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Cold War, Cold Fear: Analysis of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”


12036523_10153725279532287_4578663768194735472_nBranko Malić
21st Century Wire

Cold War paranoia at our day and age seems so soothing, you can get real nostalgic about it. So why not take a trip down the memory lane, using one of the premier movies of the Eighties, and in the process perhaps realize that nothing was what it seems even then.

Phenomenology of imitation

Hitting the theaters in the wake of final decade of Cold war, John Carpenter’s The Thing came out to be unanimously dismissed by the critics, as everyone privy to the horror/sf genre is aware of. Yet, to this day, it’s creator claims it to be the acme of his craftsmanship.

Furthermore, it is equally true that nowadays The Thing boasts enormous cult following, finally spawning a sequel made with almost obsessive care to stay true to every detail of original plot line, comparable perhaps with the care the makers of Lord of the Rings trilogy took to satisfy the followers of beloved Tolkein’s book.

Of course, the sequel to The Thing remained true to minute details connecting it’s plot to what seemed to be the original. But it’s failure to assimilate it’s uniqueness marks the point this study will address. Namely it never touched the occult plot of The Thing: the escalation of battle of the two unrelenting enemies – their lethal game of chess – and it being the perfect imitation of a possible real act, the act of total war.

In using the term ‘occult’ I refer to it’s original meaning of ‘intentionally hidden’, while the term ‘plot’ does not refer to script, but to the structure of an act the motion picture imitates. The ‘act’ denotes meaningful action or interconnected set of actions. Therefore, to assimilate the act means to mimic the inner logical structure of real or possible events caused by intelligent agents.

Furthermore, this analysis is not concerned with praise or the critique of the original film nor the sequel. The scope is, in a way, both broader and more focused. It has a twofold aim: firstly, to depict meaningful patterns Carpenter employed to create unique sense of dread and bleakness and, secondly, to point out some of the implications such approach to motion picture creation can have – and indeed has – for media filtered reality of contemporary society; the society which more or less perceives itself as a picture in motion.


For starters, it is in order to further clarify a conceptual framework within which this analysis progresses. The term phenomenological analysis or description relates to philosophical method introduced in a first half of twentieth century by German thinker Edmund Husserl, and is loosely attached to his understanding of the term. It is a discipline of depiction of the world as a plenum of meaningful phenomena. As such they are related to consciousness which is in itself a form of an intentional act. Namely, the Husserl’s great achievement was his insight in the fundamental nature of consciousness in general: he realized that it is always engaged in, or concerned about it’s object. For example, we are all aware of a phenomenon of losing oneself in the movie. We must hence ask ourselves: what is it that gets involved and even lost in it, as in a dream? This thing tending to become absorbed in it’s object we’ll define as consciousness in general. It can be compared to a beam of spotlight always in search for meaning or meaningful pattern. And this beam of light is in a way always outside itself, projected towards something, which is possible only because it is in itself a pure activity, something forever intrigued, moved and attentive. The only real question is: by what?

In the motion picture we are about to depict there are many patterns of meaning which provoke this spotlight of ours to be moved and dragged along the path John Carpenter paved for his viewers.

The variety of those meaningful structures is indisputably ‘objective’ in a sense that their meaning can be nothing more and nothing less than what it is. They are subjective in a sense that they can exist only if they are recognized as such by the perceiving subject.

This recognition doesn’t have to be conscious, yet the meaning will be apprehended and will induce certain definite effect on the perceiver. Precisely such meaningful structures are the things this analysis endeavors to dissect. Some of the insights regarding their purpose can be disputed, some explanations can looked stretched, and they are entirely open to discussion. But they are indisputably present, and bear great importance regarding the definite effect this motion picture as a whole imprints on it’s audience.

However, this analysis is not ment to depict The Thing’s occult patterns for their own sake. In the West, the perception of the world is extremely mediated through motion pictures – and electronic audio-visual media as such – so it can even be argued that while some decades ago people clashed over different world pictures, nowadays they wage wars over various motion pictures.

While posing the picture and pronouncing it identical with the thing it represents – the thing it imitates – is in itself an instance of manipulation, the motion picture is an instance where imitation truly assimilates it’s object. It moves, thinks, rattles and speaks as those things we call social crisis, Wars in Balkans and Middle East and such. It becomes a moving – and that means: living – picture of reality. And we, the people receiving it through media, have no means of depicting whether it is real or imitation.

