John Carpenter's “The Thing,” Unbounded Consciousness, and Religious Experience

#filmanalysis #horror #Bataille #theology #Trinity #Eucharist #philosophy


In John Carpenter's “The Thing,” a group of researchers in Antarctica discover an alien organism that can imitate and assimilate any living creature with which it comes into contact. As paranoia and mistrust grow among the team, they struggle to identify who among them is human and who is the deadly “thing.” With their communication and transportation systems sabotaged, the team must face the terrifying reality that they may not be able to stop the creature from escaping and infecting the rest of the world. As tensions rise and the body count increases, the survivors must make a desperate attempt to destroy the creature before it destroys them.

This film is well-regarded as a classic, and one of the greatest horror films of all time. It feels especially relevant today given that its themes of isolation, fear of being contaminated, and general distrust of others resonate with situations of the real world during the COVID pandemic and our politically tumultuous times. However, the film is also packed full of intriguing philosophical discourse and, surprisingly, religious motifs as well.

Bataille and the Hive Mind

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is how the creature exhibits a “hive mind,” which can operate as a single consciousness without being bound to a particular spatial location. I recently listened to a review of this film by the philosophers on the podcast “Horror Vanguard” (, and they mentioned a fascinating bit of fan-fiction written from the creature's perspective (apologies because I do not remember and could not find the name of the story). Essentially, in the story, when the alien creature encounters humans, it has an experience of pure, abject terror because of the nature of human consciousness. According to the story, the rest of the universe exhibits a type of “hive-mind” consciousness as well, where entities are able to slip their consciousnesses in and out of each other without a problem. However, when encountering humans, the entity sees bounded consciousness for the first time and experiences complete existential terror. The idea of a consciousness being imprisoned inside of a rock cavity — unable to experience a truly intimate connection with the world around it — is a hellish punishment and a Lovecraftian horror to the Lovecraftian entity itself.

In the film, the Thing is a creature from outer space that crash-landed in Antarctica thousands of years ago and lived frozen under the ice until scientists dug it up. Thus, the Thing occupies a fascinating blend of simultaneous “outsideness” via its alien nature and “insideness” via its submersion under the surface — a type of repression awaiting release, ala the psychoanalytic unconscious. In my own reading, the outsideness of the Thing represents that which lies outside the bounded sphere of human consciousness — i.e., that which gets excluded in the individuation of the subject as he or she develops. In a sense, this is a Bataillean interpretation, which also brings about the religious connection.

I wrote previously about Georges Bataille's theory of immanent connection, individuation, and religious experience, but I will re-iterate it here:

The disruption of the distinction between self and the external world was a topic that fascinated French philosopher Georges Bataille. He placed this phenomenon within a dialectic between “discontinuity” (think “individuation) and “continuity.” Discontinuity is defined by Bataille as that which makes the individual distinct from the rest of the world—i.e., not in continuity with other beings, the ability to say, I am not identical to other things, but I am a unique being. In Bataille’s words, 

“This gulf (of discontinuity) exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental difference. If you die, it is not my death. You and I are discontinuous beings” (emphasis original). 

By “continuity,” Bataille simply means the parts of the external world that are devoid of sentience or subjectivity, whereas discontinuity arises from subjectivity. For Bataille, the chief example of continuity is death, in which the individuation of the subject passes, and the physical body is transformed into a corpse—a continuity with the rest of existence, subjectless and subsumed without resistance into the external order of things.

Bataille linked discontinuity with eroticism and continuity with death. As he said, “The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity.” One becomes aware of one’s own individuation from the world and subsequently longs for a deeper connection beyond oneself—chiefly exemplified by the eros of romantic encounter with a beloved. Death, on the other hand, brings the loss of self to the order of the external world. To push the erotic to its extreme can even induce a type of ‘death,’ such as the loss of oneself in the most passionate of romantic encounters. In Bataille’s famous work Erotism: Death and Sensuality, he provides numerous examples in which death and eros, though distinct, are frequently intermingled, often resulting in states of ecstasy or fervor.

When applied to Carpenter's “The Thing,” we see that the Thing is a return of the repressed continuity lost to the individuated, bounded consciousness. By becoming subsumed into the entity's hive mind, the scientists in the film experience an inverted or 'negative' quasi-religious experience in which they are drawn out of their own consciousness and into a greater force beyond themselves. However, unlike in the experience of God, this sense of being drawn into continuity brings about the destruction of self rather than its higher fulfillment.

I find these themes of unbounded consciousness and continuity not only interesting philosophically but also theologically. The mystics, during their rapturous and ecstatic encounters with God, often testify about experiencing deeper connection and continuity with all of Creation through the overwhelming and sublime love of God.

God and Unbounded Consciousness

Furthermore, it seems that many theological doctrines convey something of an 'unbounded consciousness' as well. For example, God is conscious — in whatever sense we could analogously say this — and yet the mind of God is not bound to any particular location. This sense of non-spatial consciousness seems to perhaps operate within the Christian understanding of the Trinity as well. Whether one ascribes to the Latin or Social models of the Trinity, the core of the doctrine is that one God simultaneously, necessarily, and essentially exists in three figures/persons/modes of being/hypostases/insert-best-term-here. It seems to me that there is, analogously speaking, some type of unbounded selfhood operating within the Godhead. But who knows? Maybe that's heretical.

Finally, I wonder if we could talk about Christ's presence in the Eucharist as another sense of unbounded existence. What's interesting for the Thing is that not only does the entity exhibit an unbounded consciousness, but also that its body is somewhat unbounded as well. Its physical form can slip in and out of different bodies and inhabit multiple, disconnected bodies at the same time. I wonder if, analogously speaking, Christ's presence in the Eucharist could be thought of in a similar way. Christ can easily “slip into” or transubstantiate multiple Eucharist wafers at the same time, even at a distance, and yet each wafer is still the body of Christ. But who knows? That might also be heretical. These were just the thoughts sparked by the film. Hopefully, they prove fruitful for your own theological and philosophical imagination.