Hot and STEAM-Y: The Legacy Of The Thing!

By Claire Culton, STEM Read Intern

The Thing, based on the original short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, is a science fiction thriller that will quite literally send chills down your spine. In the isolating tundra of Antarctica, a group of scientists accidentally uncover an alien spacecraft that has been frozen for millions of years. Despite intense argument over whether or not the craft’s pilot should be freed from its frozen tomb, the creature is eventually thawed. Terror ensues when the researchers discover that the alien is very much alive and able to hide in human victims by imitating their cellular structures. With nowhere for the humans to run and many places for the alien to hide, the scientists find themselves self-destructing due to unease and lack of trust among one another. Can these researchers figure out whom the alien is hiding in and escape the unforgiving Antarctic, or will the creature find its way out first? Find out in this science fiction classic.

Who Goes There? was originally printed as a short story for the Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1938. Since its publication the story has found huge success, receiving many accolades, adaptations, and references in others works. The novella was first adapted into film in 1951 from Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another WorldWhile the story somewhat differs from Campbell’s vision, this film was the most successful out of all of the adaptations upon its release, being deemed one of the most successful movies in the year it was produced. This version focuses heavily on the science behind the creature, and the heroic actions of the United States Air Force officers risking their lives to kill the creature. Nyby’s work even made it to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2001 for its suspenseful story building and iconic stunts.

In 1982, director John Carpenter, notorious for his spooky films, decided to take on the story with a much more sinister tone. In his production, United States researchers are unexpectedly infiltrated by the alien when a seemingly innocent dog finds its’ way over to their camp from a nearby Norwegian facility. The researchers take in the dog assuming it’s a stray, only to find out that a “thing” is hiding inside of it, waiting for its next victim. This adaptation focuses heavily on the distrust among the men working at the facility and what it means to be a monster. Carpenter’s rendition of The Thing was received poorly upon its release; the grotesque effects and lack of sympathetic characters appalled critics and viewers alike. Today, however, Carpenter’s film is considered a cult classic by Science Fiction lovers. The elaborate and gruesome effects that were once ridiculed are now used in many horror movies today.

The most recent film adaptation works as a prequel to Carpenter’s film. Released in 2011, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. wanted to find a way to tell the iconic story but from different perspectives. He did this by going a few weeks back in time before the sinister dog found its way from the Norwegian facility to the American one (as we see at the beginning Carpenter’s film). The film’s female protagonist, updated effects and well-placed jump scares bring the story up to modern horror standards. Despite these positive aspects, this film was not received well upon its release due to the constant comparison between it and Carpenter’s classic.

Campbell’s epic story did not just find its way to film. The story’s huge fandom has created several different comic series that follow the alien and its many terrors. The horror does not stop there. The thing also appears in several different interactive video games.

When I first watched Carpenter’s The Thing I was in Junior High. My only reason for viewing the film was because I wanted to see the 2011 version on release day, and my movie-buff father insisted that I watch what he thought to be the original. I reluctantly agreed assuming that the film would consist of cheesy scares and long still shots.  However, I was proven wrong from the very first scene as a helicopter looms over an outwardly harmless dog, shooting at it desperately. The lack of communication between the English and Norwegian speaking characters sparked a senseless killing from the gate and set the tone for unease throughout the entire movie. The film is grotesque as many critics claimed, but gore has never been something that bothers me. But when the film ended and the credits rolled, I was left with an unsettling feeling, but I couldn’t place why.

I then turned to the big screen to experience the 2011 version. This film was just as gory if not more so than Carpenter’s and delivered a lot of the same basic tenants that made up the story. My scary pallet still was not satiated however, so I decided to become a “true fan” and immerse myself in the horrifying universe of “The Thing.”

This is when I discovered the 1951 film The Thing from Another World and Campbell’s Who Goes There?  The more I watched and the more I read, I realized what makes the Thing so utterly horrifying. It is not the gore or the pop-out effects that made Campbell’s story a poignant one in the nightmares of many. Instead, it’s the basic lack of trust that transcends every version of the story that could ever be made. Imagine looking into the eyes of your best friend and not knowing if it is really them. This complex evil creature is so sophisticated; can we even really trust ourselves? Campbell layers this fear with the intense isolation of the frozen tundra. There is nowhere for anyone to go, so they are left to deal with their own paralyzing fears and the realization that if there is no way out for the Thing to escape, then there is no way out for them, either.

These fears are basic ones, making them all the more terrifying. While the concept of a shape-shifting alien may be far fetched in some people’s minds, there is no denying that we have all had moments fearing the placement of trust in others.

Just when I thought I had thoroughly explored the extensive universe of The Thing, I discovered that Campbell’s original manuscript was recently found. This version, which was significantly shortened for the publication of the novella, provides much more terror and context around the alien. Writers and fans have come together to ensure that Campbell’s long lost relic is finally published.

The Thing is a monster that is here to stay. Whether reinvented in comic books, campy movies, or newly discovered manuscripts, the Thing will find its way into anyone’s nightmares.  If you are brave enough, pick up any version that fits your entertainment interest and get ready for the endlessly spooky chills that this story provides.