John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterpiece of suspenseful paranoia and stomach-churning special effects.
One of the main appeals of The Thing is that the audience is not made aware of the culprits behind certain plot points; we are given very limited information and have to reach our own interpretations as the characters are wildly throwing around accusations.
Like the characters, we are constantly being misdirected by the alien into believing the innocent are guilty and vice versa. Because of this, The Thing is one of the most talked about horror movies of its time. The biggest puzzle of all is whether Childs, one of the two survivors of the film, is actually an extraterrestrial imitation.
We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing.
For this post, I will be ignoring any extended canon which would not have been applicable at the time of the film’s release in 1982.
According to information given in the 2011 prequel and the Playstation 2 video game, Childs is definitely still a HUMAN. The prequel introduces to the lore that the shape shifting alien cannot imitate inorganic material, such as fillings or earrings. Childs’ earring can clearly be seen at the end of the movie.
The video game also has the playable character, Blake, discovering a frozen Childs in the ruins of the camp.
While both these plot points clearly put closure on the whole discussion (essentially making this article pointless), there are too many subtle details and character inconsistencies in the 1982 version to disregard.
If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?
For starters, let’s focus on the personality of Childs. Out of all the crew members, Childs is the most impulsive and uncivil. Nobody thinks it is a good idea for him to keep hold of Garry’s gun, with MacReady saying they “need someone more even tempered.”
When McReady and Nauls go missing outside during the storm, Childs is the first to suggest that they “start closing off the outside doors.”
Childs is also the most adamant about leaving MacReady outside to freeze to death in case he is infected, against the protests of Windows—“Well then we’re wrong!”
When MacReady later insists on tying everyone up for the blood test, Childs refuses and says that MacReady will have to kill him; Childs backs down first.
All these little dialogues and actions go a long way at painting the persona of Childs. He lacks initiative and compassion for the rest of the crew. He will not let MacReady back inside and later will not be tied down by MacReady because it is severely hurting Childs’ own chance of surviving.
You guys think I’M crazy! Well, that’s fine!
In his penultimate scene, it is out of character for Childs to go chasing after shadows when he thinks he sees the Blair-Thing.
Not only is he putting himself in a great deal of danger due to the decreased visibility, he is also leaving the safest place where attackers could only come from two different directions. It also is clear from the next scene that he didn’t see Blair—the lights go out a few seconds later, meaning that the Blair-Thing is still in the generator room.
At this point, Childs and the other survivors know that Blair is now the only potentially infected human and that he should still be locked up in the supplies shed.
Childs would have obviously been alert until all threats were eliminated—would he have chased after a hostile alien all by himself if he thought he saw it running away from the rest of his team into the storm? It just does not seem in character for Childs and is an important indicator that Childs is not behaving properly.
I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.
When Childs returns to the burning camp after all but MacReady have been killed, they are both armed with flamethrowers and exhausted from the storm. This is the point where most people believe that Childs is not human—because he is not breathing.
This video belongs to Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.
MacReady has steady wisps whenever he exhales or talks whilst Childs’ is much less pronounced. You really have to look closely to see the breath coming out of Childs’ mouth; it is most obvious at 1:26.
The common excuse for Childs is that the lighting from the flames is more directed towards MacReady’s face. The lack of clear breath from Childs is not necessarily an indication or alien imitation—Bennings earlier has very visible breath after he is assimilated.
I think this scene also has to be looked at from a filmmaking point of view. Although there are many happy coincidences that add to the quality of a film, most directors and film studios do not like to leave anything to chance. Accidental ambiguities are virtually non-existent—movies are either clear in their intentional meaning or clear in their intentional ambiguities.
This scene was deliberately shot the way it was; the massive difference in the two actors’ breathing was not simply an oversight by the director and film crew. Carpenter is trying to create further confusion and paranoia in the audience as neither MacReady nor Childs have any energy left to fully rationalise how the other is behaving/breathing.
John Carpenter is not saying whether or not Childs is the Thing—but he is definitely making it clear that Childs is not breathing the same as MacReady.
There are several other discussion points that lend credibilty to this argument–Childs’ jacket is covered in snow but does not appear to be the navy one he had on when he was waiting for the others to give Blair the test. The ‘gasoline in the bottle’ theory is a very interesting one—it implies that MacReady tricked the Childs-Thing into drinking a Molotov cocktail, which is why MacReady is laughing at the end.
However, just before MacReady realises that Childs is coming up behind him, he lifts the bottle to his own mouth for a drink. It is a small detail but it is definitely there.
With all good movie mysteries, there are no definitive answers—the director would fail in his job if this was the case. Every point I’ve argued can be counter-argued and it would be just as valid because all this is supposition.
Everyone involved in the film is fairly hush about its greatest question. All the audience can do is observe what’s on screen and make valued judgement.
In this case, it is difficult to let Childs off the hook—there are too many storytelling elements and theories that are going against him. So strictly from just watching the 1982 version, my conclusion is that MacReady should let Childs enjoy the rest of the drink and then burn him to hell.
Answer—Childs is infected