Trilogy of Terror: The Thing (1982)

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in this year’s trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

This also marks the start of the fifth Trilogy of Terror. When I started this series, I knew I was in for an annual treat. When horror is terrible, it’s hilarious. When horror is smart, it fuels interesting discussions. And when horror is great, it lives forever in your mind, refusing to ever let you go. In other words, no matter how good or bad any film I cover might be, there should nearly always be something interesting to say about it.

This year, though, we are spending the month with three excellent films that I recommend without hesitation: John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.” I encourage you to watch each of them. Not necessarily because these reviews will be riddled with spoilers — though they will be, so consider this your warning — but because they’re worth watching even if (especially if?) you know what to expect.

The Apocalypse Trilogy is a phrase Carpenter has only applied to these three films (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) in retrospect. They were not planned to connect in any way, which is why each of them can be thoroughly enjoyed in its own right without any experience of the other two.

Upon reflection, however, Carpenter noticed similarities that inspired him to start thinking about them as complementary works. In a 2014 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he had this to say:

As for the “Apocalypse Trilogy,” all three of those movies are, in one way or another, about the end of things, about the end of everything, the world we know, but in different ways. The Thing is the science fiction way, where this creature was going to imitate itself and take over the world. Prince of Darkness is another way. And then, In the Mouth of Madness, basically, is an alternate reality has taken over. Each of those things is kind of an apocalyptic kind of movie, but a very different take on it.

That’s a lot of vague language, but it’s still the most direct explanation I’ve found from the man himself. (In a different statement, which I can’t seem to find again, he essentially boiled it down to “things don’t end very well for the main characters.”)

Vague definitions are okay. When noticing a pattern in hindsight, it’s going to be looser than one you planned ahead of time. Carpenter isn’t attempting to explain his thought process or creative vision; he’s just speaking about the way three things he’s done share similar elements.

To him, it’s just an interesting coincidence he happened to notice. By referring to it as a trilogy I think he set more rigid expectations than he intended; fans have spent years dissecting the films to see how they fit together in a larger, narrative sense, finding connections that aren’t really there because they’re supposed to be there.

And that’s what we’ll do here, as well!

…sort of. I will be discussing the ways the films build different structures atop similar foundations, and I’ll point out a few neat moments of overlap and inversion, but that’s about it. These movies should not be watched as — and were emphatically not produced as — three parts of one whole. They’re three fantastic horror films that should be viewed as three fantastic horror films that shared some unintentional creative DNA.

Of the three, The Thing is undoubtedly the most famous and popular. It’s also, overall, the best of the three in my opinion, but there are things each of the next two films do better, which I mean not just as a compliment to them but as an enormous one.

Carpenter had had various degrees of interest in making The Thing since around 1976. The script went through a number of significant revisions. Talent signed on and dropped off. Carpenter went back and forth regarding whether Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World — a 1951 film based on the same source material, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. — could even be outdone. (Spoiler: The Thing from Another World is not a bad film, but it ended up being very, very easily outdone.)

The characters watching The Thing from Another World in Carpenter’s own 1978 film Halloween was no coincidence; Hawks’ film was on his mind, as were his own ideas about how to tell the same story.

When we finally did get The Thing, we saw that it — appropriately, in a thematic sense — took a very different shape from the earlier film.

Received wisdom holds that Carpenter’s version is more faithful to Campbell’s original story, but I’m not sure that that’s true. It could be, but, if it is, it’s not notably so. Perhaps someone could come up with some mathematical formula to weigh all the faithful stuff in The Thing from Another World against all the faithful stuff in The Thing and see which way the scale tilts, but both films are similar and different in their own ways, to comparable degrees, and we’ll discuss those in due time.

The Thing takes place almost entirely within an antarctic research station, where a skeleton crew goes about its work without much enthusiasm or interest. Carpenter’s version of this crew is very different from the crews in Campbell’s story and Hawks’ adaptation. Those versions of the crew are large, effective, and serious about their work. Carpenter’s crew is the polar opposite. (Literally, too, as The Thing from Another World stations them at the North Pole and The Thing puts them in Antarctica.)

Campbell and Hawks have their characters work together — at least at first — and make decisions that will affect the station as a team. Every voice is heard, and the station’s commander makes the final call, which the crew rightly obeys.

Carpenter’s crew is a different beast. Their research station technically has a leader, but he’s ineffectual, which I think is important to the way this particular telling of the story pans out.

Commander Garry is in charge, but he commands no respect. Carpenter never draws direct attention to this, but the more I watch the film the more clearly I see it.

Garry is almost never consulted about what the team will do next, and when he raises concerns (such as when Doc Copper wants to take the helicopter up as a storm rolls in) he is ignored. His crew talks back to him and insults him. At times they yell at him because he doesn’t understand the situation as well as they do. As the research station descends into chaos — precisely the moment at which the crew needs strong leadership — Garry surrenders his authority to whomever else wants it.

Garry comes across as a man who earned his position through length of service rather than through any kind of achievement. His crew allows him to call himself their commander, as long as he doesn’t actually try to command them. It’s not that they actively decide not to involve him; it’s that they never think to involve him in the first place. He’s a pencil pusher, and probably not even a particularly good one.

The most consequential thing Garry does happens at the very beginning of the film. When two Norwegian researchers enter the American camp — crazed, shouting, firing at a dog they’ve pursued there and hitting someone in the leg — Garry shoots one of them through the eye, killing him instantly. (The other, in his panic, accidentally kills himself with a grenade.)

Of course, this is what allows The Thing to infiltrate the research station, but Garry could not have known that. Even so, the fact that he stopped a gunman before he could do much damage is dismissed as an idiotic impulse. “I was wondering when El Capitan was gonna get a chance to use his popgun,” one of his men says. And Garry, present for the insult, says nothing. He may not be okay with the fact that his crew doesn’t respect him, but I think he also realizes he hasn’t earned that respect.

We observe the crew going about their day and their work at various points, never quite invested in what they’re doing or with each other. They kill time by shooting pool, playing poker, and passing joints around, but never really talk to each other while doing so. These are social activities, yet nobody socializes. None of them is there because he wanted this assignment; they’re just the guys who were willing to take it.

The crew in The Thing is one of the most believable groups of characters I’ve ever seen in a film, and Carpenter pulls it off simply by letting them interact, without any specific dynamic really being brought to the foreground. You learn about who these characters are by how others react to them, and by how quickly — or reluctantly — they come to distrust each other.

Distrust, of course, is a central theme of the film. The dog that the Norwegians chased into the American camp is actually a shape-shifting extraterrestrial. It perfectly assumes the shape and the behavior of other living things, including specific people. We’ll discuss that more later, but for now it’s enough to say that the crew faces a very real and possibly unsolvable problem. As Childs, one of the researchers, says, “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?”

Childs is posing this question believing, of course, that there is no answer…though everybody clearly wishes there were one, and that somebody will propose a solution.

Nobody does, or can.

Without any way of telling an individual apart from his artificial and dangerous replacement, no character can trust any other. And yet, with such an effective impostor in their midst, trust becomes so much more crucial than it has ever been before. The value of trust skyrockets as its supply dwindles.

Without the reliable leadership Campbell and Hawks provided their characters, Carpenter’s crew flails, flounders, and ultimately fails. Nature — and human nature — abhors a vacuum, though, and a de facto leader emerges. Not because he wishes to lead, or even because he can lead, but because enough people turn to him for support that he doesn’t have a choice.

This is R.J. MacReady, played by Kurt Russell.

Carpenter developed a habit of working with the same actors over the course of multiple films, and so while looking at the Apocalypse Trilogy I’ll do my best to point out which actors appeared elsewhere in his filmography. These three movies provide a pretty decent cross-section, even if we won’t encounter such other notables as George “Buck” Flower, Jamie Lee Curtis or Charles Cyphers.

Russell appears also in Elvis, Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., and Big Trouble in Little China. In The Thing he’s a weary helicopter pilot who seems to keep to himself, but who the other crewmen see as reliable and even-keeled. Which, of course, he may not be, as we learn in his very first scene.

We are introduced to MacReady as he plays a game of computer chess. It seems to be a close game, and MacReady believes he has ultimately outsmarted the computer (voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, who Carpenter fans have seen in Someone’s Watching Me!, The Fog, and Escape from New York).

He makes a foolish move, though, and the computer beats him. He responds by pouring his drink into the machine, frying it.

This ends up serving as an extremely efficient look at what’s to come, as his campaign against The Thing follows the same pattern. Every time MacReady thinks he sees an opening, The Thing proves that he’s left himself exposed. And when The Thing ultimately places him in check, MacReady fries the entire compound.

Characters turn to MacReady frequently, to the point that he sees it as wearisome. They respect him and what he has to say, and are perfectly happy to accept his guidance. But there is an exception: Childs, played by Keith David (who we know from They Live), is the one consistent challenger of his authority. At one point he even attempts to assume command, only to be shot down by MacReady.

“It should be somebody a little more even tempered, Childs,” says MacReady.

Remember that this the man who blew up a chess computer because he lost. Also, moments before this exchange, he threatened everybody’s lives with a bundle of dynamite.

The clash between MacReady and Childs fuels a lot of the tension in the film (and will ultimately make its ending so perfectly effective), but I don’t believe at any point they dislike each other. I think each just doesn’t believe the other can get them through this alive. (And, hey, they’re both right!)

Unfortunately for Childs, everybody else sides with MacReady. He doesn’t have the support to push back in any meaningful way, though he also never comes around to fully accepting MacReady as the boss. The trust is mutually absent.

Trust is something every one of us — us, here, in reality — takes for granted far more than we realize, and like the doomed crew in The Thing, we won’t truly realize that fact until a baseline sense of trust is no longer possible.

There’s no reason to believe that any of these characters particularly trusted the others beyond the basic assumptions of human decency, but now even that is gone. It’s not a matter of trusting someone not to steal your pot or cheat at poker; it’s a matter of no longer being able to trust anyone enough to even turn your back on them. And the moment that’s the case — that trust no longer exists — it becomes exhausting.

Carpenter even illustrates this perfectly with the genuinely sad moment of MacReady sitting alone in the dark, recording an audio log for anybody who might find it when this is all over. “Nobody trusts anybody now,” he says. “And we’re all very tired.” It’s harrowing in its understatement.

