By Rowan Lester
Here’s a fun fact: out of 349 wrongful convictions which have recently been overturned by DNA evidence, 70% were originally caused by mistaken eyewitnesses. It’s also repeatedly been shown that human memory is incredibly fallible. We’ve successfully convinced suspects that they committed crimes they didn’t witness, and the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s was kept in motion largely by the proliferation of false memories of ritual abuse.
However, if you were to, say, find yourself at an isolated arctic outpost which has, for instance, been invaded by a shapeshifting alien lifeform, your memory would be a crucial tool in identifying the impostors and surviving until you can be rescued. In fact, your memory is likely the only thing you can rely on. So, what do you do?
Based on prior experience, it seems like you run around fighting with your crewmates until you’ve burnt the entire base down in hopes of destroying the alien entity once and for all. So, just a typical Tuesday.
Yet, the brilliance of The Thing (1982) is that you truly don’t know who, if anyone, is infected in the final moments of the film. It uses the fallibility of human memory to its greatest advantage, calling into question the experiences of both the crew members and the audience. It creates an experience best suited to the movie format, creating a world fit for the growing suspicion between crewmates. For comparison, The X-Files has a great episode (“Ice”, season one, episode eight) based on the same short story that inspired The Thing, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark like the film does. The self-contained world and longer runtime of the film allow it to build suspense much more effectively. Even in its tensest moments, we know that Mulder and Scully will be fine, especially as viewers in 2023. The anonymous crew members in the film are better suited to a horror story than Mulder and Scully, who become invincible as the main characters in a long-running television series.
Ultimately, a crowded movie theater is not a jury. And while this makes for a great story, it’s one without any reliable conclusions. The movie is presented largely from the perspective of Kurt Russell’s character MacReady, which means that despite evidence presented against him, we are not led to believe that he’s infected. His role as the “narrator” (making semi-regular voice memos) allows him to bias the audience, acting as an agent of the filmmakers’ version of the events playing out on screen. In fact, he acts more like a judge than someone on trial, making the decisions about who is infected for the audience. For instance, in a scene where the crew has figured out a way to test for infection, MacReady tells us that he isn’t infected. It is based solely on his testimony that both the audience and his fellow crew mates are placed under his command and influence. Yet, for all we know, the audience may not have been given the “true” version of events: maybe there’s an omitted sequence where he contracts the virus, or perhaps they do not know that the infected are ignorant of their own status.
One of the best moments of the film is its ambiguous ending, where the two final survivors try to recognize some humanity in the eyes of their companion, a sentiment that we seem to often lack in actual courtrooms. Obviously, The Thing presents a much more high-stakes scenario than any of us are likely to experience, but at the heart of the film is a sincere question about who we can trust in times of danger, and who we choose to believe when it matters most. At times like these – when it seems like juries often forget the meaning of “guilty without reasonable doubt” – it is certainly a question worth asking.