How 'The Thing' Is Perfectly Designed to Scare You

One video essay explores how the John Carpenter classic uses your own brain against you to effectively terrify you

The Thing Trailer Screencap
Universal Pictures

It’s almost comical to think that back in the 1980s, John Carpenter’s The Thing was widely considered a failure and an awful horror film. Nowadays, if you ask any horror buff for their top 10, The Thing will likely be pretty high up on the list. There’s a horrifying quality to the movie where you just can’t look away and a growing sense of dread and anxiety throughout that makes it such an achievement in horror.

Film Radar’s video essay “How ‘The Thing’ Hijacks Your Brain to Scare You” might just have an answer as to why the movie is able to get to us so effectively. What it comes down to is that The Thing takes advantage of every primal fear we have and runs with it. The film basically uses its unique arsenal to take over your brain’s responses and utilizes the way the human mind works to scare you all the more deeply. Take a look:

Clearly, there’s a lot more going on here in The Thing than gross-out horror and impressive special effects. Film as a medium is good at manipulating our emotions and responses, and good horror knows how to best trick our brains into actually thinking we are in danger. The Thing is an expert at this. It is exploiting so many different fears and phobias throughout its runtime, building tension through the bombardment of discomfort. Therefore, anyone with any range of particular fears is almost guaranteed to be scared or disturbed by this film.

One trick often employed by horror films is to lean heavily on the human brain’s sense of revulsion. And The Thing is positively overloaded with revulsion-inducing themes. As Film Radar so perfectly puts it, “when revulsion and fear are combined — that’s when we feel a true sense of horror.” Obviously, revulsion is not just referring to things that make our stomach turn. It includes a whole manner of things we as human beings instinctively avoid or know on an evolutionary level to fear.

These “revolting” ideas that pop up so effectively in The Thing include: a primal fear of harsh climate, mutilation, spiders, insects, isolation and claustrophobia, and the paranoia of not being able to trust those around you. So, basically, a movie set in the middle of remote Antarctica where a wholly unknown creature is taking over people’s (and dogs’) bodies and transforming them in nightmarish ways, all while having the ability to take on anyone’s appearance, is a molotov cocktail of these fears.

It helps (or doesn’t help) that the shapeshifting and mutilating of bodies the creature practices often results in spider-like or insect-like forms, like in the scene inside the dog kennel or in the lab. Almost every survival instinct we have is exploited by this movie. Not to mention the revolting, in the usual sense of the word, appearance of these hybrids. Disgust and revulsion naturally help human beings (and animals) keep away from harm, and The Thing basically doubles down on both.

The simultaneous utilization of so many different fears throughout the movie really makes it one of a kind, and one could argue that out of the horror genre The Thing most takes control of your brain on a scientific level. It leaves barely any of its scariest aspects up to the imagination, which Film Radar argues is a rare tactic in horror. The Thing may be one of the few films where this is extremely effective, in fact.

This unique talent of scaring people in such an immersive way has, of course, found many an influence in more recent horror films. It Follows, one of the most successful horror films in the past few years, definitely has an echo of the paranoia and shape-shifting aspect of The Thing — and it more than works. Outside of the genre, movies like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight have also made use of the same sense of claustrophobia that comes as a result of a group of people being trapped inside the same, small space while not knowing if the person next to them is who they really say they are.

The Thing’s ability to take over rationality is impressive but also can be used as an example or even a template for how future movies of all different genres can more intensely affect their audience. Rather than going for the expected, filmmakers can actually dig into the deep-seated responses and weaknesses humans might not even be aware of.

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Kendall is a recent graduate and San Diego native who is passionate about the environment, writing, and above all else Keanu Reeves.