This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Film Theory & Analysis class, taught by Royal Brown, in Spring 2014 at The New School.

“Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days.”
“Nobody trusts anybody now.”

the-thing

A common maxim of what makes the best horror movies effective is that they show relatively little, leaving the most terrifying parts to the imagination. What is unique about the John Carpenter-directed The Thing (1982) is how well it works despite, or because of (or despite AND because of) showing so much of its monster. A novice viewer would be forgiven for not realizing how much it actually does not show. Partly, the lack of showing is obvious: the famously ambiguous ending in which it is heavily implied that either Keith David’s Childs or Kurt Russell’s MacReady is now a Thing (or both are). But most of the rest of the film does not highlight how much is being hidden. It is, as Slavoj Žižek would put it, a product “with a distinctive mass appeal” (1). Its primary attractions are its tense action, creative makeup and special effects, and well-rounded performances. It is therefore qualified to be a postmodern work, and it fulfills that possibility with a premise and a villain that essentially guarantees open-endedness and speculative interpretation that goes beyond the narrative.

A useful way to interpret The Thing is from a feminist perspective that incorporates Laura Mulvey’s ideas on the male gaze. The Thing fails the Bechdel test, and with an all-male cast, it is not like it is trying to be particularly feminine anyway. But a deeper interpretation shows that it may not be as phallocentric as it first appears to be. There actually is a female character, or at least there is a “character” with a female representation. The computer chess program that MacReady is playing against in an early scene has a female voice. To underscore the femininity, Mac calls her “cheating bitch” as he pours his drink into the hard drive upon defeat. And there may even be another female character. The FAQ section of The Thing’s IMDb entry speculates that the Thing is neither male nor female, or that it might actually be “super-female.” Its primary purpose in the narrative is reproduction, and it does this by forceful assimilation. Forceful assimilation, that is, of men. This is not unlike certain female Earth creatures that devour the male at the time of copulation. The Thing’s modus operandi also brings to mind the processes of certain mythological creatures. There is a mix of Medusa and Orpheus sensibilities here. Some of the men react stone-faced to the Thing in attack mode, despite knowing the stakes. Concurrently, there is a death gaze fight: the men and the Thing take aim in each other, and death is in some way always the end result in these staredowns. To put all this symbolism together in a postmodern sense, in an environment in which the Thing is present, no representation is certain and anything can represent everything.

Mulvey notes that in “a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” – the world so often represented on the screen – “[t]he determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly” (5). The Thing throws this projection right back in the opposite direction. It could potentially be anything, just as the image of the female could be anything according to the male gaze. This is not to say that the female form represents everything but that what she does represent is a projection of the desires of the male hero and those of the spectator (coded as male). While the gaze is generally meant to symbolically realize satisfaction for every viewer, the particulars of that satisfaction are unique to the individual. While those particularities do not usually come into consideration in the theoretical framework of film, the Thing – in the role of the female gazed-upon – demands that they do.

The characters of The Thing do not know that they have a female in their midst, and even if they can put aside their anxiety enough to even consider what sort of gender the Thing might be, they are unlikely to think of it as female, “super-female” or otherwise. And even if they do, it wouldn’t much matter, as far as their desires are concerned. But that does not mean they are going to stop gazing. Antarctica lacks for any sexual prospects for this crew (there is no indication that any of them are gay, and homosexuality does not factor into the classic formulation of the male gaze anyway), but the proclivity for gazing does not go away when there is nothing to gaze it. Anything unusual or fascinating could activate it. This is certainly the reaction when “Splitface” is brought in from the Norwegian camp, though that is not really a portrayal of the gaze, per se.

