Contrary to what what films like Saw or Insidious would have you believe, the scariest things in the world are not extreme gore or the super natural ghosts haunting our children. On the contrary, real horror is found in much more grounded scenarios where the otherwise ordinary becomes unexpectedly unexplainable. Such is the case in John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing, wherein a group of men who have been safely living together for months in the Antarctic are suddenly turned on each other by a being beyond their comprehension.
What makes The Thing so interesting is that is possesses both the level of gore and fantastical elements of the previously mentioned films, Saw and Insidious, but those aren’t the things that make the film compelling or existential. Rather they are a framing device for the true horror; the existential dread of no one in cast being able to trust one and other, and knowing that being alone with someone could mean the end of their lives. While the practical special effects and the concept of the invasive alien certainly spark an interest, the real horror is often derived from the characters interacting with one and other.
The first time we meet the film’s protagonist, MacReady (Kurt Russell), he is playing chess against a computer and his response to losing the game is to destroy the computer by pouring beer into the electronics. Later in the film, when MacReady is suspected of being a Thing, his first instinct isn’t to use his smarts to win back the crew, but to hold them all at gun point with a stick of dynamite and threaten to kill everyone unless they follow his lead. Finally, during the film’s climax, when the human survivors fail to isolate the Thing with their wits, MacReady takes it upon himself to demolish the entire base and sentence himself to a cold death if it means he has a chance at winning against the alien monster. And while MacReady’s actions are a threat to himself and the crew, as well as undoubtedly reckless, there really isn’t another way to fight a being as unimaginable as the Thing; if MacReady hadn’t held everyone hostage with dynamite and a flame thrower, he’d have likely been killed by them because of their suspicions, allowing the Thing to infect the rest of the survivors will little opposition. The fact that MacReady isn’t a particularly good or social person is what makes him such a compelling character to watch go up against this monstrosity since both he and the Thing have nothing to them but a burning desire to overcome the other.
But by far the most thought provoking part of this film is the ending, where the only two survivors of the destruction of the base are MacReady and another crewmate who had been hostile towards him throughout the film, Childs (Keith David). Even after everything they’ve been through, the film is no closer to restoring the status quo because neither the characters or the audience can trust what is being shown; Either MacReady or Childs could have become a Thing at this point, so the film returns back to square one.
There are some very interesting interpretations of the ending that viewers have come up with:
Some point out that MacReady had filled the beer bottles with oil so he could use them as Molotovs to burn down the base earlier in the film, and so the fact he offers a bottle to Childs, and that Childs drinks it without flinching, could suggest that Child’s was a Thing. Others say that MacReady could be a Thing because nothing in the film seems to suggest the monsters can’t turn on each other to ensure their own survival. After all, MacReady had been under suspicion for most of the film, and the fact it was him that got the blood samples (which would allow him to tell who was an wasn’t a Thing) could mean he fixed the blood test to make himself look innocent.
The fact theories like this exist is a testament to how well the ambiguous ending to this film works. But no matter how many theories are conceived, none will ever be more convincing than any other because there is simply no way to definitely know who is and who isn’t a Thing.
What the Thing really teaches us is that true horror is the uncertainty of the unknown.