Fear, Cold War Paranoia and Aliens in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’


R. J. MacReady by iproberserker – http://iproberserker.deviantart.com/

“Trust is a tough thing to come by these days” -Macready

John Carpenter’s The Thing, (1982) is a body horror film of paranoia, combining fifties era fears of communist invaders with the eighties AIDS panic.

Movies about alien invasions, communist fears, disease, parasites, body invasion, body swapping, metamorph’s and invasions of body snatchers are common tropes for horror and science fiction films, but no other film that I have seen brought such A grade talent and writing to typically B grade genre material as Carpenter’s The Thing.

Part of the fear instilled into The Thing came from the AIDs epidemic that was making itself known at the time of filming. The idea that you couldn’t tell who was infected just by looking at them, only blood tests would reveal it, was not lost on Carpenter. Jeremy Kirk – FilmSchoolRejects.com

It is no secret that when human beings are afraid of Things, they tend to express those fears.  Alien invasion movies of the 1950’s and 60’s were thinly veiled expressions of America’s national fear of communism in the era.

The.Thing. dog snow rifle

Irrational fear of an alien, or other is what Jungian Psychology refers to as “Shadow”, that is, a person projects a portion of themselves onto another, and refuses to own their own behavior, nor work through or face whatever is troubling them.  This Shadow self then becomes whatever we deny in life, and often we project our worries and fears on to others.  Our Shadow is not just unconscious bad habits that we refuse to acknowledge, but good elements of our psyche that we are not allowing healthy expression.  Our Shadow then is life unlived, or repressed.

The.Thing.1982 blood samples

The Thing is the ultimate body horror, communist paranoia and alien invasion film.  It is the ultimate metaphor of “other” as enemy.  The contrast is that in The Thing, the alien creature can literally become any living sentient being.  It transforms itself so well into mimicking its host that even the host themselves will not know if they have been replaced by a mimic / doppelganger.

The Thing is an attack at the personal level as disease, or parasite.  An attack on the mind as the enemy is invisible, able to be literally become anyone, including friends, lovers, or even your self.  An attack at the national or world level as a foreign invader, or alien invasion.  The Thing poses a genuine threat on the level of a zombie viral outbreak, it has the potential to wipe out all life on the planet.  The Thing also is a metaphor for our collective and individual fears, whether real and present, real and exaggerated, or purely imaginary fears.

The.Thing.1982 cant trust anybody paranoia

In the 1950’s America was at the peak of its fear of being invaded by Communism in the second Red Scare.  Smear campaigns encouraged people to rat on their neighbours, family and friends. The Government wasted enormous amounts of time and money investigating people who turned out by and large NOT to be Communists. The fear of Communism was so irrational even books that might have suggested thinking for yourself were banned.

McCarthyism is still an ugly word and short hand today for a government turning on its own people.

Government loyalty boards investigated millions of federal employees, asking what books and magazines they read, what unions and civic organizations they belonged to, and whether they went to church. Hundreds of screenwriters, actors, and directors were blacklisted because of their alleged political beliefs, while teachers, steelworkers, sailors, lawyers, and social workers lost their jobs for similar reasons.

More than thirty-nine states required teachers and other public employees to take loyalty oaths. Meanwhile, some libraries pulled books that were considered too leftist from their shelves. The banned volumes included such classics as Robin Hood, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. – Wendy Wall / Gilderlehrman.org

The Thing from Another World, (1951) appeared in this climate of paranoia and suspicion amongst other common alien invasion and giant atomic monster B movies of the era.  The John Carpenter remake of The Thing kept the general scenario of an alien creature in the Antarctic, and bare plot elements, but for all intents and purposes Carpenter’s version of The Thing is an entirely different film.

National fears expressed in popular entertainment, movies, and art are nothing new. Humanities hopes, dreams and fears have been expressed in novels, films, plays, songs, poems and every form of art that can be documented.

A curious trend of stories that explore our individual and collective fears is the reactionary individuals who are fearful of media promoting the very things it depicts.