When the Thing first makes itself known, it is then that it is clear there is something to visually pay attention to. Head mechanic Childs, flamethrower in hand, is basically stunned as it assimilates the dog and takes aim at him. He torches it just in time to save himself, but he gets as good a look as he possibly can before doing so. Other gazers are not so lucky. Radio operator Windows is caught staring at Norris, whose Thing-liness has just been revealed by the blood sample test. Though he may be frozen by fear, his facial expression seems to suggest more a look of disbelief, and indeed, fascination. Mulvey notes that the female visual presence tends “to freeze the flow of action” and describes it as an “alien presence” (5). This tends to stop the narrative momentum, but in this case, it is part of the of the narrative’s forward motion. Windows is actually frozen (well, metaphorically frozen, but the point is that it is within the narrative), and the “female” is an actual alien presence.

The Thing, especially in moments like these, is a rejoinder to the gaze that has long served as the Orphic look of death. The Orpheus role, usually filled by the lead male, stares into and symbolically kills the desired female. Because the language of cinema is a language of symbolism, this death is often literal within the narrative. And in the narrative of The Thing, just about everyone dies. But it is the gazed-upon super-female that actually does most of the killing. And if each version of the Thing is thought of as part of a collective instead of as unique units, then it is only the (Orphic) males who are really killed, while that which is looked upon is only partially disposed of. The struggle between the crew and the Thing works as a sort of Orpheus vs. Medusa fight. That is to say, it is the force of killing by looking pitted against the force of dying by looking. Seeing the true nature of Norris-Thing freezes Windows into submission, and the reveal of the dog-Thing renders Childs stone cold, albeit not completely. (Childs’ hesitation may provide foreshadowing to indicate that he is a Thing in the final scene.) Also, assimilation tends to paralyze its target, as seen during Bennings’ transformation. In most cases, when a Thing-creature is destroyed, there is more than one crew member present. The major exception here is when MacReady kills the Blair-Thing with dynamite. It is relevant to note that his tone with the Thing here (“Yeah, fuck you, too!”) is more or less the same tone that he takes with the computer chess, paralleling how he treats the “female” characters. Kurt Russell, as MacReady, is first-billed, he has the most screen time, and he is one of only two characters to survive to the end. Thus, he may be the only one who can really fulfill the Orpheus role. But he is up against an opponent that is just as mythologically formidable. After all, the ice it was carved out of was estimated to be at least 100,000 years old – a chronological figure that it is not readily comprehended and that essentially places it in the same level of comprehension as myth. This interpretation assumes that Childs is a Thing at the end, but it is also possible that MacReady could have been assimilated, and that would destroy so many conclusions that have been drawn here. This uncertainty makes for a profoundly postmodern situation, both fueling and confounding interpretation.

Mulvey notes that the male main character “controls the film phantasy” and is “the representative of power” because it is “the bearer of the look of the spectator” (5). MacReady is certainly a take-charge figure who readily takes advantage of this position of control. But in the environment of The Thing, “the look of the spectator” is available to be co-opted. In the case of this film, it is unlikely that the viewer and his surrogate, the male main protagonist, can maintain, in Mulvey’s words, “a satisfying sense of omnipotence” (6). Now, to be sure, the viewer retains omnipotence insofar as he can choose to watch however much he wants to watch and interpret as he pleases. But the omnipotence that Mulvey is talking about, in which the male movie star stands in as the “ideal ego” of the viewer (6), is control that can be maintained by even the most passive forms of viewing. In The Thing, the hero takes charge of the action and the viewer does so as well vicariously. But the outcomes are quite devastating despite there being no lack of taking action. And this devastation is at the hands of the figure whose role should be just accepting the forceful efforts of the male.

