The Science Behind "The Thing": Truths and Lies from the Perspective of a Modern Scientist

Sometimes, there is nothing scarier than real life. As a millennial attempting to enter the science job market, I feel the truth to this statement. Immersing myself in movies is often a relief from the real world. It can often take me out of the horrors of a movie when the science being portrayed on the screen does not come close to the realities or the imaginations of scientists. However, when the science is true to life, it brings new meaning to the word horror. With the never-ending slew of sci fi horror movies that cross real science with the prospects of the future, I wanted to focus on an older movie and break down the science presented and its accuracy from a modern lens.

Let’s break down The Thing (1982) and discuss some of the scientific accuracies that make this movie terrifying, as well as some places the science was exaggerated.

There are a few things that are incredibly accurate to the scientific process in The Thing. One aspect is, surprisingly, the concept behind the monster itself. While I feel rather confident that aliens do not walk among us, there are some parasites that change the thinking or behavior of their host. Two types of parasites involving insects include zombie ants (a fungus that infects an ant) and parasitic wasps (wasps that lay their eggs in or on other insects). However, there is a parasite that can infect mammals and change their behavior called Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite can infect warm blooded animals, but prefers to exist in cats. As a result, animals such as rats infected with Toxoplasma become less fearful of cats, encouraging the parasite to continue living. The fear factor for this organism can be taken one step further: Toxoplasma can infect humans as well!

An additional win in the name of science is the blood test for determining which individuals have been infected with “the thing”. This assay is not exactly the same as those used in biology, but it comes pretty close to something called a “chemotaxis” assay. Chemotaxis is best described as a response to some type of chemical. An example of such an assay is described here. Essentially, a chemical is added to one region of a plate, and a cell or animal is placed to see how it responds. This is in a sense, exactly what Kurt Russell did (and bonus points for completing it in a real scientific cell culture dish)! The entirety of this experiment was set up like a professional science experiment: There was a hypothesis, a test, a result, and a conclusion. The hypothesis was blood infected by “the thing” would react differently than regular human blood. Instead of a chemical as used in traditional chemotaxis experiments, he used heat to determine how cells that were transformed by “the thing”, and compared them to a healthy control set of cells. Lo and behold: cells from “thing” infected blood reacted violently to heat, while normal cells just sizzle. Basically, Kurt Russell acted exactly like a real scientist.

One of the pivotal scenes is the discovery that the cells from the dog are behaving strangely. This is done by either visualizing the cells from the infected dog or by simulating the infection (the movie does not make it clear which). While scientists do have the ability to look at cells using high powered microscopy (see some of these beautiful example images) and simulate potential infection rates of something like a virus, this often takes years of research. Obtaining pretty images is often difficult, especially when working with cells that are alive. Additionally, computer modeling of viruses often needs a lot of information before being able to complete the model (usually more than 2). Modeling can require a lot of time and computing power (depending on the model). As a result, the discovery that “the thing” has made the jump to humans would probably have taken more time.

I find it truly amazing that not only are we still discussing this horror movie from the 80s, but there is so much that the movie got right. This movie deserves all of the praise and esteem from fans and critics alike, and I wish that more movies took the same amount of care.

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