To call John Carpenter’s The Thing the proverbial black sheep of the Summer of ‘82 lineup is an understatement. Critics threw figurative tomatoes at the film (release date: June 25, 1982) for its nihilistic and bleak tone. Unlike the wondrous joy of E.T., this parasitic yet contained alien invasion put a mirror to society. It’s narrative is a reflection of our paranoia, distrust, and gripping hopelessness. An isolated group of researchers spiraling towards infighting, fear, and suspicious facades as the eponymous Thing imitates them for nefarious reasons wasn’t exactly fun summer popcorn fodder. However, years later, the film is lauded as a pivotal and influential addition to science fiction horror history for good reason. Its themes continue to resonate in our world in both direct and tangential ways. And this is all expressed in one quote by The Thing’s protagonist R.J. MacReady.
This seemingly hopeless fight against an unknown threat looming in the snowy depths of Antarctica is underway. The crew’s seen a couple deaths as their own fall victim to the Thing, which can imitate and replicate living organisms, hence their mounting paranoia. There’s no help arriving nor anywhere to truly run. This evil is present, powerful, and they know they will have to discover who’s still human and eliminate who isn’t. MacReady looks at the men around him and says the following:
“If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”
The “it” in MacReady’s pragmatic yet poignant quote is obviously the titular Thing. But, when you examine this in a broader context, that “it” is representative of so much more. There are many unchecked and cancerous evils lurking in our society that are detrimental when allowed to spread. While this crew’s terrors were legit, many asinine fears and misinformation lead to shunning and mistreatment of people and things that others don’t know and/or understand. And 1982 has perhaps one of the strongest examples of this exact thing—the rhetoric and reactions to AIDS/HIV. At the time of The Thing’s release, the disease was known as “Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID)” because people thought only gay men could get it. (The term AIDS wasn’t used by the CDC until September 24.)
LGBTQ+ communities and their allies were the only ones pushing to fully understand the diagnosis and ways to cure or manage it. Why? Because it was happening to people who lived outside of societal norms. People who were already misunderstood, ostracized, and deeply disdained by the cishet majority. Especially those with the resources and privileges/positions to effect change. As a result, it became an enemy that took millions of lives before better treatment came. And, the main reason that happened is because the “powers that be” realized that it was an “everyone problem.”
Sadly, we (the collective) haven’t seemed to learn much from this forty years later. We can look at the COVID-19 crisis of the 2020s in the US. The “it” is misinformation, selfishness masquerading as “rights,” and a lack of caring/understanding for immunodeficient and vulnerable people. This all led to COVID-19 gaining the upper hand and taking over a million US lives. The enemy isn’t COVID-19, but humanity itself.
Of course, this stems far beyond the reactions and discourse to physical viruses. Bigotry. Places where dangerous rhetoric thrives. Harmful conspiracy theories with little to no factual basis to sustain them. Oppressive laws rooted in patriarchy, racism, and that don’t offer protection to those who need it. Placing productivity and profit over human lives. Things of this nature often get a foothold with people imitating and replicating or siding this utter nonsense. And the results cost others, usually marginalized people, their lives and safety.
Like MacReady suggests, the only way to fight against the thing (pun intended) is to not allow it to take over. Those who have privilege or influence/reach in any way to utilize it to speak up, act against, and remain staunch enemies against the “its” that ill our world. To be willing to consistently do what it takes deaden systemic and socioeconomic structures and precedents. To push against doors that open for open laws and general atmospheres that support unconscionable things. The Thing may not be a darling story like E.T. nor a nostalgic look at the early ‘80s like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But it’s of critical importance and we can all learn something from their fight in isolation.