The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic, is a slippery little number. It seems like a horror movie about a bunch of cooped-up researcher science dudes in a snowy Antarctic outpost who meet a weird dog in the snow. The dog turns out not to be a very good boy: It’s actually a shape-shifting parasite alien eyeing them for a game of who-wants-to-play-my-new-host.
Suddenly, it is the story of 12 men slowly being picked off by a guerrilla-warfaring, shape-shifting organism that has a penchant for mimicry. As it invades and takes over man after man, assuming his exact human form, it becomes less and less clear is who still a human, “real” man, and who has now been infected by the Thing. All of this is set against a bleak, icy hellscape where death waits patiently outside in freezing temperatures and impassable snow. Even if they make it outside that outpost and escape the Thing, nature will likely finish the job.
In spite of the clearly irreproachable setup I’ve described here, somehow it didn’t do so hot at the box office in 1982. Major critics at the time called it phony and boring. History, however, proved them wrong. People, it turns out, do love a story about man against man, mankind, nature and a mutating alien.
The movie is now a standard-bearer of the era and the genre, and we still talk about it today for three main reasons: It’s a horror masterpiece for the gruesome special effects from then-22-year-old Rob Bottin. It’s an all-star turn for Kurt Russell, who gives an intense performance as paranoid hothead R.J. MacReady. And it’s a particularly compelling story because, as reviewers often point out, it’s an all-male cast. There’s nary a dame on screen, which can be read as powerfully feminist or deeply misogynist, depending where you’re sitting.
Point of contention, though: The film does have women in it. Two, at least, if we put our undergrad English degrees to good use. In an early scene, MacReady, holed up among his compatriots in happy isolation, is playing chess against the computer to pass the time, his opposition represented by a female voice. When he loses, he mutters, “Cheating bitch.”
That’s telling, because a bitch is a female dog. But in The Thing, the female dog is the alien, the alien is a woman, and the woman is nature. The movie is really about woman-nature invading an all-male space via the Trojan horse of a dog, man’s best friend.
Okay, sorry to get all Film Crit 101 on you. But hear me out.
The Thing is actually a brilliant, claustrophobic, paranoid meditation on masculine fear. It’s about what happens when men hole up away from civilization and women. It’s about the hierarchical, homophobic hair-trigger suspicion and folly that ensues when systems break down — and when men have the arrogance to think they can outsmart nature.
Okay, refresh my memory — what happens in the film?
In the film, after the men visit an offsite alien crash and see the destruction in its wake, they return back with a frozen, malformed corpse and a stray husky. Unaware the husky is anything but a well-trained canine that can hang with their sled dogs, they put in the kennel with the others. But the dogs know it’s not one of their own, and before they can protest to their owners, it, too, has hatched slimy tentacles to devour them, before eerily 3-D printing itself into another dog.
As beta-male Clark (Richard Masur) watches helplessly, MacReady mans up when hears the ruckus and alerts the crew. He torches it with a flamethrower and the men assume they’ve stopped the half-alien, half-dog mid-shape-shift in its tracks, restoring their dominance. But it’s too late: The dog was already infected, and everyone who touched it is suspect. Upon examination, the corpse they brought in is similarly infected.
So now the question is, who else is? Rather than take any chances, they kill off the rest of the dogs, and begin eyeing each other suspiciously.
That scene plays out again and again to haunting tension, as one by one, the bodies pile up, helpless to the Thing’s promiscuous will. If the Thing doesn’t get them first, the men take each other down on even a hint of betrayal. Central to the tension is that no man wants to admit when he’s infected by its replicant energy. Who has been overwhelmed by the dark, gestating force, and who is still a real man?
Because in the film, you see, the Thing is treated as — gulp — a woman.
The Thing is a vagina dentata, the pussy that bites back. The Thing is pregnancy, and gestation, and the birth pulse itself, in all its wet, gooey, membrane-y glory. The Thing is blood and shit and dirt and mucus, amniotic fluids and liver-like placentas. It is all feminine tentacle energy and power, and it is horrifying. The Thing is nature, and nature is female. The Thing is always out there, all the time, like a terrifying siren, beckoning men to join it, to forfeit themselves, their identity, their masculinity, to go soft, to live among women, to submit to our domestic compliance, to become one of us. One of us. One of us.
Becoming a man, after all, is a ritual defined by isolation and fear. It requires pubescent separation from the mother and all girls, a simultaneous compulsion toward them and persistent visceral fear of their envelopment. As The Thing demonstrates, those twin tenets work in tandem, but also simultaneously threaten male identity and authority. It is a never-ending battle, and you can never really rest knowing it hasn’t gotten you.
So ‘The Thing’ is about masculinity imploding?
Well, let’s look at it this way. Popular culture has long portrayed men as loners and rebels, rogue individualists who can beg off to the Batcave or exist for months and years among themselves, with no girls allowed (military, sports, golf, politics). Men must take refuge from domestic life, from family, from fatherhood. They have an innate need to escape to silence, we’re told, and are comfortable with loneliness.
