Is MacReady Or Childs The Thing At The End Of John Carpenter’s The Thing? An Investigation
Hollywood seems to shy away from ambiguous endings, which is silly if you think in the long term, which admittedly isn't exactly Hollywood's specialty. Ambiguous endings tend to piss off audiences and those kinds of stories don't usually have huge box office returns in their initial theatrical run, but they also start a debate that can carry a film for decades through multiple home video releases, streaming contracts, spin-off comics, and remakes/reboots/legacy sequels.
"John Carpenter's The Thing" is a perfect example of this. Fans have been arguing whether or not the final two characters standing were Things ever since 1982. Is Kurt Russell's MacReady infected or is it Keith David's Childs? Or are they both Things? Or are neither of them Things?
Movie nerds, like myself, have been going crazy trying to put this particular puzzle together for years and I recently had the opportunity to rewatch the movie in its fancy 4K UHD transfer with my new girlfriend who hadn't seen it. I've seen this thing easily 40+ times from start to finish since I was a kid, so I decided on this watch I was going to try to pinpoint an answer to this age-old question.
And I have to tell you, I came away from this viewing absolutely, positively, unequivocally convinced that MacReady was a Thing.
The Theory That Childs Is An Imitation
The most common read on the ending of "The Thing" is that Childs is most likely a Thing, and there is some logic to that line of thinking. Childs disappears for the entirety of the finale until the very end when he comes back with a pretty bogus excuse of why he was gone. "I thought I saw Blair. I went out after him and got lost in the storm," he says.
People also point out that steam is pouring from MacReady's mouth for the entirety of their scene, but none comes from Childs when he speaks. Is this the clue that Childs is alien?
That's a fun observation, but not something the movie holds to be true. When the Thing is interrupted while absorbing Bennings, it ends up trapped outside where it lets out an inhuman scream before it is torched. When it does that, there's clearly steam coming from its mouth. It is, after all, a perfect imitation of a man and if figuring out who was a Thing was as easy as checking to see if the skin was cool to the touch, then you wouldn't have a very exciting sci-fi/horror movie.
There's An Uncomfortable Racial Component To The Childs Theory
Keith David pointed out in a 2017 interview with PeopleTV that Childs making it to the end of the movie was something of an uncommon move at the time:
"Traditionally, cinematically, you know usually the Black guy gets bumped off if not in the first act, you know, he certainly doesn't make it to the end. I made it to the end."
Seeing a person of color survive a genre movie in 1982 was unique enough that it triggered many viewers to question why he was there. I'm not saying it's racist to consider Childs a suspect in a movie built around paranoia, especially with his sketchy excuse for why he disappeared, but the rarity of a Black character making it to the end of a studio horror movie could explain why some folks automatically assume he has to be there for a reason that might not be totally innocent while feeling confident that the traditional white leading man can't possibly be the evil one.
I believe Childs ran off and got lost. It's dumb, but it's believably dumb, the kind of thing that you can actually see happening if this was the real world. People do dumb things and there's no greater motive or 4D chess being played. People do dumb stuff that makes them look guilty.
On the other hand, I think MacReady was not only a Thing by the end of the movie, I think he was turned very early on.
That sounds a little contradictory, I know, considering I just said that rarely is there a Machiavellian plot at work in the real world and that 4D chess is hardly ever a thing, but I do believe MacReady was playing the subtle game as a Thing and made it to the very end.
Let's Unravel This Conspiracy Theory
If my thesis is that Kurt Russell is a Thing then I need to pinpoint when exactly I think he turns, which is tough for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that we, the audience, are working off of a bunch of assumptions put forth by characters who are guessing their way through a tense situation.
How does a Thing take over a human? Is it a complete merging of two bodies that leave behind ripped clothes or can a Thing infect a human via a small particle in food or drink, as Fuchs suggests? How long does the process take? How much of the human's personality and memories are transferred to the Thing? All this is (purposefully) vague.
We know MacReady is not the first to get infected. That's either Palmer or Norris and that's a whole other debate that gets more confusing the more you hear about the behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the movie. After MacReady and Doc Cooper take off in the helicopter to check out the Norwegian camp, we see the Thing dog wander into a room with one of the research station's residents, who we only see in silhouette.
Norris Or Palmer?