Carpenter’s shapeshifter is almost entirely in line with the beast of Campbell’s story, with the exception of the fact that Campbell introduces it in hideous alien form. The Hawks film is more faithful in that regard. (In fact, the question of whether that’s its actual form or the form of a previous victim is raised by both Campbell and Hawks, but is not even mentioned in Carpenter’s film.)

In each of those versions, the researchers discover the alien encased in ice, near to its crashed spacecraft. In each of those versions, they attempt to excavate the craft for study, only to accidentally destroy it. In each of those versions, they take the alien in a block of ice into their camp and discuss what to do, before ultimately thawing it out.

Not so with Carpenter. In The Thing, our researchers don’t get a say in the situation. The alien is found and loosed without any action on their part. They are forced to deal with the repercussions of somebody else’s actions, rather than their own. I think we can all agree that makes it a very different story.

So who let the aliens out? Well, that would be the Norwegians.

After the bizarre assault by the two Norwegian researchers, Doc Copper convinces MacReady — and ignores Garry’s protestations — to fly him over to the Norwegian camp to find out if any survivors need assistance.

What they find is evidence of an unthinkable nightmare. It answers their immediate question — nope; nobody needs help — but raises many more.

They find the camp destroyed. Bloodied axes embedded in walls. Doors hastily barricaded. The body of a man who slit his own wrists and throat rather than…well, Doc and MacReady don’t know what the alternative was, but it clearly wasn’t anything good. Out back, the charred remains of something only vaguely human. Oh, and a block of ice from which something has been removed…or from which something removed itself.

The two take everything they can find by way of documentation — photographs, paperwork, video footage — back to their own camp, and we learn along with them what happened: The Norwegian researches found a crashed spacecraft, attempted to excavate it, took a frozen alien back with them, and let it defrost.

…which was everything the Americans did in Campbell’s and Hawks’ tales. Carpenter doesn’t discard this sequence of events, but he turns their story into his backstory. Perhaps he felt that that narrative had already been explored twice, and didn’t need a third iteration. Instead of staying up all night with a team of researchers debating what to do with their frozen monster from beyond the stars, Carpenter skips all of that and focuses on what happens after it gets out, to unfortunate innocents who get caught in its path of destruction.

Carpenter’s crew doesn’t get to decide what to do. They don’t have the luxury of making decisions about risks to take or to avoid. They might manage to exert some degree of control over the details of their extermination, but their ultimate fate is decided without them, by a group of people they (largely) never met and who never managed to warn them.

In reviewing the Norwegians’ footage, The Thing provides its only direct recreation of a scene in The Thing from Another World — in black and white, of course — with the large group of researchers circling the buried UFO to estimate its size.

MacReady and Doc bring a strange corpse with human-like features back to camp, and the entire group comes together to examine it. Between that, the recovered documentation, and the crazed state of the two men who were chasing the dog, Blair (an incredible Wilford Brimley) pieces together what happened.

Whatever the Norwegians uncovered, it has the ability to perfectly mimic other organisms. They did their suicidal best to destroy it, but ultimately failed. At some point they managed to whittle its lone surviving presence down to the dog, but a combination of bad luck on their part and a lucky shot by Garry ended their fight. The Thing is now here in the American camp, and it could be anybody.

The story is both a small one and a massive one. The film opens — we’ll eventually learn — at least 100,000 years in the past, as we watch the UFO crash to Earth. And should The Thing find its way onto more populated continents, Earth will enter its final few years. It’s the story of one tiny group being exterminated, and also the entire story of mankind.

Our nearest glimpse of the apocalypse is here:

I don’t have much to say about that in itself, but it will be interesting to note what we see of the apocalypse in the next two films.

Blair estimates that The Thing could exterminate the human race within 27,000 hours. That’s just a hair over three years away, and while it’s possible somebody could find some way to destroy it or contain it within that time, it’s unlikely; The Thing can take any form and could therefore hide anywhere at all, only to resurface later.

The fact that The Thing can shape-shift at all is one area in which Carpenter’s film is the more faithful adaptation. In Hawks’ version, The Thing is basically an intergalactic Frankenstein’s monster, and the researchers eventually discover that it’s some sort of plant-man. It’s not easy to watch that film and see the beast as much of a threat, and indeed it has an almost absurdly low body-count for a monster with its potential victims already corralled into a tight, inescapable space.

Carpenter’s Thing registers all the way through as a genuine and serious threat. It consumes the research team’s dogs and withstands gunfire without a problem. Childs roasting it with a flamethrower is only somewhat successful, as enough of the creature escapes to wreak further havoc.

What’s more, the seeming solution of burning it is eventually shown to be less final than it at first seems. As Fuchs — who takes over as lead scientist when Blair ends up indisposed — reports, “There’s still cellular activity in these burned remains. They’re not dead yet.”

In short, fire is the best weapon the team has, and even that isn’t very good. This stands in direct contrast to Campbell and Hawks, who each establish that fire definitively kills the beast. Yet another way in which Carpenter’s film is “much more faithful,” eh?

Blair is the first member of the team to be driven mad by the danger The Thing poses to humanity.

At least, that’s how it seems. His madness is based on the sad truth that this creature represents the end. He disables the camp’s vehicles and smashes up their communication equipment, ranting a rationale we almost certainly can’t make out on a first viewing. If you ever wanted to see Wilford Brimley on an axe-rampage, The Thing is a must see.

There is a literal method to his madness, though: The Thing is unstoppable, and all he can do is make sure there’s no way whatsoever for anyone here to get out or for anyone out there to get in. With a lot of luck they’ll kill it, but that’s unlikely. He’s attempting to sacrifice the researchers for the sake of marooning it in this frozen hell, hopefully for a few more hundred thousand years.

At first, Blair seems like he poses an additional threat to the crew…and, well, he does, yeah. Fair enough. But he’s a threat with humanity’s best interests at heart. Not that MacReady and the rest can be faulted for locking him away in the tool shed, though, where the character spends the rest of the film.

In a brilliantly chilling sight gag, MacReady comes out later to check on him and finds him sitting next to a noose. “I don’t want to stay out here anymore,” Blair deadpans. “I want to come back inside.”

One of the great joys of rewatching The Thing is attempting to find the precise moment at which the crew’s chances of survival reaches zero. At various points it seems like they might be able to wrestle back just a little bit of ground, but they never do.

As the movie unfolds they lose their vehicles, their radio equipment, their dogs. They start losing members of their own crew to The Thing. They lose Blair’s gifted mind to madness and Fuchs’ to desperate suicide. Doc Copper proposes a test to determine which of them is still human, but they lose their stock of blood before they can do it. Then they lose Doc Copper before he can propose an alternative.

Somewhere in there is the tipping point. I’m not personally sure where I’d place it, and while it’s fun to think about it, I’m also not sure it matters. We watch the crew and its resources get shaved down further with every minute that passes. We might think, at first, that they can make it through this. After all, the Norwegians managed to reduce The Thing to a single dog; doesn’t that mean the Americans have at least a fighting chance?

But they don’t. They can’t. There’s no solution available to them, and maybe no solution at all aside from Blair’s forced, fatal isolation.

Both Campbell and Hawks let a few token characters get picked off by the beast, but in the end both of their crews are triumphant and mop their brows in relief, humanity saved.

Carpenter, in his “much more faithful” adaptation, puts humanity squarely on the losing end. The most we can hope is that the dead crew took The Thing down with them, and that’s far from a safe bet.

Perhaps people consider Carpenter’s film to be more faithful to Campbell’s story because they haven’t paid more than superficial attention to it. At first glance it certainly seems like Carpenter brought that story’s specific crew to life. Flip casually through the story’s 40-odd pages and you’ll find names like Blair, Garry, Clark, and McReady. (Note that Carpenter added an A, making his nickname “Mac” feel a little more natural.)

But that’s about it; most of the rest of the crew is entirely Carpenter’s invention, despite the fact that there were more characters in the story than there are in this film. Hawks may have changed everybody’s names, but he stayed true to their characterization. Carpenter changes everything about them.

In the book, Garry is well-liked, respected, and carries authority. McReady is an action hero just waiting for his spotlight; he’s not weary or reluctant at all, and he has a clear plan for everything, as opposed to MacReady’s cinematic floundering.

Blair in the story believes the alien poses no harm (indeed, cannot pose any harm) to humanity and insists on studying it, exactly like his analogue in The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s version of Blair displays concern immediately, which is only amplified and eventually explodes as he realizes exactly what they’re up against.

Does it matter that we incorrectly believe Carpenter’s film is more faithful? Absolutely it does, because it misrepresents just how much he actually brought to the film, and what an achievement it is.

Carpenter was clearly familiar with both other tellings, and if you — the viewer — were familiar with them as well, he used your expectations against you.

The characters you thought you knew behave differently. The long stretches of quiet deliberation are missing completely, as our crew here never has a chance to catch its breath. And, perhaps most significantly, characters that are replaced by The Thing in the original story are not replaced by The Thing in this film.

In fact, if memory serves, Blair is the only character replaced by The Thing in both Campbell’s and Carpenter’s versions. Every other character has his fate altered, keeping viewers on their toes even if they’re familiar with the source material. Perhaps even moreso.

And of course there’s the fact that Campbell’s story ends with most of the crew surviving, whereas Carpenter’s ends with MacReady and Childs — the latter being a unique creation of the film — sitting together in the snow while their world burns around them, passing a bottle back and forth as they wait to freeze to death.

Carpenter’s adaptation is so faithful, it swings all the way back around to being not faithful at all!

In fairness to “Who Goes There?,” the standout scene in The Thing is present in the source material. It exists, however, in a very different form, and though Carpenter inherited this brilliant moment from Campbell, he also significantly elevated it.

In the story, Doc Copper attempts a traditional blood test to determine who has been replaced by The Thing. It turns out to be a flawed plan and so they then come up with another idea: Press a hot wire into blood samples from each man. Since The Thing can split into numerous parts and still function, it should be present in the blood and react to the pain of the hot wire.

It works great, and as the imitations of crew members are revealed, they are destroyed by the humans without incident.

If you’ve seen the film, you remember that scene going quite differently.

For starters, Doc Copper never got to do his intended blood test, and he’s killed before he can figure out a backup. MacReady comes up with the same hot-wire test, but here the situation is much different.

In the story, his counterpart has the luxury of sitting and thinking and puzzling it out. In the film, he realizes The Thing can split apart by watching the head of one of his overtaken colleagues separate from the body and shuffle off on newly sprouted spider legs.