In the film, the researchers have been there for an untold length of time, but as they gear up for winter, it’s clear they’ve grown happily accustomed to the isolation and companionship of only each other. They play chess, shoot pool, listen to music, do science. They are also comfortable with hierarchy even within that self-imposed exile. In The Thing, MacReady is the alpha dog, and that hums along smoothly with clear boundaries.
All is well until female energy disrupts the space. The Thing steps in to threaten the status quo and test each man’s true identity and authority. The environment turns into an “apocalyptic, eroticized, male hot-house orgy of Thingness,” as Noah Berlatsky writes in the Atlantic.
Men are constantly proving whether they are ‘real’ men
As a result of the alien’s sneaky infiltration, the men are quickly reduced to paranoid distrust of each other. They struggle to identify who among them is loyal and who isn’t. This is a result of too much isolation from women, which calls into question that perfect straddling of isolation without gayness. As Noah Berlatsky writes at The Atlantic, arguing why the remake of The Thing should not have added women:
Part of the answer is John Carpenter, a director who, in Christine, They Live, and many other films, has been particularly interested in male-male relationships. And part of the answer, perhaps, is provided by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick argued that Western culture is “structured — indeed fractured — by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition.” Basically, for Sedgwick, male identity always inevitably collapses into an agonized, shapeless horror. Strong, manly men who are male-focused and uninterested in femininity are in danger of becoming homosexual not-men. On the other hand, men who are too women-identified are also in danger of becoming not-men — aka things.
These fearful men devise ways of proving they are still real men by outing the infected — by interrogation, intimidation and finally a blood test. Whoever isn’t real may pass as a man, but his (menstrual) blood will tell another story. It’s also homophobia — which dictates that men constantly look for signs of hetero disloyalty — whether by taunting or hazing, or outright accusations.
Men are terrified of nature
As in so many horror films, such as the alien in Alien, the monster is slimy and wet, a stand in for the unpleasant messiness of procreation and birth. As Berlatsky notes, the takeover of each man by the Thing “often has a queasy sexual component.” He writes:
…one of the researchers, for example, is covered with slithery, bondage-like tentacles. In the film’s most spectacular scene, another scientist reveals his Thingness when a replica of his own head bursts from his stomach in a twisted all-male mockery of birth.
A feminist review of the film by B.J. Colangelo notes that the very status quo of functional masculinity is only disrupted by the alien presence, which we must read as female:
If masculinity is a direct response to femininity, and the struggle for alpha-male status is a power struggle for men when their positions are questioned, it would only be assumed that the “thing” is of a female species. The male gender is a control in this environment, and only violent responses in an attempt to gain alpha-male status occurs once the presence of a female is known.
This could also be read as sperm competition, where the presence of other men strengthens a man’s bid for procreative triumph by boosting his sperm. Colangelo also notes that because The Thing is a “shape-shifting creature capable of absorbing the body and creating a perfect imitation of whatever it has absorbed,” that it’s a way of illustrating the female threat to the male status quo. “Women can ‘absorb’ an aspect of a male, and produce a similar life force,” she writes. “Simply put, it’s a giant metaphor for childbirth.”
The film alludes to the fear men have of being swallowed and replicated by women, about the cord-cutting men must do to separate from women to claim male identity and autonomy, and their fear of being swallowed back into women (i.e., their mothers) via sex. Sex sucks them back into the space from which they were born, losing the very autonomy that distance and isolation and the walls of masculinity, literal or figurative, afforded them.
Colangelo notes that the blood test draws from the old joke about women, that you can’t trust anything that bleeds that long without dying. “With his authority established over the other male characters, MacReady then asserts his male authority over the female ‘thing,’” she writes. “Before testing the blood, he says, ‘When a man bleeds, it’s just tissue; but blood from one of you things won’t obey.’” Female blood, she concludes, simply doesn’t obey the laws of nature men answer to.
Yes, men are far more complex than their identities as not-gay not-women. We’ve come a long way toward embracing men as fully human, so long as they submit to it. But a pervasive part of that conversation is how difficult it is for them to tap into such intuitive powers. The biggest critique of men as snowflakes is, in essence, that they’ve been feminized.
None of this is to suggest that The Thing can’t still just be a cool schlocky horror movie about aliens, which is also fun. Some writing on the film suggests it can be better explained as a post-Vietnam creation, steeped in xenophobic, paranoid vibes.
Colangelo suggests that Carpenter’s ability to frame things in these terms makes it “unexpectedly feminist.” I’m not sure the film has a conscience or awareness about the real root of its own fears, or those of its protagonists, that takes it to the level of intentional cultural critique. And I’m not even sure it needs to in order to get the job done.
In the film, nature takes care of that, too. In the movie’s famously, infuriatingly ambiguous ending, no one wins. Or rather, it is completely unclear who, or what, is really left standing. But I can’t help wondering if the Thing would even know it was the Thing anyway. Once taken over into dark, female domestication, they cease to be men, for all intents and purposes, whether they know it or not. That’s a frightening proposition. But nature, as we are well aware, creates and destroys at will. She has never had much of a conscience, either. A cheating bitch.