When John Carpenter’s The Thing hit theaters back in June 1982, the only thing scarier than the film were the reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “instant junk” while Cinefantastique featured The Thing on one front cover alongside the question, “Is this the most hated movie of all time?”
Yet, if anything, the past 40 years has seen The Thing become one of the most beloved sci-fi horror movies of all time, influencing everything from Stranger Things to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. To paraphrase Die Hard 2, it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with Carpenter’s sci-fi led gorefest arriving alongside Blade Runner on June 25 of its year, just a few weeks after the family friendly alien fun of E.T.
Thankfully, The Thing, also like Blade Runner, went on to enjoy a second life through video rentals and countless cable and television broadcast. For millions living in an age before the internet, there was something undeniably thrilling about unearthing the film on grainy VHS or late night TV.
Yet 40 years on from the film’s release, social media has done little to dampen fascination with Carpenter’s film. In fact, The Thing has gone from strength to strength, spawning a prequel, comic book, video game, board game, and the fan website Outpost31.com. At a time when many are preferring to look back rather than forward, The Thing represents the perfect time capsule of ‘80s sci-fi horror movie nostalgia. It’s classic Carpenter, fresh from signature hits like Halloween and Escape From New York, and is aided by body-horror special effects whizz-kid Rob Bottin, best known for An American Werewolf in London.
Fundamental to the film’s success, however, is Bill Lancaster’s script, a meditation on division and distrust as relevant today as it was back in ‘82, carrying with it a terrifyingly simple conceit: who is The Thing?
A nightmarish riff on the whodunnit formula, in place of a murderer the film instead centered on a shape-shifting alien capable of assimilating and imitating its human hosts—more than several at a time. The Thing invited viewers to share in the fear and suspicion of its characters while also trying to ascertain whether everyone is who they say they are. A setup ripe for repeat viewings and multiple, overlapping and often contradictory fan theories, Carpenter, to his credit, has kept his own counsel on the truth behind the many claims that have surfaced down the years, and that’s only helped enhance the lore of the film itself. The question remains, who is assimilated first? And who, if anyone, is human by the end?
The Background and Cast of Suspects
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the 12-strong American team based at Outpost 31 in Antarctica. Thus our list of potential Thing victims is as follows:
Helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), senior biologist Dr. Blair (A. Wilford Brimley), assistant biologist Fuchs (Joel Polis), resident cook Nauls (T.K. Carter), assistant mechanic Palmer (David Clennon), chief mechanic Childs (Keith David), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist George Bennings (Peter Maloney), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur) , station commander Garry (Donald Moffat), and radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites).
Having weighed up the theories and evidence on screen, here’s a timeline detailing when and who is assimilated.
Debate has long raged over the identity of the first of The Thing’s victims, whose fate is earmarked during a subtly terrifying scene in which the alien skulks the corridors of the compound, fresh from having evaded the two crazed Norwegians who pursued it from their own camp.
For a moment, the creature pauses in the doorway of the injured Bennings room (he was accidentally shot by one of the Norwegians). Perhaps theorizing that the injured man poses less of a threat, the Dog-Thing instead heads down to another room.
In the following memorable shot, we see the imitation canine slip into a room where the silhouette of a man is visible against the door. The man’s curly hair suggests one of three possibilities: Windows, Norris, and Palmer. With the blood test later in the film confirming Windows as human, it’s a straight toss-up between Palmer and Norris, although both end up being assimilated one way or the other.
Stuntman Dick Warlock was enlisted to perform as the silhouette for the scene with Carpenter keen to throw audiences off the scent as much as possible. However, there is one strong visual clue as to the identity of the individual assimilated. The silhouette is clearly wearing a shirt with a protruding collar that matches Norris’ shirt and turtleneck jumper.
There is another clue to the fact Palmer is still very much human later in the movie. In a scene shown some time after the Dog-Thing assimilates its first victim, Palmer is seen watching an old episode of the quiz show Let’s Make a Deal recorded on VHS with Childs. In the scene, he abruptly stops the tape halfway through and puts a new one in, telling Childs, “I know how this one ends.” If he was The Thing, he would have had no qualms watching the original episode as it would have never seen it before. Moreover, he continues his penchant for smoking weed and shares a spliff with Childs. How would an alien have known to do that and what effect might the drugs have had on it, even if it had managed to?
Some fans have pointed to a later scene when Fuchs theorizes that it may only take one molecule of the alien to assimilate an entire organism as being crucial to tracing the path of the assimilations. It’s why Fuchs recommends everyones prepare their own meals and drinks, and only eat from sealed cans (that’s important for later on). But Fuchs’ theory remains exactly that, a theory. Molecule-based assimilation would create a multitude of plot holes. For example, in the blood test scene, the Palmer-Thing is tied up arm-to-arm alongside Garry. Yet the blood test proves Garry is still human and he is later assimilated for his troubles.
Instead it’s far more plausible that Norris was the one first assimilated during the dog encounter. The later assimilation of Bennings and the dogs suggests it is a relatively quick process, with the alien able to create nearly perfect copies of both in a matter of minutes. With Norris, it had nearly an entire night.
