By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
As they once said, it’s a tale as old as time, one that has plagued fandom for over thirty years spawning many theories and contradictions as to who at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing really was the alien?
It is one that has been further complicated by the prequel and has kept us debating in work as to what it all finally means. What spawned this article was the old theory that you could tell by the amount of breath coming from both Childs (Keith David) and MacReady. As Childs had hardly any breath forming on the cold air compared to Kurt Russell’s MacReady then the consensus was that Childs was in fact the Thing. Given Childs had disappeared and now suddenly walks out of the freeing darkness adds to the atmosphere that he may well be the Thing in a new form. Some say it would not be in Childs’ nature to simply run into the snow blindly lone just because he thought he saw a shadowy figure. We have seen Macready fight his way to this point with all the other base personnel falling to the wayside so we know he’s not the alien.
However the breath theory falls apart thanks to one scene in particular. When meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney) is absorbed by the Thing and it takes his form, Windows catches it in mid transformation. Fleeing into the snow the Thing Bennings falls to its knees, gross alien hands showing the transformation is not complete. Before the others burn it to death, the Bennings Thing lets out a roar and from its mouth comes lots and lots of steaming breath. It’s like Thomas the tank coming over the hill there is that much. This in itself blows the breath theory out of the water and was something I had not noticed before. Does that mean that in fact Macready is the Thing at the movie’s ending since he has more breath coming out of his mouth than Childs? Not necessarily as there are other theories. In an interview with Childs actor Keith David he says the breath thing is explained by the fact he is closer to the fire therefore Childs’ breath exhalation would be lesser due to the heat. He thought it was set up for a sequel and the answer would be discovered then. David still doesn’t think his character is the Thing.
We also have the bottle of gasoline theory. At the movie’s ending having blown up the Thing and its spaceship, Macready is alone amid the burning camp. There is no help coming, he is cut off from the rest of the world so is sitting with a bottle of alcohol waiting to die. He is surprised when Childs walks out of the darkness rifle in hand having gotten lost chasing Blair Thing earlier. Childs seems to be the worse for wear as they both slump to the ground and realise they are not getting out of this alive. Neither men are fit to fight anymore and know the temperature will plummet once the fires die out. MacReady’s beard has ice forming on it already so it is only a matter of time. This is also an indication of the theory he went to his shack which can now be seen burning to get whiskey, blanket and apparently a chessboard to wait out his final hours. He then set fire to his shed. This fits the question of where the whiskey came from given MacReady would not have time to stuff any in his pack or coat especially given the acrobatics in avoiding the Thing when he blew up its ship. Childs moves to say he is not the Thing but MacReady points out even if either of them were, none of them are in a fit state to do anything if attacked. MacReady then hands Childs the bottle of whiskey. He drinks from it and MacReady smiles to himself. Now the popular theory is that Macready had filled the bottle with gasoline. As Childs drinks from it and there is no reaction this is why the pilot is smiling. As the Thing Childs does not realise he is not drinking booze.
I sort of have a problem with this theory. Macready believed he is the sole survivor at this point. There is no hope and no rescue coming so he knows he is going to freeze to death here. He has saved the world and no one is going to know about it. He isn’t expecting anyone else to arrive especially since he has killed them himself or they have fallen victim to the Thing and been blown to bits in the explosion. So would it really make sense that he would fill a bottle of booze with gasoline? It’s not a petrol bomb of any sort given there is no rag inthe nozzle. Doesn’t it make more sense that Macready would spend his final hours drinking? In all this alien madness it is one of the most humn things to do; when the world goes to hell, let’s get pissed; ask the characters in Grabbers. Hence the shack theory. Even if he was testing Childs there is nothing he can do to stop him. If you look at the scene carefully it is clear Macready is not having a shock reaction to the sudden realisation that the Thing cannot tell the difference between alcohol and gasoline. Instead he smiles and rests his head on the barrel beside him. This isn’t the actions of a man knowing his weakened position is about to make him the Thing’s last victim; this is the action of a man knowing he will not die alone because Child is in fact human. Both men will die unsung heroes in a war that slipped under the radar. Besides I think that even if MacReady expected that one of the Things survived he would have had something a little more explosive to take it out with him. Even dying in the wreckage of the camp, Macready would ensure the Thing would not get away. One stick of dynamite and it would be all over.
While everyone is focusing on the breath and gasoline in a bottle theory no one seems to be actually watching the actors’ reactions to each other in the scene. There is nothing here to show either of them are the Thing. In fact they seem as human as ever.
Maybe Kurt Russell is right when he discussed the matter years later in an interview.
“John Carpenter and I worked on the ending of that movie together a long time. We were both bringing the audience right back to square one. At the end of the day, that was the position these people were in. They just didn’t know anything. They didn’t know if they knew who they were, but had you seen all the things in the movie, you’ve heard MacReady say, ‘I know I’m me,’ Well, you either believe him or you don’t. And Childs — you know, one of my favorite lines in the movie is, ‘Where were you, Childs?’ And I think that basically says it all,” Russell said. “it was about paranoia.”
It all points to both of men being human and ironically they now both know each other better where they didn’t before. they were just faces at a snowbase. After a slew of alien fear and paranoia the two survivors die in each other’s company as comrades.
While my buddy sticks to the theory that Childs is the Thing which is his prerogative, while I’m leaning towards they are both human theory after all this time, just shows what a great movie it is. For him and many fans like him to take away the fact none of them is an alien undermines and spoils the entire movie.
It was a question that was answered in the Thing from another World comic books. MacReady and Childs both survive the freeze but so does the Thing so the chase is on once more to save the world. Childs appears human but in the four part Climate of Fear comic book we learn that Childs is not only the Thing but has managed to spread the infection. It really is a great story and a stunning scene that would look great on film.
While many love the comic book series and it is highly sought after by collectors, there was another incident that threw the ambiguous ending into new territory and one that fans tend to ignore. However the arrival of the Thing prequel has led to even more theories.
The prequel deals with the events at the Norwegian camp which MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) visited in the original. While great pains were made to match the camp’s destruction to what we saw eg two faced monster, exploded wall and the axe, it didn’t really add much to the mythos except for one thing.
The stunning blood test sequence had been done so they had to come up with another method of determining who the Thing was. It was determined that the Thing cannot replicate fillings, false teeth, earrings, steel plates; anything that is not part of the original body can be duplicated.
Now in the John Carpenter version we see Childs wears an earring. He also has a gold tooth which can be seen in the final scene as he takes a drink from the bottle Macready offers him. Incidentally some cite this as evidence Childs is the Thing also as no one would take a drink from someone else’s bottle given it could contain a single call from the Thing. Sharing a drink could be a death sentence unless you alrady were the creature.
Also in that scene he turns his head so you can see his right ear which is now devoid of an earring. Is this evidence that Childs was duplicated after all? It is also pointed out his gold tooth can be seen also. It stands out as he takes a swig from the bottle therefore clearing him of being the Thing. While we know there was never a glimmer of a sequel at the time of the original movie’s release, we can’t simply ignore the prequel and the additions to the Thing universe. Sadly many do because it does spoil the ambiguity and mythos of that original stunning ending. For me it only confirms the they are both human theory. And do you know what? I hope it is because it’s an age old theme of two strangers coming together to face a greater danger to the world; a world that coldly ignores unsung heroes. Bonds are forged that go beyond friendship in the face of a war we never knew existed.
Whatever you’re viewpoint the cool thing about the Thing is that it will forever keep us guessing.