John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing, is a claustrophobic sci-fi thriller, exhibiting many hallmarks of the horror genre. The film depicts a sinister turn for matter, where the chaos of the replicating, cancerous cell is expanded to the human scale and beyond. In The Thing we watch as an alien force terrorises an isolated Antarctic outpost. The creature exhibits an awesome ability to imitate, devouring any creature it comes across before giving birth to an exact copy in a burst of blood and protoplasm. The Thing copies cell by cell and its process is so perfect – at every level of replication – that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts and even thinks like the original. The Thing is so relentless, its copies so perfect, that the outpost’s Doctor, Blair, is sent mad at the implications:
Blair: If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the Earth… and it’s not gonna stop!!!
Based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, Carpenter’s film revisits a gothic trope, as numerous in its incarnations as are the forms it is capable of taking. In Campbell’s original novella, the biologically impure is co-inhabited by a different type of infection: an infection of the Antarctic inhabitants’ inner lives. Plucked from an icy grave, The Thing sits, frozen solid, in a dark corner of the outpost, drip dripping towards re-animation. Before its cells begin their interstitial jump from alien to earthly biology, it is the dreams of the men that become infected:
‘So far the only thing you have said this thing gave off that was catching was dreams. I’ll go so far as to admit that.’
An impish, slightly malignant grin crossed the little man’s seamed face.
‘I had some, too. So. It’s dream-infectious. No doubt an exceedingly dangerous malady.’ (Campbell)
The Thing’s voracious drive to consume and imitate living beings calls to mind Freud’s uncanny: the dreadful creeping horror that dwells between homely and unhomely. According to Ernst Jentsch, whose work Freud references in his study, the uncanny is kindled, ‘when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one’ (Grenville 233).
A body in the act of becoming: John W. Campbell’s novella depicts The Thing as a monstrous body that “swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world”
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In the original novella, The Thing is condensed as much from the minds of the men, as from its own horrific, defrosting bulk. A slowly surfacing nightmare that acts to transform alien matter into earthly biology also has the effect of transferring the inner, mental lives of the men, into the resultant condensation. John W. Campbell had no doubts that The Thing could become viscous, mortal human flesh, but in order to truly imitate its prey, the creature must infect and steal inner life too, pulling ghosts, kicking and screaming, out of their biological machines.
As a gothic figure, Campbell’s Thing disrupts the stable and integral vision of human being, of self-same bodies housing ‘unitary and securely bounded’ (Hurley 3) subjectivities, identical and extensive through time. John W. Campbell’s characters confront their anguish at being embodied: their nightmares are literally made flesh. As Kelly Hurley reminds us in her study on The Gothic Body, Mikhail Bakhtin noted:
The grotesque body… is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world (Hurley 28).
Each clone’s otherness is an uncanny exposure of the abject relationship we endure with ourselves as vicarious, fragmented, entropic forms.
In the 44 years between the novella and John Carpenter’s 1982 film, there were many poor clones of The Thing depicted in cinema. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and, It Came from Outer Space (1953) are replete with alien dopplegangers, abject human forms, cast away very much as in gothic tradition. Howard Hawk’s film, The Thing from Another World (1951), the first to explicitly translate Who Goes There?, completely disfigures Campbell’s story. The resultant monster is nothing more than, what one character calls, ‘an intellectual carrot’, grown from alien cells in a laboratory. The film is worth considering though for its Cold War undertones. Recast in an Arctic military base, Hawk’s Thing is an isolated monster set against a small, well organised army of cooperative men. Faced with disaster the men group together, fighting for a greater good than each of them alone represents.
Cinematic clones of The Thing: 1950s American Science Fiction films like It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are replete with alien doppelgangers and abject human forms
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The metaphor of discrete cells coordinating into autopoeitic organisms, does not extend to the inhabitants of the isolated Antarctic outpost in the original short story, nor in the 1982 version. Rather than unite against their foe, they begin to turn on each other, never knowing who might be The Thing. In a series of enactments of game-theory, the characters do piece together a collective comprehension: that if The Thing is to eventually imitate ‘everything on the face of the Earth’ it must not show itself now, lest the remaining humans group together and destroy it. The Thing’s alien biology calls to mind the original design of the internet, intended, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri:
…to withstand military attack. Since it has no center and almost any portion can operate as an autonomous whole, the network can continue to function even when part of it has been destroyed. The same design element that ensures survival, the decentralisation, is also what makes control of the network so difficult (Hardt and Negri 299).
