John Carpenter‘s The Thing captures the exhaustive toll of paranoia and mistrust when a shape-shifting alien enters the ranks of an Antarctic research facility completely isolated and stranded by harsh weather conditions. The eponymous Thing could be anyone at any time, especially if its victim broke away from the group for even a moment. Carpenter used this to his advantage, switching tactics and surprising the viewer repeatedly through shocking reveals.
The pinnacle of this mastery is found in one of the most epic jump scares in The Thing, the iconic chest defibrillation scene.
Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr, and penned by screenwriter Bill Lancaster, The Thing takes place at an American research station in Antarctica, occupied by a team of twelve men. Each one serves a specific role on the team to keep the isolated station functioning well. The group includes helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), mechanic Childs (Keith David), assistant mechanic Palmer (David Clennon), cook Nauls (T.K. Carter), station commander Garry (Donald Moffat), radio operator Windows (Thomas Waites), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Copper (Richard Dysart), Senior Biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley), assistant biologist Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), and meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney).
Events spiral out of control when a helicopter from the Norwegian facility pursues a sled dog to their station; the Americans are unaware that the dog is a shape-shifting alien in disguise. Soon they realize the creature has assimilated into their ranks, creating dangerous paranoia among them as the death toll rises.
Carpenter maintains a foreboding feeling of paranoia by keeping the identities of those who are assimilated shrouded in secrecy until the last minute. Mistrust quickly spreads with the realization that any one of them could be the Thing, and it’s only when threatened that the entity finally reveals itself in the most grotesque fashion. That setup, combined with Rob Bottin‘s gnarly and incredible practical effects and creature work, creates several standout moments in the film.
The initial dog kennel reveal announces the Thing’s presence and method of assimilation. Bennings gets discovered mid-assimilation and torched, further spreading the paranoia as the group is confronted with visual evidence that the alien has already infiltrated their team. The charred corpse of Fuchs is found, and it’s inferred that he committed suicide to avoid assimilation. The paranoia explodes into a tense standoff when Nauls finds what he believes to be evidence of MacReady’s assimilation.
At peak intensity, when MacReady wields dynamite in a standoff with the rest of the team, Carpenter sneaks in an unexpected and unassuming time bomb with Norris. As the remaining survivors try to regain control and subdue MacReady, the high-key suspense seems to be getting to Norris in the background. His heart appears unable to withstand the commotion. Norris clutches his chest in pain and crumbles to the floor as he suffers a heart attack.
The group momentarily but tenuously pauses their standoff to help Copper attend to Norris, standing by as the doc begins chest compressions while barking orders. He then attempts to restart Norris’s flatlining heart with a defibrillator. On his second pass, Norris’s chest opens wide, and a gaping mouth with teeth clamps down on Copper’s arms and severs them both.
This shocking moment effectively jolts viewers for two critical reasons. The most apparent is just how mundane the triggering event is. Until this point, all the deaths are violent and grim, whether self-inflicted or inhuman. Norris suffering a heart attack seems perfectly normal and understandable by comparison.
The second key component of this scene is how Carpenter stages it. He toggles between the immediate emergency with Norris and the unresolved conflict with MacReady. As a shivering MacReady keeps his flamethrower at the ready, the camera zooms in on Garry sneaking a weapon from Copper’s medical tray. A frame of MacReady surrounded, with Garry holding a scalpel behind his back, teases violence and sets the expectation that the danger will come from one of these men, not the incapacitated Norris.
That’s precisely when Carpenter strikes, using the abrupt shift from human to inhuman to knock everyone off their feet in terror, viewer included. MacReady torches the Norris-Thing, teaching everyone another valuable piece of information: every single part of the entity is a separate lifeform with a killer survival instinct.
In the film’s commentary track with Carpenter and Russell, they mention that it was discussed many times on set how people would know if they were assimilated. An ultimate agreement was reached that if the Thing could achieve perfect imitation, the assimilated wouldn’t necessarily know they were no longer human.
Norris’s startling reveal is the perfect example of this approach. Even Norris seems bewildered by his failing heart, and no one else would suspect a failing human body as a new host for the shape-shifting creature. The masterful way that Carpenter misdirects the viewer and stages this scene, culminating in another showstopper scare featuring Bottin and the SFX team’s work, makes the chest defibrillation scene one of the most iconic moments from The Thing.
Scene Screams is a recurring column that spotlights the scenes in horror that make us scream, whether through fear, laughter, or tears. It examines the most memorable, and often scariest, scenes in horror and what it is about them that makes them get under our skin.