The other night--as we’ve done many times over the last several weeks--my girlfriend and I decided to watch a movie. We have lists of our favorite films, and have made notes of which films the other hasn’t seen, with the plan of introducing them to each other. The night in question, we picked one from my list: John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 horror film, The Thing. As we watched the movie, it occurred to us that the major plot beats and themes of The Thing seemed oddly appropriate in this time of social distancing and self-quarantine.
So allow me to get slightly more academic than I normally do in these posts, and examine the elements of the film a little more closely. Horror, at least good horror, is known for relying heavily on metaphor to explore and comment on prevalent social fears. Horror allows us to give a face to faceless dread, and offers some consolation by showing us that we can fight against it. For The Thing, that faceless dread is the invisible invader, the predator that we can’t see until it’s too late. Despite being almost forty years old, The Thing is the perfect film for a pandemic such as this one.
Major spoilers for The Thing follow, so if you’re unfamiliar, or don’t wish to ruin it for yourself, feel free to stop here. I won’t take it personally. I won’t even notice.
The film is set at an American research station in Antarctica. A few scenes in the film take place outdoors, but most of the action is inside, set against plain white walls with few or no windows. There is repeated conversation regarding the weather and temperature outside, which makes the message clear: they’re not going anywhere. Like those of us working remotely or otherwise staying at home, this feels all too familiar. It’s bad out there. We don’t go out unless we have to. Early in the film, we see that tensions exist between these men, and these tensions grow and bubble over as the stakes get higher. Where once we might have chided the characters for being short with one another, now it feels relatable. It’s what happens in prolonged isolation. Trapped in a confined space, we can get tense and irritable.
But Nick, you say, The Thing is hardly unique there. Isolation is a common theme in horror: The Shining, Alien, Evil Dead...the list goes on. It’s true; being cut off is something of a trope in horror, and it’s understandable. It’s a common fear that’s easy to play into. But the similarities don’t end there.
The titular Thing in the film is a shapeshifting alien, accidentally awoken from the ice by Norwegian scientists. The Thing devours every living thing in its path, absorbing them so completely that it can then perfectly replicate their bodies, down to the cellular level. The monster can even mimic speech patterns and mannerisms, making it almost undetectable. As a result, a major element of the film is suspicion: when your enemy can look and act exactly like the people you know and trust, you have to suspect everyone. It doesn’t take long for the characters to turn on each other, and assume that everyone else is “one of them.” They threaten each other, cast doubt on one another, and make repeated insistence on their own humanity.
It’s this suspicion that really drove it home for me. We’re dealing with a virus that’s easily transmitted, and even though we’ve all read horror stories of the symptoms of the disease, we can’t rely on that alone. Experts have been saying for months that a large portion of people with the Coronavirus are asymptomatic. I’ve seen estimates as high as 75%. That means that for every person showing symptoms, there’s as many as three who aren't. With every interaction that we have with other people, we have to assume that they have it and we don’t. In this regard, we’re not dissimilar from MacReady (played by Kurt Russell), who ties up his comrades and threatens them with a flamethrower as he tries to determine whether or not they’re still human. Ours goes a bit deeper, however, because we also have to assume that we do have it, and take precautions against spreading it to others who don’t.
And, like MacReady and company, we’ve been quick to turn on each other. We criticize people who we don’t feel are taking the appropriate precautions. We know we’re human--it’s those other idiots we’re not so sure about. Hell, Blair (Wilford Brimley) is even forced into quarantine when the others fear that he might no longer be himself.
The whole thing comes to an explosive climax when MacReady faces off against the creature in the tunnels beneath the station, using all the dynamite he can find in a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the Thing. He’s accepted that he’s not making it out, but he wants to make sure that it doesn’t, either. Even this is in line with one of the messages that I’ve been hearing over the last several weeks: our priority should be stopping the spread. If we have it, we have it, and all we can do is prevent it from spreading to others. Sitting inside as much as we can and wearing a face mask when we go out is less dramatic than what MacReady does, but it is meant to be metaphor, after all.
The film ends with MacReady and Childs (Keith David) sitting near the smoldering remains of the research station. They’ve been out of each other’s sight, and MacReady has even been out of ours for a few minutes. Neither can confirm if the other is still human, so they sit in the snow and share a drink. In this last moment, they’ve realized that their suspicion is pointless. They’re stuck in the Antarctic. If both of them are human, neither of them is going anywhere, and if the other is the alien, the human is powerless to do anything about it.
It’s not a happy ending, I realize, but it is a cautionary one. The film’s bleak ending is a result of missteps made throughout its plot. The characters didn’t realize what they were dealing with until it was already among them, and even then, despite their best efforts, it overcame them. Like them, we downplayed our current situation until it was too late. Where we can differ from them, however, is where we go from here.
Keep hunkering down, friends. I know it's frustrating to sit inside so much, but little by little, we're getting there. There’s light at the end of this ordeal, and--at least as of right now--I’m optimistic that it’s not coming from a burning research station.