Trilogy of Terror: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

It’s easy to review horror without giving any indication that you were or are under its spell. You can talk about the inventiveness of the central concept, the performances, the casting. You can talk about the dialogue. You can talk about how predictable or unpredictable it was.

But talk about horror — actually talk, with actual people — and it becomes much more difficult. With very few exceptions, your friends won’t want to hear or talk about the gears in the machine. They’ll want to hear and talk about the film’s effect.

“It wasn’t scary,” and “It scared the hell out of me,” are two of the things you’ll hear most frequently. That’s not necessarily because your friends don’t have the vocabulary to assess the film on deeper levels; it’s because how much it spooked you is the common language of horror, just as how much something made you laugh is the common language of comedy and how much something made you cry is the common language of drama.

Horror, though, is a bit different than those other genres. We know comedy is comedy and drama is drama. We may chuckle or cry a bit when thinking back on a film, but they are still isolated experiences. Our reality is distinct from them, and we know it. By contrast, horror rewires our brains.

Growing up I had a friend who watched the film Arachnophobia, and for years afterward — into adulthood — she would never hang her feet off the edge of her bed, both knowing that there were no spiders waiting underneath and knowing for sure that there were. Another friend once told me about how he played the original Resident Evil and could no longer sleep in the same room as the game’s box; every night he checked to make sure it was somewhere else.

And, of course, there’s me, the biggest baby who still likes horror. When I was little, somebody gave me a gift for Christmas or for my birthday. It was a little plastic bank shaped like the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors. I liked it. Its closed mouth pointed upward and there were little metal contacts on its front teeth. You’d stick a coin there and it would open up and swallow the money. Then I actually watched the movie and it scared the fuck out of me and I didn’t want anything to do with the bank anymore.

Horror makes us see shapes in the shadows. It assigns intent to sounds in the night. It follows us into our dreams and refuses to let us go.

At least, effective horror does. And that’s the great irony of horror; the better it is at fucking with us, the more often we come back. The more we come back, the more it…gets inside of us. For me, John Carpenter is the guy who most often keeps me coming back. I collect his special editions. I try to see any of his films that I can when they pop up in my local boutique theater. I have an autographed poster of his…from In the Mouth of Madness.

Others, of course, turn to other writers and directors. The characters in this film turn to novelist Sutter Cane. “I just like being scared,” one of them explains. So do his other readers, and we see what happens when his writings get into them.

Sutter Cane is a writer whose books are driving readers insane. It’s rewiring their brains not only to make them afraid of bumps in the night, but to see visions, to lash out, to murder.

It’s clear enough that H.P. Lovecraft is the real-world template for Cane’s works. The little we see and hear of his writing shares Lovecraft’s penchant for description over action, for scene setting over narrative. The effect Cane’s works has on readers is also a nod to the man, as Lovecraft’s writings feature beings so far beyond human comprehension that to even see them is to be driven permanently insane. And, of course, there’s the fact that Lovecraft’s Old Ones are similar to the creatures Cane is bringing to life, but we’ll get to that later.

Another — and arguably stronger — inspiration for Cane is Stephen King.

Allow me to vent for just a moment.

Look up Siskel and Ebert discussing In the Mouth of Madness and find strings of comments calling them out for saying Cane is a King analogue. Look at any review or retrospective that cites King in addition to or instead of Lovecraft and it will be punctuated by angry comments “correcting” the writer. Look at Wikipedia and see that the closest acknowledgement of King its editors will allow is “The film can also be seen as a reference to Stephen King.”

Let me say this clearly: Get off your damned high horse. The Cane / King connection is crucial, important, and obvious. I’ll explain why in my own words, but if you’re already preparing to ignore them, know that Carpenter himself refers to Cane as a King analogue in his own commentary for the film, so nyeh.

Cane is both Lovecraft and King. He’s Lovecraft’s mind with King’s celebrity. He’s Lovecraft’s influence with King’s merchandising. He’s Lovecraft’s visions with King’s endless releases, translations, and film adaptations.

Sutter Cane — even the sound of his name suggests Stephen King, come on now — is a product of his publisher’s marketing. We see his name plastered across marquees, book displays, posters, hats, shirts, coffee mugs, buses.

Do let me know, of course, if that sounds more like Lovecraft to you than King.

Certainly Lovecraft lived and wrote a century ago, before there was such a thing as mass merchandising, but it’s important to remember that he never experienced his own time’s equivalent of fame. Lovecraft was broke. His stories were sometimes published for a pittance, and usually they were rejected. His influence and significance have both grown over the years, but he was long dead by the time that happened. He ended his career believing himself to be a failure without an audience.

