Visceral and Existential Horrors: The Root of Terror in John Carpenter’s ​The Thing ​and David Cronenberg’s ​Videodrome

By Remi Aalfs

When I walked into my parents bedroom as a child, stumbling over my feet in the dark, I would mumble through tears to my mom that I had a nightmare, and in return she would ask what scared me. Usually she didn’t ask WHY the half-rotted head of a man from my nightmare had scared me. But if she had raised the question, maybe I would have answered that it could happen to her, even me. In the mind of a child, it’s possible that anyone could mutilate into a long-toothed rotting head in a glass case, skin peeling and eyes rolled back. But human mutilation, and the mutilation of ideas that have shaped the human psyche for centuries, is one of the scariest kinds of horror. It’s why existential horror and body horror have done so well, and continue to terrify people to this day. Both John Carpenter’s ​The Thing ​and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome​ grapple with the idea of human evolution and our place in the world around us. While both films use quite different methods to communicate their fears, the focus of the horror elements center on the shifting state of nature.

The Thing a​nd ​Videodrome a​re both films which use cinematic language expertly, both evoking gut-wrenching in scenes of gore and body horror, as well as a more reflective feeling of existential horror. While I’m deeply interested in the larger cultural conversation which both films broach, I don’t believe I would be able to dig in without addressing their expert use of film elements and love for cinema. ​The Thing​ is the pinnacle of a Lovecraftian horror film, which is essentially an imagining of what scared, vulnerable humans may experience upon the first encounter with an extraterrestrial. Oh, yeah, and it can disguise itself in minutes with the form of any creature it consumes. Light plays an instrumental role in creating and maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia and fear in the film. A deep, glowing blue light blares into the camera, coloring the snow and creeping through every window of the research base. Blue light is known to inhibit the production of melatonin in humans, and just as we are unable to close our eyes for more than a moment, the characters are sleep deprived and anxiety is heightened (​Harvard Health​). Look away for even a moment, and anyone could be an imposter. The blue light seems omnipresent, but it is juxtaposed with the large gaps of light which rest heavy on the compound. In one shot, the protagonist McReady sits in a slice of light at his desk, swallowed from the sea of shadow behind him. The long and pointed shadow that dominates the frame lingers with a burning question… what could be lurking unseen in that hallway? It does seem pointedly ironic that in the cold bright snowscape just outside, there would be no question about who the imposter is. Yet, in the warm confines of the base there are corners and shadows which unknown events transpire behind. One cannot leave the elephant in the room unaddressed –or should I say the oozing, bleeding, actively-mutating, shape-shifting, and horrifying (for lack of a better word) thing in the room.

This special effects masterpiece, created by Rob Bottin, is at the heart of the film. Not only did the effects achieve the goal of terrifying audiences, but it’s crucial to understanding how the film interacts with the Other. The concept of “the Other” is an important part of psychoanalytic film criticism, and is discussed in depth in Robin Wood’s essays (Wood 27). One of the most bulky and uncomfortable Others to address is alien (or extraterrestrial) life. The word “alien” is itself an interesting example of an Other because the word itself is simply defined as foreign, which can also mean different from one. The human definitions of what is normal and what is not is infinitely limited, because our psychological framework is entirely shaped by human nature as well as our own specific cultural values. This word suggests that our entire understanding of the unknown universe is defined by its distance from human nature and existence, which is what the film seems to suggest as well. After seeing a creature that looks unlike anything known to man, ever, the crew still analyses the thing’s body as though it may be human. As Freud may have said about ​The Thing​, it is the self encountering the other. It is so unacceptable and incomprehensible to them because it truly looks monstrous, and it plays their game by entirely different rules.

It isn’t bound to a corporeal state, and it can suck other organisms into itself and extend them like a new appendage. It is the sum of all its parts, and the crew is outnumbered. Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection (relative to horror) is “a name for certain intense feelings of revulsion, disgust, fear, and contempt provoked in the subject when it encounters phenomena that disturb ‘identity, system, order… [that do] not respect borders, positions, rules…’” (White 396). The entire crew experiences that kind of violent abjection in a devastating wave, and they nearly destroy themselves doing so. It is a visceral, almost biological reaction, yet entirely human. There is a sense that this fear, this thing, is larger than life and humanity itself, in true Lovecraftian philosophy.