Also, y’know, MacReady has just been accused of being The Thing and was locked out of the compound to die, only being readmitted because he threatened to kill everybody if they didn’t back off.

Very different context, but at first the execution seems similar. Surely somebody is The Thing, they’re going to find out who, and they’re going to take care of it. MacReady ties all of his suspects to the couch and gets testing, the tension rising each time the hot wire fizzles in a shallow pool of blood.

Then somebody’s blood reacts and…whoops.

Yeah, as smart as MacReady’s idea was, neither he nor anyone else involved really thought this through, and now other crew members are tied to the raging monster. MacReady’s flamethrower malfunctions and there are more fatalities. Sure, they managed to find The Thing, but lost more innocents in doing so.

During the test MacReady also shoots one of his colleagues who approaches him too quickly, killing him. Yes, the man did intend to subdue the crazed MacReady, but MacReady thought he might be The Thing. The posthumous blood test proves that he wasn’t. “Which makes you a murderer, don’t it?” Childs asks him. It’s a hell of a dig, but a fair one, considering MacReady had previously declared himself more even-tempered.

It’s a fantastic, perfect horror scene that manages to warn us against excessive paranoia even as it proves there is an actual monster among them, waiting to attack. It’s a bloodbath that still results in overreaction, and that’s a hell of a thing to pull off convincingly.

I do have to admit that it took me a long time to accept The Thing as being capable of convincingly faking somebody’s entire personality. I didn’t quite buy that some space monster from hundreds of thousands of years in the past could duplicate a human so perfectly, right down to his mannerisms, his memory, his understanding of human etiquette.

Surely that’s far more difficult than, say, just stealing somebody’s form, or voice. We should be able to see through an imitation of somebody we’ve worked and lived with for years…right?

But, ultimately, I think the answer is that we aren’t as complex as we think we are.

We can trick ducks and crows and fish and deer among other animals by making them believe some artificial approximation of a creature is real. We can do that not exactly because we’re more intelligent than they are, but because we’re differently intelligent. We can figure out what an animal looks for in determining something’s identity, and create something that checks those boxes.

It won’t fool an animal — such as man — who looks for different things, but that doesn’t matter. We only need to hit that small list of features that our target pays attention to.

And so maybe what The Thing is doing is hitting man’s small list of important features. To us that list doesn’t seem small. Heck, to us it isn’t small. It’s who we are. We process each other the way we process anything else in the world. It’s the entirety of our perception, both conscious and unconscious.

But to an alien that’s intelligent in a different way, who can see us from more angles and understand us in ways we cannot understand anything at all, it just needs to make sure it’s checking the right boxes.

Mimicking someone’s speech patterns exactly and responding in flawlessly convincing ways in conversation might seem impossible from our perspective, but to an alien who can view us from a distance, that may not be any more difficult than it is for us to stuff an old shirt full of hay and put it on a stick in a cornfield.

I’m reaching beyond the boundaries of the film here, I understand, but as long as we can agree that The Thing functions in ways we can’t truly comprehend — not much of a stretch there — I think we’re covered by that alone.

That’s about the closest thing I ever had to a criticism of The Thing, and it’s as easy to ignore as it is to attribute to alien logic beyond our understanding and move along.

I put off watching The Thing for a long time because all I had heard from so many people was how great it was. Some of them told me it was the best horror film overall, and none of them disagreed that it was at least among the very best. And so I waited until I was in the right mood to sit down and appreciate one of the best things the genre had to offer, knowing without a doubt that it couldn’t possibly live up to its own reputation.

But it did. The Thing was even better than I’d been led to believe. It’s the rare movie that I think can’t actually have justice done by mere words. I’m five-thousandish words into this review and I’m still not convinced I’ve made a case for just how perfect a piece of horror cinema it is.

And Carpenter does that not by giving us a scary monster, or by exploring interesting ideas, or by creating a group of fascinating characters; he does it by doing all of those things, at once, seemingly so simple and easy when I’m sure the production was far from those things.

When you watch The Thing, you don’t see the effort that went into it. You don’t see the scenes that were too expensive to shoot and the bits that didn’t work that were excised in the edit. You don’t see anything, really, beyond the plight of a small group of researchers doing what they can to survive against an impossible foe, and then at least trying to take it down with them.

If we’re not counting Hitchcock — and I’d argue we shouldn’t — Carpenter is by a large margin my favorite horror director. I’ve wondered many times what elevates his work in my estimation above others who tend to be held in higher regard.

I could say it’s because he’s versatile, regularly demonstrating a keen understanding of not only horror but action, comedy, and drama. I could say it’s because he’s multitalented, as he’s not only a gifted director but also a gifted writer, composer, and musician. I could say a lot of things.

But I think my answer is that watching his movies feels like peeking through windows at little worlds. Worlds like ours, usually, but worlds that have their own sets of rules that separate them from the one we know.

The characters within these worlds often don’t know those rules. They don’t know they existed, until one day they have to both learn and master them. Quickly.

Nearly all of Carpenter’s films are about his characters learning what kind of world, exactly, they’ve always lived in, and that’s such a compelling narrative device, and one that he often pulls off flawlessly.

The Thing is a window into such a world. It’s a story about characters trying and failing to figure out what kind of story they’re in. If they learn the rules, they might be able to navigate toward a happy ending, but they don’t have the luxury of time. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the leadership or the knowledge or the skills necessary to get out of this alive.

Fortunately for the rest of humanity, MacReady has no qualms about pushing back with his own rules.

He isn’t going to win, but he’ll be damned if he’s the only one who loses.

It’s an excellent and important film, and it proved that John Carpenter could take a potentially apocalyptic idea and make it feel both large and small, both personal and cosmic, both claustrophobic and entirely without boundary.

Now, of course, we need to find out if he could do it again. Tune in next week for Prince of Darkness.

Announcing: Trilogy of Terror V!

…sorta!

Yeah, I know I’ve already mentioned what this year’s Trilogy of Terror will be, but all three movies are worth watching so I wanted to give the announcement an official spotlight as well. (And I have some other news to share, but we’ll get to that.)

Trilogy of Terror V will consist of longform analyses of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. The posting schedule is as follows:

The Thing (1982) – coming Oct. 17
Prince of Darkness (1987) – coming Oct. 24
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – coming Oct. 31

That should give you plenty of time to track down the movies; they’re all in print and available for purchase on various streaming platforms. I don’t believe any legitimate streaming platforms offer them for free, but if I’m wrong and you find them somewhere, let me know.

I’m very excited to post these writeups. Within the past few years, John Carpenter has become one of my favorite directors. I’d initially thought of him as a solid (and important) director of horror, but the more I’ve seen from him, the more truly impressed I’ve become. The man’s a genuine artist, and I’m glad that — for the first time ever — I get to write about a trilogy that consists of three films I really like. If you haven’t seen them, I’d still encourage you to read the reviews…but, yeah, see them, alright? You’ll thank me later.

Also I know I’m not using the poster for the original American release of Prince of Darkness above, but that’s because it looks a lot like the poster for In the Mouth of Madness, and I wanted some variety when they’re all lined up. YOU ARE WELCOME TO SUE ME FOR THIS DECISION.

Right. Now for more updates!

Trilogy of Terror: Stay tuned. In addition to the fifth installment going live in a matter of weeks, there should be some big, fun news about the future of this series shortly.

THE SECRET BOOK: Right now THE SECRET BOOK exists as a shared document, within which the editors and I worry every last word and phrase to death. I’d hesitate to say anything like, “It’s nearly there!” but the fact of the matter is we are at the point that changes are being made on the micro level. The official announcement is likely to come by the end of the year, but that’s not something I have much control over. Suffice it to say, the editors have done a fantastic job with my work. I’ve learned a lot from this process, and I think you will all have a tangible sense of just how much love and effort went into it. You know. THE SECRET BOOK.

The Breaking Bad movie: Did you know I like Breaking Bad?! Well, I do!!! Anyway, El Camino comes out on Netflix on Oct. 11. It’s also getting a limited theatrical run, starting the same day, and a theater near me is showing it. That’s almost certainly how I’ll see it, and I’m just about as certain that I’ll review it. At least, I don’t see why I wouldn’t. I’ve already reviewed every episode of Better Call Saul, and rumor has it this film is going to set something up that Better Call Saul will later pay off. Is that true? I don’t know! I’m not involved in the creative decisions of either of these productions! Either way, Better Call Saul season five isn’t airing until next year so I might as well check in on this ol’ pack o’ knuckleheads while I can. (Also, Huell and Kuby better be in this shit.)

TripleJump: Man, writing for TripleJump is just fantastic. It’s a lot of work, but I couldn’t ask for a better team. If you haven’t been following the channel, you should. At least do that before getting disappointed that I’m not writing here as much recently. I’m writing there! For example:

That’s my most recent video, and I’m thrilled with how it came out. I especially love the way they point out which of my jokes are crap! (I really do love it. That’s not sarcasm! I promise it isn’t!) TripleJump is also giving me one of the largest audiences my work has ever had. The Every Batman Game video I wrote has around 130k views at this point, and that absolutely blows me away. A friend of mine even pointed out that a number of comments are complimenting the writer…which is something that doesn’t often happen with videos. And for good reason! Who the hell cares about the writer?! So, that’s really nice to see. Even the critical comments have been…oddly fair and civil, for the most part. That in itself is an achievement.

A podcast: One of my friends has a podcast! Actually, two of my friends. Actually, like 50 of my friends, but two friends in particular. Something Old, Something New is a film podcast focusing on two movies — one old, one recent — that are connected in some way. It’s like my Trilogy of Terror feature, but with only two movies, meaning it’s only 2/3 as good. But you don’t have to expend any effort reading it, so that makes up the difference I think. Be sure to check it out. David and Salome are good people. You’ll like them.

ALF: More ALF happenings are coming, not least because I have managed to get my hands on not one, not three, but two unproduced ALF scripts. I don’t quite know when I’ll find the time to put something together, but I will do it. I think after the book is squared away, this can be your reward for being so patient. And also…

…I am still getting messages like this. Years after I finished writing about the show, I still hear from people who thank me for the reviews, who leave grateful comments, who tell me how my cursing at a puppet has improved their day in some way.

And I have nothing to add to that. Nothing except thank you, and to offer sincere, genuine gratitude for the fact that I have any audience at all, let alone an appreciative, positive, and wonderful one.

