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Inside Out: Jung and John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

By: Graeme Positivity | October 31, 2020
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Inside Out: Jung and John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’

Seminal sci-fi horror John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) may seem unlikely to meet representations of Jungian psychological analysis upon first glance. Yet, I can think of no better way to explore ideas of the self and individuation than through the story of a shape-shifting alien that assimilates and imitates perfectly other organisms.

We will see how The Thing explores identity and individuality through the Jungian ideas of mythology, individuation, liminality, and archetype by considering both internal and external journeys and transformations of the film's human characters and its titular alien Thing. This will be accomplished by examining the alien pathology of the titular Thing and its methods of assimilation, the archetypal imagery that is manifested throughout, and the isolated setting the action takes place in.

Before reading further, you should have a primer on the terminology used in this piece.

Mythology: Mythology is the collected stories (or myths) shared throughout a specific group of people. For example, in religion, the words of Jesus Christ make up part of various Christian mythologies. In popular American culture, there is the mythology of the frontier (to be expanded on later).

Liminality: "Liminality is a state of transition between one stage and the next, especially between major stages in one's life or during a rite of passage." (Courtesy of Dictionary.com). In the case of The Thing, we will come to see liminality through the many alien transformation sequences.

Individuation: In Myth, Mind, and the Screen, John Izod describes individuation as "the process of discovery by which the individual approaches knowledge of the self." Essentially, this is the process through which a person becomes an individual, differentiated from the collective.

Archetype: Saul McLeod describes archetypal imagery as "images and themes which have universal meanings across cultures which may show up in dreams, literature, art or religion."

Jung focused on the archetypes of the self, the Persona, the Mother, and the Anima/Animus, but there are also various other archetypes such as the Trickster, Wise Old Man, or the Hero. You've probably come across many characters in the film who have fit neatly into many of these archetypes. Think of Gandalf, the Wise Old Man of The Lord of the Rings, or Luke Skywalker, Hero of Star Wars. With the primer out of the way, let's turn our attention to the essay's central film.

John Carpenter's The Thing tells the story of an all-male group of scientists, researchers, and support crew stationed at an isolated Antarctic research outpost who face the intrusion of a shape-shifting alien seeking to assimilate and destroy them. Given the perfect imitations made by the alien Thing, an atmosphere of paranoia and panic quickly poisons the outpost. The Thing itself is only identifiable during its messy transformations, making it all the more difficult to detect. We follow the characters as they seek to identify and then destroy the alien interloper among them, as the Thing seeks to consume and assimilate the scientists through these horrific transformations.

The film opens in outer-space, a shot of black space and endless stars just outside Earth's atmosphere, as a flying saucer emerges from the blackness and hurtles towards Earth. According to John Izod in Jung and Film, Jung argued that in the 1950s, Unidentified Flying Objects were "a collective manifestation of the fears aroused in the Western nations by the Cold War" and "most certainly carriers of archetypal energies." The Thing would not be out of place in the 1950s as an allegory for McCarthyism, the idea that nefariously intentioned communists were among us to be detected and rooted out. In this way, we can see Western mythology being mined right from The Thing's very beginnings.

Immediately following the opening, the film cuts to a helicopter traversing its primary setting: inhospitable and isolated Antarctic frozen snowfields housing the research outpost in which our main characters reside. The outpost itself speaks to man's resourcefulness and ingenuity, given the technological knowledge and engineering prowess required to build and maintain it in such a harsh and isolated environment, epitomizing that mythological frontier spirit. However, this very isolation, emphasized by shots of vast and empty snowfields as we follow the helicopter, underlines the fragility of this safe haven and the improbability of any outside assistance should things go awry. In Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the modern horror film, Kendall R. Phillips likens The Thing and its setting to the American mythology of the frontier, pioneering Western society pushing into the wild: taming, taking over, and civilizing. In The Thing, the Antarctic base acts as a boundary between typical societal structures and the uncivilized wilderness. It is a liminal space. The frontier myth is turned on its head with the creature acting as a pioneer, creeping into human territory and pushing them out.

Just as the setting works as a "liminal space" for Phillips, the creature itself displays a great deal of liminality, given that it undertakes several transformations throughout the film. The first transformation is of the Thing posing as a dog in the kennels, which erupts into a monstrous, tentacled entity consuming and assimilating the other canine occupants of the kennel. The choice of a dog as interloper plays with dogs' mythological ideal in Western culture on two levels, in which dogs, from Greyfriar's Bobby to Lassie to Fry's dog Seymour in Futurama, are continually portrayed as loyal and trusted companions. Firstly, the dog Thing was readily accepted into the outpost due to this cultural love and trust of dogs. Secondly, in destroying and consuming all the real dogs, the Thing deprives the humans of trusted and loyal allies.

The transformations depicted on-screen are highly kinetic, grotesque, and dripping with entrails and viscera, making the Thing's identity and alien-ness incredibly evident to any human witnesses. These violent and exceptionally visual transformations display intense liminality. As described by Steve Zemmelman in the Jung Journal, "In liminal experience, the so-called inner and so-called outer worlds come together, collide, collapse, merge, flow into one another, and in the process change each other forever." This generally internal psychological process is manifested through the collapsing, colliding, merging transformations of the Thing.