It’s often noted that the would-be Norris-Thing then goes on to accompany Mac and another of the team to visit the alien ship. Some have pointed to this as proof he has not yet been assimilated. However, at that point, the alien’s primary objective would have been to hide in plain sight in order to escape. Revealing themselves there and assimilating the two others would not only expose The Thing’s plan but also leave them stranded with no one left to fly the helicopter back to Outpost 31.
Rather what’s more telling is that during the discovery of the ship, Norris, or rather Norris-Thing is the one who theorizes the ship has been there some 100,000 years. It’s almost like he knew.
With the crew unaware of Norris’ assimilation, the later memorable scene in which the Dog Thing reveals itself to the other canines, splitting in half and seemingly turning inside out while attempting to absorb the other animals, sets in motion the events that will end with Palmer being assimilated.
When the alien is eventually discovered, the team intervenes with Childs torching much of the Dog-Thing’s carcass. Even so, a portion of the creature does manage to escape. With the alien now roaming free, it’s fair to say things get messy. In one key exchange later, Nauls interrupts a discussion among the crew to reveal he found some “dirty drawers” in the kitchen trash. The implication on repeat viewings is that the clothing was likely destroyed in an assimilation that has taken place off-screen.
Throughout the movie, five characters are shown wearing matching long johns: Palmer, Copper, MacReady, Nails, and Blair. Nauls, Copper, and MacReady all pass the blood test, proving they are human. So the shredded clothing belongs to either Blair or Palmer.
Yet at the point they are found, Blair is still clearly human. In a subsequent scene an increasingly worried Blair is shown running probability scenarios as the gravity of their situation hits home. That leaves only one option: Palmer.
Absorbed by the reanimated remnants of The Thing brought back from the Norwegian station, the Bennings-Thing is significant as the first confirmed transformation shown on the screen. Yet there’s another crucial plot point tied to his assimilation.
During the scene in which Bennings and Windows are putting things away in the storeroom (where The Thing is being kept), Bennings tells Windows to go and get the keys from Garry. When he returns, he witnesses the Bennings-Thing in mid-transformation and audibly drops the keys. In the aftermath of Bennngs’ death, the keys remain on the storage room floor for an undetermined amount of time while the crew gather up all the specimens of the alien to be destroyed.
Later, when the crew find their blood supplies have been destroyed, suspicion falls on Garry as the only one other than Copper with access to the keys. Yet evidently the sabotage took place at some point when the keys were unaccounted for and likely involved Palmer-Thing.
Tellingly, when the crew later discover the vandalized blood, Palmer-Thing hangs back, barely saying a word and all the time keeping one headphone in his ear. Either they are trying to blend in, or are unaware of the poor etiquette of listening to music at that time.
Realizing no one can escape the station alive for the sake of humanity, Blair’s destruction of the outpost’s vehicles and radio equipment prove beyond doubt that he is human up to this point. But it also seals his fate and puts into play another key plot point.
As eagle-eyed fans have noticed, during the scene when Blair lays waste to the communications equipment, Palmer-Thing is strangely absent from the group as they try to tackle Blair. That’s because Palmer-Thing is likely busy planting the clothing to frame MacReady later. He wouldn’t have keys to sabotage the blood at this point, so was likely making plans to eliminate arguably the strongest member of the team..
Blair is eventually placed in isolation in one of the shacks outside the main building. It’s during the days that follow that he is assimilated by either Palmer-Thing or Norris-Thing who would have been able to visit under the guise that they were coming by to check up on Blair. Alternatively, the remaining Dog-Thing (if still alive) could have also found a way in. However, it is discovered later on that the door to the shack was left wide open, having been unlocked from the outside.
Carpenter appears to offer a couple of clues to the likely point at which Blair is assimilated while in isolation.When MacReady first checks on Blair, the scientist is shown eating canned food. Earlier, Fuchs told MacReady everyone should eat canned food to combat infection. Blair likely reached the same conclusion from his research so is taking precautions. If he had been assimilated, he would neither have known to eat like this nor felt the need to. Secondly, during the scene preceding his death, Fuchs is startled during a powercut by the presence of a shadowy unidentified figure. Carpenter is careful to use a musical cue to mark the unknown character’s sudden appearance. However, what’s telling is that the same musical cue makes a reappearance later when the Blair-Thing attacks and assimilates Garry. The suggestion is that the music is being used as a leitmotif to announce Blair-Thing’s arrival in the two scenes. If so, he’s likely to have been responsible for Fuchs’ death.
Some have suggested Blair-Thing was there to try and frame MacReady but, in truth, he likely had his hands full stealing scrap for the ship later discovered under his shack. Instead it’s more likely that the Blair-Thing attacked Fuchs and attempted to assimilate him, only for Fuchs to set himself on fire to avoid a worse fate.
By the time Windows is briefly assimilated, it’s the beginning of the end. Clark has been mistakenly shot dead by MacReady; a victim of the brewing mistrust between the two that eventually sparked into violence after the discovery of the clothes intended to frame Mac.