The novella Who Goes There? and the film, The Thing, sit either side of a pivotal era in the advancement of information technology. How a life form or a biological computer work is immaterial to the behaviours they present to an observer. John Carpenter’s The Thing explores the fulfilment of Alan Turing’s ‘Imitation Game.’ Moving away from Campbell’s original appeal to telepathy and a mind/body split, the materialist vision of Carpenter’s film confronts us with a more fundamental horror. That every part of us is reducible to every other.
In her book Refiguring Life, Evelyn Fox Keller argues that:
As a consequence of the technological and conceptual transformations we have witnessed in the last three decades, the body itself has been irrevocably transformed… The body of modern biology, like the DNA molecule – and also like the modern corporate or political body – has become just another part of an informational network, now machine, now message, always ready for exchange, each for the other (Keller 117–118).
Meanwhile, eschewing Martin Heidegger’s definition of a thing (in which objects are brought out of the background of existence through human use), Bill Brown marks the emergence of things through the encounter:
As they circulate through our lives… we look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts. A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us… (Brown 4).
A thing or an object? Bill Brown argues that we look through objects but are confronted by things
[Image by Marc Wathieu under a CC BY-NC-ND license]
John Carpenter’s portrayal of The Thing enacts this encounter, when the human figure erupts with vicious alien teeth, or the Antarctic camp’s huskys sprout voluminous tentacles which writhe towards their next victim. Once the worldly relations we expect to contribute to our being in the world are interrupted, all matter appears thingly, most especially our own.
In a typically unsubtle scene from the film (click here to watch the scene on YouTube) the outpost’s Doctor, Blair, watches a crude simulation on his dusty computer. It depicts ‘thing’ cells devouring ‘organic’ cells, leaving in place ‘thingly’ imitations. This process occurs at a cellular level and is so complete throughout each organism that emergent properties are also replicated. Not only does the Norris clone look, smell and act like Norris, it also thinks it is Norris. Out of a cellular perfect Norris brain, whatever it is made out of, emerges a thinking Norris that thinks it is Norris. After imitating Norris so perfectly, to such precise detail that even his faulty heart is replicated, that even his heart-attack and death is enacted by The Thingly Norris, only then does The Thing lash out as the defibrillators are coming down to meet it (click here to watch the scene on YouTube). Whereas Campbell’s 1938 vision of The Thing is rooted in the mind/body dualistic split, John Carpenter’s 1982 Thing figures the possibility of an encounter between two equally abject materialities.
The defensive reaction of Norris’ cadaver is an exemplification of this. The Thing, is a biological Turing machine, capable of imitating pretty much anything, so long as its programme allows it. The Thing was never programmed to do anything other than be Norris. Is it perhaps too much of a liberty to suggest, therefore, that The Thing’s most terrifying, absolute other quality, comes from its inability to err? As The Thing tears through every organism in sight its eventual form is hidden behind a veil of blood, guts and mutating body parts readily associated with imperfection. But these depictions of cruel, cancerous blobs and swelling sacks of gaseous, oozing human matter are actually manifestations of a perfection being perfected; a process with one outcome: absolute substitution.
