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When people are assimilated, do they know they are Things, or are they completely duplicated?

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    You question is a slightly unclear, but if you're asking what goes on in the mind of an assimilated person, I highly recommend Peter Watts's short story "The Things". – Beta Aug 13 '13 at 19:22
  • @Beta Awesome recommendation. Thanks for that link! – Andres F. Aug 21 '13 at 21:07
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Yes, a person who has been assimilated by the Thing definitely knows they are a Thing. This has been addressed at some length on the fan site Outpost 31, both in interviews with John Carpenter and Stuart Cohen (the producer), and in the site's FAQ section.

From the interviews:

Q. In John W. Campbell's short story and Alan Dean Foster's novelization, there is absolutely no doubt that when somebody has been taken over by The Thing, the original person is dead and only his personality and memories are retained by the Thing in order to create a perfect imitation. This is the dialogue that confirms it in the original short story.

‘Kinner shuddered violently. "Hey. Hey, Mac, would I know if I was a monster? Would I know if the monster had already got me? Oh Lord, I may be a monster already."

"You'd know," MacReady answered.

"But we wouldn't," Norris laughed shortly, half-hysterically.’

However, in the documentary "Terror takes shape" featured on the DVD and Blu-Ray of John Carpenter's The Thing, Charles Hallahan says that the actors wondered if you would know if you were a Thing. He concluded by saying that Norris didn't know that he was infected but on a subconscious level, he was. This completely contradicts the short story and the novelization and doesn't make sense to me, as Blair would probably have realized that something was wrong when he was building a UFO for instance, which was not a very "human" thing to do.

So, my question, taken directly from Outpost31's FAQ: there is no doubt about it in the short story and in the novelization, but in the movie, does a Thing know that they are a Thing?

A. [Producer Stuart Cohen] "I listened to the DVD commentary again recently and I was surprised that Charles spoke of that. Our working presumption was that of the novella – and is really the only way to dramatically proceed. I think that Charles is referring to the sort of speculative discussion one has discussing motivation sitting around a table with other actors examining ways to play the role, but never intended to be put into effect… In any case, for our storytelling purposes I know John had all the actors play things absolutely straight, including Blair…"

A. [Director John Carpenter] "First of all, we stayed away from explaining how the Thing imitates a person. Secondly, I don't know if a person knows he's a Thing or not. I assume so, but it brings up complex, existential questions that perhaps would get in the way of a simple premise. Best not to ask."

Q. In terms of stage direction how did you have the actors playing infected characters approach their characters? Was it a case of playing it totally straight until the scene called for it otherwise i.e. the Palmer or Norris things truly believed they were Palmer and Norris or did you have the actors try to drop a hint or two that all was not well.

A. [John Carpenter] The actors played their characters in THE THING absolutely straight. A THING-imitated human would express outrage at being accused perfectly convincingly...

And from the FAQ:

Q: If Norris was really a Thing, then why did he decline leadership of the team?

A: It probably passes up the opportunity because it knows full well that the leader will fall under close scrutiny by the other men, scrutiny that it would not be able to hold up to. (Just look what happened to Garry and Mac.) Norris-Thing had very quietly gained a level of trust with the men and used this position to keep the attention focused on others. It worked.

It also works well as a believable excuse to the other men because, as an imitation, it knows that Norris has a weak heart and the stress might not be a good thing. "Sorry fellas, I'm not up to .

Q: Does a Thing know that they are a Thing?

A: Yes. A Thing is no longer the person that was being imitated. That person is dead, and an alien imposter is in its place. So, there is no longer awareness coming from the human that once was for it to know or not know. Therefore, if you are sitting there wondering if you are a Thing, you certainly aren't.

In the blood test scene, the men themselves appear to doubt their humanity, but they probably weren't operating at peak logical power (several days of no sleep), still didn't know 100% how the alien operated, and were unaware that a Thing had been out consciously scavenging parts and framing people (except for Mac, the victim of a framing, who seemed very confident in who he is). It was also an important dramatic device to keep the tension up in that scene.

The most important part of the quote directly above is stated rather brilliantly:

"If you are sitting there wondering if you are a Thing, you certainly aren't."


Note: It is worth mentioning that in the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, on which John Carpenter's The Thing is based, and the short story The Things by Peter Watts, which is based on the Carpenter film, it is absolutely clear that Things know that they are Things. The same is true of the novelization of John Carpenter's The Thing, which was written by Alan Dean Foster.