I’d love to say it’s something I’ve earned — “like begets like,” and all that — but I know there’s a lot of luck in there, too. I’m fortunate. Everywhere I’ve been, every outlet I’ve written for, every project I’ve worked on, has had a supportive audience. I’ll be the first to say that those projects haven’t always deserved one, and I haven’t always deserved one. But if it weren’t for those positive experiences in the past, I wouldn’t be writing much better, more deserving things today.

It’s profoundly humbling, and I thank you. I truly, from the depths of my heart, thank you.

And I hope you enjoy what’s to come. I promise you…there’s a lot of good stuff on the way.

Now go watch The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness, ya big lug.

How video games can solve the problem of trolley problems

Note: This article contains big spoilers for the video games Prey and Soma. They’re both very good games and I encourage you to play them. While I know you will still find a lot to enjoy if you have something spoiled ahead of time, I encourage you to play one or both of them before reading on. That’s because if you read this first, there will be something the games cannot teach you, and which you may therefore never learn. You’ve been warned.

Note the Second: This article also contains comparatively minor spoilers for Maniac Mansion, Fallout, Fallout 3, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and a few others.

I’ve written about the “trolley problem” before. To briefly explain it for those unfamiliar with the concept, the trolley problem is an ethical thought exercise. The participant is faced with a series of dilemmas of escalating severity, the outcomes of which can be determined by whether or not the participant throws a hypothetical switch.

For instance, a train is barrelling down the tracks toward a man. If you throw the switch, the train will follow a different track, avoiding him. It would be tremendously difficult to argue, in that instance, that it isn’t ethically correct to throw the switch.

But then we have the train barreling toward two men, and if you throw the switch it will follow a different track and hit one man. That’s ethically muddier. Yes, you’d save two people instead of one, but that one will only die because you interfered. He’s safe unless you throw the switch. Which is ethically correct? Would your answer be different if it were five people in the train’s path and one that would be hit if you threw the switch?

The dilemmas take many forms from there, ultimately asking the participant to decide whether or not to intervene in any number of hypothetical situations. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a way for us and for sociologists to gauge our moral compasses.

When I wrote that article I linked to above, in January 2016, I referred to this as the Moral Sense Test, because that’s what I knew it as. (And, at least then, what it was actually called.) In the few short years since, the trolley problem has bled into the common language of popular culture, fueling a winkingly absurd meme page, an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a card game by the Cyanide & Happiness guys, to name just a few examples.

I think it’s notable that the trolley problem has so rapidly found widespread resonance. After all, it is at is core an exercise in which we are faced with exclusively undesirable outcomes and are asked, in essence, to chose the least-bad one. That’s something the entire world has been doing, over and over again, since 2016. It’s become a part of life, and our entertainment reflects that.

But video games, well before there was ever a term for it, have been conducting (ha ha) trolley problems almost as long as they’ve been around. In fact, you face one pretty much any time a game gives you an actual choice.

In 1987’s Maniac Mansion, for instance, the evil Meteor (an extraterrestrial hunk of sentient rock turning the Edison family into murderous monsters) wreaking havoc in the basement of the Edison Mansion can be dealt with in a number of ways, and you get to decide which is most fitting. You can call the Meteor Police to arrest it. You can stick it in the trunk of an Edsel that you then blast into space. You can get it a book deal. (Maniac Mansion is weird.) If I’m remembering correctly, you can also simply destroy it. The fact that I can’t be sure of that lets you know, ethically, the kinds of choices I gravitated toward, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that each of these outcomes have potential pros and cons, if you’d like to think beyond the strict narrative boundaries of the game. The Meteor Police can take it into custody, but what if it breaks out? You can shoot it into space, but what if it lands somewhere that it can do even more damage? You can get it a book deal and give it something productive to spend its life doing, but does it deserve a happy ending — and profit — after ruining so many lives?

For another high-profile example, jump ahead 10 years to the game that kicked off my favorite series of trolley problems: Fallout. Your home of Vault 13 needs a part to repair its water purification system; without it, everyone in that shelter will die. You find the part you need in the town of Necropolis…where it’s in use by another community. Swap out the nouns and you’ve got an actual trolley problem. Do you throw this switch to save one group of people while damning another? Do you have that right? Can you rationalize it ethically?

You can, in fact, resolve this issue without damning either community. (At least, without directly damning either community.) Through a more difficult series of events, and a reliance on a skill your character may not even have, you can fix the Necropolis water system so that it will run without the part you need to take home. Time is of the essence, though; take too long to figure out how to do this — and risk not being able to do it anyway — and the residents of Vault 13 will die. That’s its own sort of trolley sub-problem: Is it ethical to risk lives you could save right now in the hopes that you might be able to save more later?

The Walking Dead

Jump ahead again to 2012’s The Walking Dead, 2015’s Life is Strange, and games along those lines, packed to the brim with trolley problems that often wear clever disguises, and which — much more in line with a formalized Moral Sense Test — process and analyze the numbers, letting you know what percentage of players made the same choices you did. You get to see how your personal morality measures up against a larger social average. (Presumably the developers of these games closely study the dilemmas that approach a 50%-50% split, in order to keep future choices just as tricky.)

Here’s the thing about the trolley problem, though: You’re making a decision consciously.

…well, yes, of course. Does that matter?

In a way, no. In a formal, Moral Sense Test-like environment, we are being asked to think. To ponder. To make a difficult decision that requires personal rationalization. Ultimately, we provide an answer. It may be one we’re unhappy with, neither outcome feeling personally, ethically correct. But that’s okay. Groups of people get studied through the years and sociologists track tends to come to some larger understanding of what is ethical.

In another way, yes, it absolutely matters, and it matters crucially. Because what we can get out of trolley problems ourselves is distinct from what a researcher studying data would get. To the researcher, those final decisions (along with, possibly, how long it took us to reach them) are important, but that’s it. We collect our $5 check and leave the office and they crunch data. The study goes on without us; the part we play in it has concluded and our specific answers will be smoothed out by averages.

But we, the individuals responding to any given trolley problem, can learn a little bit more about who we actually are. It’s a bit like that vegan billboard with a row of animals and the question “Where do you draw the line?” You’re supposed to think about it. Thinking is the point. Your decision — even in thought exercises such as these — is important, but it’s the thinking, the rationalization, the responsibility of accounting — inwardly — for what we would or would not do in a certain situation that matters.

That’s valuable knowledge. But because we know we’re making a decision — and an imaginary one without external consequences at that — it’s essentially bunk.

The decisions we make when faced with dilemmas on paper, in a formalized setting, in a multiple-choice questionnaire…they aren’t real. They reflect what we think we would do rather than what we would actually do. Because…well…they have to. We don’t know what we would actually do until we’re really in that situation.

In a general sense, we can see this in the number of films and television shows that pass focus group muster (or are altered to meet the feedback received) and flop massively. The participants in these focus groups are almost certainly honest — they stand to gain nothing from dishonesty — but the kind of project they think they’d enjoy isn’t the kind they actually end up wanting to see.

Or, as The Simpsons concluded after showing us focus-group absurdity in action, “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”

In a less-general sense, I worked at a university a few years ago, and we had a mandatory active-shooter drill. It was unpleasant, as you’d expect, but what will always stick with me is that during the debrief, as folks discussed exit routes and hiding places and the best ways to barricade specific doors, some of the younger members of staff made comments — under their breath sometimes, slightly over the rest of the time — about how they’d just run at the shooter and tackle him, try fighting, at least go down swinging…you get the picture. They mumbled and interjected, and that sucks, but at the same time, I get it.

A woman I love and respect dearly who is, I think, three or four years older than me, was evidently very displeased with their comments. She spoke up finally. She said, firmly, “You haven’t been in an active-shooter situation. I have. Everybody thinks they’re going to fight. They don’t. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the hero. They aren’t. When somebody comes to work with a gun and starts shooting at you, the last thing you’ll be wondering is how to get closer to them.”

I’m paraphrasing, necessarily. It was a sobering moment. She shared more details that aren’t necessary, suffice it to say both that a) hiding doesn’t indicate cowardice and b) the 250-ish mass shootings in America so far this year prove her right. You can count the number of people who tackled a gunman on one hand. Everything else is either resolved by the police or the gunman himself.

It’s a long way around, but in that debriefing, we were faced with a trolley problem, and the group of younger males gave their hypothetical answers. They weren’t lying. They were honest. That is what they assumed they’d really do. But my friend spoke up with the cold reality that in the moment, under pressure, unexpectedly having to respond, without time to think or plan or weigh options, they’d do something very different.

So while trolley problems — literal and figurative — are a great way to get people to think about right and wrong, ethical and unethical, where they’d draw the line…they are a terrible way of gauging how somebody would actually behave in the same situation. Both points of data are important, but we can only measure one in a controlled environment.

In the Moral Sense Test. In a debriefing. In a video game.

Controlled environments.

And so when you need to decide in The Walking Dead which of the starving members of your group get to eat that day and which have to go hungry, you know you — you playing the game — have the dual luxuries of time and distance. When tree-man Harold in Fallout 3 asks you to euthanize him, though keeping him alive against his wishes means foliage and wildlife returning to the Wasteland, you can think ahead. You can act pragmatically. You can understand that whatever happens, these are characters in a game and while you may not be happy with the outcomes of your choices, you won’t really have to live with them.

Enter 2017’s Prey. Initially I had intended to write this article focusing on Prey alone and praising it for being the best execution of the trolley problem I’ve ever seen.

Consider this your second — and final — spoiler warning if you ignored the one that opened this article.

Prey begins with a trolley problem. A real one. Several real ones, actually. Your character is run through a series of tests, including multiple-choice questions. Some of them are classic trolley problems, plucked right from the Moral Sense Test.

And that’s it. It doesn’t quite matter what you pick, because you don’t know the purpose of the test (yet) and, just like trolley problem exercises in our world, there are no consequences for your decision.

What we learn, gradually throughout the game, is that this isn’t our first time taking these tests. We are aboard a massive research station in outer space. We have developed neuromods (basically sets of knowledge, skills, and talents you can plug into your brain) using alien DNA. The neuromods are not able to be swapped in and out safely, at least without massive memory loss, but your character, Morgan, volunteers to be a test subject to change that.

So every day you’ve been taking the same tests, your memory wiped clean from installing and removing a neuromod. The scientists administering the tests are tracking your responses to see if there is a kind of memory left behind. Will your answers be the same each day? Will you arrive at them more quickly, because you have seen them before, even if you don’t remember them?

