The Thing (1982): A Study in Fear

There is a reason why the horror genre is a staple of cinema and literature, because it taps into some of the most basic human emotions, which in this case is fear. And the thing I think we all fear the most is the unknown. We as human beings feel the need to understand everything we can, and when we don’t, we find it scary. This is human nature. To quote one of the most famous horror writers H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” And that is why, in my humble opinion, John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982 might be the greatest horror film ever made.

The story is set at a U.S. research facility on Antarctica in the winter of 1982. The research team discover a parasitic alien lifeform that consumes other beings and perfectly imitates them. This begins to take a toll on the team as the film goes on and tension and paranoia rises as no character feel as if they can trust one another.

Right from the opening, we’re struck by the moody score provided by Ennio Morricone (along with uncredited work from Carpenter and Alan Howarth). The main theme for The Thing, with its beating synthesized sound almost replicating a heartbeat, perfectly captures the fear, desperation and the paranoia that’s going to permeate throughout the rest of the film. When me and some classmates of mine wrote a horror movie in high school called Dark Light we actually listened to the soundtrack on a loop to get into the same type of mood for our own film (it…didn’t go over so well).

This is also one of the best ensembles ever assembled for a film in my opinion. Whilst Kurt Russell is billed as the big star and is the de-facto protagonist, the rest of the film is populated with excellent character actors such as Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, Charles Hallahan and Donald Moffat. Despite there not being a lot of screen time for each of these actors to truly develop their characters, you still feel like you know what type of person each character is thanks to the quality of the casting. Another aspect that make the performances stronger, and make the whole film much scarier and more paranoid-inducing, is the fact that during filming, many of the actors didn’t know when they were playing themselves or when/if they were playing an imitation. There is a consistency to the performances throughout the film that makes you the viewer unsure of who to trust or root for. Even Russell, who is the traditional hero, is called into question regarding the nature of his own identity.

This leads into another theme in the movie and another aspect of human nature; our natural distrust for our fellow man and how quickly we turn on each other. As soon as everyone understands that there is a possibility that someone in the group could be the thing or a mere imitation there is natural distrust, and that is simply human. I don’t know if I could explain why, but we’re simply suspicious of each other purely through nature. This comes back to reflect our own personal feelings about these characters. Like I said, we find ourselves rooting for Kurt Russell, but when the possibility is raised that he might be the thing, we’re left in the dark with these characters and the paranoia from the screen starts to seep into us and for the rest of the film we’re always questioning these characters and their true nature.

There is also another type of fear that permeates the film; the fear of the unknown. As Lovecraft stated, we human beings are naturally afraid of the unknown and things we cannot trust, be they people or animals or objects. This fear is just as primal as being scared of the dark, because we don’t know what’s out there or what it can do to us. And the thing itself, a chameleon-like alien lifeform, works as a symbol of the unknown. We don’t really know what it is, we don’t know where its from and we don’t know why it landed here on Earth in the first place. All we know is that it can change shapes and become perfect imitations of any living organism. And we’re never told what the thing’s final form is, or if it indeed even has a final form.
So I hope I made myself clear as to why The Thing, in my opinion, could be the best horror movie ever made because of how it brilliantly taps into some of the most basic and human emotions we all share – fear.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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