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John Carpenter's


The Thing and the Question of Identity

By Schuyler Gray


            It has been asserted by many that the Thing eliminates the person it overtakes at the time of assimilation.  By that I mean that were I to be attacked by the Thing my personal consciousness would be erased, or my “soul” ejected in place of the consciousness of the Thing itself.  However it is my belief that if the Thing is to successfully imitate me to perfection then certainly it couldn’t recreate my personality without doing something wrong at some point in time.  Something suspicious or unusual for me would certainly occur at some point.  Also consider that the Thing I’ve become isn’t a single uniform organism like you or I.  Every cell is a whole, an individual animal with a desire to survive at all costs no matter how this might affect the whole.  Basically if you are assimilated by the Thing your body politic is no longer a socialist dictatorship, in so much that your mind controls the body entire and the body works towards the good of the whole, but rather a capitalist confederacy, a weak central power surrounded by stronger individual powers that live via the tenets of survival of the fittest.

            It is absolutely impossible for the Thing to perfectly recreate the personality of the person assimilated.  While the animal that the Thing is can accurately shape itself to resemble terrestrial organisms right down to the D.N.A. it is ridiculous to assume that that results in the recreation of personality.  Personality, unlike our genetically inherited attributes, is the result of past experiences and environments.  The Thing is a creature that adapts to survive but adaptation in all organisms is limited only to the physical and instinctual.  For example if I were to find myself transported from my home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to St. Petersburg, Russia I would have to adapt to survive.  This wouldn’t result in changing my personal beliefs or religious/political convictions but merely the change of the exterior.  I’d have to wear different clothing and perhaps grow a beard.  I would need to become used to the food indigenous to the area and to the customs of the people who live there.  While I would be required to adjust to social morays and customs it doesn’t result in a complete change in my personality, merely in an adjustment in my behavior. 

The Thing could never achieve this level of adaptation because it is not a reasoning being as is a human being.  Were it a reasoning entity it would have reached out to the Norwegians and the men at Outpost 31.  The initial reaction of a being capable of reason is not hostility but rather calm observation followed by an attempt at contact once it has been established that the species encountered is not a threat to its safety.  That raises the question of how the Thing could have constructed the space craft in which it arrived were it not intelligent.  Obviously the Thing merely appropriates the intelligence of the organisms it has assimilated for the construction of such vessels.  It itself is not that intelligent, but instinctually it understands how to use the knowledge it has absorbed.  This does not, however, make it logical.

Back to the question of what becomes of the consciousness of the person assimilated.  I believe the problem with this question is that many seem to believe that a take over by the Thing must be violent, as Windows witnessed when he discovered Bennings in the supply room.  Consider that Blair had a great deal of contact with the Thing before the men of Outpost 31 became aware of the alien entity among them.  Though his hands were covered by gloves while autopsying the corpse MacReady and Copper recovered from the Norwegian camp clearly some of the blood had gotten on his wrists.  Why could the cells that were still viable not entered through his pores and begun a stealth attack on his body?  Consider also the dog entering Norris’s room.  Do we know for a fact that it assaulted Norris violently?  No we do not and will never know for sure.  Could the dog not have merely licked Norris’s face and hands?  The saliva would have contained viable Thing cells that could have entered Norris’s body easily.  I present the idea of a “stealth attack” as it helps illustrate the point of personality retention in the victim.

Clearly this theory has stumbling blocks in its path.  Why, if the personality of the victim is retained, would Palmer, Norris, or Blair have sabotaged the blood supply?  Why, if Blair was already infected, would he have sabotaged his means of easy escape from the Antarctic?  Why would an assimilated person with personality intact have burned Fuchs?  Why would that person have framed MacReady as being possibly infected?  I shall attempt to cover these issues as succinctly as possible. 

First of all why must we assume that the assimilated person’s own personality should be in control at all times?  Certainly an organism as uniquely evolved as the Thing would have to ability to block out the personality of its victim and run on its own, using the victim’s memory and knowledge when it needs to.  Consider it almost the same as our own ability to ignore our own common sense and/or morality and do things we know to be wrong or stupid.  Would the Thing not be able to shut off your consciousness at will and when it needs it again return it to the forefront?  It could have the unwitting victim believe they’ve been asleep or even be suffering memory loss.  As a shape changer the Thing could even, were it to be attacked and reduced in size, shut off your consciousness and wait until it is able to gain more cell into its mass.  At that point it would be a simple matter to change its shape into a naked and confused version of you and return your consciousness.  You’d be confused and scared but would you assume you’re an unwilling host to an alien entity?  Never; you’d be helped by complete strangers who take pity on you as a person suffering amnesia or a mental breakdown.  You would come into contact with dozens of strangers who are completely unaware of the alien infection being passed amongst them.  For the Thing it could be argued that it is in its best interest not to replace your consciousness.

The question of cellular memory is also of great interest.  If, as it is theorized, the Thing can, after a great reduction in cellular mass, gain more cells and become creatures it has assimilated in the past then the Thing has become a way for you and me to achieve a limited form of immortality.  While it could plant and erase memories in our consciousness; we would always exist so long as there was one Thing cell still in existence that had been part of the Thing that had either originally assimilated us or was assimilated by cells that had at one time been part of us.