Or, we could just be able to put it to the test?


A perfect imitation

The idea of the existence of occult plot does not necessary include the idea of an overall occult meaning in the motion picture. In the instance of The Thing, the overall meaning is what is displayed on screen: the unrelenting clash of opposed and irreconcilable parties represented by humans and the Thing, escalating into inescapable destruction of all-out warfare.

The rhythm of this clash is meticulously paced from underlying uneasiness of introduction, through tension of undeclared and covert intelligence warfare, to conclusive and inevitable finale of absolute surfacing of an enemy and pitched battle that leaves the scene in ruins. This plot mimics the likely outcome of Cold War in it’s bleakest consequence, as was reflected in the media mirror of the age.

What distinguishes Carpenter’s approach, and makes it far superior to outright depictions of the same, as for instance was the surprise eighties hit The Day After, is not only his indirect approach to the theme, his submergence of the meaning in the occult layer of the motion picture, but also his unrelenting truthfulness to one ancient dramatic principle.

This principle is famous Aristotle’s unity of act. Before we proceed to depiction of visual meaningful patterns of the motion picture, let’s explore the scene and the act of this drama in the light of Aristotle’s insights.

The word ‘drama’ comes from the ancient Greek dramein meaning ‘to run’. When nowadays we say that something is accomplished “in a single run”, we are closest to Aristotle’s conception of the term and the structure of JC’s The Thing. This motion picture is in effect complete display of the plot as a single, unified, run.

Let’s clarify. One of the common misunderstandings about Aristotle’s Poetics is that it posed a threefold principle of unity in dramatic display: the unity of act, place and the time. This is however quite wrong. While unity of time and place are mentioned in his work, they are never posed as necessary principles of composing a play. The only necessary principle – axioma as he calls it – is a unity of act.

The act however is not referring to actors but is the meaningful structure of the plot. It means simply that every action must observe the logical necessity of given premises.

While this can seem self evident, it is far from it. Namely, in Aristotle’s notion of logic, the perfect conclusion is the one that explains – explicates – what is already implicit in it’s premises. For instance, we make the inference:

All human’s are mortal
John is human
John is mortal

This inference is what Aristotle calls perfect categorical inference. It is perfect because it gives non-ambivalent answer as to why is John mortal. He is mortal because he is human. The fact is explained by general and unquestionable definition. As Aristotle presupposes that we have some innate notions which can be made explicit in definitions, all our knowledge tends to return, or recur, to the beginning of inquiry.

The above inference is in fact circular: it proceeds through things we already know, to the thing we are certain about: that all men are mortal. Aristotle’s presupposition here is that all knowledge is a sort of circle of clarifying something that is already there.

However, that does not mean that knowledge acquired is empty of content. It is literally un-covering, what originally was present, but hidden from our sight. For our purpose it is essential to observe the following:

The perfect act imitates the perfect inference, i.e. it proceeds from underlying assumptions, reaching the climax in their explication, and concludes with the consequence which was already present, but not made explicit, in the beginning. As only preserved Aristotle’s work on dramatic art is the Poetics dealing exclusively with Greek tragedy, he uses examples from famous tragedies as Sophoclo’s Edip the King, but I think that his principle is very relevant in every instance of mimetic or imitating art and The Thing is one brilliant piece of imitation – namely the imitation of cold war and the social psychosis it’s media presentation masterfully created. The tightness of it’s plot observes not only the rule of enclosed circularity, for what is given in the beginning inevitably proceeds and recurs upon itself, but in the confinement of the overall setting as well. Namely the motion picture depicts the isolated portion of the most isolated place of the world; there is no back story to any of the characters and their connections to anything outside the act represented, and there is nothing – both in spacial and temporal sense – outside of the stage. Stripped to it’s plot, The Thing gives everything in it’s premises, and outside of them there is nothing. This peculiarly detailed frame of the mimetic act is a main, meta-visual, cause of incredibly thick atmosphere The Thing is famous about. The plot is not the script, but internal logic of actions the motion picture imitates. And it imitates them perfectly.

As many viewers had been pointing out, the very opening scene of The Thing spells doom without giving away anything of that which will happen latter. And there is no doubt throughout the film that the closing will provide the same, only this time it will give us the reason – it will make explicit – from whence this sense comes.