I've always believed this is meant to be Norris. It looks like Charles Hallahan's hair and the neck of the shirt in the silhouette looks like his wardrobe way more than Palmer's jean jacket. However, producer Stuart Cohen said the intent was for that to be Palmer, but since David Clennon's silhouette was so distinct, they had stuntman (with the coolest stuntman name ever) Dick Warlock stand in for the silhouette in order to throw audiences off. If we accept that as fact (and ignore how the silhouette clearly looks more like Norris), then it's unclear when Norris turns, but I think it's pretty early on, which is important because he's very close to MacReady a whole lot before he's revealed to be a Thing.
My best guess is that MacReady is turned somewhere between coming back from seeing the UFO in the ice (he flies out there with Norris and a third person who is obscured by his winter gear, but I think it's Fuchs, who is definitely human) and when Blair goes nuts and destroys their equipment. There are a lot of time cuts in this section where just about anybody could have been turned.
It's possible that Norris gets MacReady when they're alone standing on the UFO, but then that raises the question of how much of a person's memories and knowledge is carried over to the Thing. If MacReady flies them out there and is turned then how does he fly them back unless the "perfect imitation" also comes with all his memories and knowledge?
Blair In The Tool Shed
For the sake of argument, let's assume MacReady is turned somewhere between getting back from the flying saucer and when Blair goes axe happy with the radio equipment.
I believe MacReady is a Thing here because I'm pretty sure he turns Blair. Again, a big deal is made about how everybody should prepare their own food and eat out of cans because the theory is that a small piece of the Thing can infect you. If you notice, when they subdue Blair and put him in the tool shed, MacReady waits for everybody else to leave and then he picks up a bottle of booze sitting in front of Blair and takes a big swig, and sets it right back down in front of him.
From this moment on, MacReady is suspicious as hell. Fuchs is the next to die and MacReady is the last person to see him alive. Notice when he enters the room to talk with Fuchs he makes sure to look up and down the hall to make sure they're alone. Fuchs acts extremely suspicious of MacReady here, damn near looking like a deer frozen in headlights when he enters the room. He even has his hand on a glass jar (acid, maybe?) until he's sure Mac isn't attacking him.
MacReady leaves and the next thing you know the power goes out, Fuchs sees somebody and ends up outside, in the snow, where he finds MacReady's torn-up clothes. Next thing you know, Fuchs is missing and MacReady leads the hunt to find him.
Trust Is A Tough Thing To Come By These Days
In the age of "Among Us" and popular deduction games like "Werewolf" and "Mafia" you know the best strategy if you're the imposter is to act as much like a normal person as possible while looking for your moment. So it makes sense that MacReady is taking charge of the situation as if he's really hellbent on finding the real killers. That puts him in a position of power in the group and if he's the one most visibly the leading man/good guy it makes him much less suspicious.
In lieu of walking you through this part of the movie scene by scene, let me just say that MacReady plays the part of the heroic leader very well, but still has moments where he's acting incredibly sus, as the kids would say, including leading Nauls up to his shack alone, which causes the rest of the group to distrust him when Nauls comes hauling ass back without MacReady because he found the remnants of his torn up clothes.
This is the only part of the movie where the filmmakers really want the audience to question MacReady. He claims the clothes were planted and ends up proving his humanity with the blood serum test.
Or does he?
The Blood Test Does Not Absolve MacReady
Watch this scene very closely. We never see MacReady give his blood, just the petri dish with his name on it. Obviously the other characters wouldn't let him get away with providing his donation in secret, but there's nothing to say he couldn't have done a switcheroo with untainted blood since he was the one controlling the experiment.
When Palmer is revealed to be a Thing through this test, that might also make MacReady look good. Why would a Thing out another Thing? My response: Why wouldn't it? The ultimate goal is survival and if it outs one of its own that takes all suspicion off of it.
Also, it should be noted that MacReady's flamethrower mysteriously doesn't seem to be working for just long enough for the outed Palmer to kill at least one of the for-sure humans.
That brings us to the finale and once again, MacReady's big plan sounds cool on the surface ("Let's torch this whole compound!"), but when he's already admitted that the Thing just wants to go back to sleep in the ice and be found by a rescue party down the line, isn't the plan to burn down the entirety of Outpost 31 essentially guaranteeing that this happens?
The Blair-Thing Problem
The biggest wrinkle in my crazy MacReady-Was-A-Thing conspiracy theory here is MacReady's confrontation with the Blair creature at the end. Both Nauls and Garry end up killed by the Blair Thing and Childs ran off somewhere, which leaves just MacReady alone against the final boss. If Mac was a Thing then wouldn't he and the Blair monster just high-five each other and celebrate their victory?
