My oldest daughter and I checked out the fortieth anniversary theater showing of John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic, The Thing.
The Thing holds up after 40 years. The practical effects in that movie are still more convincing after four decades than the CGI effects we have now will be four decades hence. The actors in this movie were perfectly cast. Wilford Brimley knocked it out of the park as Blair, as did Kurt Russel as MacReady and Keith David as Childs. Every character has their own unique personality, which makes them all the more relatable as people. This accentuates the pervasive nihilistic theme of the movie by postulating its opposite: the struggle of the individual to maintain the integrity of the self in the face of a yawning, incomprehensible eternity.
At the end, as throughout the film, we are left with ambiguity. MacReady and Childs are the only survivors. Has Childs been turned? “We’ll just wait and see what happens,” says McReady. As they sit sipping liquor, eyeing one another with suspicion, the camera slowly pulls away for the last time.
That ambiguity is inherent in life itself. Movies like The Thing are more than just monster flicks. They represent the existential horror that we all experience at the notion of the loss of self.
As Friedrich Nietzsche remarks in The Will to Power:
“Every life stands by itself; all existence must be justified, and not only life—the justifying principle must be one through which life speaks.
Life is only a means to something: it is the expression of the forms of growth in power.”
There’s something so fundamentally true here. I first formulated this concept to myself—long before reading Nietzsche—as energy never ends. This fundamental principle is, I think, the inspiration for all our most mystical religious declarations. Belief in the immortality of the soul is really an attempt to cope with the inevitable death of the ego, the dissolution of self, the giving way of the individual to the collective, the loss of the (wo)man to the many. The fruit ripens, falls to the earth, rots, and yet lives on in other forms.
Assuming the self could live forever, should we really want it to? Here I think it important to question Nietzsche’s nomenclature. A will to “power”? Is it power to which all existence gravitates? Or is it freedom from restriction? Power consolidates, and consolidation restricts us to the protection of that which we have accrued. The more we accrue, the more we are bound, the less free we are.
Knowing we are ultimately rotting fruit, should we wish to be bound to the farmer’s basket? Was it not in falling from the tree that we were to discover and experience our freedom? Does allowing ourselves to be plucked before we fall save us from despair? It certainly does not save us from the beckoning end. The energy we transfer back to the earth will outlive us. Even when the earth is no more, something of the energy it has consolidated will remain, scattered throughout space and time though it may be.
This in turn reminds me of one of my favorite songs. The Highwayman by The Highwaymen, a country supergroup comprised of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. The song tells the story of a succession of tragic lives: a highwayman, a sailor, a dam-builder, and an astronaut. The insinuation of a reincarnating soul is clear in the final verse, where the astronaut, through the timelessly warm delivery of Johnny Cash, remarks that once he has crossed the universe, perhaps he will finally find a place to rest his spirit. Or, perhaps, he will become a highwayman again.
Or he “may simply be a single drop of rain”.
Nevertheless, he intones, “but I will remain”.
Is this sensation of being and becoming part of a seamless eternal current only an illusion our nervous systems conjure in order to induce us to struggle forward to our inevitable end? Or is it perhaps something more? A gateway to or interface with an eternal soul we all share?
Could it be that both interpretations amount to the same… thing?
Which brings me back to The Thing. Has a hostile alien lifeform any less right to assimilate us than we do to assimilate the fruit from the tree?
This thought is far scarier than the depiction of the monster itself. Because it is in this that we must recognize our own assimilations as either necessary or monstrous acts. Like the movie, and the ultimate fate of the highwayman, there is no answer to these questions, no real ending to this story. I must leave you, dear reader, to ponder on it, to accouter it with whatever construction you will. Such is, after all, your right.
Until next time, I will remain.
Again and again and again…
Other explorations of popular media by C. Rommial Butler: