific possibility down one by one, the girl’s actions gradually become more and more demonic and surreal – tricking even non-religious viewers into accepting the ridiculous premise of possession.
But The Thing takes the opposite approach. It embraces and imitates scientific reasoning as a way of making us accept the ridiculous. Our first overt encounter with the monster, the frozen thing from the Norwegian camp, is totally hellish. There’s no gradual build up of the kind found in The Exorcist. It’s just right there, in your face, out of nowhere – a pure monstrosity. At this point the film doesn’t even try to explain what we’ve seen. Is it a zombie ... a demon ... a genetic mutation? We don’t know.
Then we get the autopsy which, in gory detail, places the monster’s existence firmly in the realm of science. We get to see its internal organs explored and that’s something hardly any monster movies do. And it’s interesting here that the internal organs are described by Blair (the character doing the autopsy) as being “normal”, yet the exterior of the creature is twisted and demonic. So the scene is presenting, even forcing through excessive gore, the idea that the nightmarish external appearances of the monster are built on credible biological, scientific grounds. Note the contradiction that this normal on the inside, hellish on the outside presentation is reversed in our later encounters with the thing – the dog imitation’s face splitting open, Norris’s chest opening to reveal shark-like teeth, and Palmer’s face turning to mush from the inside out and his whole head splitting open to reveal a huge internal mouth with teeth and lasso tongue.
These contortions and reshapings of the human body are thematically very similar to the supernatural head-spinning, back arching, throat bulging, levitation and projectile vomit of The Exorcist. Both films show us the demonic, but one film rejects scientific reasoning while the other embraces it.
The Thing doesn’t show us any actual microscopic views of the Thing cells attacking and imitating human cells, even though the script did call for it. Instead we’re given a deceptively clever computer simulation. The crude graphics leave the details to our imaginations, just as when we read biology books we’re generally shown conceptual illustrations of that which we can never see with our naked eye. You and I have read and heard about blood cells and brain cells and germs, but how many of us have actually looked at each of these things under a microscope? With atoms even the microscopes turn out to be extremely limited. At that tiny scale observable reality starts to turn into theory, yet we all accept without question that molecules and atoms actually exist because scientists say so. The Thing plays on that same blind acceptance by having a scientist, Blair, do autopsies and lay claim to the Thing’s imitation process being a logical biological mechanism.
This is a key factor that separates The Thing from other horror movies. By playing on the average person’s very limited understanding of biology it persuades us to accept the demonic, the hellish and, if we’re really honest about it, the ridiculous as being within the realms of scientific plausibility. I won’t go into the scientific arguments here regarding implausibility of the Thing’s imitation process because I’m saving it for another potential video, but I’m sure if you really think about it you’ll agree it’s far-fetched in the extreme.
Now what I find even more interesting about this monster horror disguised within credible biology framing is that there are many points in the story in which people who are almost certainly imitations appear to be promoting the notion that the monster falls within the realms of science. Now that may sound really out there, and I agree because I’m not convinced the film makers consciously intended it. But it’s very interesting anyway, so here goes.
Given the fantastical shape-shifting abilities of the monster, it wouldn’t have been too difficult for it to literally drive the camp occupants crazy by persuading the humans that what they were fighting was a spirit or demon. Such a tactic could have thwarted the team’s efforts to seek out scientific ways of identifying who is and isn’t infected. But instead we get Palmer speaking in support of MacReady’s UFO explanation. “It happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it. Right Mac?” There almost seems to be a conspiracy theory mockery element in this, as if the Palmer-Thing is exaggerating the truth to mess with their heads. Palmer continues, “Chariots of the Gods man. They practically owned South America. I mean they taught the Incas everything they know”. The book Chariots of the Gods, which Palmer mentions, is a famous book claiming that technologies and religions of ancient cultures were given them by alien races. It’s very much in line with the theories of David Icke.
Norris is another character who is assimilated, but it’s implied at the beginning of the film that he perhaps might understand a little bit of Norwegian. It’s he who instantly knows that “Norge” means Norway. This is when he’s still human. Of course many who don’t speak Norwegian would know that, but after Copper retrieves the scientific notes from the Norwegian camp, Norris is the one who is trying to read and make sense of them. Is he an imitation at this point and, if so, then he must be able to remember how to speak and read Norwegian, having previously imitated Norwegians? Is he deliberately pretending he can’t read the notes? And why does he willingly direct MacReady to the UFO crash site? Why not misdirect the team or make some of the documentation go missing or destroy the tapes to keep the Outpost 31 humans in the dark? If he’s an imitation then it seems that he wants the team to know about the UFO ship.