Compare that to Cane and the long lines at bookstores — and riots when they run out of copies — and you’ll see that Lovecraft alone isn’t the key to what’s happening here.

In addition, there’s Cane’s fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire, the setting for a large number (possibly all) of his stories. That’s not far removed from King’s fictional Castle Rock, Maine, which serves the same purpose. (The states even share a border.)

It’s also, of course, important to remember that “Stephen King” isn’t just a famous novelist Carpenter is likely to have heard of; Carpenter adapted Christine for the big screen. He’s personally familiar with King, with his stories, what they’re like…and how strongly his work resonates with his audience.

That’s what In the Mouth of Madness is about. Resonance. Impact. Effect.

More specifically — though definitely not exclusively — it’s about the effect it has on John Trent (Sam Neill, Memoirs of an Invisible Man), a freelance insurance investigator we meet as he’s being admitted to a mental hospital. He’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, Body Bags) who is skeptical of Trent’s madness.

Wrenn and Trent have similar jobs, actually. Trent makes his living poking holes in people’s fraudulent insurance claims, and Wrenn here believes there’s a hole in Trent’s claim of insanity. After all, when Trent arrived he fought the orderlies, cried out for help, swore that he was sane…but as soon as he was locked up he settled down, and used a black crayon to cover himself and the padded walls with crosses.

“They’d almost have to keep you in here, once they’d seen these,” Wrenn says. “Wouldn’t they, John?”

Sure enough, Trent faked at least the severity of his madness so that he’d be locked up. Why? “It’s safer in here now,” he explains.

Trent is our protagonist, which is worth pointing out only because the other two films in this trilogy don’t have them. MacReady is our de facto protagonist in The Thing, but in the same way that he’s that team’s leader: he isn’t, but nobody else will do it. In Prince of Darkness, another version of the film could easily position Brian or the priest (or Catherine) as the protagonist, but the version we got is either an ensemble piece or a film with Satan as its star, depending on your perspective.

Here, it’s Trent and only Trent. And he’s not just the film’s protagonist; he’s also Cane’s.

Trent tells his story to Wrenn, and we follow along. It begins with him hard at work, interviewing Peter Jason (we went over his filmography with Carpenter last week) about his insurance claim, ultimately proving it fraudulent.

Trent’s occupation, demeanor, skill, and fashion sense are straight out of Double Indemnity. He’s like a character plucked from a different story. Believably human, but out of place. He keeps lighting up cigarettes like a character in a movie made 50 years ago, often then being told smoking isn’t allowed, which seems like unexpected and unwelcome information to him.

When he meets Linda Styles — Cane’s editor — his noir sensibilities are brought even more to the fore. She’s prudish and straightlaced, exactly the dame he knows from another story entirely, fully aware that she’ll take off her glasses and let down her hair and reveal the smokey sexuality he hides within. Which is exactly what happens. He even flirts with her with fast, quippy banter that feels more like it belongs in a Raymond Chandler novel than a horror film.

But Trent isn’t a character; he’s a human being. Right? At least, that what he keeps telling people, and trying to tell himself. Twice he says, “Nobody pulls my strings.” At other points he says, “I’m my own man.” “I know what I am.” “I’m not a piece of fiction.” He makes repeated claims that “this is reality.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As we learn, it isn’t reality. He isn’t a person. And when he meets Cane, the mad author tells him, “I think, therefore you are.”

Again, though, we get ahead of ourselves.

Trent is hired by Cane’s publisher to find the novelist, who’s gone missing. Nobody knows where he is, if he’s coming back, or whether or not he’s still alive. All the publisher knows for sure is that his newest book, In the Mouth of Madness, is at least partially complete, because they received several chapters through his agent.

Cane’s agent would be a great person for Trent to interview, but it turns out they already met.

His agent was driven insane by those sample chapters alone. He smashed through a diner window and attempted to kill Trent before being gunned down by police.

“You’d think a guy that outsells Stephen King could find better representation,” Trent quips. His quip falls flat. He doesn’t realize he’s in a different story now.

Trent picks up a few Sutter Cane novels and gets reading. They immediately give him nightmares, literally reconfiguring in his mind things he’s seen, such a policeman beating up a vandal in reality who becomes a hideous monster in his dream. His brain is being rewired by Cane, whose writing is (clearly) effective, even if it isn’t very good.