Narratively, this film is fairly typical in that the plot exists within the boundaries of the frame, and these characters are isolated from us and others in space and on screen. This is largely different from the experimental narrative of ​Videodrome​, which almost feels like a videogame. Much like a role-playing-game (RPG) the viewer is simultaneously a passive ​and​ active participant in the narrative, yet physically distanced from the medium. This chillingly prescient film is a warning, or perhaps an exploration, of the dangers of humanity’s relationship with video. More generally, it is about a controlling television media executive who discovers the violent outlet Videodrome. The violence is thought to be a facade, acting, and distant from the reality it portrays. But the sinister organization is responsible for these crimes which have crept into the media, or perhaps the opposite. Screens are omnipresent in the film, and protagonist Max quickly figures out that the organization and these videos are malevolent projections which will soon materialize in his world. The plot is less concrete and more surreal than that of ​The Thing​, which may actually increase its effect. The reality of the characters is shaped by their media, and vice versa. Max is woken and spoken to by his television, and he in return curates the television channel which he corrupts with Videodrome’s violence and message. As soon as he violates their private transmission and broadcasts it, Videodrome hacks ​him t​o corrupt with violence and their message. Every manipulation of media returns tenfold to the characters, and it feels like a dialogue between the two. In light of VR, there is an image of Max’s visions of sex and violence projected into a machine not unlike a VR headset to become manifest in video. Both sex and the corporeal body are eviscerated by the merging of technology and humanity in the film. Body horror and sexual horror are two large components of the film. Bodies are corrupted with tumors of new flesh, and sex becomes a deformed, simulated rape by technology.

Max’s free will is sacrificed for the success of new media, and a new evolutionary path to the new flesh. Much like the Thing, technology in this film operates as the other. It evolves new physiological rules and growths, as technological and human evolutionary paths converge. The special effects of ​Videodrome​ are also masterful, thanks to Rick Baker. There may have been less of a strong narrative if the physical goods were not delivered on time and on point. But the rising and falling, breathing television and the blistering tumors bring the surrealism to a crescendo. Perhaps the scene of paramount importance for my purposes is the final one. Max stares at Nicki’s new flesh, pixels on the screen, as she pleads to him to sacrifice his old flesh for the new. He stares into a screen, watching himself where he stands, uttering “Long live the new flesh,” and holds his mutated hand/gun to his head before firing. After the television explodes at the shot, he slowly stands, the scene repeats exactly as before, and the screen snaps into darkness.

It was precisely at this moment that the film made me painfully aware of my position relative to the medium. While watching the film, it is all too easy to imagine the events onscreen happening in a vacuum. But the reminder that I am the viewer, and this is a film about me, was jarring. The film’s dialogue forces the viewer to question their relationship to what’s on screen. Not just the people and events, but how the medium itself shapes the way one thinks about the world around them. The sex and violence that a medium transports to the screen changes the way one views sex and violence. It was not a new idea in the 1980s that horror films are a projection and fulfillment of our deepest dread and impulse. But the film presses the question: what new kinds of darkness are created when this violence is brought to the screen. What does it become? Technology has and will inevitably continue to evolve parallel to the path of human evolution. Nothing in nature is fixed, and technology is becoming further and further intertwined with humanity. The fears that are faced in this film are still present today, if not more so.

Both ​The Thing​ and ​Videodrome​ very pointedly question the lie of an image. While humans often trust their sight, both films suggest the illusory, malleable nature of what the eye can behold. ​Videodrome​ suggests that the lie of an image on television is that notion that this image is a fixed picture, and that the events and characters on screen end where the glass borders the pixels. To better illustrate this concept, take René Magritte’s ​La Trahison des images.


La Trahison des images​, René Magritte, 1929

This painting is one of the most recognizable paintings of the surrealist art movement, and has become infamous. The inscription below reads, “This is not a pipe.” It may be a bit confusing at first, because the viewer can immediately recognize that the image in the painting is a pipe. However, the artist Magritte wanted to communicate that this art is not a pipe. It is a painting. But, the painting is a visual depiction of a common man-made object, and the painting imitated it so well that the subject matter is undeniably, a pipe. Any reasonable viewer can’t object that the thing we are viewing is actually a painting and not a pipe. The French title translates to “The Treachery of images.” ​Videodrome,​ while also surrealist in nature, seems to mirror this narrative and argue the opposite. The characters and likely many viewers think of television as projections of human stupidity or human nature which exists in the vacuum of technology. Yet, it is human reality projected, and the events onscreen in turn have consequences which manifest in our reality. Whichever way you view it, the medium is inseparable from reality. According to the film, the true treachery of images is being told that an image is only just that: an image. And wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”?