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    Just before Palmer's blood is exposed to the hot wire, the Palmer-Thing gives sort of a resigned sigh, suggesting the Thing either knows the jig is up and is exasperated(?), or else at some level Palmer suddenly comes to the realization he's the Thing. – RobertF Dec 7 '15 at 4:49
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    Good answer, but re the quote from MacReady, surely that's just a guess on his part? I don't see how he'd know at this point (unless, y'know...). Also the relevant part of John Carpenter's quote seems to be "I don't know if a person knows he's a Thing or not. I assume so, but it brings up complex, existential questions that perhaps would get in the way of a simple premise. Best not to ask." The other quotes seem to clinch it though. – tardigrade Dec 19 '17 at 12:38
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Note: I am basing my answer off of the "original" 1982 version ("original" in quotes because I understand from Jersey's answer that there was a 1959 movie based off of the same original book).

Creatures duplicated by the Thing are the Thing. Any behavior that mimics that of the original version of the form they've taken is merely defensive camouflage.

When the Thing got Bennings, for example, it was pretty clear that it was trying to pretend to be Bennings, as opposed to thinking it was Bennings.

Garry: My God, what was happening to him?

MacReady: If it had time to finish, it would have looked and sounded and acted just like Bennings!

Garry: I don't know what you're saying.

MacReady: That was one of those things out there Garry, trying to imitate him. C'mon.

Garry: MacReady, I know Bennings, I've known him for ten years. He's my friend.

MacReady: We've gotta burn the rest of them.

Also, Dr. Blair explains the fundamental process of assimilation pretty clearly:

Dr. Blair: You see, what we're talking about here is an organism that imitates other life forms and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them... absorb them. And in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That's not dog. It's an imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

So its not a dog, or a copy of a dog that thinks its a dog but can be controlled by the Thing. It's just the Thing in dog form, right down to the cellular level: the cells are Thing cells, shaped like dog cells.

Also note the basic premise of the "blood test" they performed was that every piece of the thing was that every piece of the alien is an individual organism with its own survival instinct that will react defensively when threatened.

Since the "blood test" worked exactly as MacReady predicted, it strongly implies that every cell of the Thing is always... the Thing.

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    MacReady was trying to get everyone used to the idea, to stop trusting appearances and be prepared to burn each other without mercy. It was not at all clear to me that the mind of Bennings was not still present in the thing that looked like Bennings, in combination with a confused, premature infant alien mind. – Beta Aug 14 '13 at 18:53
  • So you're thinking that the Thing replaces the cells of the victim, including their personality, and then, after finishing the replacement, alters their brain to be able to exert its influence over the duplicate? This seems kind of at odds with the blood test. I'll expand my answer a bit – Beofett Aug 14 '13 at 18:58
  • I would say "A Thing" not "The Thing", since each bit has individuality and selfishness that led to their eventual detection. – Oldcat Jun 18 '15 at 23:19
  • @Oldcat given the title, I think the director probably supported "The" over "A" :) – Beofett Jun 18 '15 at 23:48
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One reason that film is so deeply terrifying is that we never know what really goes on in the minds of those who have been "taken over". In the blood test scene, the men tied to the couches are relieved when their neighbors pass the test and prove to be human, but some of them are even more deeply and visibly relieved when they themselves do.

So what's going on inside? We know three things about a man who has been taken over:

  1. He can talk and act just like the man did before; the personality and memory are intact.
  2. He (it?) can carry out complex plans requiring alien knowledge and motives.
  3. There is no outward communication and no visible conflict. He never says "I come in peace" or "you cannot defeat me!" (and think how lame it would be if he did). He acts suspicious and fearful, just as the untouched man would, even if the original man was not a good liar.

From the first fact, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the human mind is still present and conscious. (The brain may be made of converted cells, but if they behave the same as the unconverted cells, then the thoughts will be the same-- let's not start arguing about the Chinese Room.) From the second, we know that the alien is in there too, and from the third we conclude that it's in charge.

So how could he not know? What does the human mind think while the body is carrying out sinister plans like destroying the blood bank, or planting false clues? How can one not remember doing such things? Or being attacked in the first place? With access to the brain, the Thing could repress memories, or disrupt them before they become permanent. The man might be unconscious during those intervals, or sleepwalking, or daydreaming, or vaguely believing that he's doing something else.

Nothing they could do would really prove they don't know. And proving they do know would almost certainly weaken the story. So let's enjoy the uncertainty.