Palmer-Thing

To be clear, the Thing, even if it is accepted as a “sexually” female creature, does not strictly fit the role of woman as passive sexual object. But the energy of the destructive male gaze exists without something to gaze at. It may only be potential energy in this state, but potential energy can be manipulated. Something new and exciting is likely to be the source of this manipulation. It does not have to be strictly female, but if it is not strictly male either – or at least not the version of male that this crew is used to – then it is surely worthy of notice. (And the Thing does have some symbolically female qualities; when assimilating, it uses an appendage that looks like a flower just waiting to be pollinated.) The Thing, whether seemingly contained or at its peak danger, is clearly an object of curiosity. “Splitface” is dissected by the crew, and it is lovingly captured by the camera – a body manipulated into a fascinating work of art to be gazed upon – just like the classically rendered female form of cinema. (The original adaptation of the short story The Thing was based on – 1951’s The Thing From Another World – really plays up the curiosity factor, with chief scientist Dr. Arthur Carrington protecting the creature in the name of Science.) As much as the Antarctica crew might like to ponder the otherness of the Thing, it would much prefer to have its own agency. Its ability to assimilate – an apparently omnipotent ability – is a direct challenge to the male’s supposed omnipotence. The male gaze is consumed by the female, and in The Thing, that consumption is literal. The Thing has all the pent-up power of the looked-at females who do not want to be looked at. The men in this film take aim at this creature with their eyes and with their weapons (especially the phallic flamethrower). They are answered with attacks that have the force of their gaze. So, it is appropriate in this stare-down that the Thing does not kill by simple destruction, but by assimilation. The tactics of each side have the same symbolic thrust.

Just because the Thing only assimilates men does not mean that it cannot or would not also assimilate women. But it is not insignificant that the only characters (whose sex can be confirmed, and who are not computers) in The Thing are men. This all-male setup is also the case in the 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart (pen name of John W. Campbell, Jr.), which The Thing is based on. The original adaptation, The Thing From Another World, does feature some female characters, but assimilation is not as much a tactic of the creature in that version. There is a hint that the Thing is hellbent on assimilating every human in its sight, with Blair’s computer simulation speculating how long it would take the entire human population to be taken over were the Thing to make its way to civilization. The implication here is that it would not make any distinction between man and woman, or any form of identity really. But it is meaningful that the narrative of the Thing that is presented is set in a place outside of where those signifiers are easily identifiable. We know for certain that the Thing takes readily to the assimilation of men. But here is where the status of The Thing as a postmodern work is particularly clear. It can be interpreted from a feminist framework because of the context that it exists in, but narratively, that context is accidental, or at least it might as well be. The most certain conclusion that can be made regarding this matter is that whether or not the Thing can assimilate women is unknown. Whether or not the Thing will assimilate women is unknown. Perhaps it is also unknown whether it was really accidental or actually purposeful that the Thing ended up where it ended up. Perhaps all along it meant to arrive at the South Pole. Even the simplest, seemingly random, elements take on an air of uncertainty when considering the inscrutable perspective of the Thing.

The narrative of The Thing is deeply imbued with uncertainty, so it is confusing that there are moments of clarity that could very easily not have been so clear. When Windows returns after leaving Bennings alone with the remains of “Splitface,” the camera initially focuses on a mess of bloody clothes. Then the shot lingers on Windows’ reaction for about ten seconds, eventually only showing the Thing wrapping its tentacles around Bennings for about two seconds. With its subjective focus, this sequence produces a dreamy effect that hints at the idea that Windows may be imagining all this. Windows then brings the two closest crewmembers he can find – MacReady and Fuchs – into the room for them to see the transformation. But by this point the Bennings-Thing has already escaped, thus making Windows suspect at this moment for lack of evidence. But, not really, as it hasn’t gotten very far, and everyone catches up to him, and they stand around in a circle for a clear perspective, as Mac knocks over a gas canister and sets it alight. The editing here employs tricks to suggest uncertainty, only to quickly confirm what is true. And it is silly to ever even doubt Windows’ perspective, as the entire crew had not very long ago seen the Thing’s true form as it was attacking the dogs.

In general, this sort of sneakiness on the part of the Thing does not escape the notice of the crew, even when it seems like it is only going to be revealed to the audience. After Mac torches Norris once it reveals itself as the Thing in response to Copper defibrillating its chest, the Norris head breaks loose before being engulfed by the flames and looks as if it is going to escape unnoticed. One shot has Mac and Windows facing the direction of the camera, as spider-head Norris-Thing scurries away behind them. It seems like this little bit of the villain will remain just beyond their reach. But then they, seemingly just by chance, happen to turn around, and Mac torches the rest of it easily. This loose thread is now taken care of, but alas, this does not provide the resolution that it was aiming for.

