Re-visiting the Grotesque: Another Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing

Thing OneAlmost two years ago on this blog, I watched and wrote about John Carpenter’s widely viewed and broadly acclaimed The Thing.  This year, for Halloween, I decided to re-visit this incredibly disgusting movie, which was, fortuitously, part of my coursework this week.  In my first post, I wrote about the rampant paranoia fostered by knowing there’s a hideous, murderous monster in at least one of the people around you, but not knowing who houses it – whose body hides the formidable “thing.”  I’m not really in the mood to look up my old post, re-read it, and make sure I’m writing something new, especially since it’s one of my least read posts on this blog.  So, we’ll have to trust that, two years and ample coursework later, I’m making some new observations about this sickening, human-beast amalgam as I write this post.  With that in mind, let’s dive into the uncomfortably unappealing (or, perhaps, the uncomfortably appealing – for whether “the thing” is appealing or unappealing is a question that remains to be grappled with, and perhaps will be grappled with in this post!)

This post will probably contain a lot of the literary theory that I’m studying.  But to begin with, The Thing foregrounds the importance of setting and the rather common trope of human helplessness in the face of nature – nature, which is so often (like in The Shining) vast, expansive, indelibly uncertain in what it has to offer us.  Of course, this is far from an ecocritical perspective—a lens that treats the environment as a subject or individual entity – a subject worthy of as much consideration as the people in it.  Nevertheless, I think it’s significant that at the beginning of the film, the camera pans on the expansive Antarctica landscape and then trembles ominously, as if that one screen shot were sealing together innate feelings of foreboding and uncertainty with the landscape surrounding our main characters.  Our main characters, of course, are on an Arctic expedition in the name of science, an endeavor that’s soon foiled by the presence of the so-called “thing.”  MacReady, played by Kurt Russell, is situated at the narrative center as a character who adopts a leadership role when the emergence of the thing becomes prevalent and consequentially “calls the shots” throughout the film.

I finally capitulated and re-read my old post, which contains a lot of cheesy jokes and a few interesting observations.  I didn’t talk much about environment in that post, despite its title, so now seems like an ample time to do it.  I find that when I’m watching much horror, I often situate the horror location in the realm of a “non-place”; the locations do not have what geographer Yi Fu Tuan would call the warmth and familiarity of place, nor do they have the vast, expansive openness of place.  Antarctica in The Thing might actually diverge from this observation, at least at first.  Although camera angles establish the environment as potentially odious, the “manly men” in the middle of the frozen desert seem enmeshed in the quintessence of space.  If space is openness, and sometimes isolation, these men certainly exist in the epitome of space, a fact that’s highlighted by the helicopter they need to use to traverse the arctic plane.  Save a couple of camps – the Norwegian camp, which has been violently burnt to the ground, and their own – there’s absolutely nothing for miles, except pure area that they need to cover, during one scene, to get from one camp to the other.  Of course, this expansive, ominous, space-like ambience could be liberating, the way Yi Fu Tuan describes space, but even before the presence of the monster, the violent and perpetual winter could also be suffocating.  Nevertheless, within the camp, there is a warmer sense of place established in part by their personalities and its separateness from the environment, a location where the men gather together and (for a very, very, very brief period of time) feel almost safe, before their first encounter with the thing.

I raise these observations in part because I think it’s interesting to analyze the location of the monster, and what the monster does to our perception of our environment, how the monster changes our surroundings.  Tuan’s theory is significant because it highlights how we see the world around us.  Though it’s far from perfect – indeed, it’s potentially problematic – I think there are certain implications to perceiving a location as “space,” or “place,” – and perhaps more significant implications when that location disrupts Tuan’s established binary, when the monster turns the location into something we can’t neatly fit into one of those categories, usually because the location loses all of its positive attributes.  There is something interesting, in other words, about the presence of the monster, and his ability to make space and place hostile, to create a non-place.  In the film, our entrance into the non-place, so frequently a location of abysmal madness, may be marked by the surviving mad Norwegian who tries to warn the Americans about what’s happening before, in his state of cerebral frenzy, he dies.  The presence of this sort of “mad other” harkens us to the hostility and uncertainty of the environment, convoluted, as it is and will be, by the intense claustrophobia that the weather and paranoia provoke.  To that end, the madman at the film’s beginning both guards (at least, for a moment) and signifies the madness of the location itself, the concentrated area that the monster is trying to first traverse, and then transgress, so that it can spread outward.

