In the horror movie world, creating a timeless classic often proves to be more difficult to accomplish than other genres. This is due to horror films’ inherent hokey/campy tones which usually don’t age well with time. Fans now roll their eyes with the majority of then-realistic horror films created four decades ago, like Sleepaway Camp or Slumber Party Massacre. But when you take a look at John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, it’s fairly simple to see why this film, to this very day, holds up as one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Plenty of that has to do with the story itself, as well as the film’s setting. Taking place at a completely isolated Arctic research station, this shocking tale feels like a believable story, no matter what decade you watch it in. Whether it’s the early ‘80s or today, viewers will always accept the fact that when you’re in the middle of nowhere without communication from the outside world, things can, and will, go very badly. When you add paranoia, mistrust, and a parasitic alien entity trying to disembowel you, it doesn’t matter what time you’re living in. It’s kill or be killed.
However, depending on one’s point of view, the ending of The Thing, is either perfect and fitting for the story, or unsatisfying enough to ruin the two hours preceding it. With this film in particular, the conclusion’s ambiguity lends itself to be analyzed, ridiculed, or praised. To some, the ending is clear-cut with no real reason for a debate. To others, the finale holds clues to what exactly John Carpenter had in mind before rolling the credits. Without Carpenter ever giving a clear explanation, we scare-fans are left to form our own opinions.
For those who want more than just their own take, we have broken down the ending of 1982s The Thing:
To get to the end, we should start with the beginning. The story opens with a familiar looking flying saucer craft, clearly in technical trouble, barreling towards Earth. Jump to the present time setting of the film, where we meet an American research team stationed in the remote and frozen wilderness of Antarctica. Led by MacReady, played by Kurt Russell, the team investigates a helicopter incident that took place at a neighboring Norwegian research station, only to find there has been a much larger incident than that. In fact, the Norwegian team is now dead or missing, and now the station’s a ghost town. The American team discovers what the Nords found buried under the ice; the same alien spaceship we saw flailing towards Earth in the opening scene. Based on what they can decipher from the Norwegian team’s records, the Americans determine that the ship has been buried for over 100,000 years. Near this discovered ship, the team finds a strange looking creature that the Norwegians burned to a crisp. Along with an abandoned husky dog, MacReady’s research crew returns with the strange burned creature in order to study and hopefully learn its identity.
It’s back at the American research facility where the team’s scientist, Blair, played by the late Wilford Brimley (widely known for helping your grandparents live a better life in between The Price is Right commercials), determines that the burned creature’s cells are still living and functioning. The audience, however, is then privy to the fact that the abandoned husky isn’t the dog it appears to be. Nope, this pooch has been replicated (imitated) by this alien and is now running loose at the site. To make matters worse, the site is so isolated from civilization, and thanks to a winter storm, all communication to the mainland will take over two weeks to reach. For the time being, the team seems to be on their own to deal with this creature, which they now know can take over and replicate itself to whatever living being it kills.
Blair uses his research to determine, based on computer calculations, how quickly this replicating extraterrestrial can spread across the human race, which will eventually be globally. His only solution is to make sure that this creature never leaves their frozen home. With anyone around him a possible imitation, this extermination plan now includes all the humans, as well. To protect humanity, Blair destroys any form of transportation out of the complex. This leaves the team left with the only solution available, which is to figure out where this creature is, and destroy it themselves.
The bulk of the story then becomes a tangled web of paranoia and mistrust, as no one knows who can be possibly imitated. A power struggle of leadership forms between MacReady and Childs, played by Keith David, who both have their own views on how to deal with this uniquely horrific situation. Between this struggle and ongoing gory moments, tensions hit a breaking point. This leads to one of the most intense horror movie scenes ever, in which team members are restrained to chairs while their blood is being tested for infection.
With most of the team dead, or presumed dead, including Blair, who ended up being a falsely accused man of wisdom, MacReady uses TNT charges to not only destroy the creature, but the majority of the camp along with it. Triumphant, yet badly injured, he ends up in an outside shack where he finds Childs waiting there. They appear to be the last survivors. Which leads us to the movie’s ambiguous final moments.
On the surface, and when first watched, the final moments of the movie seem to be obviously open-ended. MacReady and Childs are the last men standing. Of course, they are overly suspicious of each other, still not truly knowing who is human and who is not. However, now that they are in a one on one situation, both characters’ paranoia makes it seem pretty obvious that they are both human and have successfully destroyed the threatening alien. In fact, the film ends with them sharing a bottle of scotch together in the freezing cold shed, seemingly waiting to eventually freeze to death. Like other films in the past and present, we seem to have an ending where the main characters have sacrificed themselves for the good of the human race. We are witnessing the final moments of these heroes, ones who will more than likely never get to tell their story. They are just enjoying a bottle of scotch together, waiting it out, making sure the success is not false. The movie ends… And that’s that. Or was it?
Well, it surely might’ve been. MacReady and Childs, recently clashing alpha males, are now seeing each other as (hopefully) human equals and are celebrating their final moments on Earth. That would be a perfectly fine, satisfying ending to an intense, thrilling, horror movie. However, the film’s creator John Carpenter has never officially given his stamp of approval to that ending’s interpretation. That fact alone has resulted in multiple theories and explanations of what The Thing’s ending actually meant.
One ending explanation, believed by some, is that Childs has been infected and is the creature. He did disappear off-screen for the film’s climactic ending, when MacReady destroys the alien along with the camp, and we only get to see him now after the fact. When MacReady enters the shed, Childs is there at just about the same time. He claims that he ran off looking for Blair, and was able to make it back safely to the campsite. But what really happened to Childs during that time off-screen? The events of the past few hours in the story suggests that he very well likely was killed and replicated by the creature, just like the others. When re-watching the ending, this theory does hold water. If it really is Childs, it has no reason for it to immediately kill MacReady when they sit down together in the shed. There is no hope for MacReady‘s survival. No one’s coming to save him and there is no power or communication. He’s going to freeze to death. If Child is the creature at this time, here is a perfectly benign moment to have a civilized conversation with its adversary: the human MacReady. There is no rush to kill or imitate him, not right away anyway. In this case, the movie ends with the audience believing MacReady will eventually be killed by the creature, leaving it’s very existence still wide open for eventual global domination.
With one side of the coin, there is always the other, and some people who have analyzed the ending believe that MacReady can be the creature. If it had successfully replicated MacReady, he would be behaving exactly the way he would in this final moment. The Thing posing as MacReady has no reason to kill Childs immediately.
As mentioned earlier, John Carpenter has never explained the ending, nor given his “thumbs up” to any fan-theories. The closest he’s done was passively shoot down a camera trick conspiracy in which all the humans in the film have a literal glimmer of light in their eyes. Although this has now been debunked by crafty viewers, who have pointed out why this theory is false. But other than that, Carpenter kept mum on the topic. And maybe that was his plan all along.
No matter what the ending really was meant to be, The Thing is a beautifully gruesome and terrifying science-fiction horror film. As long as fans of the genre all agree that being trapped with a monster in an isolated location is scary, the film will continue to live on.