Does the Darth Vader A.I. Network think? It is impossible to distinguish something ontologically novel, with a behaviour which has been programmed to appear as if it imitates thought
[Image by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE under a CC BY-NC-ND license]
In his infamous 1950 paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Alan Turing introduced the notion that a computer is nothing more than a machine that functions by pretending to be other machines. (Turing) Asking the question ‘can machines think?’ Turing replaced the ambiguity of ‘thought’ and ‘intelligence’ with imitation, proposing a test that avoided the need to know what was going on inside a machine, in favour of merely experiencing its affects. In a lecture entitled ‘Can Digital Computers Think?’, Turing expounds his point:
It is not difficult to design machines whose behaviour appears quite random to anyone who does not know the details of their construction. Naturally enough the inclusion of this random element, whichever technique is used, does not solve our main problem, how to programme a machine to imitate a brain, or as we might say more briefly, if less accurately, to think. But it gives us some indication of what the process will be like. We must not always expect to know what the computer is going to do. We should be pleased when the machine surprises us, in rather the same way as one is pleased when a pupil does something which he had not been explicitly taught to do (Shieber 114–115).
The mutability of Earthly life, its ability to err, to stumble upon novel strategies through random, blind chance, represents its most innate capacity. Biological life changes by mutation, passing those mutations on to the next generation, ad infinitum. The Thing, in opposition to this, can only become its other absolutely. There is no room for error, for mutation, for change or evolution: instead, The Thingly cadaver of Norris must protect its otherness in the only way it knows how: by transforming itself into a defensive form previously programmed and stored in its protoplasm. In terms of creativity it cannot escape its programming. Turing’s lecture hints at a further unsettling conclusion we can make: that even though novel behaviour may be consistent with error, from appearances alone it is impossible to distinguish something ontologically novel, with a behaviour which has been programmed to appear as such. The Thing is a Universal Turing Machine, a post-digital plasma, encoded with the biological ticker-tape of a thousand alien worlds. Put more simply, in the words of protagonist John MacReady:
MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. [my emphasis]
The “Gothicity” of matter? The digital metaphor of the Thing reveals that through imitation computers confer humanity upon us
[Image by Julio Martínez under a CC BY-NC-ND license]
The characters in The Thing, then, are torn between two equally horrifying worlds. In one, the alien Thing clones its hosts cell by cell until, like The Ship of Theseus, an entirely different, but identical world remains. In the other, human being, in all its perceived intricacy, is the result of a billion years of noisy, messy, mutation. The figure of The Thing exposes what Kelly Hurley calls, the ‘gothicity’ of all matter. (Hurley 33) Its parts remain undifferentiated even as they are exchanged, piece by piece, for our own. As Marie Mulvey-Roberts notes in her essay ‘A Spook Ride on Film’: ‘As a manifestation of both the uncanny and the abject, the monstrous body represents a horror of the indifferentiation of the now defamiliarised human. Monstrosity is also a fear of oneself, particularly of the alienation within the self’ (Mulvey-Roberts 83).
Confronted with the universality of The Thing – a paradigm of digital matter – we stumble upon a most profound realisation. As digital computers and Thingly humans continue to interface, the materiality of the one has already been consummated as the monstrosity of the other. It is we who are condensed from contradictory categorical elements. It is this world which has always already been Thingly, full of spatio-temporally continuous monstrosities; of interchangeable imitations. Ignoring what lurks beneath the surface veneer of your erroneous skin it is now the computer that determines whether or not you are human. For imitation, indeed, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Daniel Rourke is a writer and digital hoarder currently finalising a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research concerns the representation of mutation in digital cultures and the post-humanities. Daniel’s portfolio confounds his best interests at machinemachine.net/portfolio.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1–22. Print.
Campbell, John W. Who Goes There. Hachette UK, 2011. Print.
Grenville, Bruce. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. arsenal pulp press, 2002. Print.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. New Ed. Harvard University Press, 2001. Print.
Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body : Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
Keller, Evelyn Fox. Refiguring Life : Metaphors of Twentieth-century Biology. [S.l.]: Columbia Univ Press, 1996. Print.
Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. “‘A Spook Ride on Film’: Carpenter and the Gothic.” The Cinema Of John Carpenter: The Technique Of Terror. Ed. Ian Conrich & David Woods. Wallflower Press, 2004. 78–90. Print.
Shieber, Stuart. The Turing Test: Verbal Behavior as the Hallmark of Intelligence. MIT Press, 2004. Print.
Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59.236 (1950): 433–460. Print. New Series. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/mind/LIX.236.433
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