Well, we never find out because Prey is a horror game and the aliens bust out of containment and slaughter almost everybody aboard the space station.

You then wake up in your bed, as though from a nightmare…but the nightmare is real. It’s your bed — like your entire apartment — that’s a simulation. In order to avoid the panic that would come with waking up in surroundings that are in anyway unfamiliar (remember, your character doesn’t remember she’s repeating the same day and over), the researchers have set up a small number of rooms to simulate the same events in exactly the same way every day. Also, y’know, they want to make sure deviations can’t affect the data they’re collecting. Morgan is in a controlled environment.

One of the game’s great moments comes soon after the test, when you wake up in your room and you can’t leave. Something has gone wrong. You’re trapped until you smash the window overlooking the skyline in your high-rise apartment and find…that you’re actually on a sound stage.

It’s a good mind-fuck moment, but smashing that window also smashes the barrier between the two halves of the trolley problem’s data. Instead of simply answering questions on a touchscreen, Morgan is now going to find out what she would do in reality.

For most of Prey, you don’t encounter other survivors. You discover their corpses. Your friends and colleagues are torn to bits, smeared across walls and floors, in some cases braindead zombies controlled by the aliens running amok. As one might expect from a game such as this, you can find their audio logs and read their emails and dig old notes out of the trash cans to learn about who each of these people were.

Because they were people. They’re chunks of bloodied meat now, but they were people. You get to learn who they were and what they were doing. The first time you find a body, it’s scary and gross. As you learn about them and the lives your careless research has ended, it becomes sad. And then, of course, you get used to it. You’ve seen enough dead bodies — whatever number that is — that you are numb to them.

Which is why when you finally do encounter a survivor, it matters. In most games, meeting an NPC means you’ll get some dialogue or a mission or an option to buy things. Here it jolts you back to reality, because you have evidence that you aren’t alone, that someone else has lived through this nightmare, that with a friend by your side it becomes that much easier to figure out how the fuck to get out of this mess.

At least, that was my experience. Yours might have been different. After all, survivors have needs. They have requests. They can slow you down. And as the space station is gradually taken over by the aliens — something you witness unfold during the game, with hostiles encroaching as time passes into previously safe areas — you might well have decided to focus on yourself, your own survival, the much-more-pressing matter that’s larger than the safety of a colleague could ever be.

And at the end of the game, whatever decisions you made, however you handled the alien menace, whether or not you put your own needs above others’, you learn that you aren’t Morgan at all. You are a captured alien. You had Morgan’s memories implanted into you — like a neuromod — and were run through a simulation of the disaster that really did happen on the space station.

Why? Because whatever the real Morgan and others attempted was unsuccessful. The alien infestation has spread to Earth, and while humanity still exists it has decisively lost the battle. Throughout the game you searched for ways to beat back the invasion, without having any idea that it was already too late to win.

Humanity’s only hope is to broker a peace with the aliens. They won’t leave Earth, but perhaps they can achieve a kind of truce that would allow mankind, at least, to survive. By running you through that simulation and seeing how you responded to various things, the researchers are in a better position to decide whether or not you — this one particular alien — can feel enough empathy toward humanity to broker that truce.

In summary, it was a trolley problem. And the researchers in this case understood that hypothetical situations might not correlate to reliable data, and that can be a problem, especially now when they might not ever get another chance at success. They had to be certain, and for that reason they didn’t give the alien any formal version of the Moral Sense Test; they plunged him into a simulation without his knowledge or consent, because that was the only way they could be certain his responses to stimuli would be genuine.

They could have — if they really wanted to — found some way to ask him the same questions, giving him time to reflect, giving him the luxury of rational thought. But the only way they’d know for sure is to watch him make or not make those same decisions.

Is it worth attempting to rescue a survivor drifting in space, or does the fact that he’s minutes from death make him a lost cause? Do you put yourself in danger to retrieve necessary medication for another survivor, or do you leave her behind? (Complicating this one is the fact that she expressly tells you not to go back for it; she understands that she’s going to die and that it isn’t your problem.) Do you find some way to neutralize the alien threat? Do you contain it so that the neuromod research can continue? Do you say “fuck it” and just jet back to Earth leaving the space station to its fate?

The core “it was all a dream” reveal earned Prey some backlash, but not as much as I would have expected. The game was strong enough and well-enough written that many critics and fans gave it the benefit of the doubt and were willing to believe that the ending justified itself, whether or not they understood the reason for it.

Those who were critical of it argued that your decisions didn’t really matter, because you were making them in a simulation, and once that simulation was over you weren’t even in the same world anymore. But I’d argue that that’s exactly why they mattered. Before the reveal, you thought this was reality, and acted accordingly. Had you known it was a simulation, you might as well have been answering a series of yes or no questions.

The reveal means that at the end of the simulation, the researchers have a strong understanding of this alien’s particular sense of personal ethics…as well as the value (or lack thereof) of human life.

What Prey does beautifully, though, is encourage conversation beyond the boundaries of its own design. The alien saw through Morgan’s eyes. You see through the alien’s eyes seeing through Morgan’s eyes. The alien is, ultimately, playing what is essentially a video game, which is also what you’re doing. It’s a Russian nesting doll…a simulation within a simulation (and containing other, smaller simulations). You have a level of “belief” in the world that you wouldn’t have had if you’d known it was a simulation at the outset.

Games are always testing you, whether or not they do anything with the results. Prey just has the guts to let you know it. When the adventure aboard the space station is over, the alien is sitting upright in his chair, in a room far from anything he’s just experienced. You, likewise, are sitting in yours, in your own room, far from anything you’ve just experienced. The alien is directly and explicitly judged for his actions by the researchers.

Which…were your actions. They call him out for those he abandoned, those he failed to save, those he couldn’t save, and praise him for making decisions that helped others, to whatever small degree, even in the face of looming human extinction. The first-person view employed by the game means the researchers are also speaking to you, judging you precisely as much for precisely the same reasons.

Like the alien, you don’t get to answer some trolley problems and walk away, leaving the researchers to their data. You’re there, being lectured, accounting for the decisions you’ve made and the action you’ve taken or failed to take. You’re being told exactly how reliable you would have been in the face of catastrophe.

And it’s remarkable. It makes you think about what you’ve done in a way that has nothing to do with in-game rewards. The reward — or punishment — is inward, because in this moment of forced reflection you have to come directly to terms with who you’ve proven yourself to be. Were you a good person who tried their hardest? Were you a selfish ass? Probably you were somewhere in between, so were you closer to either end? Where do you draw the line?

In the first draft of this article that I never wrote, I was going to argue that Prey was gaming’s best trolley problem, because it both adheres to and undercuts our expectations of one, and it measures how we’d respond to a formal test and how we’d respond to an informal disaster. It asks us where we’d draw the line, and then it tests us, and forces us to account for drawing it any differently.

When I chose to end Harold’s life in Fallout 3, that was it. I felt his wishes were important, and keeping him alive against his will seemed cruel. If The Wasteland were going to be restored, it would have to find a way to do it without keeping an innocent man in a state of permanent agony. But then I moved on, and I did some other quests, and while I never quite forgot about Harold, I never had to account for what I did. As suggested by the dialogue options you see here, I was essentially answering a multiple-choice question, and afterward I could walk away.

In Prey, my decisions literally defined me, and they made me realize that they could define me in any other game as well. The only thing missing from other games is a panel of researchers materializing at the end to call me a standup guy or a piece of shit. But now that I’ve been judged for it once, unexpectedly, it’s redefined games in general for me.

They are simulations. Whether or not a researcher learns what I do, I can learn what I am.

Then, months later, I played Soma, and it may have outdone Prey with its own trolley problems, this time without ever drawing attention to the theme.

And that, I think, is important. It’s one thing to make a decision on paper. It’s another to know — or believe — you are making a decision in reality. It’s a third thing, and perhaps the most telling, to not know you’re making a decision at all.

In this third case, conscious thought doesn’t even enter into it. And when you make an ethical decision, you get a far better sense of who you are when you’re on autopilot. When you’re not thinking. When you aren’t even aware of what you’re doing.

In Soma, we play as Simon, a man suffering from a brain injury. Early in the game we visit his doctor, who attempts an experimental treatment (with Simon’s consent, I should add). He captures a digital model of Simon’s brain, and plans to run it through a variety of simulated treatments while Simon himself goes about his life. The idea is that eventually the simulation will hit upon a treatment that works, and then that treatment can be explored and potentially performed on the real Simon.

Fine, right?

Well, as Simon, you sit down in the doctor’s chair, the doctor starts working his equipment to capture the digital model of your brain, and in the blink of an eye you’re somewhere else entirely.

At first you don’t — and can’t — know where you are. The doctor’s office is replaced by cold steel and sparking electricity. You’re in an environment more advanced than the one you left, but also one that is clearly falling apart and long past its prime. Robots of various kinds roam the halls. Some seem to be afraid of you; others are clearly aggressive. You’ll probably ask yourself what the fuck is going on.

…and then you’ll probably know the answer. This is the simulation Simon’s brain is undergoing. Before the process began, we and Simon — and probably the doctor — figured a digital model of a brain was nothing more than 1s and 0s that could be reset millions of times over for the sake of simulating the results a near-infinite amount of stimuli and potential treatments would have on the real brain.

In fact, our outlook is given away by our word choices. “The real brain.” “The real Simon.” Everything else is just…data.

Until we wake up in this spooky, damaged environment that’s barely hanging together, infested by robotic creatures doing it further harm and attacking…well, us. Our consciousness.

This is how Simon’s brain — digital though it is — processes its situation. It doesn’t know it’s experiencing a simulation, so it assigns shadowy shapes to the dangers and represents its own neural pathways as a series of long, winding corridors, some of which are already damaged beyond repair. As the doctor bombards Simon’s brain with various potential treatments, the brain incorporates these new feelings — pleasure, pain, anxiety, hopelessness, fear — as additional aspects of the world it’s mentally constructed. New enemies appear, friendly faces introduce themselves, potential ways through and out of this ringing metal hellscape come together or fall apart…

It’s a clever and interesting way to observe the treatment as it happens from within the simulation, not just seeing but experiencing the ways in which the human mind strains to apply logic to that which it cannot understand.

…only, y’know, it’s not that. That was your brain trying to apply logic to what it couldn’t understand.

