Director John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing tells the story of twelve American researchers holed up in an Antarctic outpost. Winter is quickly approaching in the southern hemisphere, bringing temperatures well below zero to a climate barely tolerable to begin with. These men have spent some time weathering the maddening stress of an extreme environment with no significant contact with the outside world; before the true terror of the film takes root, they are already at each other’s throats. Their only solace seems to be the warming of the bones—and deadening of the minds—through the consumption of hard liquor.
All of these phenomena have their precedent in psychological and historical literature. Many who live in regions with little exposure to sunlight are prone to seasonal affective disorder, a condition marked by depression, social withdrawal, and anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. So too are isolated populations vulnerable to hysteria, unable to contain dangerous emotions; the Salem Witch Trials, in which trust gave way to the suspicion that any given person might be in league with Satan, are perhaps the best known example of this. Finally, peoples of the Arctic Circle are famous for turning to drink to cope with frozen climes. Alcohol warms nothing, but simply blunts the nerves that register the cold. An inebriated brain is also far quicker to behave in an unnecessarily aggressive manner than its sober counterpart.
But the story has not yet begun.
Moving ahead very quickly, a seemingly harmless canine is welcomed into the base; after a series of grotesque discoveries, the camp’s doctors determine that a malevolent extraterrestrial presence with the ability to shape-shift into any organism it consumes has infiltrated their ranks in the guise of this innocuous dog. Corralled into a pen with actual huskies, the creature begins to show its true face in what turns into an animal bloodbath. Witnessing this, the nature of the alien menace becomes clear to the crew: this beast can imitate the look and behavior of any living thing—including the researchers themselves. Any one or more persons on the base could indeed be but a murderous approximation; though survival hinges on the cooperation of the group, no individual can be trusted.
Dr. Blair, who conducted the autopsy of one Thing—not entirely human, not entirely otherwise—was the first to realize the nature of the threat. When questioning Clark about how a strange dog might have made its way into the camp unnoticed, the look on his face betrays the gears moving within his head.
“What the hell are you looking at me like that for?” Clark asks indignantly, sensing Blair’s suspicion.
“I don’t know. It’s… nothing. Probably nothing,” a pensive Blair replies. Sitting alone in close quarters with what might not really be Clark after all, Blair decides not to agitate what could, in fact, be a monster.
Though tense, this is the last of any vaguely polite conversations the crew will have.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Paranoid Personality Disorder is marked by a pronounced suspicion that others are “out to get them,” and an utter distrust of people. To really merit a diagnosis of PPD, however, these misgivings must have “no sufficient basis.” The game John Carpenter plays in The Thing begs the viewer to keep pace with which characters are likely to have been assimilated by the creature, and which are simply the victims of true paranoia. Was Clark simply a peculiar fellow with a strange affinity for the camp’s dogs, or did his uneasy behavior indicate that he was not quite human? Blair, after a violent outburst instigated by the dangers at hand, is adamant that he is being unjustly persecuted and does not pose a threat—but isn’t that just the sort of lie this Thing would tell?
There is biological evidence to suggest that fear is indeed contagious. A person under duress will produce cortisol and other stress hormones which are secreted through the pores and transmitted, via pheromone agents, into the olfactory senses of surrounding people. The evolutionary advantages of this suggest themselves; if one early human sensed a predator or other danger, it would behoove the whole group to be on guard. But with the crew in The Thing, so far removed in time and distance from humanity’s ancestral origins, this pronounced, contagious fear commingled with both an otherworldly terror no early person ever had to contend with, and yes, paranoia. Even helicopter pilot MacReady, whose cool head has made him the de facto leader of the group, can take no more: as a transient coalition aligned against him, convinced that MacReady is not in fact himself, his only defense is to hold a lit flare in one hand, and a bundle of dynamite in the other.
“Anybody touches me, and we go!” he barks. Pressed to the extreme, the notion that any one person in the group might remain infected is enough to make him ready to sacrifice the lot of them. The time for rational thought, for saving whatever humanity is left, is clearly behind them.
Just as was the case in the aforementioned Salem Witch Trials, paranoia rules the day in this film. With guns, knives, and flamethrowers at the ready, some crew members succumb to the alien horror, while others fall victim to their wildly suspicious, trigger-happy peers. On edge from the Antarctic cold, and still a little drunk, mortal fear plunges everyone’s psyche into calamity; amidst this chaos, the body count soars, and the outpost becomes a sea of explosions and fire. The alien Thing did not, in fact, have to murder a soul—the human mind, when driven to the breaking point, can exact a far bloodier toll.