One justification for the theory of retained consciousness is in the original novella “Who Goes There?” itself.  In it Garry doesn’t know if he is or is not infected.  He’s terrified of the possibility and says again and again that he’s not sure.  He cannot account for his own actions in the past and says he feels human and thinks like the human he wants to believe he is, but by the end of the tale it has turned out that he was indeed infected.  Logically we can then say that you would not be aware of your infection be it a violent take over or a stealth attack initiated by a minimal amount of cellular exposure.  Consider the fact that in the film itself Nauls, Windows, Childs, Palmer, and Garry are all shown with different attitudes towards MacReady’s blood test.  Nauls and Windows are terrified they may be infected, Childs is acting tough, Palmer and Garry are both convinced the test is a load of nonsense.  Was Palmer acting?  No, because his consciousness, and by that I mean Palmer himself, actually didn’t believe that he was the Thing.  The moment he was found out the loose confederacy that was the Thing pushed his consciousness aside and proceeded to defend itself.

Obviously Bennings raises some interesting questions.  The man was violently assaulted by the remains in the supply room and his clothes were absolutely destroyed.  Why would the Thing have been as sloppy as that and what purpose did it serve?  I propose that the Thing in the supply room was too unformed and confused.  Consider that it had been burned already at the Norwegian camp and then frozen in the cold for at least twenty-four hours afterwards.   Following that it was autopsied and allowed to thaw.  The cells still viable were disorganized and confused having only just revived due to the warmth of the outpost’s interior.  Bennings was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Had Windows stayed alone in the supply room, and Bennings left, it would have been Windows who was taken over.  Clearly the Thing can work quickly if it is necessary, but it does its best work when allowed to work in isolation and covertly.   Had the Thing had time to finish; “Bennings” would have quickly cleaned up the floor, snuck to “his” room, stash the shredded clothing where Bennings’ own consciousness would never bother looking, and get into bed.  Windows would have returned to the supply room to find Bennings missing and he’d have simply locked the room and not bothered to worry again.  When Bennings eventually awoke in his room he’d have a clear memory of finishing his work in the supply room and heading to his quarters for some well deserved sack time.  The loss of his trademark orange vest would have obviously confused him but he’d most likely have written it off as having been misplaced and gone on about his business.

As for the questions of why a perfect assimilation such as Blair, Palmer, or Norris would have framed MacReady, burned Fuchs, and sabotaged the blood supply; it is easily explained if one accepts the theory of retained victim’s consciousness.  As I stated before: I do not believe the Thing to be an intelligent entity.  I believe that it exists on instinct alone.  A shape shifting being, as a means of survival, would have the ability to use the intelligence of its victim to its advantage.  This, once again, does not make the Thing intelligent.  Clearly when the Thing pushed the personalities of Norris, Palmer, or Blair aside it was still able ascertain from their collected consciousness the current situation and make strategy.  The Thing would see the danger inherent in the blood test thanks to Blair’s intelligence, it would see the need to dispose of Fuchs once Blair and Copper were no longer working on scientific approaches to the Thing’s destruction, and it would recognize MacReady as a threat thanks to the interactions Norris, Palmer, and Blair had had with him.  Consider the end of the film when “Blair” kills Garry.  Why bother retaining the form of Blair?  Wouldn’t the Thing have had a more effective form in its cellular memory for use in claustrophobic atmospheres like Outpost 31’s basement?  Obviously the Blair/Thing was using the form that allowed it to exercise the most logic and possessed the most effective intelligence at the time.  Blair’s consciousness was in a state of limbo, but the Thing itself could still pervert Blair’s intelligence for its own ends.

Also please consider the massive cave the Blair/Thing must have had to dig underneath the supply shed.  Obviously the Thing didn’t use the form of Blair to dig that.  Nor would the Thing have utilized the form of Blair to build its means of escape.  But we must agree that the form of Blair was used to kill Fuchs and frame MacReady.  I argue that Blair must be the one guilty of these crimes because he was the only one who’d have been able to achieve both of these goals without raising suspicion.  At the same time I argue that Blair/Thing had placed Blair’s consciousness in charge of their shared body when he destroyed the chopper and the radio equipment.  Clearly Blair, having the most insight as a human into the biology of the Thing, would consciously want to keep it from escaping to a populated area.  The Thing itself would have never destroyed an easy opportunity to escape the Antarctic, and thus we can see the theory of retained consciousness does have validity.  If a Thing incognito can identify another infected animal or individual then Blain/Thing would have never destroyed the chopper.  Palmer, certainly already infected by that time in the film, was a chopper pilot and Blair/Thing would have recognized that as a possible means of escape.

One question that I pondered over for a great deal of time was the question of cellular mass and that of shape shifting.  Assume for a moment that after a brief stint as an alien form the Thing should find a secluded area and form itself into you.  Also assume that after the shifting into you on the exterior it still hadn’t completed the interior.  Inside your body the Thing was still forming lungs, a heart, and any number of internal organs.  If a person was to take your pulse at that moment would they register one?  I doubt it.  I also put forth the idea that if the Thing was unable to fully recreate your human brain with its cells it could not reassert your consciousness.  It could still access your memories and knowledge but it would be unable to hide the fact that it was not you.

Another good question is can the Thing, if it is you, infect another person and that person/Thing then shape its cells to appear as you.  I’d say yes but I doubt the Thing would do so as that would clearly cause panic and confusion.

In conclusion I put it to you that the Thing is merely an animal acting on instinct alone.  While its unique evolution has allowed it to do many things we can never hope to understand it is still only a simplistic single-celled organism.  Its adaptive and imitative abilities make it a horrific threat, but it cannot hide the fact that it is not us without our unwilling and unaware assistance. 



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