Copper meanwhile succumbed to blood loss, having lost both his arms while bringing down a defibrillator on Norris-Thing’s chest, which suddenly snapped open before clamping down on the doctor’s limbs in one of the standout jumpscares of the film.
Even then, the Palmer-Thing remains inconspicuous and seemingly attempts to ingratiate himself with the survivors by pointing out the head of the Norris-Thing is making an escape with the classic line, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.” But there are points when the facade nearly slips. Earlier, when MacReady is cut loose by Nauls outside in the snow after the discovery of the planted clothes bearing his name, the Palmer-Thing is at his most animated, urging the others to kill MacReady.
Later, during the iconic blood test scene and moments before he is revealed as The Thing, a playful smirk crosses Palmer-Thing’s lips. The truth soon emerges, bringing with it the transformation and demise of Windows.
Debate has long raged over the likely fate of Childs’ character with the majority veering towards the likelihood he has been assimilated, particularly after the usually tight-lipped Carpenter said one of the two was no longer human by the film’s end, and there is little to indicate Mac was infected.
Theories abound over Childs’ being an alien. Some fans have claimed the fact his breath is barely visible is proof while there is also the debunked theory that the whiskey Mac gives him at the end is gasoline from an unused molotov cocktail. There’s no concrete evidence of either, but Carpenter does appear to signpost the character’s demise in one specific way. It likely occurs just ahead of Mac’s final showdown with The Thing when Childs has been left to guard the only non-barricaded entrance to the compound. Childs is shown wearing a royal blue colored jacket while an identical jacket can be seen hanging behind him in the vestibule.
Moments later, Nauls, who is up at the tool shed with MacReady and Garry, spots what appears to be Childs exiting the main compound wearing the same jacket but lighter colored pants. At this point, they discover Blair-Thing’s shack is empty and he’s been building a flying saucer, thus confirming his status as the alien.
The action then switches back to the now-empty vestibul with Carpenter highlighting the close proximity of the generator. The crucial detail, however, can be spotted in the background – the second blue jacket is now missing. Moments later, and with the Childs-Thing out in the open, the power cuts out.
Later when he encounters Mac, it is claimed that Childs thought he saw Blair in the snow and ran out after him. It’s a nonsensical explanation given the paranoia and fear spread among the men, not to mention the fact he would be heading out into a snowstorm.
The most likely scenario is that the Blair-Thing found a way into the main compound, sneaked up on Childs from the generator room and assimilated him before covering his tracks, donning the new coat and making an escape outside.
One further detail: When Childs encounters MacReady at the end of the film, he appears to be wearing another lighter colored jacket similar to the one Blair had earlier in the film. Though it could easily be the case that snow discolored his coat, it’s worth noting that the Blair-Thing was jacketless when he attacked Garry in the big finale.
Garry falls victim to the Blair-Thing in the final showdown, who sinks his fingers into his face and is later seen dragging a misshapen Garry into the darkness. His distorted appearance would appear to indicate he is in the process of being assimilated.
Nauls is never killed or assimilated on screen, with the character instead shown walking off into the darkness having become distracted by something off-screen. However, the ambiguous nature of his fate was more a happy accident. The plan was originally to include a scene showing him being assimilated but Carpenter simply ran out of budget and time.
MacReady begins to suspect his fate is sealed the moment the returning Childs-Thing asks: “You the only one who made it?” “Not the only one,” MacReady replies as if reminding Childs-Thing he too is supposed to be human.
Even then, Childs-Thing’s focus is away from asking about the rest of the team, instead pondering: “Did you kill it?” while potentially weighing up his chances. Some have pointed to Childs’ lack of visible breath as a visual clue he is the alien. Cundey, meanwhile, has previously spoken on the record of how a neat trick was weaved into the film where a slight light is visible in the eyes of the characters who are human.
However, it was also noted that that trick was only used in the blood test scene rather than the ending. Instead Childs-Thing gives the game away the moment MacReady hands him the bottle of whiskey. The second he puts it to his mouth, Morricone’s ominous score kicks in while MacReady laughs, realizing he is the last human left.
This reading of the scene puts a new perspective on MacReady’s final line to Childs: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens?” Displaying the same jet-black humor running through his character, MacReady appears resigned to his fate, sarcastically waiting to “see what happens.”
Alternatively, one theory goes that Mac gives Childs the whiskey with the intention of burning him with a flamethrower hidden under his jacket (a flamethrower is mentioned in this scene in the script.) Some have claimed this outcome was even foreshadowed in the scene when Mac plays his computer at chess. Facing check-mate, he “wins” by pouring whiskey into the computer, causing sparks to come out. Could the Thing be about to face the same?
Ultimately, the small details and open-ended nature of affairs invites multiple interpretations. The darkest being that, if Fuchs’ theory was true and assimilation could take place molecule by molecule, maybe everyone was slowly being infected and just didn’t know it yet.
Only one thing is definite: there’s never going to be any definite answers concerning The Thing and maybe that’s the way it should stay.