Having a hard time deciding what music to listen to as I headed out for my run this morning, I opened up Overcast to see what podcast episodes might be waiting for me. Lo and behold, not only was there a new episode of The Faculty Of Horror, but the topic of the episode was John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing.
As I have written before, I first saw The Thing during its very first run on HBO in the early 1980s. I watched it very late at night at a friend’s house and even though I understood maybe half of what what going on, it terrified me. I have watched it countless times since then, and it remains one of my favorite films, and one from which I still get something new with nearly every re-watch.
Around the 28-minute mark of the episode, the hosts get to discussing the fact that there are no women in the film and the fact that Carpenter has said in interviews that he considered the Thing itself to be a “female presence” in the film. They mostly dismiss that theory—and rightfully so, in my opinion—and then start talking about what I find to be one of the more interesting and compelling interpretations that I have heard. The idea is that the men at Outpost 31 are basically static when the film opens, not really doing anything, and then are totally unable to deal with the chaotic and horrifying chain of events initiated by the arrival of the dog and the Norwegian pilot.
I’m not doing the reading justice in my description, so you really ought to just go listen to the episode.
Toward the end of the episode, they discuss some of the various fan theories about the film—is MacReady the Thing? Is Childs? Maybe they both are, maybe neither? They don’t spend much time on this topic, and I was glad of it.
One can spend a lot of time going down the rabbit-hole of blog posts and YouTubes of people explaining their elaborate analyses, but as much as I love this movie, I have zero interest in these kinds of theories, and not just as they relate to The Thing.
I am always happy to talk about what books and movies might mean with friends over drinks. It’s a fun diversion and a great way to discover new and interesting lenses through which to view works I like (or don’t, as the case may be). What is not fun is extended and vociferous pedantry that wants to pass itself off as amateur film criticism. Great—you’ve spent a hundred hours frame-by-framing through a scene to examine obscure details of the lighting, you’ve found an interview with a crew member from the June 1994 issue of Fangoria, and now this proves your pet theory and you want to yell at me about it and why I’m a moron for not seeing it myself and a bad fan if I don’t agree with you? No thanks.
I feel like the style of “analysis” (and I use that term reluctantly) that gives us elaborate fan theories that insist no other explanation of interpretation is possible arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of how storytelling works. It comes from a confusion I have complained about before—the confusion of plot with story, the failure to grasp that what a book or movie is “about” (i.e., the work that it does) is more than just its plot.
Good storytelling should be like a wedge that first opens a gap between what you want out of a story and what it gives you, and then forces you to sit astride that gap and consider the difference. Bad storytelling give us movies like Justice League, in which a bunch of flat characters proceed through a series of plot points, dutifully checking off the boxes of what we expect.
This mindset is what gives us people (mostly men) screaming on the Internet about how Rian Johnson ruined Star Wars because The Last Jedi didn’t confirm their pet theories about Supreme Leader Snoke. It is of a piece with ludicrous conspiracy theories that would have us believe that everything about the world can be explained, and moreover, that it can be controlled.
What makes The Thing a great movie is the very ambiguity that hackish amateurs on YouTube try to explain away in their 20-minute exegeses. They treat the film like a video game with clues to be unlocked and keys to be discovered. Find the right one, the notion goes, and everything will be explained and it will all make sense. Except it doesn’t, and it isn’t supposed to. Strip away that ambiguity and the uncertainty about who might be the Thing and who is still human, and you miss the whole point of the film.