This is indeed a remarkable logical loop which makes the motion picture’s plot line a perfect recurring circle. The form is given in advance and provided in the end with meaningful content. The devastation which looms on the horizon in the opening sequence of two men in helicopter chasing the dog is a mirror image of what will be explicitly displayed in the final still of devastated meteorological station. The fact that two devastated camps are indeed the same set filmed in reverse order for obvious reason of futility of building two sets, is an amusing pun played by internal logic of film making on the meaning of The Thing. The ending is in every way inseparable from beginning.

The smoke from the fire is barely visible in the first screen shot, but is present and noticeable on the movie screen. The position of the viewer is very important here. In the opening scene we are put in the place where it’s only possible to glimpse something as a fleeting columns of smoke in the distance. It is common knowledge that Carpenter cut out the scene showing the dog actually run from the smoking remains of the structure we later encounter as a Norwegian camp, and he was quite right because this way the thing which will be disclosed is only implied – literally glimpsed, but obscured by natural position of the viewer regarding the plot.

This, for instance, is completely ignored by the makers of 2011. prequel, opening the film with a panoramic bird-view which eventually focuses on isolated object, the snow truck. From that moment on the viewer is put out of the plot and detached from all the complications it will present.

Carpenter never once makes such mistake. Only at the very end, as depicted in second screen shot, which is literally the last sequence of The Thing, will the viewer be presented with panoramic view of what is glimpsed at the beginning. Utter catastrophe revolving slowly throughout the film. This logical loop has actual visual reference throughout the motion picture, which will be dealt with later.

Now we are to proceed to some of the main visual patterns disclosing the occult plot of The Thing.

Variety of types of meaningful patterns in The Thing

Before we proceed to depict the occult plot, let’s consider some of the visual patterns filmmaker employs. They are not necessarily related to the main topic of the motion picture, but serve roughly two functions: firstly, they amplify the emotional response of the viewer and, secondly, frame the viewer consciousness in the plot by giving in advance the abstract visual framework of what will happen later in the plot line.

This second type of patterns are what I deem most important and most interesting of all Carpenter’s devices, as they are subliminal tools for creating the famous immersive quality of The Thing and serve to literally capture the viewer’s consciousness in the moving pictures.

The introduction of MacReady bears few important visual clues which disclose his place in the occult plot of The Thing


This bottle, with Kurt Russel’s belly in the background, will remain his only true and faithful friend to the end of the film. While it can provoke someone into thinking that it’s just a mean to present him as a hard drinker, the meaning is, as we shall see, far more subtle. Let’s remind ourselves what is MacReady doing. He is playing chess with digital unit Chess Wizard:

Chess Wizard

At one instance he is convinced in victory over the opponent, makes a remark: “Poor baby, you’re starting to loose, ain’tya?“, followed by ironic half-grin, Only to find the female voiced Chess Wizard has beaten him in the next move. He then, without pause to consider the consequences, adapts all rules to his mind set, by pouring his drink into the machine’s circuits, destroying it utterly


He stands up, with a casual remark: “Cheatin’ bitch” and exits his cabin.

Now, at first level, i.e. in the first layer of motion picture’s meaning, this is a good way to introduce the main character and his mind set. So we know in advance that he is a man of instinctual reactions, bad loser, a drunk (it’s morning), and an individualist living detached from the rest of the group. MacReady will stay true to this character to the end, as all of his consequent actions will mirror, or recur to, this introductory sequence. Furthermore, this scene of mental duel – this game of chess – is superbly portrayed:

Mac & horse

As the above screen displays, when Chess Wizard’s voice pronounces: “rook to knight six”, we are presented with MacReady facing his opponent personalized in a chess piece. They are, literally, having a drink. This is the pattern which I will in the following text define as underlining the meaning. It doesn’t carry any hidden meaning, but it serves as a sort of pointing out, or empowering the meaning of the act as the piece of plot.

When I first noticed some of the recurring objects and visual patterns in The Thing, my first thought was that they all serve precisely the purpose of underlining and visually connecting the scenes, tightening the segments of the plot by connecting them not only with meaning of the action, but with the physical items and visual cues as well.

