The Other Columbus: ‘The Thing’ Guide to Family Gatherings

John Carpenter’s horror classic contains advice that can help you navigate the holidays

Scott Woods
Kurt Russell is a helicopter pilot in the frozen North when he's confronted by "The Thing" (1982), now available in a new Blu-ray set. Scream/Universal (courtesy)

That nip in the air is real: Winter fast approaches. Autumn begins to bend itself to the will of wind chill and frozen puddles. Your neighborhood takes on the patina of Christmas specials. Houses become decked. Electric bills are cast toward the stars under the winking glare of unapologetic gutter lights. Most importantly (or at least how we are taught to emotionally comport ourselves in public), it is the time of year when millions of us gear up to spend time with family. 

Much to their chagrin.

For no small number of celebrants, the holiday experience as embodied by the family dinner is akin to steeling oneself for the Battle for Minas Tirith. Alliances are formed, enemies fly their banners, potatoes are mashed and buttered. The will of combatants must be tested so as not to launch offsides into battle when someone notices out loud that you’ve put on a few pounds. 

Fortunately, John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece “The Thing” is here to help.

If you’ve never seen the film (an oversight you should rectify immediately), the premise is pretty straightforward: A team of scientists in Antarctica uncover a frozen shapeshifting alien, only to discover that it has already infected their number, disguising itself as one of their own. What follows is a claustrophobic delight in deduction, shock and good old fashioned, non-CGI effects that still hold up 40 years later. I am on record holding “The Thing” up as not only a perfect film, but my favorite in all of cinema. 

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Since its release in 1982, the film has become a classic, with innumerable movies taking bits and ideas from it ever since. It is the rare horror film that honestly captures people as we behave under stress, which is what Christmas is all about for most people. The racist aunt, the hyper-critical parent, the bullying sibling all comprise the modern horror recipe of family gatherings, and that was before the pandemic.

The movie’s ready protagonist, R.J. MacReady (played by in-his-prime Kurt Russell), is a grumpy but brave helicopter pilot who has no problem blowing up everyone to destroy the hostile lifeform if it means saving the human race. And while the stakes at your family dinner table won’t be nearly as high, there is a lot of self-repairing wisdom that can be gleaned from the things MacReady says in the film. Take the following quotes for example: 

1) “Why don't we just wait here for a little while, see what happens?”

This is good advice coming in the door to a family gathering. Try to come in with an open mind. Let the awkwardness peel away as familiarity warms up the room. Exercise a reasonable amount of patience with people you haven’t seen in a while.

2) “Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”

Living in a not-so-post-Trump America with heaping amounts of pandemic sprinkled on top, some of our folks may not be as we remember them, or they’ve gotten worse. The Fox News-watching hasn’t stopped. Conspiracy theories have gotten more elaborate. One of you is too quiet when talk about vaccines comes up. Keep your eyes on your people, and if possible, bring someone along to watch your six. Don’t let someone’s problems infect your good time.

3) “Nobody... nobody trusts anybody now, and we're all very tired.”

It’s important to recognize when the gathering isn’t fun for anyone anymore. Acknowledge the futility of further discussion in certain areas or with certain folks. At this point, it may be time to lean into focusing on the nieces you never see or scoring a recipe from mom.

4) “Anybody touches me, and we go.”

This is the most important option to keep in mind: Assuming you’re not the host, you always reserve the right to leave. Just because you’re related to certain people on this planet doesn’t mean you have to endure them. Families shouldn’t be gauntlets, so when they’ve crossed the line, it’s OK to just grab your coat and leave. You can come back to get the Tupperware you brought another day (after it’s been washed!). You don’t have to be insulted or talked down to or answer offensive questions. Whatever anyone has to say about you leaving, they can put in a text message later that you can respond to at your leisure. (Once you’ve walked out, you certainly don’t need to be prompt.) If you want to do what Kurt Russell did and dynamite the whole joint on the way out the door with a real shouting match, you can. It’s your holiday to do with as you wish. Merry Christmas, or whatever.