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The Many Fear Factors of The Thing (1982)

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The many fear factors of John Carpenter’s the THING

An analysis of the Thing’s early box office flop.

In 1982 Universal studios released the film called John Carpenter’s the THING. It was

officially a remake of the 1951 film; the Thing from another world, but was actually a second

attempt at making a film of the original book; “Who goes there?” by John W. Campbell in

1938. In addition to the film, the novelisation by Bill Lancaster was also released.

The story written by screenwriter Bill Lancaster evolves around 12 men on an Antarctic

outpost. One day they are attacked by two Norwegians chasing a dog. In self defence they kill

the Norwegians and take in the dog. After having investigated the Norwegian camp they find

an UFO crash site and they also realise that the dog is not a dog but an alien able to imitate

other life forces. With no radio contact and a snow storm coming in, the 12 men soon find

themselves trapped in the station, and knowing that at least one of their own friends is a

monster out to kill them.

The THING is obviously a horror film/book, with paranoia as its main fear factor. The film is

today considered a cult classic, and has a massive fan base. It even spawned several comic

book adaptions, a video game, and one of the most well made and detailed fan web pages I

have ever seen.

However, much to my surprise, the film was a box office flop when it was first released

(hence the book was never any particular success either).

In the rest of this text I will focus entirely on what reasons may have caused the film to never

become a classic during its release, but which was ignored over a decade later, hence giving it

a late success.

And considering that the novelisation is directly based on the film, I don’t feel it will be

necessary to directly refer to it as the films failure resulting in the book never catching on.

Had the film been a success the book would probably have sold better, but since it didn’t the

book was hardly noticed, before many year later when the Thing became a pop culture


1 Bad timing

Among the many reasons to the Thing’s box office flop, the simplest maybe its competition

from other films during the same year.

The top grossing films of 1982 was:

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Tootsie, directed by Sydney Pollack.

An officer and a Gentleman, directed by Taylor Hackford.

Rocky 3, directed by Sylvester Stallone.

Porky’s, directed by Bob Clark.

Star Trek 2 the Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer.

The first one on the list may in fact be the one reason the Thing failed as they were both

released the same week, a big mistake by the studio if you ask me.

Ask yourself the question if you were the majority of cinema visitors; probably a family with

kids, what Sci-Fi film of the week would you rather see, a dark and gritty film about 12

scientist being devoured one by one by a shape shifting monster, or a cute and family friendly

film about a little quirky alien who befriends a little boy in California.

Universal studios decision to release the Thing the same week as E.T. may be one of their

worst. Also if one look at the other highest grossing films of the year, you’ll find more family

films, comedies and pop phenomena’s. The Thing didn’t stand a chance.

I was also surprised to find that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, now also a cult classic, had

suffered from the same reasons.

Now considering that both the Thing and Blade Runner was flops at the time, but are now

cult classics it would seem that only certain types of films are successful at release but not

necessarily in retrospect. Moves like E.T., Tootsie and Porky are typical 80’s films. They

present the world in a false and cliché manner. They are comfortable to look at, they have a

friendly atmosphere and always have a happy endings. They are entertainment which gives

you a false sense of comfort. Typical Hollywood.

Blade Runner and the Thing on the other hand, have a much darker tone, and are much more

realistic, and don’t have “happy” endings. These films more bluntly show you the darker side

of humanity.

So it would appear that there is no room in Hollywood for harsh realities. The Thing has been

praised for it’s character build up. “There is no cheesy or irrelevant dialogue, and how they

react to the events of the film tells us what kind of persons they are”(Rob Ager, the Thing

analysis, Youtube). The Thing is an exploration of human fear, paranoia, and possibly, even

how teamwork can solve such problems. Even though it is obviously not a realistic film, I

mean it’s about a shape shifting alien, however the characters are realistic. The same goes for

Blade Runner. The world the characters live in or the situation they are in is not realistic, but

the rest is.

Most of the other films of the 80’s are to some degree the opposite. The world we see is the

same as in reality, but the humans in them act in a false way. This is very typical for

Hollywood; they give us a false impression of the world. We recognise what we see, but they

behave in an unnatural way.

I for one found it almost amusing how a movie about an alien monster, shows a much more

realistic view of the humanity than most of the films ever made.

2 The ending

Taking on a similar subject as the previous chapter, the Things ending may also have affected

its popularity. As mentioned before the film is about a group of American scientist fighting

the Thing organism. Towards the end like most films, good seems for a moment to have been

victorious over evil, as the Thing is destroyed be the only surviving character MacReady. He

then staggers out into the snow only to find Childs, a character the audience believed to be

either dead or missing. MacReady suspects he has been assimilated by the Thing and for a

moment it seems that the fight isn’t over. They sit down in the snow and Childs says: “How

will we make it?” This is then a referral to how they are going to survive. In the book he also

refers to finding their way to civilisation. Macready then answers: “Maybe we shouldn’t”

MacReady then acknowledges that either one of them could be infected by the Thing and that

they should not risk contamination other people, Childs nods, and as they sit quietly in the

snow the picture fades out and the end credits roll. And we are left with the question of what

happened to the two men.

