The Thing and the AIDS Epidemic

By Greg Mucci

Nothing is quite what it seems at Outpost #31.

Things move in the shadows. Equipment is being sabotaged. The temperature outside is dropping, and something wants out of there. One by one, the crew of an Antarctic research facility is becoming infected by a mysterious alien lifeform, which causes the crew to take the shape of those around them. Soon, friends begin turning on each other as paranoia sets in, and credence is shattered. How do you trust what can’t be seen? Who is really who, and what do you believe when the things you see aren’t what they seem? These questions linger on the minds of our characters, and we wind up asking ourselves the same questions long after the final credits roll in John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror masterpiece, The Thing.

Based on John W. Campbell Jr’s 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There?, as well as a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s vision eliminates any female presence, focusing on the dichotomy between men and masculinity that resonates within a significant portion of his filmography. Christine specifically is a film that deeply explores male structure and bonds, generally formed under duress. In it, the outside force takes the form of a 1958 Plymouth Fury, with its red and white paint job acting as a fatal attractor. With The Thing, what slips through the cracks and penetrates our group of men may not be specifically female, but its body is similar in that it is both familiar yet alien in nature.

When we first see the Thing, it’s charging through the snow as a husky having escaped from a nearby Norwegian research facility. It’s feral, wild yet tamed and ambiguous in its sexuality. While the creatures sexual orientation isn’t apparent–its consumption of these men and birth of its own self through infection-it must be assumed that this is a female lifeform; one that is capable of reproducing in her own way. This being takes an immediate liking to a few of our shut-in crew of researchers, adopting the term man’s best friend with dire consequences. After all, these are men who have been in solitude for months, surrounded by the expanse of tundra that offers nothing but the icy company of their fellow man. In between corridors and during leisure activities, it brushes up against the men of Outpost #31; an intimacy to some that seems as alien as our creature.

Soon, the unknown species has infected one of the researchers, assuming the identity of whomever it comes into contact with. Before long, no one can tell who is who, driving a spike of paranoia into the hearts of the crew.

This paranoia and fear mirrors the terror of the AIDS epidemic that started in 1981 with the infection of five gay Los Angeles men, causing panic across the world as the virus spread from body to infected body. Where was it if it couldn’t be seen? Who played host to its destructive nature that would reach almost 400,000 individuals by the end of the 1980’s? These were questions that paralleled those asked by the crew in The Thing; men who seemed as horrified of it as they did of losing themselves to this unknown threat; one that terrorized their own identity.

It’s an identity that belongs to men who embrace their masculinity as tight as the blanket that keeps them warm at night from the Arctic conditions. It’s a masculinity that’s spurred on by an aggressive nature between each; a bottle of J&B the only soother to their natural machismo. Before all hell breaks loose, it’s apparent that time and isolation has divided each; a separation that feels spurred on by a clash of ruggedness. There doesn’t seem to be any friendships within the outpost, just hardships. There isn’t any discussion about a past life, or times that a bond was formed. There are simply men clinging to their own identity of masculinity; one that has been trying to survive well before the first week of winter.

After all, Carpenter keeps his characters from expressing any elements of heterosexuality. There isn’t a single picture of a woman hanging on the empty walls of neither our men’s quarters, nor a single risky magazine being manhandled, and no mention of girlfriends or wives. Their heterosexuality is simply defined by society’s heteronormative ways; one that embraces the notion of straight with a suffocating grip. Ultimately, this is a society that called the HIV virus Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, believing that only homosexual behavior could spread such a terrible disease.

If you were infected, you lost any cultural identity attached to being straight. Subsequently, if the Thing infected you, you were no longer part of the pre-constructed society our researchers inhabited; a society represented in objects that littered the recreational room. A pool table, jukebox, arcade machine and any other materials that created the illusion of a life away from the subzero temperatures of Antarctica. To be infected meant a clash against heteronormativity, just as declaring yourself uninfected meant an embrace of heteronormative ways. To be infected was to be different, and in uncertain times, different is deadly.

As the virus and terror that accompanies the Thing began spreading to more men, homophobia once again pulsated in the heart of America. The public feeling was that this virus was contracted only through homosexual intercourse, which exacerbated the preexisting fear of homosexuality. As a consequence, being straight was perceived as safe, and gay dangerous, for both the individual and society. This was a virus that told people that straight was safe and that marriage was a bumper.

As the crew of Outpost #31 succumbs to this foreign host, the remaining crew collapses under its own fear and paranoia of the unseen. We bear witness to this destructive nature of masculinity that teeters on the brink of survival and on the verge of chaos. These men have become as afraid of losing their heterosexuality—the one thing that defines them—as they are of the shadows that lurk around every corner. These men show what it means to embrace survival over identity in a world where being who you are might get you killed, and what you fear is what you can’t see.

 

 

Equal parts Frankenstein’s monster and The Wolf Man, Greg Mucci became enamored with movies after experiencing The Shining at the impressionable age of seven. While working at a Blockbuster in a small suburb of Connecticut, he fell in love with Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead trilogy, furthering his love for movies and horror. After realizing his high school lacked a film class, he quickly fled the state to Boston to attend Northeastern University. In between working as a barista at Curio Coffee, Greg can be found begging for passes to screeners and writing reviews as ReelBrew.