Then there’s the Blair-imitation. Now I’ve talked in another of my Thing videos about the evidence that Blair was probably an imitation when he smashed up the radio room, thus preventing any warnings being relayed back to the rest of humanity. I won’t recite all of those arguments here, but I will give you a quote from co-producer Stuart Cohen’s blog about the production.
“In hewing close to the short story we all wanted to retain the idea of Blair as the one infected early on (we liked the fact that behaving as he does throughout the story makes the creature clever).”
I read the short story Who Goes There? recently and Stuart’s right. In that story Blair was infected well before he went crazy. So this raises quite a strange possibility. Blair may have been an imitation when he dissected the frozen Thing or when he dissected the remains of the Thing from the dog kennel. It’s certainly feasible that his close proximity in handling the flesh and blood of the frozen Thing caused him to become infected early on. Or it’s possible the dog-Thing got to him even earlier, which would mean that he was an imitation when he interrogated Clarke and during his processing of data on the computer. It sounds crazy, but that’s what Stuart Cohen’s comments and the short story seem to imply – that Blair, as an imitation, scientifically explains his own nature to the rest of the team. It’s as if the monster is toying with them psychologically. And there’s one shot here in the Blair explaining the imitation process scene that has often struck me as significant. The scene ends with this shot of a half-formed devil-hound’s face hovering over an out of focus shot of Blair himself. Is this a visual clue that he is already an imitation – that he’s already been gotten too?
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TACTICS OF THE DEVIL
A possibility suggested in the short story and the DVD commentary is that the thing imitates people so well that it reproduces much of their usual thoughts and emotions even when it’s detrimental to the Thing’s own survival. For example, in the film Norris is shown having chest pains due to his heart condition when no one is around. But personally I lean overall toward the notion that imitations know what they’re doing and deliberately spread paranoia.
Norris is one of the most placid and non-aggressive of the team, yet when the opportunity to turn everybody completely against MacReady presents itself, suddenly he and Palmer, who are mutual imitations, are full of paranoid conviction that he is an assimilation and that they should kill him. Norris even tries to physically assault MacReady, along with Nauls, which is well out of character for him. Anyway, that’s going off on another tangent which is easy to do with a movie as complex as The Thing but I’m sure you get my point about imitations engaging in the premeditated actions of the monster.
Like the Devil, the Thing schemes to corrupt men and turn them against each other. It isn’t just trying to survive. It wants to psychologically mess with the humans. It wants its own general presence to be known, but not seen. It’s a liar and a deceiver just like the possessing demon in The Exorcist or any other evil fictional entity. It wants to drive people to despair. MacReady, “Nobody trusts anybody now”. It’s like a spirit that manipulates biological systems behind a facade of artificial scientific credibility.
The very fact that the creature is able to imitate a person right down to the cellular level and even retain the host’s memories suggests that human beings are nothing more than spiritless biological mechanisms. In other words, the monster’s existence encourages those who witness it to take an atheist, Godless view of the universe and to see themselves as insignificant biological accidents. Fictional depictions of the Devil and other evil spirits often involve an effort by the evil entity to destroy people’s faith and belief in goodness and a higher power. By the way, I’m agnostic so don’t worry. I’m not a Jehova’s witness imitating a film critic. I just find this whole hidden evil aspect of the movie fascinating.
Getting back to the Thing’s gloating demon-like arrogance – its desire to make others feel all hope is lost – we finish off with the Childs imitation facing MacReady at the end of the movie. For those of you who don’t think he’s an imitation check out my video on the subject for a detailed breakdown of the multiple clues, and no I don’t theorize that his lack of visible breath makes him inhuman. The breath thing is just a light and shadow issue. Talking also requires breath to trigger the voice box mechanism so even imitations have to breathe.
Anyway, the Childs imitation doesn’t express any suspicion that MacReady is an imitation at the end of the film, which really isn’t the paranoid Childs’ way of thinking. It could just burn MacReady at this point. It has a flame thrower and no practical reason at all to let him carry on living or even bother with a conversation, but yet it chooses to sit and chat with its arch-enemy. It points out the inevitable doom. “The fire’s put the temperature up all over the camp. It won’t last long though”. And he finishes with a smile and a celebratory swig from MacReady’s bottle of whisky, gloating at its perceived victory.
In another example of the Thing’s seemingly intentional desire to mess with its human enemies’ minds and emotions, it could have just sabotaged the blood by switching off the power supply to the storage unit – no need for a key – or it could have broken in. We know it’s strong because it tears apart the helicopters to build a new space craft. But by using the key to access the blood it really ramps up the paranoia, causing accusations to fly back and forth.
