John Carpenter’s The Thing is an obvious choice for Christmas viewing. It has snow. What do you want from me? More importantly though, its central themes of paranoia and mistrust between characters restricted to a single location arguably make it the Christmas film of the lockdown age.
Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, the film charts the descent of a group of American researchers into fear and aggression, after encountering a parasitic extra-terrestrial life-form at their based on Antarctica. The eponymous ‘Thing’ assimilates, then imitates other organisms, in order to move itself closer to its next unsuspecting host.
Having encountered something that the realm of modern science cannot hope to help them understand, the initially rational group of experts quickly descends into violent chaos, as they come to realise that literally any one of them could be the Thing. Carpenter would later confirm that part of the fear instilled into The Thing came from the AIDs epidemic which had announced itself to the world at around the time of filming – and as a lack of understanding around the virus and its lethal effects quickly led to waves of hysteria and hostility to be directed at the communities first afflicted, the horrific epoch society had entered into was clearly not lost on The Thing’s director.
While the film might historically be firmly connected to the emergence of HIV and AIDs however, it is delivered in a way which is removed enough from its immediate reality that the message still resonates with future crises (not to mention has inspired some amazing art, including Reservoir Dogs and even a seasonal musical number). Just as 28 Days Later tapped directly into anxiety surrounding SARS and influenza adaptations at the turn of the 21st century, but still feels prophetic when it is compared to how an actual pandemic in Britain is still panning out (from the crammed Tube stations which become super-spreader events as Londoners attempt to flee the capital, to the EU literally closing its borders to the “diseased little island”), so The Thing still feels like it has a lot to say about the Covid-19 era.
It is not just that we should be wary about who we invite in from the cold this Christmas – as anyone could theoretically be asymptomatically carrying a bug that could potentially leave our bodies permanently transformed – it is a timely warning about how we direct our fears at something we don’t understand. Unfortunately, the current pandemic is not unfolding on a secluded base in the South Pole (although it has finally reached the seventh continent at time of writing), and so our fear of the unknown does not only relate to scientific fact – it is also relating to behaviour norms which have become so naturalised to us that to be denied them is to feel almost violated.
When someone suggests that this year, we might forego the Boxing Day sales so we decrease the chance of literally killing Grandma this winter, the idea that there might be a December without a consumer ritual we have unblinkingly indulged in for decades leaves us feeling naked, deprived of a threadbare safety blanket in an otherwise nonsensical and cold life, stripped of meaning and community by the continued churn of capitalism. Being told that in 2020 you won’t be able to attend football matches the day after Christmas ultimately will produce the same feeling. We are suddenly in unchartered territory, and without these milestones in the calendar we have come to take as a natural part of our roles in consumer society, many of us will lash out irrationally.
Staying calm and trying our best to weather the storm – submitting to testing regimes, the habitual wearing of masks, and missing out on the Christmas rituals we engage in every year – is of course no guarantee of success; but it is certainly a better option than the wild claims public servants are “cancelling Christmas” (a term unhelpfully bandied about by Boris Johnson) by insisting a lockdown now can slow the spread of a potentially deadly virus. Echoing how The Thing’s crew rails against MacReady as he tries to bring the outbreak on the base under control, to suggest it is those who call for temporary behavioural changes to battle Covid-19 who are in fact adhering to some hidden conspiratorial power is a fatal mistake to make, at a time when there is already a very real silent killer among our ranks.
Stay safe this Christmas, from me and the team at Indy Film Library.
– JB x