However, in some instances this is only a superficial function. One of the more unusual, and more meaningful, functions of this technique is providing a frame of what will happen ahead in the motion picture. This procedure I will define as framing. The most blatantly obvious example is the strange accessory found on the wrists dr.Copper


There is absolutely no reason for a conservative middle aged gentleman to promote Duran Duran style fashion on Anctartica, at least not until we see what will happen to his hands later in the film:



The wrists were obviously an indicator of a shocking event which will involve dr.Copper’s hands. The real question is why does John Carpenter employ such method to indicate or point out something which will happen in the future. Isn’t it better to leave an audience completely unprepared – consciously or unconsciously – to the horror that inevitably follows?

Before we give a sketch of possible answer, let’s take a look at another framing of the viewer’s consciousness, in this instance deeply subliminal.

After the mayhem created by Norwegians and the dog has settled, dr. Copper insists to be flown to their camp in order to check out what happened and possibly help the needy. Reluctant MacReady agrees to give him a ride in helicopter and we are treated with two long shots. The first is the shot of helicopter taking off, concentrated upon it’s tail rotor rotating with increasing speed as the engine picks up speed,


and then, as pounding bass line imitating heart beat picks up speed, we see the „dog“ attentively listening under the table,


As helicopter is ready to take off, we are presented with shot of main rotor in full action, while musical line intensifies in speed.

When the helicopter leaves the scene, we see the „dog“ fully alert,

Now, this scene is unbelievably tense both in sense of it’s narrative structure and in pure suspense it creates. From whence comes this feeling of menace? Is it the consciously observable fact that dog is obviously strange, or is it an instinctual reaction to meticulously paced increase of rhythm both of sound and vision? It is both, but there is one other thing. Let’s take another look at the first screen shot,


What does the end of the helicopter’s tail resemble? It is very similar to a usual children paint book presentation of the head of a ‘tail waging (rotating) animal’, namely: the dog. And the animal is, as the sign tells us, DANGER!, more so as we observe it’s rising tension mimicking the engine’s picking up of speed. If this argument appears stretched, we must bear in mind that subliminals of this kind are not intended to appeal to discursive mind, i.e. they are not meant to be understood, but are intended to provoke instinctive reaction.

The way unconscious mind depicts meaningful patterns, as for instance in dreams, is always through some kind of transference of meaning. In what way the director and the editors of motion picture were aware that this signifier will provoke certain effect is beyond the scope of this study, but it is worth noting that this way of appealing to unconscious is highly manipulative in a sense that it is targeted to basic animal or, at best, child-like drives, and is practically a common place in TV commercials.

Seeing meaningful patterns in random structures is a basis of infant creativity, but in mature age the patterns of meaning should be explicative, i.e. yield immediate meaning upon careful depiction. One cannot call this subliminal a symbol in a same way the cross or the swastika are symbols. It is more of a sign, like it says itself: a sign of danger. And it serves to amplify an emotion of impending, but still not apparent, danger pervading the introductory stage of The Thing.

In the scene of MacReady and dr. Copper landing upon their return from the Norwegian camp we have one instance of underlining with similar type of subliminal. The dog is observing helicopter landing through the window


We can see three planks behind it, positioned as if they are springing from it’s back. This is what they announce:


The spider-like legs are springing from the dog-thing’s back during it’s shape-shifting. Let’s see some of the other instances of underlining and framing, this time more intelligible, i.e. verbal:


In the moment this snapshot is taken, MacReady finishes the sentence about alien craft crashing, and Childs responds with his skeptic line about it all being “Voodoo bullshit!”. To his left side we can clearly read the word ‘asteroid’, written on the top part of pinball machine. The reference is obvious. The word serves as an underliner to an image of something crashing from outer space. If this seems like a coincidence, this one certainly doesn’t:


This is from the scene of the blood test where MacReady tries to incinerate Palmer-thing, but his flame thrower malfunctions. I think there is no need to explain why we are treated with words ‘heat wave’.

The blood-test scene, arguably the peak of tension in the film, is filled with similar patterns. For instance, take this scene of Mac testing Nauls after incinerating the Palmer-thing:


Hence, we know in advance that in the next scene ‘Nauls (is on) his side’.