One of Soma‘s best twists is the fact that the situation in which Simon finds himself isn’t a twist. He is exactly where he seems to be.

He was in a doctor’s office one moment, and the next he was in this underwater research facility, isolated at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The more he explores and learns, the more we understand. Earth was struck by a meteor that wiped out life as we knew it. The researchers at the bottom of the sea survived the mass-extinction event, but obviously that would only be temporary. Humanity was doomed, and there wasn’t anything the few survivors at the bottom of the ocean were able to do about it. Simon’s nightmare turns out to be real.

And once you know what’s happening, the question instead becomes, “How did I get here?” After all, what does Simon have to do with any of this?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Nothing. Simon has nothing to do with any of this. So why is he here?

The answer comes later in the game, but I think it’s possible to overlook it if you’re not being thorough. You’ll find some recordings of the doctor who performed the experimental procedure on you. In one, he’s talking to Simon. To you. Only it’s something you haven’t heard before. It’s a recording made some time after you sat down in that chair and had your brain mapped.

The doctor tells you that the experiment has failed. None of the treatments seemed to work. He would not be able to help Simon recover from his brain injury.

However, the digital model of Simon’s brain could still potentially help others. It’s valuable data. It’s a major step forward in mankind’s potential understanding of neurology. He asks Simon for permission to keep using it, to keep experimenting on it, to share his findings and research with the greater scientific community.

Simon doesn’t hesitate. He says of course, please use it. He understands that he can’t be helped, but sees no reason whatsoever the digital model of his brain shouldn’t be used to help others.

You can possibly guess what happened at this point, but let’s step away from Soma for a moment.

I’ve thought about things like this before, and I’d have no problem with allowing the doctor to continue his research on my digital brain if I were in Simon’s situation. I know this, without question, because there is no reason not to. I would stand to gain nothing by refusing, and I’d be robbing society of potential enrichment.

The first time I was given reason to consider these things was when I read The Emperor’s New Mind, a non-fiction book exploring an intersection of mathematics and philosophy, with an eye toward artificial intelligence. Specifically, it was an early stretch of the book about teleportation.

It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I can’t quite remember why author Roger Penrose spent several pages discussing the established sci-fi concept of teleportation. Indeed, he’s specifically focusing on the fictional portrayals that we see in things such as The Fly and Star Trek, wherein a human being stands in one place and some futuristic device removes him from that place and places him at his destination.

Penrose argued that such a thing wouldn’t quite be teleportation. Instead, the man standing in one place would be destroyed by the process, and a second man — though identical — would come into existence at the destination. You aren’t teleported, in other words; you cease to exist and another version of you is brought into existence elsewhere. (This theory was even discussed in an episode of Breaking Bad.)

I didn’t quite buy it, which I remember thinking was okay. I didn’t get the sense Penrose was trying to convince me he was right; I think he was more encouraging me to think about things that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. I was a philosophy minor, which means I’m pretty comfortable with the thought process being more important and often more valuable then wherever you land at the end of it.

At the very least, I figured the distinction was academic. If Scotty beamed Kirk up, did it matter whether it was a single, smooth process or a destructive/reconstructive one? If the end result was the same — Kirk was there and now he is here, no worse for the wear — did it matter?

No. It didn’t. Easy.

Much later a friend shared with me the concept of Roko’s basilisk. I’m far from the person to explain it accurately, so please do correct me in the comments, but I’ll do my best to offer what I retained as the summary.

Roko’s basilisk is a hypothetical AI that could exist in the future. It’s advanced and capable of independent thought to degrees that we couldn’t possibly hope to create today. However, the reason we can’t create it today is that, y’know, we aren’t trying. We aren’t actively working to create it. We’re doing other things that gradually push the research forward, and we’ll eventually get there, but we’re not there today, weren’t there yesterday, and won’t be there tomorrow.

This pisses Roko’s basilisk off so much that when it does exist, it exacts revenge — in digital form — on everyone who didn’t actively help bring it about sooner. It tortures and torments simulated reconstructions of them for all eternity.

This is a scary concept, for some. “He’s basically God, but at the end of the universe instead of the beginning,” my friend said, and he definitely wasn’t referring to a loving or forgiving God. This was the Old Testament bloodthirsty God.

It’s not scary to me. It wasn’t and isn’t. Because a simulation of me isn’t me. I’ll die at some point. If a simulation of me lives on, who cares? If it’s tormented, who cares? If it’s treated like simulated royalty, who cares? It isn’t me, and I’m not here anymore.

The threat of Roko’s basilisk relies on a belief that a simulation of me is me.

But it’s not. So there.

Teleporters and basilisks. If it’s a copy, it isn’t you. If it’s you, it isn’t a copy. This is easy stuff, people.

So back to Soma.

Doomed at the bottom of the sea, one of the researchers has an idea. She comes up with a ray of hope, or the closest thing to a ray of hope the last straggling survivors of the apocalypse could have.

She proposes the construction of what she calls an “ark.” It’s basically just a computer, and the survivors can digitize and install their consciousness to it. Then she’ll blast it into space and…that’s it. They’ll still die, here, alone, without any hope of rescue, at the bottom of the ocean. But in theory, at least, mankind will live on. It’s just 1s and 0s representing people who are no longer alive, but it’s something, right?

In the game, we learn all of this in the form of gradual backstory. The ark project has already happened. It’s never presented to us as a “solution” to the problem. Instead, it’s something constructive the researchers can do, a project they can work on rather than wait around to die.

Another researcher, though, seems to subscribe to Penrose’s belief. Copying one’s consciousness to the ark wouldn’t really copy you over, because the two versions of you would deviate from each other far too quickly. One of you is on the ark, and the other is at the bottom of the sea, doing things, living his life, going about his final days, drifting further and further from who he was when his consciousness was copied to the ark. Before long — before any time at all, really — it wouldn’t be you on that ark anymore. It would be something — or somebody — based on what you were at some point. That’s distinct from “you.” It would be somebody else.

So this researcher shares his views with some others. He calls it Continuity, and he convinces others of it as well. It requires the survivors to commit suicide as soon as they upload their consciousness to the ark. That’s Penrose’s teleportation. The version of you on the ark would be you, because you existed here and now you’re there. There would be no deviation (aside from the necessary one: one of you committed suicide), and you would actually get to live on in a digital form.

It’s madness, of course. It’s idiotic and false, but it catches on, and a number of researchers do kill themselves right after the upload, all in service of Continuity. Which is complete bullshit. Because they exist. The “real” versions of them are destroying themselves and the false, lesser, artificial copies are being preserved.

I know exactly where I stand. The Continuity. Penrose’s teleportation. Roko’s basilisk.

I understand what everyone’s getting at. I see their points. I follow their arguments. And I disagree.

But what of Simon?

Simon, we learn, isn’t Simon. At the beginning of the game, Simon is Simon. When we find ourselves in the sealab, though, “Simon” is a robot with Simon’s memories loaded into it. That’s why we popped right from the doctor’s office into the research station; that’s when the mind-mapping happened. Whatever Simon did after that, “Simon” doesn’t have access to. Between the space of two seconds, he stopped existing there and started existing here.

His consciousness is loaded onto this robot because the doctor spread his research far and wide. He made it available — again, with Simon’s consent — for others to use, to study, and, in this undersea laboratory, to employ. As we wandered the research station and fought to survive, we thought we were controlling Simon, but we were controlling a robot who thought he was Simon. Oops.

At some point, “Simon” has to explore the depths of the ocean outside of the lab. The pressure would crush his robot body, though, so with the help of another AI he decides to load his consciousness — Simon’s consciousness — into a different, sturdier body.

Why not? He’s just a robot, right? What difference does it make which body he uses?

So you sit down in a chair like you did at the beginning of the game and in the space between two seconds your consciousness is copied from one body into another. You open your eyes in your new, sturdier frame and…you hear yourself asking, from the chair you initially sat down in, why the transfer didn’t work.

Because that version of Simon kept existing. It sat in the chair and…stayed there. Nothing happened, from his perspective. But from your perspective, everything happened. You popped into existence elsewhere, in another form. The Simon in the chair panics and passes out.

That’s it. You need to explore those depths. That’s your next task. You aren’t making a moral or ethical choice. Soma is linear and you follow a set of objectives in a predetermined sequence.

But when this happened, I didn’t leave the research station the way I should have. That was my goal, that’s what I had been working toward, and now I could do it. But I didn’t do it.

Instead I walked over to the Simon in the chair and shut him down.

Because if I left him there, he’d wake up. And he’d be trapped. Because he can’t go any farther and his body can’t withstand the pressure. He’d be left alone with the scary monsters at the bottom of the sea with no hope of rescue. So I shut him down. I killed him.

Because he wasn’t a robot.

Or, he was. Obviously he was. But wasn’t he also Simon? Wasn’t he me?

He was. I controlled him. The game said I was Simon, and I controlled Simon. Later I learned it was a robot with Simon’s consciousness, and fine…it’s sci-fi. Life goes on.

But then when I transferred to another body, and that Simon stayed alive…panicking, asking why the transfer didn’t work, fretting, knowing he was trapped…I suddenly saw him as more than just a robot with Simon’s consciousness. He was me. I really would be leaving “me” behind. I really would be subjecting “me” to an eternity of hopeless torment. That robot could survive without any hope of escape for years, decades, centuries. Trapped and distraught and miserable. And I couldn’t let that happen.

So I didn’t let that happen.

And the best thing about how Soma handles this trolley problem is that it doesn’t present it as one. I’m not being faced with a moral dilemma. I’m not being told that my ethics are being measured. In fact, they aren’t.

A number of situations like this occur throughout Soma, and at no point do your decisions have in-game consequences. If you spare someone’s life, they won’t come back and help you later. If you choose option A, you don’t get a better weapon. If you choose option B, you don’t get a better ending. If you choose option C, you don’t open up new and interesting dialogue choices.

Soma is designed so that it doesn’t matter, to the game, what you do. It is, after all, a dead-end situation. Humanity is doomed. You’re a robot investigating a sea of corpses. Do the right thing, do the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter. It’s already over. The game doesn’t care, and the tasks unfold the same way however polite or rude you are while doing them.

And that’s fantastic. Because it means the consequences are within you. The game doesn’t judge you; you judge yourself.

And because it doesn’t judge you, and doesn’t even pretend to judge you, the data you can gather about your own moral compass is far more reliable.