  • +1 You just made the Thing a little bit more spine-chilling for me. :) – doppelgreener Aug 14 '13 at 23:35
  • @JonathanHobbs: I think that's the best compliment I've had this year. – Beta Aug 15 '13 at 1:10
  • What about the blood test (which I think is better explained in the short story Who Goes There?), which argues the Thing is highly individualistic, and that every single piece is looking out for its own interests? Wouldn't this override the previous human mind? (You are still getting a +1 from me because your answer is very interesting, and because I strongly agree with your third point!) – Andres F. Aug 21 '13 at 1:28
  • In John Brunner's "Double, Double" (which had a similar premise), when the monster duplicated someone it would also divide. The duplicates would, apparently, each get half of the original person's memories. When it tried to talk, it would leave out words and scramble grammer like a stroke victim. Oddly chilling effect for a mostly forgettable book. – Joe L. Jun 30 '14 at 0:19
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They know - it is the case that the Thing takes the form of the victim, not that it makes a copy.

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The scene in which one character watches the head sprout spidery legs and walk across the floor and the character exclaims something like "You're fucking kidding me!" is interesting because that character is at least already infected. The Thing might be so intelligent that it could feign surprise or there might be a stage at which the infected don't know or The Thing component might always be there, using the old personality when it needs to but able to take over instantly. So in some sense, the infected human never knows -- it is kept separate from the mind of The Thing and even is able to, when The Thing allows it to, act like it was still human and believe it is still human. There may later come a stage in which the original mind is completely gone, also.

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The original Thing was based upon a book called 'Who Goes There?' by John W. Campbell. Great story, look it up!

There are three movie adaptions...

  1. The Thing From Another Planet ('59?)
  2. The Thing by John Carpenter ('82)
  3. And the 2011 Thing.

The John Carpenter version is pretty good adaption, considering the novella was written in the late 30's.

It's mostly suggested that the reason that the alien does this as this is part of its dietary process; the ultimate parasitic carnivore, if you will. Perhaps this process is to fuel its biological processes, and was suggested that the one that landed in Antarctica had escaped a previous planet because everything had been consumed, and had stolen a craft in search of more food. It mimics its prey to be a much more proficient hunter; so pretty much that's the answer.

Obviously, this seems a bit of a quirk in the evolutionary sense. Much like the Bioraptors of Pitch Black, there is no plausible way a terrestrial planet could support such a carnivorous being.

I'm going to go with 'they know' considering that each cell is a nation and that jazz. It would seem weird that you were eaten by a cannibalistic alien, turned into one, and then mindwiped. I'm leaning towards the infiltration route; it's just a dang good liar and self-preserver. You would think the gaps in memory, missing time, and the fact that your blood can think on its own would give it away just a little bit.

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    What you say is pretty much true, but how does it answer the question? I believe the actual question is: are they victims completely replicated by the Thing, and if so, do they know they've been replicated? Or are the copies so "true to life" they themselves do not know? – Andres F. Aug 21 '13 at 1:25
  • I'm going to go with 'they know' considering that each cell is a nation and that jazz. It would seem weird that you were eaten by a cannibalistic alien, turned into one, and then mindwiped. I'm leaning towards the infiltration route; it's just a dang good liar and self-preserver. You would think the gaps in memory, missing time, and the fact that your blood can think on its own would give it away just a little bit. – Jersey Aug 21 '13 at 18:27
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I think it highly plausible that a being evolved to assimilate an organism in this way would retain or mimic the consciousness of that organism in a way that wasn't apparent to the consciousness. This would be highly advantageous to its ability to effectively camoflage itself as it stalked additional victims. The "Thing" would operate more in the subconscious, influencing the organism to inconspicuously behave in its true reproductive interest. The outward presenting consciousness would simply be influenced to ignore, forget, or create stories to explain its actions, otherwise oblivious to the true motive of the organism. The conscious "awareness" simply isn't necessary, and would probably be an evolutionary liability to the organism on the whole. Alternatively an organism that believes its legitimate will never act otherwise.

I say this as our brains already work this way to a great extent so it would make sense for the organism to simply hijack it. We percieve the decisions we make and the thoughts we experience as creations of our conscious free will. However, brain research strongly suggests that most of our behaviour is actually controlled subconsciously. The conscious mind we experience is like a rider on an elephant. The elephant is mostly controlling the show. The conscious mind simply has the illusion of control, charged with rationalizing and explaining the behavior of the organism but not in charge of it. (look up split brain experiments, also The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt)

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