The themes in ​The Thing​ also seem to question the lie of an image. It is a shift in the cultural underpinnings that shape our perception of our reality and humanity’s place in it. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he asserts that humans cannot expand their knowledge and understanding of the world through human perception alone. To truly gain knowledge, one must use philosophical reasoning.


Plato’s allegory of the cave

The allegory is effective because it relies on a simple image. There is a group of people who have lived their whole lives in the cave without ever seeing or knowing the existence of sunlight and a world outside of the cave. Puppeteers shadow puppet an entire world out before them through images over a fire, and the cave-dwellers live without ever knowing the reality which remains unseen above them. To use logic and philosophical reasoning is the only way to learn the way to the outside world, as to trust their perception of the images would limit them from knowledge of the world they are missing. In light of this analogy, ​The Thing​ is in some ways a story about how the perception of reality keeps the scientists and crew from real knowledge about a world outside of our known reality. The Thing is “hideously metamorphic, compounded of tentacles, insects and crustacean-like appendages, dismembered mammalian and especially human bodies, and covered in slime, this unclassifiable presence transgresses every attempt to impose a rational structure upon experience” (White 399). They refuse to accept that the creature is a result of evolution outside of any human knowledge or understanding and try to bend it to the rules of the human body, or, the rational. This is all futile of course, and the characters seem to die as if they are warriors in battle instead of stubborn and misunderstanding people. Of course, this isn’t critical of the characters themselves, but rather the rigid existential framework by which humanity is bound. Perhaps, as Lovecraft mused, the human psyche is strangely blessed to live in ignorance, leaving vast puzzles of existence unconnected. The film seems to be petrified by the power of the Thing’s evolution, ability, and nature. The incomprehensibility of the creature is reminiscent of the incomprehensibility of a world in which humans are not at the top of the food chain, and not the most intelligent beings in the known universe.

When Horror is simplified and distilled to its most basic principles, it is a video manifestation of all the things that scare us most. But the most compelling of those seem to be the ones which press the question– why? Why does the cliffhanger at the end scare us more than the writhing, oozing mutilations early on? Would it truly be less horrifying to die shredded and resorbed by a monster than it would be to live in a world where a senseless killing alien exists on the fringes of human society? Maybe. ​The Thing​ is not simply a film about a terrifying alien, just as ​Videodrome ​is not just about our fear of the power of technology. At their core they are both about evolution. The Thing’s unearthly ability to shift and manipulate matter is our own evolutionary process magnified on 2x speed. Videodrome sets off a new thread of human evolution, one which is born and bred by technology. The concept of humanity in flux is terrifying, it’s the fear that humanity in a century may not be bound by our understanding of how we can change our reality, and how reality can change us. Humanity created its own narrative with itself at the pinnacle of evolutionary possibility, and extraterrestrial life threatens that. Humanity created technology, technology which now tethers us. Human reality is fragile, but Horror pushes our boundaries, and makes us accept what we could never believe.

Sources


Bedard, Mike. “Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Summary and Meaning for Screenwriters.” Studiobinder, https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/platos-allegory-of-the-cave/Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.

“Blue Light has a Dark Side.” ​Harvard Health Publishing​, 1 Dec. 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side​. Dihel, Jacob.

“The Cathode Ray Mission: Videodrome and the Postmodern Mind’s Eye.” ​Medium, 1​ Jul. 2020, https://medium.com/@jacobdihel/the-cathode-ray-mission-videodrome-and-th -postmodern-minds-eye-33a6a92ae3fd#_=_​ . Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.

Magritte, René. ​La Trahison des images​. 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. The Thing.​ Directed by John Carpenter, performances by Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, and Keith David, Universal Pictures, 1982.

Videodrome​. Directed by David Cronenberg, performances by James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson, and Jack Creley, Universal Pictures, 1983.

White, Eric. “The Erotics of Becoming: Exogenesis and The Thing.” ​Science Fiction Studies, ​vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 394-208.


Wood, Robin. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70’s.” ​Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan,​ 657.76, Columbia University Press, 2019.

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