John Carpenter is known for his bold endings, in which for example all main characters die or

the villain/monster survives. And many wievers have often reacted to the Things unsolved

ending with either disappointment or simply referred to it as sad and depressing.

Again it would seem that Hollywood only has place for one kind of film, cliché’s with happy

endings. If one look at the highest grossing films in 1982 (as mentioned earlier) or the rest of

the 80s for that matters, I can assure you that most of them have very happy endings. Just

look at E.T., it defines happy endings. After a lot of struggle and running from the

government, and the famous flying bicycle scene, E.T. is finally reunited with his spaceship.

E.T.'s heart glows as he prepares to return home, and before entering the spaceship, tells

Elliott (the film protoganist) "I'll be right here," and points its glowing finger to Elliott's heart.

Sure it’s a cute and heart-warming ending, and it is very Hollywood. And again it seems E.T.

stood in the way of the Things success. Like before, try to compare the two, and ask yourself

what you would rather see; a happy and hopeful ending which leaves everyone with a

comfortable warm feeling, or a cold and hopeless ending that leaves you with the question of

what happens next. Again I think the answer is pretty obvious.

An interesting fact here is that predicting a similar problem, John Carpenter shot an

alternative ending for the film, in which Macready being the only survivor is found by a

rescue team, taken away in a helicopter, and performs a blood test on himself which test

negative. Carpenter shot this scene in case the studio would demand a more resolved ending.

However being tired of the Hollywood happy ending, Carpenter decided to not use this scene

in his final cut of the movie. So it would seem that Carpenter took a chance and did

something that few others before him had dared to do, and as a result his film failed

commercially, yet has gained respect in the following years.

What surprised me is that Carpenters unresolved ending is not a 100% original, bold yes, but

it has been done before. Two examples there is Alfred Hitchcock’s the Birds (1963) and

Invasion of the Body snatchers (1978). Both these films have an invasion like theme, not to

different from the Thing, and are also apparent inspirations for John Carpenter’s films. In the

Birds the world is overrun by, well birds, which seem to suddenly attack humans for no

apparent reason. In the last scene a small family having barricaded themselves in their house

decide to go out, only to find the entire horizon being covered with birds. They get into the

car and slowly drives away, finding nothing but birds everywhere, the end credits roll and

that’s it. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (even more similar to the Thing) alien organisms

infect humans and create exact replicas other than their lack of human emotion. The main

characters in the film manage to live among them for a short period of time pretending to be

assimilated, but is eventually found out and hunted. In the last scene the main protagonist,

Matthew, having just lost everyone he loved and failed to prevent global assimilation, walks

down the street, only to suddenly meet a character we assumed got assimilated earlier in the

film. Thinking he is human, she calls his name, to which Matthew responds by pointing to

her and emitting the piercing “pod scream” (this is used several times in the film by the

replicas). She screams with horror realizing that Matthew is now assimilated and the screen

goes to black and the end credits role.

Now these are both equal or even worse than Carpenters ending for the Thing, so it’s hard to

really tell why people reacted so negatively to his version. But maybe this explains why it

became a success later. Both the Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are now horror

classics on an equal level with the Thing. So again the Thing seems to only have had a bad

timing. The Films during the same year or the same decade for that matter was getting to

friendly. The 60’s and 70’s was a very radical period in film history and included a lot of

experimenting, among them being darker film endings. The 80’s however had become a

second Hollywood golden age which is still going on today. Having a decade of a more

image00.jpgcommercially successful Hollywood, the cliché’s started to kick in again, and there was just

no room for films such as the Thing (and the previously mentioned Blade Runner).

3 the AIDS resemblance

Once again the reason for the Thing’s lack of success may be blamed on bad timing. Even

though AIDS is a problem that we are all aware of now, back in 1982 when the Thing was

released it had just been discovered.

AIDS was first reported June 5, 1981, just one year before the release of the Thing. Now it

may sound strange that an alien horror film could resemble AIDS, but the idea is not too


To start with AIDS is a disease, and the Thing resembles a disease in many ways. The Thing

is revealed in the film to be a micro organism that invades a host and then assimilates every

cell in its body. This is in fact shown quite literally in the film with a computer simulation

that shows us a small cell of the Thing assimilating dog cells. The computer then starts

calculating how quickly it can spread among humans and even gives an estimate of how

much time it will take for it to infect the whole world population.

Now imagine seeing this if you have just heard or read about the AIDS outbreak.

But the similarities do not end there. One Wikipedia I found this sentence: Transmission of

AIDS can involve anal, vaginal or oral sex, blood transfusion and contaminated hypodermic


Of course the Thing has absolutely no sexual content whatsoever, but it still has some of the

things mentioned on the list. In order for the Thing to assimilate someone by force it has to

rip through someone’s clothes and penetrate their skin, thus infecting their blood. The Thing

in the form of a dog early in the film knows that it is in danger from the Norwegians chasing

it and instinctively jumps onto one of the Americans and tries to lick him. This may seem

typical for a dog, but it was in fact trying to infect him in order to survive, like any organism

would have done.

