One of the greatest genre movies ever made is John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Though technically a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing From Another World, it is a much more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”. The story follows a group of men in an Antarctic outpost who stumble across a bizarre alien that has the ability to imitate other life forms.
During the course of the film, the characters are plagued with paranoia and terror as they discover that those around them may be the Thing in disguise. Soon, it becomes apparent that they have to do whatever is possible to stop the Thing from getting to civilization. Armed with flame-throwers, shotguns, and a hot copper needle, the team at U.S. Outpost 31 try to keep the thing contained, lest it mean the end of the world.
Because we are significantly paranoid, this got us thinking: What would have happened if the Thing really escaped?
The Answer: We’d be fucked.
About half-way through The Thing, we see Blair (Wilford Brimley) doing some high-tech calculations in his nifty 1982-era computer. Based entirely on what happens in the film, it’s unclear what those exact calculations were. However, the bottom line is that there was a 75% chance that one or more of the team members were infected, and if the Thing managed to reach civilization, the entire world would be assimilated in 27,000 hours (which is approximately three years).
There’s a complex mathematical science devoted to the spread of disease, which you can read more about here. I prefer not to get bogged down with numbers, so let’s just simplify Blair’s calculations: 4,612,119,820 people (the world population in 1982) + [!!!***MATH***!!!] = 27,000 hours.
There are no existing models that calculate pandemics based on the 100% infection rate of an alien species, or that take into account the need to be alone with a potential victim as well as having the intelligence to plan an worldwide takeover. However, with the relatively rapid transcontinental air travel that existed even in 1982, the Thing could spread alarmingly fast, as demonstrated by this online model of the spread of infectious disease.
In fact, the only thing holding the Thing back is how violent and messy the take-overs tend to be, which necessitates a certain degree of planning and privacy for infection to happen. Based on this online model, I’d suggest that Blair’s three-year worldwide assimilation prediction is a gross understatement. The complete take-over of the world could occur in a matter of days, once the Thing is unleashed.
But what if it could be contained?
Spoiler alert: It couldn’t.
The moment Bennings (Peter Maloney) and Clark (Richard Masur) touch the dog-Thing when it arrives at the outpost, it’s over. Fuches (Joel Polis) later states that “a small particle of this Thing is enough to take over an entire organism.” That means that the dog-Thing’s dander (which are essentially skin cells) and shed fur would contain the Thing’s DNA and its ability to reproduce.
Once a human was assimilated, greater contamination would result. Human beings shed about a million skin cells each day, and that’s not even taking into account the microorganisms present in the body’s gut, which is expelled in fecal matter to contaminate the septic system of the outpost.
It’s logical to assume that these leftover potentially-viable Thing cells could find their way into the world. While Antarctica is mostly void of life due to its extreme environment, it’s not completely barren. Antarctica has plenty of life forms knocking about, including larger animals, plants, fungi, and hundreds of species of phytoplankton. True, most of Antarctica’s life is found in its surrounding ocean and islands. However, there are very simple life forms like fungi, lichen, and bacteria that can be found inland throughout the year. That, along with the leftover cells at Outpost 31, gives the Thing several places to hide.
Then, once spring comes to Antarctica, the possibility of life moving inland increases. In the original story, the team chases away an albatross that flies over the outpost, and as the continent heads into spring, other animals like skua gulls would likely show up. Earlier in the story, before being locked away, Blair explains how the Thing could spread once it reaches the sea:
“If it had reached the Antarctic Sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America…. Nothing would kill it. It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants to. If a killer whale attacked, it would become a killer whale. If it was an albatross, and an eagle attacked it, it would become an eagle. Lord, it might become a female eagle. Go back - build a nest and lay eggs!”
The Thing’s singular consistency is that it wants to survive. Yes, it wants to be human, but in a pinch, a dog will do. In an even more extreme pinch, a bit of lichen would be fine. If it could somehow make it to the ocean, the global contamination simply could not be contained. In fact, it wouldn’t be just humanity that would succumb to the Thing. It would potentially be every species on the entire planet.
So in the film, Blair was wrong. The Thing didn’t need to reach a civilized area. It just had to reach somewhere, and then just let nature take its course.
Good thing they stopped it in the Antarctic, right?
Actually, they didn’t. Sorry to be a downer on this subject, but the Thing was never really stopped, even if it turned out that neither MacReady (Kurt Russell) nor Childs (Keith David) were infected by the end of the film. There was still massive contamination of the U.S. outpost and its Norwegian counterpart. There was Thing blood all over both camps, not to mention all the shed cells that fell off the infected bodies over the few days the imitations walked around.
This is not to say that The Thing is inaccurate. Instead, let’s say that the hopelessness of the film is even greater than it originally seemed (and it’s already pretty damned hopeless film). If a creature like the Thing managed to make it to earth, we’d be screwed the moment it made its way through our atmosphere, whether it was excavated by scientists in the Antarctic, or it thawed out itself due to continental drift and climate change.
So, were The Thing real, we’d be screwed. From the moment those crazy Norwegians dug up the Thing, we’d be a planet of Things.