 As I suggested in my earlier post, shortly after the emergence of the monster – who is intentionally created to be as abject, as grotesque as possible – a step beyond the Freudian uncanny to be sure – the men study the monster scientifically.  In other words – and we see this a little bit in Alien, too, which is a very similar film – they use then science to gain access to the monster’s body, to understand how it works and what the implications of those workings are for them.  Having gained this access, having realized that the thing can secretly infest any human body and transmute itself into one character calls a “perfect imitation,” in an indisputably horrifying act of macabre mimesis, they conclude that “the thing” could be anyone around them, and could move forward, out of Antarctica, to infest the rest of the population, a process that would take a matter of years and wipe out all traces of humanity on earth.  Though some characters are forward-thinking enough to concern themselves with that possibility, most of the characters are grounded in the moment at hand and experience feelings of marked trepidation and paranoia.  Regardless of character response, it seems that in movies like The Thing, or like Alien, the monster, so-called, is necessarily even farther from society than the typical monster, more on its outskirts than Dracula in his Gothic Carpathian castle.  Indeed, the truly grotesque monsters in these films – the ones with the mutilated bodies and the ability to infect our bodies – seem situated in some of the universe’s vastest realms – distant planets in outer space, or Antarctica.  To that end, these are stories of borders, and the fear of the ambiguous, amorphous borders that the monsters at hand must transgress to wreak full-scale havoc.  Indeed, it seems quite possible that the human body is the border, in these films, that the ability to invade one body has the possibility – even the likelihood – to provoke a chain reaction that creates calamitous consequences.

And the human body, in the context of The Thing – and, to an extent, Alien, if we’re inclined to draw comparisons – is what interests me the most.  It is no grand insight to say that, like most monsters in monster films, “the thing,” with its tentacles and goop, its blood and its fangs, its tendency to shapeshift slowly and get interrupted mid-transformation, when it’s at its most hideous – it’s no secret to assert that the thing, and whoever inhabits it, are automatically and perhaps violently excluded from the category “human,” and that as viewers we’re asked to more or less accept this rejection in the narrative, to accept the necessity of killing whomever “houses” the thing – a body which is really, we’re told, just an imitation of the original person.  But beyond that, there’s a marked, frantic fear of the non-human body, and of the inhuman body’s ability – or the monstrous body’s ability – to infest, transform, and mutilate the human body.  To return to the title of this piece, this is a film that delights in the grotesque.  Which is to say, maybe my previous phrase, “frantic fear,” is problematic.  Skin splits and tentacled monsters with heads vaguely resembling a now-dead human emerge in myriad scenes.  Organs get dislodged from bodies and skin is frequently sliced open with indifference.  There is an interesting paradox, then, I think, at the heart of the film; there is the simultaneous delight and terror taken in the mutilation of the body, the unapologetic romp into the abject and the macabre.  And if that which is abject, to Julia Kristeva, is generally associated with the feminine, then there’s a potential fear of the feminine abject invading and dismembering masculinity – that is, if we think we can appropriately link “the thing,” with cultural constructs of the feminine.  Even if we can’t, there’s a sort of narrative going on here, not just a narrative of bodily disruption and destruction, but destruction of bodies that align themselves with stereotypical cultural masculinity, and with sometimes-typical American values: science and empiricism, expansion into unknown lands, resilience and individuality, even (this may lie at the base of the analysis, as a sort of undercurrent to be wary of) entitlement.  There is the sense, throughout the piece, that the Americans are entitled to their scientific expedition, which is, one might add, being interrupted in a sort of annoying way.  There is also the sense that these Americans are entitled to the land they’ve settled in – land that, perhaps, was always home to “the thing,” who may have been the initial inhabitant of the arctic landscape. thing two

I wonder, then, what we do with that narrative – especially during a time period (1982) that had already experienced womens’ revolutions, and was slowly moving into an area of amplified technology – the computer (and later, the internet) age.  I do not mean to suggest that “the thing” is directly symbolic of these fears – the shortcomings of science and a narrative of American expansion, the portending of the downfall of stereotypical masculinity, even a general fear and delight in the destruction of the human body – only that this monster, who spreads rapidly and gets really, really big throughout the narrative, seems like an overdetermined entity – a thing that could represent a variety of things, true to its ambiguous signifier – a signifier, or word, which encompasses an amorphous, vast host of meanings or “signifieds.”  These possible lines of inquiry do, to me, as a student of literature who aims to be a sort of “professional of literature” someday, seem worth investigating.

And at the same time, it’s Halloween, so if you’ve gotten to the end of my piece, feel free to get up from your computer and discard my propositions completely in favor of appreciating the film – perhaps even watching it – because it’s really scary and really gross.  I get excited, I’ll be honest, every time the thing shows itself, because it’s one of the most disgusting monsters, I think, horror has to offer.  But, it’s Halloween.  And so, I’ll conclude by saying:  Happy Halloween, and may you delight in whatever monsters (demons, witches, ghosts, etc) you favor on this delicious holiday!

Re-visiting the Grotesque: Another Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing

9 thoughts on “Re-visiting the Grotesque: Another Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing

  1. says:

    So interesting. I must watch the original Carpenter Thing movie; I’ve only seen the recent film which I really enjoyed and which deals with very similar themes. I’m glad you’re writing so much these days!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. says:

        I loved it! It had quite a retro vibe and based on the picture in your piece it looked to be quite “in tone” with the original. I’m newish to the horror genre as you know so I don’t have too much to compare it against – I must get watching some more films again this side of Christmas.

        Liked by 1 person

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