Or perhaps we can point out this reminder on the absence of Blair from the blood test:


It says: ‘They aren’t labeled’, referring of course to the labeled vessels containing blood, with Blair being absent, hence unlabeled and untested. Furthermore, here is one cheap trick, probably the only one of it’s kind in the movie:

t24Carpenter tricks us to believe Windows is the Thing. As Mac heats the needle for the test he is backing away with menacing expression, while we are reinforced in assuming wrong:


These are some of the visual cues we defined as underlining and framing. They are by no means the only ones, and we will be obliged to point out some other instances further down the road. But in all above examples they serve the function of merely reinforcing the atmosphere of the motion picture and drawing the viewers attention deeper into it. This, however, is not a trifle matter. The meaning of a piece of art can very well be embedded precisely in the atmosphere it creates. It was done before the Hollywood was even conceived.

For instance, we can recall Joseph Conrad’s method in prose, where he, while portraying Marlowe, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, describes him spinning yarns in which the essence of the story was never concealed as if in the nutshell, but resembled the halos one can sometimes observe forming around the moon, announcing stormy weather. To be able to tell the story to emotions is in no way inferior to explaining something to the intellect. But it is infinitely more susceptible to manipulation.

As Edmund Husserl pointed out, the consciousness is always intentional, i.e. it always projects itself into it’s object. It is a pure, immaterial, act. And the act of visual comprehension is never originally a reflecting one. It is pointed outwards, towards the thing that provokes it, sometimes even dragged along with it.

The masterful creator of motion picture is aware how to exploit this natural tendency, making the viewer get literally absorbed in the movie. It takes much time and mature effort to observe any visual display mediated by electronic means, while remaining detached from it’s purposefully provoked effect.

Now let us proceed to depicting of the occult meaning of The Thing.

Message in the bottle

At the time of the release of The Thing the world was entering in the grand finale of the Cold War. In the end it wasn’t so grand, at least not at first sight. No pyrotechnics, no nuclear winter, no flames encircling the world. It just displayed that it was never what it seemed to be. Eastern block crumbled like a sand castle and what became patently obvious is the fact it was never anything more than that: castle made of sand. We will not dwell in the historical and sociological question of whether the Soviet union ever was the superpower the public opinion considered it to be, because it is far beyond the scope of this study.

But in the wake of Eighties Brzezinski’s picture of the world as a grand chessboard set between two equally powerful opponents was practically uncontested. And John Carpenter exploited it marvelously. It is the contention of this analysis that the main occult plot of The Thing is the depiction of this chess game played between West and the East and inevitable consequence of it’s utter futility.

The players are two intelligent loners prone to alcohol and excessive fits, one of them being an uneducated and impulsive cowboy, very bad at accepting defeat, while the other is cunning and contemplative scientist always one step ahead of others. However, they are both drunks, and they are both equally destructive. Their booze of choice is what visually presents the viewer with their true nature.

As we have already established, the bottle of whiskey is Mac’s movie-long friend, never leaving his side for long. However there is another bottle of liquor carefully introduced. It is Blair’s bottle containing Smirnoff Vodka.

Let’s inspect the scene introducing it. After the mess created by revealing the true nature of the dog, calamity in Norwegian camp, and finally discovering the alien craft, the introduction to the main plot is complete. The scene of discussion about the events is finished with a shot of Blair being asked for an opinion which whites out in above screen. Now he is looking at the display of the computer much like MacReady was staring at the digital chessboard.


Blair is playing a simulation of projected rate The Thing would infect the human population if it ever leaves Antartica:

Figures are indeed disturbing:

Provoking Blair into short determination. Then he really introduces himself:


We must pause a bit and examine this screen. As is obvious, the scene mirrors the position of MacReady in his introduction. Both the computer and uncorked bottle are present. While we are led to believe that both Blair and Macready are prone to alcohol and in a way akin, this is only the surface. Smirnoff vodka denotes Blair as a Russian intelligence master, a chess wizard (notably, two stereotypes of Russian nation very popular in the West at the time were that Russians are heavy drinkers and really love chess) in contrast to MacReady cowboy-like antics, which denote him as stereotype of American G.I. Joe.

t30t31t33The third screen in the series is a lingering shot of the Thing and faded out Blair underlining and framing in advance our consciousness of who and what he really is. But the pencil, i.e. intelligence, is not the only chess master’s weapon

t34He will resort to violence. In The Thing the gun is a symbol of taking a lead in the battle, as we know from the scene where characters argue about Garry’s succession


His laying of the gun is symbolical act of giving up the lead. It will, as we know, come into MacReady’s possession. Now, what is this we see when Blair symbolically takes the lead on the side of the Thing

The strange hole in the paper sheet is not a mouse bite. It is the image of chessboard itself – the map of Antartica.

