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John Carpenter's The Thing: Mystery Finally Solved

Carpenter's sci-fi thriller leaves everyone questioning the meaning behind its' ending, and the director's refusal to explain only furthers the mystery. But, perhaps the answer was hidden in plain sight all along.

By Allie Z.Published 3 months ago 4 min read
Image Copyright: Universal Pictures; Sourced by Flickr

John Carpenter’s The Thing remains one of the most highly respected in its genre, all thanks to the director’s perfect execution when making it. Carpenter constructed his masterpiece to have ideal pacing as the plot unfolded, feature a cast to rival any other of the time, and pioneered moviemaking techniques that became industry standard. Then, to top things off, Carpenter included a psychological element that made his sci-fi thriller worth watching again and again.

Now, the reason it lies in the annals of pop culture history is not for its popularity but because of John Carpenter’s ambitious climax—something that’s still debated today.

In the film’s closing moments, MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) huddle together as they await their impending death, freezing in subzero temperatures outside a burned-down research facility. They assume they’ve survived the alien ordeal, except nothing is as clear-cut as it seems. A distant camera shot captured Childs walking off into the night minutes before the power to their camp went out, leading the audience to believe he became another host to the alien—acting on its behalf during that time. What’s odd is the supposed replicant could and would have assimilated MacReady, given his weakened state during those final moments. So, perhaps Childs wasn’t among the infected after all. Childs also had an opportunity to burn MacReady with the flamethrower, yet never did so. The scene inevitably cuts to black before anything else happens.

Carpenter Left ‘The Thing’ Up To Interpretation

While John Carpenter has left the movie’s conclusion up to interpretation, most tend to believe Childs had the organism inside of him at the end. The reason it didn’t bother attacking or assimilating MacReady was that the mission succeeded. The thing would freeze inside Childs body and eventually transfer possession to another host once it thawed out, eliminating the need to involve MacReady further. Mind you, a few hidden clues within the plot point in a different direction. Ones that spell out an alternate perspective not yet considered.

Despite playing the hero, MacReady was likely the invader’s host going back to the very beginning. Kurt Russell’s character was one of the first people to come in direct contact with the alien bodies they presumed to be deceased, which left him susceptible to exposure. Several ancillary characters in the movie pointed out that being left alone with the corpses created more threats. The gaps not shown onscreen, too, presented plenty of opportunities for the alien to copy MacReady’s form and then return to business as usual. The burned-up shirt in his stove is definitive proof. MacReady always wore the same thing, so it wouldn't make sense for him to dispose of the garment unless it was evidence of something more sinister at play.

Another piece of evidence that points to MacReady are the alien’s tactics. Throughout the movie, the thing appears to struggle with assimilating into a perfect form. The alien makes mistakes, getting caught each time it tries to replicate itself. Except, that doesn’t seem to correlate when the organism spent enough time practicing how to clone itself into an indistinguishable copy of a Husky to fool people. It also played the Norwegian researchers well enough to destroy their compound, so the American team wasn’t its’ first infiltration attempt. This particular alien species already had the copycat skill down.

Why All The Subterfuge?

So, that brings us back to the original question of why go through the facade of an invasion if the alien already knew how to infiltrate human society? The answer is it had to sow enough discourse within the researchers’ ranks for them to turn on one another. It couldn’t risk a human survivor warning a rescue party of the threat. They all had to die, albeit with a few stipulations.

As for MacReady, he stands to be the originator since he wound up exactly where the alien organism wanted him—freezing to death as an incubator for itself. And doing so was easy. It only required a bit clever manipulation for the others to believe MacReady was the only uninfected person in their ranks. Then, once elected the de facto leader, he facilitated the hypothetical tests to see who became infected. At the same time, MacReady played the hero by burning each organism's new hosts to ashes, keeping everyone else off his scent since no one would expect the guy in all these life-or-death situations to be the parasitic organism’s actual host.

What Transpired After The Camera Cut Out?

Assuming our theory holds water, MacReady likely grew flailing limbs to assimilate Childs into its borg during those final moments. Seeing so would be a shocking realization, and the lone survivor wouldn’t be able to do anything in response to the surprising turn.

Anyone doubting MacReady’s role in the alien takeover need only recall his tape-recorded testimonial in which he planned for the tape to be secret until a rescue party arrived. The thing is, MacReady never mentions the recording ever again. Chalk it up to neglectful storytelling, although the more plausible scenario is the alien invader got rid of the tape almost immediately after completing it. That would be the tactical thing to do in said situation.

Theories notwithstanding, the evidence speaks for itself. MacReady had the means, knew how to manipulate his comrades, and was in the prime position to be a sleeper agent amidst the chaos. Had he not been aboard the helicopter with the thing or randomly disposed of his work shirt, there could be some doubt. But with those facts noted, it’s clear that MacReady was the invader’s host all along.

John Carpenter's The Thing is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video


About the Creator

Allie Z.

I cover most entertainment related topics and am venturing into journalism.

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