However such individuals often fail to notice that films that talk about hot topics are made after the events of their real life inspiration.

The films comment on the events through symbol and story, after the event and not before. Although there are exceptions such as dystopian movies etc, which are predictive of possible future scenarios, but still based on events that have already happened, and may happen again.

Rather than being afraid of films that explore the fears of individual and National psyche, instead we should see them as entertainment, and also as possible warnings of scenarios we can avoid if we choose to, rather than bury our collective heads in the sand (or snow, in the case of The Thing).

The.Thing.1982 diggin hole thing in ice

When we express fears and hopes through art, turning out intangible fear into something external such as a film, play, video game, or it allows a chance to have power over and explore those ideas.  Those who repress their fears are owned by their fears, and have no power over them, nor full recognition of their fears.  People ruled by their fears then live an unconscious life, and the only healthy solution is to wake up and grow up, rather than be a victim of subjective thoughts and feelings, no matter how powerful those thoughts and feelings may be we can always make a conscious choice to evolve.

Our body is our slave, and reflects out thoughts and emotions.  If we send our body signals of fear, it has no choice but to react by producing chemicals in response to that fear, usually resulting in the fight or flight response, or over reacting to benign situations. This leads to individuals, groups and nations living in a constant state of fear and paranoia that may be amplified by alarmist news casts, reports of “bad shit happening in the world” 24/7 and the exclusion of all the good, true and life affirming things happening in the world all around us on a daily basis.

The.Thing.1982 dog snow chase helicopter

Projection of purely psychological fears into states of paranoia in no way diminishes any real world threats we may face.  However being overwhelmed by psychological fear may leave us under-prepared to handle real danger in our lives when we face it.

In The Thing John Carpenter takes our collective fear and paranoia and gives it physical form.  The monster / alien in The Thing is the ultimate outsider, the ultimate “other” that is unknown and dangerous.  Many of our collective fears are manufactured exaggerations which have no basis in reality.  They are collective and individual delusions.  As a nation we may fear being invaded by a foreign power.  As individuals we may fear imprisonment, loss of liberty, or in the case of body-horror literal invasion of our bodies, our most sacred and personal vessels.  Some fears of course are quite valid.

During World War II, when planes flew overhead in a bombing run it was fear combined with intelligence that sent people scrambling to bomb shelters.  Fear, when properly harnessed keeps you alive.  Fear is an essential mobilising ability, without fear, we could wander straight into traffic, or off the edge of a cliff.  It is our inbuilt protection / survival system.

The.Thing.1982 helicopter close up on ground

When we give in to psychological fear however, and no longer harness the life promoting survival oriented aspects of fear, we lose control, we throw intelligence and reason out the window and become like wild animals.

MacReady (Kurt Russel) is afraid in The Thing.  At first it is just MacReady’s psychological fear, with no actual physical threat present.

MacReady trusts what his body is telling him, that there is something wrong, something different.  His psychological fear turns out to be accurate and useful when the men on the Antarctic base start dying.  Macready moves from purely psychological fear to body fear – body fear being a direct and predictable signal from the immediate environment that we should never ignore.

Later in the film when MacReady finds an actual physical threat, his physical primal fear keeps him alive as he responds dynamically to the threat of the alien creature.

The.Thing.1982 macready kurt russell flame thrower close up

Some of the other men, like MacReady at first listen to reason, while still being psychologically afraid.  But slowly, the men start to turn on each other, most of them giving in to psychological fear, becoming irrational and decreasing their chances of survival by running around in a panic attacking other men without using their own intelligence.  They succumb to paranoia.

Here then, around the mid point of the movie is the most explicit reference to 1950’s era Communist Fears – literally anybody , any-body can become the enemy.  Your friends, family, co-workers, all are not to be trusted.  Any of them could be a dirty Communist, a traitor to their country and family, which leads to inevitable fear, paranoia, confusion and attacking that which is perceived as the “other” before it kills / destroys us.