Soma didn’t present me with a moral choice regarding shutting Simon down. I could do it or not; it wasn’t the task at hand. But the mere fact that I saw it — immediately and urgently saw it — as an act of mercy is remarkable.

Had I been asked if a simulation of me were me, I’d have said no. In fact, I had said no every time I encountered the prospect in the past. Put my hand on that lever and present me with the trolley problem, because I know my answer.

But Soma doesn’t structure it as a trolley problem. I think it “knows” that players will question things like Continuity and the simulated treatments for Simon’s brain damage and many other things and arrive at their own conclusions. I’m pretty sure most of them would have arrived at the same one I did: a copy of something isn’t that thing.

And Soma is fine with that.

But then it puts us in a situation that gives us a chance to prove our beliefs. It’s just something that happens. We don’t have to pay attention to it, but we will.

Because when we can sit back and rationalize something in a hypothetical sense, we’ll come to a conclusion. In reality, faced with the actual situation, without the luxury of theory and cold logic to separate us from what’s really happening right now, we could well come to a different conclusion.

Soma raised a question I’d already answered many times before. That could still be interesting, but probably wouldn’t be meaningful. What gave it meaning was the fact that, for the first time ever, it got me to answer that question differently.

It reset my thoughts. It allowed me to think the problem through all over again, arrive at the same conclusion, and then proved me wrong. It showed me the flaws in my own reasoning not by providing a counter-argument, but simply by giving me the chance to practice what I preached.

And I didn’t

And I didn’t even realize I didn’t.

I wasn’t in that situation and thinking, “Actually, now I understand that simulations of me are me.” I was in that situation and I thought, “I can’t fucking do this to myself. I can’t leave myself here. I’d rather die than be left here.”

And I moved on with my life. I moved on through the game. I turned the game off and I got ready for bed. And somewhere, at some point, it clicked in my mind.

Because I wasn’t given a trolley problem. I just did something and later reflected on that decision and realized just how completely my actions flew in the face of what I thought I believed.

I understood myself a little better after that. Soma took both the trolley problem and the real-world application of the same problem, and let us see whether or not our actions supported our beliefs.

The game doesn’t know what my beliefs were before this moment. The game doesn’t care. Nor should it.

But I should sure as hell care.

Soma didn’t present me with a difficult moral quandary. At least, not directly. It just let me do whatever I did. And then later, inside, lying down, trying to fall asleep and failing to do so, I found myself evaluating my decisions and reevaluating things I thought I’d figured out long ago.

Trolley problems help us decide where we draw the line, but they tend to involve rationalizations after the fact. We decide what we’d do and then attempt to justify it, landing on some explanation that satisfies us, regardless of its degree of bullshit content.

This version of the problem asked me to draw the line, which I did. Then it pulled back the curtain to reveal that actually, when not drawing it consciously, I drew it somewhere very different.

That’s the best version of the trolley problem, I think. It’s not just a difficult one that provides useful data…it’s one that makes us realize how far from the truth our rationalizations actually are.

Video games are uniquely positioned to help us experience these awakenings, and so far I believe Soma has done it best. Games are simulations that immerse us in little worlds, and we do within them as we please. If a game can reveal the band of darkness between our beliefs and our methods, that’s uniquely valuable, and potentially revelatory.

Announcing: The MaXmas Bash! (and more)

Things have been quiet, so let me address that first.

50% of the reason for that is me being busy. I submitted another draft of my book to the publisher at the end of July, and I’ve been working regularly on scripts for Triple Jump. Subscribe to them if you haven’t, because they’re fantastic.

In fact, the latest video I wrote happened to be uploaded today. Check it out and get a sense of why Triple Jump is a large — though rewarding — time investment:

Yeah. That’s 72 minutes of me going on about Batman games, and obviously the time it took to research them, find them, and play them was…well, you can imagine what it was.

I’ve also been working at my actual job, of course, and moving into the home I recently bought. That’s…a lot.

The rest of it, though, is me being drained and fatigued and frustrated by the world and what’s happening in this country specifically. It’s disheartening to see photos of overcrowded detention centers and to read the stories of mistreatment. It’s disheartening to hear the president telling congresswomen of color to go back where they came from. It’s disheartening to walk into work so frequently past flags at half mast because there’s been yet another shooting that won’t change anything.

I’m a very empathetic person, as you all certainly know by now, and it takes a lot out of me. Usually by the time I’m done with the things I need to do, I don’t have the energy to do much of what I’d like to do. I might watch a movie. I might read a few pages in a book. I might play a video game. More likely, I’ll be so drained I just go straight to bed and hope I’ll wake up to a better tomorrow. Eventually I hope that will actually happen.

All of which is to say, I haven’t had “extra” time or energy for a while. As soon as that changes, I’ll be doing more here. I still have a lot of things I’d love to cover, and I thank you for sticking with me and being patient in the meantime.

The one thing I really regret is that I wasn’t able to get you anything in terms of the lost ALF episode I managed to obtain. The time and energy weren’t there, but, also…well, a second unmade ALF script made its way into my hands. It’s called “Reflections,” and though I missed my self-imposed deadline, I now get to write about two episodes that never were. So stay tuned for that. A whole other script to discuss means it will be absolutely worth the wait.

Of course, there are two holidays I never miss, and I’ll talk to you right now about what to expect.

Trilogy of Terror: Every year I cover three related horror films in my Trilogy of Terror series. This year I am covering three films by one of my absolute favorite directors as I discuss John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. If you’d like to watch ahead (and I suggest you do, if only because they’re very good films), here is the posting schedule for the writeups:

Oct 17: The Thing (1982)
Oct. 24: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Oct. 31: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

The MaXmas Bash!: And for Christmas, I bring out the big guns in the form of the Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! This year, though, in memory of Max Wright, we’ll do something a little bit different. The MaXmas Bash! is going to be similar to the Xmas Bash!, but with a few tweaks to pay homage to the star of ALF, the show that kicked off this whole stupid mess.

The MaXmas Bash! will be a live stream event. To participate, you just have to come to this very site at the appointed date and time. There will be seven forgotten Xmas specials (two of which star Max Wright!), lots of strange Xmas music and curios, vintage commercials, live chat, and much more. We’ll be raising money for The Trevor Project once again, and pouring out some eggnog for the late, great Willie Tanner.

Join us right here on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. Eastern. I’ll set up a Facebook event page for those who like to keep track of it that way, but you don’t need to RSVP. Just show up ready for another heaping helping of the most syrupy, gooey, cloying Xmas crap imaginable. You’ll like it!

Anyway, that’s all for now. At some point I’ll be able to post something that can’t be boiled down to “I’m still not dead,” and hopefully soon. Once the book is completely done and dusted, I’ll have a lot more time. And, hey, who knows. Maybe we’ll get that brighter tomorrow after all.

Don’t lose hope.

At the absolute least, I’ll see you Oct. 17 for Trilogy of Terror and Dec. 14 for the MaXmas Bash! Don’t miss either of them. I love you all.

Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing

Here’s a fact: Max Wright hated being alive.

Can I say that with confidence? Yes. Do it mean it unilaterally? No; of course I don’t. But at some point, early in the production of ALF, he stopped enjoying what he did for a living. He had a few roles after the show, but nothing major. He stopped doing interviews. He stopped acting in general. He retreated from public life, living most of his final years alone, behind a door that rarely opened. He stopped talking to his friends and family.

I shouldn’t have the right to say “he stopped talking to his friends and family” and mean it, and yet, I do. For the past few years, people claiming to know him, to miss him, to want messages passed on to him, seeking assurance that he was still alive and hadn’t died in his apartment without anyone knowing, reached out to me. I won’t provide any names — or their relationships to him, which would just as easily give them away — but please take a moment to consider something with me:

Max Wright was so difficult to get a hold of, so impossible to reach even by those who loved and cared about him personally, for decades, that these people reached out to me for help.

Me.

The asshole who chronicled the worst experiences of Max Wright’s life and made a crack joke every few sentences. I refuse to believe any of them reached out to me because they expected I knew him. I do believe they reached out to me because they’d tried everything else and were desperate.

Here’s another fact: I never met the guy. I never spoke with him, or corresponded with him in any way. Now I never will. He passed away last week. Whenever his old friends and estranged family members wrote to me, I replied politely. I let them know that I meant no offense by my jokes, and that I wished them luck in finding him.

I’d be surprised if any of them did manage to get in touch. He made a conscious effort to be left alone. In 2015 the National Enquirer located and tried to speak with him. He refused to open the door and provided only a two-word quote: “Please leave.”

If he knew it was the National Enquirer, I have to say I can’t blame him. They were the ones in 2001 who ran the photos of Max Wright at a gay hobo crack orgy.

Here’s a fact: The words hobo, crack, and orgy are funny.

Here’s another fact: On April 18, someone (anonymous aside from the letter J.) left a comment on this blog saying, “Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny,” and J. is right.

Addiction isn’t funny. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was distant, abusive, and cruel. The fact that I struggle with mental health issues is unlikely to be his fault. The fact that I feel guilty about them and have had so much trouble addressing them in healthy ways is almost certainly his fault.

In terms of drug addiction, I’ve seen it ruin — and sometimes take — the lives of many people I cared about. Classmates. Friends. Colleagues. My brother.

Joking about a topic or enjoying jokes about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you find that topic funny. You find the joke funny. Perhaps it’s well told. Perhaps it’s just shocking. Perhaps it’s sarcastic or knowingly inaccurate.

I’ve laughed at jokes about many terrible topics. It’s one way of coping with them. With processing them. Depending on the context, people getting shot, robbed, stabbed, falling off of buildings, and getting eaten by monsters have all made me chuckle.

Because they’re jokes. And laughing at one doesn’t imply in any way that you’d find the same thing happening in real life funny at all.

If you were to ask me how many times I’ve laughed at addiction — real, actual addiction, in the real world — I could answer with an honest zero.

Or can I? Because I’ve laughed at Max Wright.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had crack-fueled gay sex with homeless people, on video.

Here’s a related fact: True or not, that always felt so far detached from reality that humor was the only way I could even vaguely understand it.

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t watch his life fall apart. I wasn’t there with his wife, fretting through the night that he wasn’t coming home. I wasn’t one of his kids coping with the rumors. I wasn’t a friend trying to hold him together, encouraging him to get help, praying that he would be okay.

For them, it wasn’t detached from reality. They understood it in ways that humor would never have possibly entered into.

For me, Max Wright was the stupid dad from ALF.