Bob Trubshaw associates the liminal phase with "protracted periods of seclusion." This is undoubtedly appropriate for the Thing, as the success of its transformations is entirely dependent on its seclusion and transforming away from prying human eyes. Suppose we consider the Thing's goal in the transformation to be mimicking and passing as human. This can only be achieved if the change is unobserved by others, or else the Thing fails in passing through the threshold to becoming believably human and reverts back to being markedly alien. Given the frequency with which the Thing is forced to transform, it can only be said to pass this threshold temporarily, going from the state of "alien" to "human" until inevitably rooted out by a genuine human and forced to attempt its assimilations again to survive and blend in once more.

Given the paranoia of the human characters in the film surrounding who among them may be the alien Thing, it's interesting to consider the process of individuation. In a world where the only thing that seems truly knowable is your own humanity, knowledge of the self becomes ever more critical. Even this knowledge comes under doubt, as the alien's mechanisms and the completeness of its mimicry are not made clear in the film. It's possible that the mimicry could be so perfect that the mimicked organism doesn't even realize they are a copy. Descartes certainly did not account for shape-shifting alien mimics when it came to "I think. Therefore I am."

The distrust and discord sewn by the Thing's presence in the outpost create further difficulty in the individuation process, as the self's definition is tied to positive interactions with others. As Robert Cumbow puts it in Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter: "With the loss of trust in one's fellow man comes the loss of one's own sense of identity." Furthermore, the Thing also attacks the collective as it picks off the outpost's inhabitants, undermining the idea of community built there. The Thing consumes, destroys, and assimilates, sowing discord and distrust, but how can we come to understand it? What archetypal imagery does it invoke?

Facets of various archetypes manifest themselves in the Thing, the most immediately obvious of which is that of the shadow, representing the dark sides of human nature. More specifically, we can see the Thing as a trickster, which John Izod describes as "A specialized variant of the shadow typified by changeability." Changeability is amply demonstrated through the Thing's numerous transformations. The Thing's deceptive and destructive power and its trickster nature of changeability presents a formidable threat to the human characters of The Thing and humanity itself.

It's also interesting to consider the Thing as anima, representing the male personality's hidden feminine aspects, juxtaposing this with the outpost's all-male makeup. In her BFI Film Classics book on The Thing, Anne Billson positions the Thing as a female intruder in an all-male space: "The entire film becomes the story of man's desperate attempts to preserve the beleaguered masculine identity that is constantly under siege from predatory woman, the female gender being a breed apart, considered as somehow not quite human."

Billson points to evocations of vagina dentata in the defibrillator scene in which a man's chest caves in to reveal snapping teeth which take off a man's arms before the Thing begins another of its transformations, and as further evidence highlights the portrayal of the Thing as a spider-like creature in some transformations. As Billson tells us, spiders are historically "nearly always presented as predatory and malevolent, and often as female." Furthermore, the anima is often seen as "a confusing, deceptive presence with the capacity to engender inner transformation," and the Thing is undoubtedly deceptive and confusing. However, its transformations are shockingly and vividly external.

We can also look at The Thing through the Hero's Journey's lens, detailed in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero of a story undertakes a journey of individuation, facing dangers and completing their journey a psychologically changed person, encountering archetypal imagery manifested through characters of the story, which Campbell tells us must be incorporated for them to become the self. The most likely hero candidate in The Thing is the protagonist, the pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell), who we follow as he encounters and battles the Thing throughout the film. He is the de facto leader of the group, but seemingly only because he's the one with the flamethrower, rather than through popularity or nous.

Given the relative lack of in-depth characterization for many of the supporting characters, it's difficult to position MacReady's individuation journey through his interactions with them. Instead, it is undertaken through his exchanges with the Thing, which, as discussed, acts chiefly as a tricksterish shadow. MacReady battles with the Thing throughout. By the end of the film and MacReady's journey, we find him sitting among the destroyed and flaming ruins of the outpost with mechanic Childs (Keith David), sharing a bottle of whisky and waiting for death. MacReady is certainly changed from his position at the beginning of the film, but the change's nature is entirely unclear. Is he victorious, satisfied in vanquishing the Thing and saving humanity, or has he been assimilated and become alien himself? The film leaves this ambiguous, allowing the story's tension and confusion to seep through the screen into the audience's minds.

There is also the intriguing prospect of considering the Hero's Journey from the Thing itself's perspective, placing the alien tormentor as a hero. The Thing is paradoxically both individual and collective, each individual part able to survive independently, but all in service to a single monolithic alien entity. Parallels can be drawn between the process of individuation where archetypal images are encountered and incorporated in pursuit of the self with the Thing's consuming and assimilating nature. The transformations the alien undergoes are vivid visualizations of its liminality.

Transformation runs clearly throughout The Thing. It's mythological and metaphorical through the pioneering alien's encroachment into the human frontier. It can also be seen as individually psychological through the Hero's Journey. Finally, it's archetypically through the Thing's trickster changeability. The violent and visceral transformations depicted throughout continually reinforce these aspects of archetype and mythology. The Thing leaves us trying to determine who among the characters is human while, quite paradoxically, being sure we are seeing something alien. What we are left with is an unmistakably human story about paranoia and identity.