The two examples of nameless shredded long johns being found also smacks of deliberation. Hiding shredded clothes really shouldn’t be too difficult being that they can just be buried outside in the snow. These torn clothes might not have even been from actual assimilations, as was the case with MacReady's clothes. So it’s like the Thing wants everybody to know that somebody is an imitation, but it wants to keep them confused as to who it is.
And the Blair-Thing confidently announces that Fuches is human. Of course he should know because it was more than likely him, sneaking around outside, that killed Fuches (Fuches' body is discovered minutes later). He also has a noose on display as if advertising to MacReady that suicide is an option. Remember that one of the Norwegian’s was driven to suicide. And the Blair-Thing is really laying on the paranoia trip when it tells MacReady, “I don’t know who to trust”.
For a long time I had a half-formed idea of this general the Thing repesents spiritual evil interpretation, but it was my eventual reading of John W. Campbell’s original short story Who Goes There? that finally made that idea take full shape.
In the short story there are repeated descriptions of the creature being full of “hatred” and one or two descriptions of it as being “evil”. And the story ends with this piece of dialogue, “By the grace of God, who evidently does hear very well, and the margin of half an hour, we keep our world, and the planets of the system too”. The religious, good vs evil, overtones in the short story are blatant and, I’d even go so far as to say they’re over the top.
The makers of the 1982 film adaptation were very strongly influenced by the short story and have often said as much in interviews, so undoubtedly they were aware of the evil Thing concept when writing their adaptation. However, they cleverly scrapped all the obvious good and evil references of the short story, such as the Thing in its original form having “three red eyes”, and opted to make both the motives of the Thing and its original form (if it even has one) really ambiguous. They also scrapped the Thing’s ESP mind-reading abilities that were in the short story. In the movie, the only things we’re made certain of about the monsters’ thoughts is that it wants to survive and spread itself as far as possible and that it is very intelligent and manipulative.
Stuart Cohen has also stated that in script writing meetings it was discussed as to whether the monster should be presented as being somehow criminal but that, given the nature of the story, they didn’t need to go out of their way to present that idea.
Despite all this suppression of religious components in the short story to movie translation, we do get multiple examples of characters making verbal references to religious concepts.
But these spiritual or religious references are easy to miss because, as is true in life, even non-religious people often use such phrases. But there is one little example of a very blatant reference to religion. MacReady tells Blair in the tool shed to, “trust in the lord”. And that’s it in terms of direct religious references. In a situation as terrifying as this one there aren’t even any examples of characters praying to the heavens to be saved. So the film makers have played down the religious themes of the source story in a way that seems almost deliberate.
However, there’s one other moment I’d like to bring to your attention that might have a deliberate religious connotation. Bennings is the first of the team to be killed on screen and everybody watches his imitation die. They then burn the rest of his remains and we get an odd choice of camera movement. We pan up from the Bennings-Thing essentially being cremated and see the smoke and ashes drifting off into the night sky along with a strange shift in musical tone. It comes off almost like Bennings’ soul is veering off to the heavens. Nobody prays for him as he’s burned and buried, but afterwards MacReady hangs around, alone, staring at his burial spot and he glances up to the featureless night sky. Then he tells Fuches to go on inside while he spends another moment alone at the ... grave. So is MacReady making his own farewell to Bennings’ soul or is he just digesting the possibility that others on the team might be assimilations?
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Another aspect of the Thing’s efforts to psychologically terrorize its human enemies is that it seems to have a preference for taking on physical forms that are particularly repulsive and sometimes demonic. In fact they’re generally horrific enough that mood music in some instances isn’t required at all such as Norris’ and Palmer’s transformations.
The frozen thing appears to combine an evil, grinning, demon half-face that is taking some sort of glee in the torment of the other half-face that looks more like it’s in agony. It’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde or spiritual possession torment metaphor. And it also raises the question of whether the thing takes glee in the physical assimilation process, which must be incredibly painful for the victim. The fact that it tears off their clothes during assimilation even carries a subtle suggestion that assimilation might be akin to being raped. We can see in the shot of a half-formed Bennings that there’s a tentacle inserted down his throat. What other orifices does it slither its way into?
The Norris transformation is another good example of the demon adopting deliberately monstrous appearances and it’s probably the trippiest moment in the movie. For some bizarre reason the monster forms a second Norris head and spews it out, along with Norris’s stomach entrails and organs, onto the ceiling. Why? Well perhaps the answers are in the details. This second head has spider legs attaching it to the ceiling as if it wants to be seen by MacReady. It’s got a big snake-like neck and flimsy foetus-like arms and legs hanging off of it. And it’s got vampire-like teeth. Rather than being some sort of practical transformation this ... Thing appears to be a deliberately hellish alternate version of Norris, with the main facial features mostly recognizable. And it stares right at MacReady and howls at him, as if saying, “Look at me, see the horror and feel the fear”. This is very different to the dog and Palmer transformations. In those instances the previously human faces become expressionless and vacant in the initial stages of transformation, like a fleshy mask that’s no longer animated.