Hell, you can’t even trust yourself in The Thing, as the alien entity can mimic you down to your very cells and DNA.

The.Thing.1982 macready kurt russell flame thrower long shot

In The Thing characters are literally taken over by an alien entity that copies them, right down to the cellular level.  Not even people who have been taken over know they have been taken over.  The film deals with paranoia, false and real fear, and asks how would you deal with this situation.

Kurt Russell as MacReady is our main character, we see most of the events in the film through his eyes. The main reason R. J. MacReady lives is not that he is any smarter than any of the other men, he lives  partly through chance, and partly because he harnesses his fears, rather than giving in to them.  The men who succumb to the paranoia (both justified and exaggerated) eventually die.

At the end of the film we never know if Kurt Russell’s character survived, or became a ‘Thing’. We want to believe that the Hero has triumphed over adversity. We want a reprieve from the brutal mind fucking and insanity we have just witnessed over the last one hundred minutes.

But this is John Carpenter, there are no happy endings, rainbows and sunshine for the audience.

What you are left with at the end of The Thing is a sense of dread. Relief that the immediate crisis is over, but dread that a bigger more dangerous crisis may be imminent.

John Carpenter films take you some place you never wanted to go to, places in your own mind that you are afraid of and probably need to explore, and then they abandon you and leave you there to figure things out for yourself. There is no hand holding in The Thing, no wish fulfillment “all a dream” fantasies, or fairy tale endings.

Just dread and fear and uncertainty.

The.Thing.1982 macready kurt russell flame thrower

The Second Red Scare profoundly altered the temper of American society. Its later characterization as anti-intellectual may be seen as contributory to the popularity of anti-communist espionage (My Son John, 1950) and science fiction movies (The Thing From another World, 1951) with stories and themes of the infiltration, subversion, invasion, and destruction of American society by un–American thought and inhuman beings.


Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (an adaptation of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) talks about the Shadow archetype that Carl Jung popularised, and that was used to great effect by John Carpenter in The Thing.

The archetype known as the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something.  Often it’s the home of the suppressed monsters of our inner world.  Shadows can be all the the things we don’t like about ourselves, all the dark secrets we can’t admit, even to ourselves.  The qualities we have renounced and tried to root out still lurk within, operating in the Shadow world of the unconscious.  The Shadow can also shelter positive qualities that are in hiding or that we have rejected for some reason.

The negative face of the Shadow in stories is projected onto characters called villains, antagonists, or enemies. Villains and enemies are usually dedicated to the death, destruction, or defeat of the hero.  Antagonists may not be quite so hostile – they may be Allies who are after the same goal but who disagree with the hero’s tactics.  Antagonists and heroes in conflict are like horses in a team pulling in a different direction, while villains and heroes are like trains on a head-on collision course.

The.Thing.1982 monster changing close up

The Thing as a film then is not only a scary fucking film about aliens, body horror and post-cold war fears of communism, A.I.D.S. and invading foreign powers – it is also a symbol of America’s deep dark underbelly. It is a symbol of a nation’s fears externalised and given form. Fears that it refuses to acknowledge and integrate into their national psyche, and so instead of a healthy relationship to fear, there is instead paranoia, mass hysteria, blame, confusion and irrationality.

Fear harnessed leads to proactive action and clarity. Fear denied leads to mass confusion and running around like chickens whose heads have been cut off.

America is not alone in this fear, any modern day Nation and its people have similar fears. Whether they are real or not remains to be seen.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Capenter’s The Thing – perhaps it is that we must learn to live with fear and uncertainty in our lives, and not cling to false hopes. And that while we are capable of being overwhelmed by fear, we are capable of taking action and facing that fear head on like R.J. MacReady.

We may die in the process, there are no guarantees. At the end of the day we do not control the events of our lives, but we do control our attitude and how we react to the events of our lives.

Fear can be mobilising or paralysing, or just leave us cold, afraid, confused and alone.

The Thing R J MacReady Kurt Russell art


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