To reinforce the argument, let’s get back on western spirits. The scene immediately follows,


This screen shot marks the ending of the scene where MacReady contemplates who could be the owner of the rag. If you observe the whole scene in the film, you will notice how Kurt Russel, while taking the zip from the bottle, turns it around and throws a glance at the label, in order to position it correctly to the camera, so that we are blatantly aware of whose the rags are. They are B’s.

Now, the moment signifying that the game’s afoot, i.e. that conflict is beginning to finally surface. The West recognizes the East, and throws the gauntlet,


This series of screens depicts the scene where Blair is, after his fit of rage during which he destroyed all means of communications with outer world, finally put in isolation, in position not unlikely MacReady’s from the beginning of the film. His trusty bottle of Smirnoff is placed on the table by Fuches. While other men leave the shack, MacReady lingers. Then he throws his gloves on the table and takes the zip of Blair’s Vodka, exchanging few remarks about trust with him. Those remarks are important in themselves, but we will not deal with them here.

Namely, let’s see what these pictures tell us: the throwing of the gloves is in fact a challenge; a throwing of the gauntlet. This is what we might call a moment of the recognition. It is not necessarily a conscious recognition for we can’t know the thoughts of the characters. The drama can only imitate an act, or the thought displayed as an act. So, for the integrity of occult plot, it is highly relevant symbolic situation. Throwing the gauntlet, and sharing a drink consistently displays not that Macready consciously recognized Blair for what he is, but that the plot is at the turning point where hidden conflict begins to surface.

Furthermore, this is reinforced by constant connecting of actions of the Thing with pictures or objects related to playing a game. For instance, in the already treated scene of helicopter departing to Norwegian camp, before camera slides on attentive dog-thing under the tennis table, this is what we see


Note the tennis racket and the ball. Then, after showing us people go about their business, camera switches to first person view of someone or something observing the rec-room. And we see this:

t44t45t46Before we are shown the prowling dog-thing going down the corridor, we see the tennis ball is absent. The thing is on the prowl for it’s first victim, and that is symbolized by the missing ball.

The film tells us that the game begins.

In the wake of final battle, while we can still wrongly assume that there is hope for somebody to survive the conflict, we see this, for instance:


The chess pieces are scattered, the all-out war is raging.

The thesis that The Thing depicts total war is further strengthened by the fact some of the critics pointed out, namely that it is highly unconvincing for U.S. meteorological station to be populated by bunch of disillusioned middle-aged men, prone to drinking, and equipped by sizeable arsenal of firearms. Furthermore, adding to bewilderment of American scientist being a group of human-all-too-human nobodies trying to survive, some critics even objected to the fact there is not one female character in the movie.

Both of these objections, irrelevant and plainly misfired as they are, strengthen the thesis that The Thing is about the war. This is because the characters – or at least a part of them – are disillusioned soldiers. MacReady is certainly one:

t48In this scene, for instance, we clearly see that he is completely outfitted in military garments. Same goes for Garry. Why should meteorological outpost be under the thumb of uniformed man wearing a gun?  Plain and simple, because it is in fact military outpost pretending to be scientific facility.

Regarding the absence of woman – a sore reality of military camps from time immemorial – it is not entirely true


The entire section of wall is covered with black and white pictures of women, clearly indicating that they are missed as an object of desire, but not present because they would be out of the place in the base, as well as in the movie itself.

All things considered, everything in the setup points to military and warfare themes. The critic’s remarks on absence of women and bleakness of characters, completely beside the point as they are, serve only to strengthen this impression. This film could not be what it is if there were any females, or if any of the characters would be anything more but disillusioned soldier fighting the battle he knows he can’t win. And this inevitability of defeat, or demise of both sides is hinted upon throughout the movie.

