Who Goes There? The Thing?

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The Thing. It was an iconic black and white film form 1951 actually titled The Thing from Another World, but I knew it simply as The Thing. It was “the” classic scary movie that I grew up with. Even with all of the name variations and numerous cinematic remakes, to most of us it was and always will be The Thing.

Astounding Science Fiction - August 1938
Astounding Science Fiction – August 1938 cover

But in the beginning, it was a novella titled Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Even that billing is a bit deceiving because the story was written under the pen name of Don A Stuart when first published in the August issue of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938.

That initial impression I experienced from the film version is vastly different than that of the Campbell version. The monster in the film is an alien plant life that disrupts a scientific expedition after crash landing in the North Pole. However, the original plot revolves around a team of researchers at the other pole and they stumble upon a being that had crash landed millions of years before. The differing timeframe of the crash (invasion?) does not make much sense, but then neither do the plot changes.

In its purest form, the original short story Who Goes There? is perhaps the best version (in my opinion) because it exemplifies the true spirit of the writer’s intentions. Scare the reader. Yes, the strange creature brought the fright factor, but the true element of fright stemmed from man’s own fear of the unknown. And in this case, it was a fear of not knowing who the monster truly was.

The “thing” had the ability to assimilate any living organism along with maintaining all of the memories and other personality traits of its victims. Even dreams and personal thoughts are invaded by the creature. Yet early on, the alien is not established as the true monster because even after its demise, nobody knows for sure if any of the survivors had already been assimilated. The true monster in this story is conviction, the trust and believability of your fellow man. As these insecurities take hold, even those who are still “human” are not certain if they themselves are who they think they are. All of a sudden, madness is the monster.

Artwork from August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction
Artwork from August 1938 issue of Astounding SF

This is when the reader understands is the true horror of the story. And this is where I understand Campbell’s vision of the plot and why it was aptly titled Who Goes There? instead of focusing on the alien creature from another planet or simply being afraid of the thing. He is not asking who the creature is. We don’t really care. The author is posing one simple question. Who has survived and who has been assimilated?

The Thing made me scared when I was a kid. It didn’t even help to later learn the monster was played by Gunsmoke’s friendly Marshall Matt Dillon himself, James Arness. Stories about the arctic would never be the same for me. But after all these years, the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. (or Don A Stuart) made me rethink who the real monster was supposed to be. Just like the characters in the story, you never really know. It could be you. It could even be me!

(Editor’s Note: You can watch the original film on Daily Motion (opening credits have been cut)

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