The film also contains several blood transfusions, and includes the use of hypodermic


Even the simple fact that the movie revolves around finding out who is infected by the Thing

or not, can in many ways resemble AIDS. Even today, paranoia over who is infected by

AIDS or not is a big fear factor, and the Thing creates a similar fear. Throughout most of the

movie they try to find out who is infected and who is not. It even goes as far as a scene where

the main protagonists ties everyone down, takes a blood sample from everyone, and only

release the persons who test negative.

In this scene specifically, fear of disease comes through. When one of the team member test

positive, he suddenly starts to change physically into a monstrous deformity, showing us

what disgusting things that can lie dormant inside all of us.

So considering that you were one of the audiences during the Thing’s release in 1982 and you

had just recently been informed of the new AIDS epidemic, it is no wonder that one might

start drawing parallels between the two.

4 Lack of spirit

Another interesting fact about the film, however small, is its probably unintentional atheistic

view of humanity. In the story the Thing as an organism infects the humans and creates a

perfect replica. Perfect to the length that the replica at one point doesn’t even know if he’s

human or the Thing. This could then insinuate at humans are purely biological and have no


With the movies lack of hope, and constant fear, this may be a lot for some to swallow. The

writer of the story Bill Lancaster (script) may have tried to make a point when he choose the

main character MacReady, the camps loner, to say:”Hey, why don’t you just trust in the

lord”. This is strange, as MacReady is the last person in the film you would expect to give a

gesture spiritual comfort, as he is a more nihilistic character and is therefore the only one who

handles the harsh battle against the Thing. Maybe it’s is both Macready and Bill Lancaster

which says it with irony. While the rest of the scientist is in a state of panic and start blaming

each other for a problem they hardly even understand, Macready takes authoritarian control,

and leads them successfully in the battle against the Thing. He is a realist, and therefore is the

only one which can handle the situations harsh reality.

No I don’t present this idea as a main reason for the Things failure, but put together with the

other reasons, like the commercial failures, and the AIDS resemblance, it may have played its

part in scaring away the audience.

5 Ahead of its time

Another reason for the Thing’s failure (even along with the previous reasons), may be as

simple as the fact that it was too scary.

I admit that that sounds stupid, but many movies have lost popularity for simply being a

horror movie. Catholic censors and other smaller organizations have been trying to keep the

horror genre at bay almost from the beginning of the film industry. Even though the Thing

may not be very graphic by today’s standards, it was back in 1982. John Carpenters ability to

make films feel very claustrophobic and Rob Bottin’s Prosthetic makeup and animatronics

for the Thing monster, may, as strange as it sounds, simply have scared the audiences away.

In an interview with John Carpenter (Masters of Horror, hosted by Bruce Campbell), he said

that the critics had referred to the film as “To dark, to vicious and to nihilistic”. Again we are

in the subject of realism in film, and how “friendlier” more phony films seem to win the

hearts of both the audience and certain film critics.

But yes it is a very dark film, it is vicious and to some sense of the word nihilistic, but that is

the point of certain films. It may not be charming, but its how certain things just are.

And then we have Rob Bottin’s revolutionizing special effects. The few times we see the

Thing in semi-human or semi-dog form, it is Rob Bottin’s work. In order to make the Thing

look scary he created some of the most grotesque figures you can imagine. Like a human

head which springs spider legs and start crawling across a floor, or a man’s torso which rips

apart and becomes one giant mouth filled with reptilian fangs.

These are just examples of Rob Bottin’s imagination and craftsmanship, and they are all a

horror fans dream. But let’s face it, it can also be pretty sickening for those in the audience

who isn’t used to the horror genre.

The Thing alongside with the Exorcist in 1975 is the first films in history to have been

referred to as “barfbag films” (John Carpenter; fear is just the beginning, documentary).

The film critics even went as far as to refer to John Carpenter as “the pornographer of

violence” after his release of the Thing (I do not know which critic who said it, but John

Carpenter refers to it in several interviews). Again almost amusing in retrospect, considering

the films we have today. But nevertheless back in 1982 it was just too shocking, and like

most film who shocked people during its release, it never really got appreciated before many

years later.

5 Conclusion

So why didn’t the Thing catch on during its release? Well the book simply never got

appreciated, or even noticed at once because of the films bad reception. But why did the film

fail commercially?

Like in any business competition is a harsh and unfair thing, but must be expected. The Thing

had some really bad timing and was pushed away by more popular films made by more know

directors, most notably Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the extra terrestrial. And when even a

blockbuster film like Blade Runner can be pushed away by other films, then the Thing didn’t

stand a chance. And like bad timing wasn’t enough, the film, for those few who saw it, was

just too shocking. With its cold atmosphere, paranoia filled story, and current time fears, and

disturbingly realistic and grotesque special effects, it just demanded too much.

So it would appear that back then the Thing was a film ahead of its time, it did what no one

else had dared to do before, and like most controversial films, it had to suffer from it. But

luckily, it has gained

popularity in the following years, and it would seem that its creators only got the respect and

admiration they deserved a bit late.

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