Let’s observe one of the recurring visual hints of pending total catastrophe:

t50t51t52The noose in this series of screens is introduced at the moment Blair is put in isolation and we last see it before MacReady pronouncing: “We are not getting outta here alive, but neither does that thing”. In my opinion it serves roughly two purposes, the later being the furthering of occult plot.

Firstly, it is an old dramatic device tightly knit with Carpenter’s strict observance of unity of act. It is the Chekov’s famous rule: if the first scene in the play displays a nail hammered to the wall, we can be certain that someone will hang himself to it ‘till the final scene.

Secondly, it is useful to strengthen the unified and recurring nature of a plot by using such scene details because we unconsciously perceive them while they are out of focus, and are recognizing them when they move into it.

So if deep inside we feel that noose should play out to become a loop made to commit suicide, Carpenter – who discretely suggested it – gratifies our question with desirable answer. Namely, the noose signifies the suicidal outcome of total war, underlining MacReady’s realization of inevitable destruction.

The motion picture finally moves close to it’s beginning. The barely visible smoke over the gorge from the beginning of the movie now begins to display it’s source,

t54t55t56t57t59t60t61moving to a climax of final surfacing and all-out destructive nature of the conflict.

The nuclear war is quick and all-destructive. No one will survive the winter that ensues, as all means of preserving life are destroyed. In this sense the full circle The Thing makes recurs to it’s point of inception. The ambiguity of two survivors, i.e. whether any one of them is the Thing, is more or less unimportant from the standpoint of occult plot because it just reinforces Carpenter’s irony. They will die regardless, and MacReady’s final ironic smile while Childs takes the zip from his trusty bottle is completely to the point. It was all futile and inevitable, what was given at the outset simply unfolded until the end.

Assimilation and manipulation

If we are to accept this analysis, then we may conclude that The Thing contains much more than it says on it’s package. It is the film about fear or, more to the point: it is a celluloid display of definite, historical, instance of it, it’s perfect imitation.

In that sense genre label covers only superficial meaning which serves to empower it’s real purpose. Perhaps one of the reasons film was so unpopular at it’s inception was it tackled all too real and present fear pervading the West in the early Eighties. Cult following ensued only in the wake of mass promulgation of laser disk technology, i.e. in the late nineties, but one wonders was it really the main reason.

The Cold war was an all important ingredient of the zeitgeist which evaporated practically overnight when Berlin wall came down, together with all the fear but also with that strange sense of certainty and an almost infantile, loveable, naiveté of the generation growing up in it’s last decade.

As the undersigned is a resident of the part of the world that celebrated the end of the epoch with bloodshed and lethal pyrotechnic, shattering any vestiges of what existed before the nineties, from institutions to forms of sentimentality which were tightly influenced by the West, this could be exaggeration, of course. But more and more people realize that perhaps the ingredients of zeitgeist supposedly forming our world and our understanding of it are not really amalgam of accidental historical occurrences, but could very well be collected and mixed together intentionally.

At least some of the finds of this analysis regarding visual cues are very hard to dispute as quite deliberate and intentional. Could it then be so hard to imagine that the whole worldview of the eighties was likewise quite deliberately created and mediated through motion pictures and music? The paranoid fear was very important for the feeling of living on the edge, waiting for the end of the world, desiring to remain “Forever young“.

But there I must pose an inevitable question: was it real? Was any of it real?

Or it was just an imitation shaped to provoke a certain definite mindset to be discarded at opportune moment? Doomsday was not in the air during the Eighties. It was in motion pictures. And people lived as it were real, waiting on the end of the world and “dancing with tears in their eyes”, while it is highly disputable that real danger of nuclear war really ever existed. After all, isn’t it ridiculous that this tight atmosphere of fear simply evaporated and is now forgotten as if it never haunted the West?

Real danger, real threat doesn’t just evaporate in the thin air, it leaves scars and other ineradicable reminders, while eighties only provoke certain nostalgia, much like it’s epitome movie presentation we just analyzed. Isn’t it strange that horror film with ridiculous premise now serves as a premier piece of the epoch, provoking more nostalgia than fear?

It would be if The Thing was simply about what it says it is about. But apparently this is not the case. It is a summing up of the darkest acts of Cold War conceived by public imagination and projection of their consequences, the acts that were necessary to produce all that frivolous light heartedness of the epoch now forever lost. And could it all have been so light hearted if somehow deep inside everybody didn’t know that it is in fact not real, that it is only an imitation?