So with Norris-thing maybe the vampire-snake-face-Thing was a distraction to try and help the first Norris head-Thing escape, but the first head does its own spider leg transformation and wanders off into the hall where it lets itself be seen and burned. Now I know one of the aims of the scene was to show off special effects, so we could put everything down to that, but let’s compare some of the other scenes.
The dog-Thing does something weird. It announces its presence with a Darth Vader style breathing pattern, scaring the hell out of the real dogs, like it wants to torment them. And it also does a weird four-way face split and sprouts unnecessary spider legs and weird appendages, again as if wanting to freak the dogs out.
And then there’s Palmer-thing. He hideously morphs his face into a bloody mess in a very different way to the Norris thing. He turns to the humans and makes his eyes explode as if wanting to scare the hell out of them. And his tactic works. Windows is so petrified of this hellish demon vision that he just can’t fight.
Blair-Thing later seems to follow this same look at me, I am your worst nightmare pattern of behaviour. Having killed everyone except MacReady, it blasts out of the floorboards. It could have killed MacReady in seconds, but it shows off its colossal dinosaur size and presents a newly forming dog, as if to say “Behold, you lost, and my new dog-Thing is gonna head out and find the nearest outpost. Your world is doomed”.
The Thing’s tendency to morph into snake, insect, reptilian and carnivorous forms also fits with the interpretation of it as a representation of evil. After all those are manifestations of life often used to symbolize evil in fiction and literature. It was also planned during production that, similar to the Norris spider-head and the deleted spider walk scene of The Exorcist, the Palmer-Thing was going to spider walk its way around the ceiling of the room, but the budget of shooting with a rotating stage made it impractical. Instead we get the weird contortionist ceiling leap by Palmer-Thing, which again has overlaps with The Exorcist and other demonic possession stories.
ADDITIONAL POINTS OF INTEREST
I’m going to finish off here with about half a dozen last points of interest.
First up, the generator room, for reasons not explained, is deep underground. Now I’m not familiar with Antarctic research compound planning, but I really don’t see any practical reason for it to be underground nor for it to be so huge. It seems more that this set piece serves as a sort of stairway to hell – an underground cavern suitable for a demonic entity. The Blair-Thing had also dug itself a fresh underground cavern for building its escape ship. Its ability to construct a ship with limited available resources is impressive, but then so is the digging of the cavern through solid ice. How did it do it?
Next up, did you ever notice that the word “alien” barely gets mentioned in the movie. I can’t recall it being used once. That’s fitting with the horror disguised as sci-fi paradigm. The monster’s very nature is kept consistently ambiguous at the dialogue level. Even Garry, sat next to the transforming Palmer-Thing, remains baffled as to its nature, “What is it?”
Next interesting detail – during the dog kennel assimilation we twice hear screams that sound not like dogs, but very specifically like men (one of them is heard as MacReady slowly approaches the kennel with a shot gun). Why? The Thing went in as a dog and is imitating dogs. Maybe it means nothing, but these two sound effects have always given me the feeling that somewhere, mixed in with the assimilation mess, is a humanoid or spiritual entity.
One last observation now about the computer simulation – the “alien” cell is blood red and has spikes, almost like a little red devil, while the human cells are round and blue. These colour and shape associations are basic archetypes that fit very well with the good vs evil framing of the story.
And now to my very last point, but first ... well done to you if you made it this far into this analysis / interpretation, whatever you want to think of it as. The last point is this. The superb release poster of The Thing is visually at odds with the manifestations of the monster shown in the film.
Obviously there’s a metaphor of hidden identity here. The person or entity in the snow suit could be anybody, but to have light shining out from the head comes off as some sort of implication that the Thing is spiritual in nature, like it comes not from space, but from some other plain of existence entirely. Normally we’d associate such brilliant white light as coming from God or a higher plain, but the Antarctic surroundings and the fracturing of the light into ice-like shards suggests that if the thing does come from a spiritual realm then it’s an eternally cold one.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed this study. It was certainly interesting to write and has solidified in my mind that the Thing is the greatest movie villain of all time.
I’ve got tons more film analysis and psychology videos and articles so subscribe to me on Youtube if you’re new to my work, check out my full list of film analysis articles and videos here (which includes more analysis' of The Thing) and check out my digital downloads store for my huge backlog of offline materials, including another Greatest Screen villains video about the android character Ash in the 1979 classic film Alien ... and I have a series of Greatest Screen Heroes videos too. Links to them are below.
The Dude in The Big Lebowski
Kyle Reece in The Terminator
Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen
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