With these moments in which it is obvious to the audience and the characters what the Thing is up to, it appears as though whatever is important is shown within the narrative. But of course, that is not the case. There are several little mysteries throughout, such as when Blair was assimilated (Was he destroying the camp before the Thing so as to prevent the Thing from spreading, or was he already the Thing, sabotaging the crew?), or when Palmer was assimilated, or when Norris was assimilated, or if Childs was assimilated while Mac, Nauls, and Garry went ahead without him. Then there is the whole affair with Fuchs, whose demise is speculated upon but never understood afte the discovery of his charred remains. But it is not like a movie cannot have a mix of clarity and mystery. What is really unsettling here are the moments that seem to have an explanation but really don’t, fueling a postmodern sort of endless speculation. Seeing the lights on in his shack, Mac knows there is something fishy going on, because when he left it yesterday, they were off. It is a small moment, but significant because it is never confirmed that what Mac is relaying is correct information. It could be so easily confirmed with cinematic language, but it pointedly is not. And that is how the truth about the Thing in general is treated. It is pointed out that the Thing acts out of self-preservation, that it does not want to give itself away out in the open, and that each individual Thing cell (or whatever unit it can be broken down into) essentially exists as its own organism. There is no primary source to confirm that all this is true. These are all the speculations of the crew (mostly MacReady).

the-thing-spaceship

The opening scene of the film is a spaceship hurtling toward Earth. It burns up and blinks away, too far away from the camera perspective for it to be clear what its ultimate fate is. This prologue basically says nothing. In fact, it does not even say if it is a prologue. What follows is introduced with the title card “Antarctica, Winter 1982,” while the space shot is not given any indication of setting. It is assumed that the Thing is extraterrestrial, so the opening is redundant. It offers no specificity on what sort of extraterrestrial it is. And discovering the Thing in ice that appears to be 100,000 years old already makes it uncanny enough to be unknowable whether or not it is alien. And symbolically, it is not a typical representative of paranoia. There is no enemy in a larger context that this crew is dealing with. This is no Cold War allegory. The other Antarctica crew is Norwegian, but they might as well be from any other country besides the United States. (Mac keeps confusing them for Swedes.) The Thing represents pure paranoia, pure speculation.

Because the Thing is only understood in terms of interpretation, its whole being within the narrative is a matter of semiotics. The truth of the Thing is explained only in terms of signifiers. Really, that is true of any sort of explanation of truth, but it is emphasized with the profound unknowability of the Thing. Ascribing some explanation to the Thing confers some degree of power, so it is logical that MacReady, who does most of the explaining, ends up wielding the most power. By the point of the hot needle blood test scene, he is in complete control of the situation. That does not mean that this power structure goes without question. Childs calls the test a “crock of shit,” and it is clear in general that “nobody trusts anybody now.” But just because there is doubt does not mean much can be done about the situation. Wielding the signified is where the power lies, and ultimately the Thing wields itself and those who try to take control of it. It assimilates the signifier (that is, the one doing the signifying) into the signified. MacReady might as well be the Thing. The entire world’s population might as well be the Thing, because if that were the case, would it really make any difference?

The Thing is postmodern ambiguity personified, or “thing-ified.” When it first reveals itself, dog handler Clark describes it thus: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” This sounds like the sort of reaction to the seemingly unnatural artifice exposing of modernism. And when there is an acknowledgement of that weirdness, the work is rendered postmodern. So is the Thing female, rendering this a feminist work as well, or is it some other gender? Yes.

Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

“The Thing (1982) FAQ.” Internet Movie Database. Web. 26 May 2014.

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Universal, 1982. DVD.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Introduction – Alfred Hitchcock, Or, The Form and Its Historical   Meditation.” Introduction. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan: (but Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London: Verso, 1992.

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