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In The Thing, after trying to confront Mac and getting pushed to the ground, Norris has a heart attack. When trying to revive him with defibrillator paddles, it is revealed that he is an alien and he morphs and attacks the doctor.

The thing 1982: Norris heart attack scene

It seems the focus of the Thing is to spread. How does Norris having a heart attack help in that respect? One of the comments on the linked video states that Norris ate the Thing and he did not have a heart attack. Is there any definitive explanation on what happened to Norris and why the Thing (to me) appears to have faked a heart attack?

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    Norris was alone when he was first shown behaving as if he was having chest pains, so it's not at all clear to me that the heart attack was faked. I'd suggest rephrasing the question to remove that assumption, and ask something more neutral along the lines of "What was the deal with Norris' apparent heart attack?" Oct 15, 2023 at 5:21
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    I don't know if there's a conclusive explanation. I've read both that the Thing copied the original Norris' heart defect and the heart attack was therefore real and unwanted by the Thing; but another hypothesis has it that the Thing faked the heart attack to get rid of a doctor, a primary enemy of the imitations. I don't know if there's an official explanation.
    – Andres F.
    Oct 15, 2023 at 14:15
  • What makes you think being assimilated by an alien thing is a surefire preventive against heart attacks?
    – user14111
    Oct 15, 2023 at 23:14
  • I viewed it as a ruse to distract its enemies. Oct 16, 2023 at 2:03

3 Answers 3

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This is one of those aspects that's been endlessly debated over the years, and the reality is that there may just not be an explicit explanation for it. By the very nature of the movie as a paranoid thriller; there's much that kept deliberately, and necessarily obfuscated and ambiguous to both the characters and audience.

Closet we'll probably get to a definitive answer: In the Carpenter/Russel DVD commentary they talk about how during the shoot, the cast and crew would themselves debate back and forth, and yet never actually figured out the answers to certain questions; including specifically whether a person knows they're a Thing or not before they're found out. Even the Director and people that played the Things themselves weren't sure whether the characters knew what they were or not at any given moment.

My personal best guess in this instance: The Thing is a blind mimic, meaning when it copies a lifeform it just copies them, flaws and all. There's every chance Norris just had a severe heart condition which the Thing copied along with everything else (because how is it supposed to know what a healthy human cardiovascular system is supposed to be like?) and it was the sheer stress of that moment which caused the cardiac arrest.

It's also possible it was a deliberate attempt at a ruse to get out of the situation. Indeed, it would have gone fine if it weren't for the defibrillator. Just like the hot needle in the blood test scene, the Thing's selfish cellular individualism caused the cells in it's chest to react to the electric shock. Had they not had the paddles to use on it, the Norris Thing may have just "expired". It would then have been free to change form, flee, and find a new victim to copy once the body was left unattended.

Personally I think the former is the simplest, and thus most likely, explanation, but that's very much up for debate. However, the best evidence to support that idea is ironically the moments when it takes on more monstrous chimeric forms; when it start to pull together elements of other creatures it's copied, it appears to be a very crude, flailing, haphazard, decidedly ad-hoc Frankensteinian bio-construct. It's not a refined and perfected being distilling the best traits of various species right down to the cellular level into a single coherent and lethal form, because it doesn't have that level of fine control and comprehension of the forms it takes. It just knows "this shape is for moving around", "this shape grabs things", "this shape perceives light" etc. etc.

So applying that to the Norris situation, even if it understood that the blood pumping muscle it copied was malfunctioning and that a sudden, debilitating inability to breathe wasn't normal human behaviour in this scenario; it didn't have the fine granular control of it's cellular mimicry to more subtly fix the flaw, short of replacing the entire chest cavity. Needless to say that would have been equally conspicuous and messy as what ended up happening anyway.

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  • In Campbell's earlier story "The Brain Stealers of Mars", which may be regarded as his first rough draft for "Who Goes There?", the alien imitators give themselves away by not knowing how to sneeze; the act of sneezing is too complicated for them to imitate.
    – user14111
    Oct 15, 2023 at 23:21
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    @user14111 That's not really relevant to the 1982 movie. Sure, it's based directly on Campbell's original novella and the rather loose adaptation that was the1951 movie, but Lancaster and Carpenter made the story their own and as such, brought a lot of their own ideas into it that won't line up with everything Campbell may or may not have intended.
    – Kris
    Oct 16, 2023 at 0:11
  • I also think this is the most satisfying explanation, but like you said, not even Carpenter or the actors were sure, so we will likely never know. Which for this kind of movie suits me perfectly!
    – Andres F.
    Oct 16, 2023 at 1:50
  • very nice. i recall this key question, does a person know and i think the alien part must form a controlling brain that usually leaves the original mind intact while that is useful.
    – releseabe
    Oct 16, 2023 at 2:04
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My answer is based on the Thing's behavior in the novella that inspired the movie.

The Thing was a supreme mimic. While imitating a human being the monster impersonated everything that its victim would have done, including terror-inspired madness, and death. If the human Norris would have suffered a heart attack under the scene's conditions, then the monster would have had a heart attack.

In the novella, a character named Kinner went mad, isolated himself in the kitchen, and continually sang hymns. Another character — Clark — couldn't deal with the noise and attempted to murder Kinner. Kinner played dead for a time; then other base members caught Kinner's body in the act of transformation.

This quote is paraphrased from "Who Goes There", by John W. Campbell:

Norris stared unsteadily. "Oh, Lord, those things can act. Ye gods — sitting in here for hours, mouthing prayers to a God it hated! Shouting hymns in a cracked voice — hymns about a Church it never knew. Driving us mad with its ceaseless howling —

...

McReady chuckled softly. "Boys, meet Clark, the only one we know is human! Meet Clark, the one who proves he's human by trying to commit murder — and failing.

The movie's Thing acted out a heart attack.

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    I have not read the story but it seems some of the motivation of assimilated beings might stay after being turned. Perhaps the Thing has no motivation of its own.
    – SDH
    Oct 15, 2023 at 20:34
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    "Boys, meet Clark, the only one we know is human!" Nope. The final ironic twist of the scene is that he was a Thing too, and but he was acting like Clark would have, just like Kinner was acting.
    – Buzz
    Oct 15, 2023 at 20:46
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    @SDH the novella males it clear the imitations know they are fake at all times, even when they imitate the quirks and personalities of their hosts. Their primary goal is takeover, though (spoiler!) it's also each Thing for itself, with no loyalty for other imitations.
    – Andres F.
    Oct 15, 2023 at 21:14
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    @AndresF. After thinking about my motivation comment I realized how wrong I was as it uses Blair to begin building a craft of some sort. I assume that was outside of Blair's motivations.
    – SDH
    Oct 15, 2023 at 23:11
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"The Thing" assimilated all physical characteristics biologically endowed with what it comes into contact with. Several theories.

  1. perfect assimilation: with the Exception of metallic or artificial materials like implants or dental fillings (2011 movie) if Norris had an artificial pacemaker he'd likely not have a replica in the Norris thing
  2. It takes only a small particle to convey infection which is what it likely did. Norris likely the stress of being found out about.
  3. Another scenario is Norris had a bad heart and was midway to attack just shy of assimilation.

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