I have a couple of thoughts here. One is the wild card that is Childs. MacReady knows he's still out there, armed with a flamethrower. So maybe he's acting as if he's still being observed by someone human. That feels a little flimsy even to me, but it's something to consider. The other thing is you need to look at the final monster. The Blair Thing is going absolutely bananas. Could this be a residual effect of the human Blair showing through in the imitation? He already seemed to have lost his mind while he was human.
Whatever's going on, Blair isn't content to just be human Blair. Instead, he's this amalgam of dog Thing, alien plant Thing, and human Thing, aka the most conspicuous-looking alien monster ever. Maybe the MacReady Thing knows that the Blair Thing has lost its mind and threatens to blow its cover for whatever rescue or search party comes later on down the line and the only solution is to eliminate it completely by blowing it up with a stick of dynamite?
Childs And MacReady's Last Moments
And that brings us back to that final moment between Childs and MacReady as Outpost 31 burns down all around them.
What is the last thing MacReady does in this scene? Why, he hands over an open bottle of booze to Childs, and the second that bottle touches Childs' lips Ennio Morricone's theme kicks in and Carpenter cuts back to Kurt Russell, who smiles and gives a little knowing laugh. I read this as MacReady infecting Childs here at the very end of things just like he infected Blair earlier. Now all that's left to do is wait for Childs to be taken over as they slowly freeze and await the rescue team.
I must acknowledge that the ending we got was only one of many endings considered, some even shot, that never made it. In the script by Bill Lancaster, a lot is different about the final Blair Thing encounter (including a nod to the original Howard Hawks version of "The Thing" in which they electrify the floor), but the ending is largely the same with Childs and MacReady as the last men standing.
It is in the script that MacReady "hands the bottle to Childs. Childs smiles back and takes a healthy swig."
Bill Lancaster reportedly wrote a few different endings, including one in which both Childs and MacReady are Things and are rescued, but Carpenter apparently wasn't a fan of that ending and it never made it before cameras. Carpenter did shoot a couple of different endings, one of which had MacReady saved by a rescue helicopter. He takes a blood test again and is relieved to find he isn't a Thing. That was done because of fears of the ending we got being too bleak.
The other ending is actually more of an extension of the one we ended up with in which we see the smoking remains of Outpost 31 in the distance as another Husky runs across the snow, away from the camp. It stops, looks back, growls, and runs on, clearly insinuating that a Thing did get out even with the sacrifice of the living humans. Footage of that ending is floating around in the internet ether.
There was also a Dark Horse Comics sequel to "The Thing" released in 1991 in which MacReady and Childs are shown as both being human, but that's more of an interesting side note since we have to go with what ultimately ended up on screen.
Keith David And Kurt Russell's Thoughts On The Ending
As far as Keith David is concerned, he said he played the ending as if he was human and just assumed the ambiguity was there to set up a sequel. I had the chance to bring this up to Kurt Russell back in 2014 and he told me that they shot "The Thing" with an ending neither he nor Carpenter liked. I'm not sure which of the many endings I've mentioned was the one they didn't like, but Russell said he and Carpenter spent a lot of the shoot kicking around finale ideas and settled on the one that ended up in the movie.
He called it a Cold War analogy and said it's all about that last line "why don't we just wait here for a while and see what happens?" When I pressed a little harder on that, he just laughed and said "He (Childs) could be a Thing, I could be a Thing and not even f****** know it. I don't know."
So, yes. The point of "The Thing" is ambiguity and maybe searching for clues in a movie that was reworked so much on the fly is a fool's errand, but man is it fun testing out these insane theories.
The Brilliance Of The Thing
From the very first frame, John Carpenter is telling you not to believe your eyes. The movie opens with two jerks in a helicopter shooting at a cute dog. It turns out, of course, they were hunting a monster in disguise, but for the first time audience all they see is an animal being shot at and assumptions are made that the humans in the helicopter are the bad guys and the dog is an innocent that must be protected.
Everything you know about how these kinds of movies are supposed to go is thrown out the window from the moment the movie starts, so you can't discount the possibility that our hero is actually the villain who successfully navigated the entire film to end up sitting there, with that damn smile on its face, knowing that it has won.
So, yeah. MacReady's totally a Thing.
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