In conclusion, with more and more discoveries of media producing the reality – incidentally, almost always a reality imitating a SF or horror movie, one has to wonder what to make of all those mediated, moving pictures people form their worldviews on. Plato warned about a “many-headed beast” in man, waking in dreams when higher faculties are dormant, and doing things one could never dare do when awake. He pointed out that tyrants love to feed it and nurture it in the souls of their subjects.

The movie is a kind of dream and to be immersed in it, one has to sink himself in it’s flow, the searchlight of consciousness must dissolve in it’s deliberately implanted meanings and completely lose itself to itself. And when this happens, the life itself becomes the movie, the reality becomes indistinguishable from it’s imitation.

The only test to discern between the two seems to be that root from which this thing we call consciousness stems from and this is the discarded object of psychology – the soul itself. For consciousness is only a fancy and vague modern name for what ancients called the energia of the soul, it’s ability to be outside of itself and project itself wherever it pleases. Likewise, they thought it is a real cause of it’s demise, because in running outside it forgets it’s real root, exchanging it’s own reality for reality of images it projects and gets engulfed into.

Taking into consideration how media and motion picture mediated meanings are multilayered and deceptive – as we have attempted to show in this analysis – it would seem that our historical moment would more or less be a platonic nightmare. A world of waking sleep, where soul is completely lost in it’s own activities, goaded on by imitations of real meanings and purposes.

John Carpenter’s observance of some natural rules of drama should not fool us into thinking that motion pictures in general are just another form of dramatic act. On the contrary, while drama imitates the act, motion picture creates a pictorial reality. It can assimilate everything, from weather to scenery in order to tell it’s story, just like a dream. Carpenter is not an establishment figure and arguably precisely by The Thing’s initial flop at the box office he sealed his fate in big budget film industry.

So this movie somehow stands out as observant of some of the classical rules of imitating act. But the very media of film is far more akin to imitation of a dream, where pictures and impulses are far more pronounced than rational thought and act the drama imitates.

In our age, we can safely argue, it grew to imitate them perfectly, even to the extent of creating the dream to be consummated in the waking state. What truth and what reality is there in this, so called, artistry?

None whatsoever.

The film is not an art of producing or uncovering the beauty but the method of manipulation. For all intents and purposes it can be not much else, and although independent minded people like Carpenter occasionally create something that resembles the art for art’s sake, the technology, which is the real substance of film making, has it’s own relentless logic and purpose.

And this logic is epitomized by Hollywood. All those Kurosawa, Bergman or Kubrick fans, despising the “empire of illusions”, do not realize that it is the most perfect expression of what this art is really about.

Technology cannot but fulfill it’s purpose. If you can make a first atom bomb, you have to detonate it over someone’s head, because if it’s purpose remains untested, the technological mean is unfinished, i.e. dysfunctional. If you can project the stream of moving pictures to capture someone’s consciousness, because that’s essentially why they are moving in the first place, then you must capture it. Never mind artistic residue, it is at the end of it’s tether anyway. It’s all about imitation and manipulation as it always was.

Therefore, the blood test is in order. It is more of a soul test, admittedly, but let’s stay true to form. Necessary precondition of keeping in touch with reality in the developed Western world is ability either to completely ignore the media and film industry, or to endeavor to read their subtext. It is the only way to remain safe from assimilation into moving picture and to keep feasible the opportunity to revert back into reality of one’s own soul.

This is the way to discern who is who: one must test whether man has got any inside anymore or it wore away by being worn out for too long. And one way to wear out everything intimate to individual soul is to do everything possible to forget about it’s existence. It is it’s suicide, because it can be suffocated only at it’s own deliberation and then assimilated into imitation, enchanted out of the existence, so to speak.

This is the danger of picture in motion and the reason why there comes a moment in life when one must decide whether he’ll let himself be dragged by it in the unknown direction or whether he’ll start examining and, gradually, rejecting it. It is the sorry state of affairs when we must conclude by stating that this rejection nowadays may be just the closest thing to revolution.

It is indeed sorry state because it implies that assimilation is almost complete.

Author Branko Malić is a Croatian author and owner of Kali Tribune, with the background in classical philosophy. He’s focused on philosophy, media, culture and deep politics analysis.




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