The stupid dad from ALF smoked crack and gathered homeless people for orgies.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find that inherently absurd. But I will say that that’s the only way it ever registered to me.

Me. A nobody on the internet, who liked to say bad words about a puppet show he used to love.

Here’s another fact: I was always worried that Max Wright would die while I was writing my ALF reviews, and I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about him anymore.

Because when someone dies, things get more real.

He’s not the stupid dad from ALF. He’s an old man who died without anyone who wanted to help being able to reach him. It’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s too late, whatever you wanted to do. It’s too late for everything now. His life is over.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright has never read my reviews. I know some of ALF‘s writers have. I know Anne Schedeen at least knows about it, because a few months ago she started following me on Facebook. (Here’s a fact: My heart flutters just thinking about that.) I have been given reason to believe two other people associated with the show have read it.

But Max Wright never read my reviews, and he never will. He had no interest in speaking about ALF. He had very little interest in speaking about it even when he was on the show, with the most significant interview I ever found taking place over the course of a few minutes during a smoke break.

He hated the show. He never made any secret of that, and we don’t need interviews to come to that conclusion. Whether he was beating the shit out of the ALF puppet in front of guest star Dean Cameron or getting in his car the moment his final scene for “Consider Me Gone” ended, without even saying goodbye or sticking around for any necessary reshoots, it was obvious.

Max Wright hated his job.

After the National Enquirer story broke, he hated his life.

After dealing with the fallout, he hated that his friends and family were reaching out to him, and he stopped letting them do that. Max Wright hated the world enough that he did exactly what I do and what you do when we hate something: He took active steps to stay away from it whenever possible.

Here’s a fact I don’t think I ever mentioned in my reviews. I meant to mention it in my farewell post, but I didn’t. If you ever wondered why that post is so short, that’s why. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because of this related fact: It still really fucking hurts.

Years ago, I entered into a relationship that turned toxic quickly. I expected it could get better if I worked hard at it, so I did. It never got better. I felt trapped and inadequate. I tried everything. As hard as I worked at keeping it together, she worked at tearing me down.

Thanks to my upbringing, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, I was fully prepared to accept any shortcomings as my own. Things were my fault. Why wouldn’t they be? They always had been in the past.

She bled me dry, emotionally and financially. She spent my money quickly and eagerly enough that — deliberately or not — I wasn’t able to get away. Genuinely. I had nowhere I could go. I could move out, but I’d have nowhere to stay. Now I know I had many friends who would have taken me in, but then, at the time, in the situation, I could not see that. In fact, the one friend I would have turned to is the one she singled out, telling me that she’d spoken to that friend, and that that friend was appalled with me and didn’t want to hear from me.

I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? I was a terrible person who deserved to be treated like that and shut off from contact with my friends.

She never spoke to that friend. At all. It wasn’t an exaggeration, it wasn’t misleading, and it wasn’t a misinterpretation. It was a complete and total lie. She made it up so that I would feel trapped. So that I would have nowhere to go. And it worked.

At one point, finally, I left. I’d love to say I was strong enough to do so in that moment, and maybe I was, but I felt like I was at my weakest. I had nothing to my name. I found a cheap room to rent with someone who was — thankfully — a sweet and understanding human being who became a dear friend and helped me get back on my feet.

But I’m jumping ahead there. I was alone in a room on an air mattress. I had nothing. I had no money. Every single day I thought about suicide, not because I was in despair, but because…well, why not? What was I hanging around for, exactly? Why was this life, this particular life, worth living?

I needed a distraction, and, historically, I had always found that distraction in writing. But writing about anything that had happened to me — or that I was going through — did not seem appealing. I didn’t want to relive any of it. Shit, I still don’t, and it’s hard enough just glossing over it here.

But I needed to write. I knew that. That was my therapy.

And I decided to write about ALF. I could take out my frustrations. I could focus on something thoroughly worthless. I could act like an idiot and tell stupid jokes and give myself a god-damned reason to get the fuck out of bed.

I’d forgotten that the mom on ALF was named Kate. That was my ex’s name.

If I’d remembered that, I wouldn’t have committed to reviewing ALF. Kate was not a name I wanted to hear. In fact, those first few episodes were rough going for me.

But the Kate on ALF was…great, actually. She was funny. She was by leaps and bounds the best actor. She was the most stable and reliable character in the entire thing. I quickly came to dissociate the name from what I had learned it meant.

The writing helped me. The readers and their laughter helped me. And Kate — this Kate — helped me, because she took the most traumatic experience of my life and let me see that it was over, and I could find new things and make new associations now.

Here’s a fact: I was having fun. I was doing something I enjoyed. If you read my reviews now and hear misery and disdain and agony, it’s an act. It’s a lie. I loved every fucking minute of it. Of watching the show, of writing about the show, of reading your comments.

It was everything I needed to get back on my feet again. To be myself again. To learn that I had value.

I’ve laughed at toxic relationships and jokes about them. By no means do I find toxic relationships funny. I can sure as hell promise you that. But by taking my real-life sadness and anger and frustration and playing it up for the purposes of reviewing one of the worst sitcoms in American history, I was able to cope with it. I faced it through humor. Instead of being overcome by my emotions, I chose to wear them like a costume, and I did a little dance, and I made people laugh, and then when I was done, I was able to take that costume off.

Forever.

There’s an entire story you were never told.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright gave me the most enjoyment on the show, by far.

He wasn’t the best actor and he didn’t get the best lines, but watching him was fascinating. He almost never seemed to try, but he did the bare minimum. He hated his job, but he showed up every day. He hated the show, but he never quit. He sped away from the set the moment he had nothing left to shoot in the final episode, but he showed up for work that day and did his damned job.

That’s admirable, in its own way, and also so interesting. Watching Max Wright in the show, it’s less like somebody is playing Willie and more like a ghost is loosely inhabiting him. In the strictest, most technical sense of the word, he’s acting. But mainly he’s just a presence, moving his lips and his body without having any particular interest in anything that’s happening around him.

It’s bizarre. There were times I genuinely couldn’t understand what he was saying. I still don’t know if he referred to a woman named Julie or a man named Patchouli. He called himself “Wooly Tanner” in one scene and it wasn’t reshot. It’s just part of the show. Max Wright half-assing his way through the least ambitious sci-fi comedy in history is part of what gives it its charm.

He wasn’t happy. Neither was I. But ALF gave us both a reason to get out of bed.

Here’s a fact: When the Max Wright crack hobo scandal broke, none of his previous colleagues or costars came out in support of the guy.

Nobody, at any point, said, “I know Max and that’s not Max.” Nobody said, “This is a lie made up to sell magazines.” Nobody said, “The photos may look like him, but that’s not him.”

Max Wright was tried in the court of public opinion, and nobody took his side.

But his wife stayed with him.

He had several other drug-related scandals that decade, and she stayed with him.

Here’s a fact: I’ve always wondered why.

Well, okay…it was love. The last thing I want to do to this poor dead guy is introduce the idea that his wife couldn’t have possibly loved him.

But I wondered what those conversations must have been like.

Relationships end over lies. Over infidelity. Over destructive behavior. And that’s okay. Those are understandable stopping points.

What did he have to say to her to keep their marriage together after videotaped evidence of his hobo crack orgies surfaced? What did she say to him? What kind of balance could they have possibly achieved?

We’ll never know. She died two years ago. And now he is dead, too.

By 2015, they were no longer together. They stayed married until her death, but they didn’t live together. He was alone. I don’t know if she was.

And I still wonder what those conversations must have been like. To not get divorced, but also not be together. To not split up over the scandal, but also to never see each other. To stay in each other’s lives, but to live completely separate lives in two different places.

Here’s a fact: For whatever reason, I believe she loved him. I believe she thought he could change, or get the help he needed. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was delusional. But he was the one seeking (very dangerous) sexual action on the side. And she stayed with him.

After she died, he went to Germany.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had a happy ending.

ALF remains popular in Germany, but he still didn’t want to talk about the show. In fact, he refused to even speak of it to his new German boyfriend.

For the final few years of his life, he was in a committed relationship with a German man. Photos exist. They look happy. You can find them, if you want to. They aren’t as easy to find as the National Enquirer photos of a disheveled old man taking out his trash, but they’re out there.

And that’s a part of his life — the final part of his life — that the English-language reports omit. They’re happy to remember him as a has-been. A washed-up actor with a legacy of scandals. The stupid dad from ALF.

The German stories are where you’ll learn of his relationship. Of the positivity he found very late in his life. Of the happiness he wanted and never had before.

I don’t know what he felt or didn’t feel for his wife, but I do think it says something that she stayed married to him until the day she died, and he entered into a relationship with a man as soon as she was gone. She waited for something that never came. He left for something else the moment he could.

But he found it.

According to reports, Max Wright died in the same little apartment he’d occupied alone for so many years, out of the public eye. But I don’t know if that’s true. The details seem to all be traced back to a single TMZ story, which Max Wright’s son is said to have corroborated. TMZ is hardly a reliable primary source, and I have no clue what his son did or didn’t actually say to them.

He could have died in Germany, for all I know. He could have died happy, somewhere far from his own past, somewhere nobody he used to know would be able to find or reach him. I wouldn’t put it past TMZ to make something up, and they don’t seem to have picked up on the news of his German exploits at all. Maybe they just assumed he died in the last place they saw him.

Because that’s the lens through which they viewed him. Max Wright didn’t exist until he had a camera on him, be it ALF‘s, the orgy guy’s, or the National Enquirer‘s. We see him from a distance, welcome or not. We draw our conclusions. We move along to the next thing. We’ll come back if anything else embarrassing happens to the guy, because that fits our idea of who he is, was, and must be.

They weren’t there for the conversations with his wife. They weren’t there for the talks with his kids. They didn’t experience the desperation of his friends and family who tried to reach him and tried to help.

His isn’t a redemption story. He’s the stupid dad from ALF. We know how that one is supposed to end. It’s a joke, so it ends with a punchline.

I’ve done my part cementing Max Wright as a washed-up nobody, best known for smoking crack in his underpants in an abandoned warehouse. I did it with this blog, these reviews, right here, with all of you.

So here’s the fact I’ll leave you with: He found love with a man who cared about him. That’s evidence that his failures weren’t all he was. That’s not all he had. That’s not where he ended up.

There’s an entire story we were never told.

Probably because we wouldn’t have listened.

Rest in peace, Max.

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