“Pulp horror novels,” Trent describes them to a friend. “They all seem to have the same plot: slimy things in the dark, people go mad, they turn into monsters.” He does concede that they’re better written than he expected, but qualifies that by saying what he really means: “They sort of get to you, in a way.”

Horror doesn’t need to be good in order to be effective, and not all effective horror is good. You don’t need to believe A Nightmare on Elm Street is a good film to see Freddy pop up in your dreams. You don’t need to think The Blair Witch Project is a good film to have your thoughts haunted by it as you walk through the woods at night.

I’ve read a lot of both authors and I’d say that neither Lovecraft nor King are particularly great ones. They both, however, unquestionably have an astonishing wealth of ideas. Ideas that stick. Ideas that are so strong that they succeed in spite of whatever flaws you find in the writing. Trent calls Cane a “hack horror writer,” which might be true but doesn’t matter either way. His writing is effective, and that’s genuinely what is important…both in reality and in this film.

After a long night of studying Cane, Trent notices red lines worked into the cover art of each of his books. He cuts along those lines with scissors and ends up with pieces that fit together to form the shape of New Hampshire, with a single red dot showing, he believes, the “location” of the fictional Hobb’s End. In short, he figures this entire thing is a publicity stunt.

“Makes a great contest, doesn’t it?” Trent asks Cane’s publisher. “Put the pieces together, find the town, win a Sutter Cane lunchbox.”

His publisher swears that’s not the case, and sends Trent and Styles out to find the town, which they do. The invented town of Hobb’s End isn’t on any map, but it does exist, apparently.

The two explore the town, finding everything exactly as Cane described it, right down to a loose floorboard. They encounter characters from the novels, which worries Styles but only further convinces Trent that the entire thing is a setup…an elaborate hoax to freak him out so he will “blab to the media about Cane’s haunted little town, help you sell a few more million copies. Well, fuck that.”

He understandably refuses to believe that a novelist has willed a town into existence and is hiding there, but Styles is genuinely worried. She confesses that they had indeed planned on pulling some kind of publicity stunt — even sent Cane away to get the gossip flowing — but he never showed up at his destination. While manufacturing his disappearance, he really disappeared.

What worries her most is the fact that she’s seeing characters and events in the town that nobody else could know about, because they only appeared in the few chapters of Cane’s upcoming book that he sent to his agent. With his agent dead, only two people know what was in those pages: her and Cane himself.

Without Trent, Styles investigates the church where they think they caught a glimpse of Cane through the doors. She does indeed find him there, working at his typewriter. He expected her, of course. In fact, he wrote her.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he tells her. “For years, I thought I was making all this up, but they were telling me what to write. Giving me the power to make it all real. And now it is.”

And that’s what Carpenter posits with In the Mouth of Madness, that Lovecraft and King and Cane and Carpenter aren’t actually founts of incredible ideas…they’re conduits. Somebody — or something — is speaking through them. They don’t close their eyes and generate their own spooky ideas that they can then pass on to an audience; they’re being fed them by something that needs their audience to be frightened into belief. To not just think there might be a monster in the dark, but to believe there is.

Cane ends up being that perfect conduit, and what author wouldn’t pounce on an opportunity like that? Once he learns that ancient creatures are using him and his popularity to bring about their rebirth, well…he keeps writing. Because people are buying it. Because people love him. Because people fight each other and claw each other’s eyes out over the last copy of his latest book at any given store.

He’s a literary celebrity, two words that even in the film don’t often go together.

Cane doesn’t kill himself or warn anybody or fight against the evil forces that use him. He willingly extends his hand so that the devil may shake it. “Someone is going to get fame and fortune in exchange for bringing about the end of the world, right?” we can assume he thinks. “It might as well be me.”

The forces of evil here operate by the opposite rules of those in Prince of Darkness. There, our belief in them made them weak. They were sealed away in a prison, and we were each its wardens. The more we turned our backs, stopped paying attention, stopped caring what it got up to its cell, the greater the chance it had to escape.

Here, our belief makes them strong. The more people who believe in Cane’s slimy, otherworldly monsters, the more people who see them in the shadows, the more people who can be convinced that they lurk under the bed, the stronger they become, and the easier it becomes for them to cross into our reality.

And, it must be said, Cane loves this. I think it’s pretty easy to agree that someone who is offered fame in exchange for destroying the world and replies, “Yes, please,” is a pretty bad guy, but that’s not all Cane is. Cane relishes his status not only as the most famous or profitable author on the planet, but as the most powerful one.

Authors create worlds that both don’t exist and do. They take the form of ink on a page. A series of letters making a series of words making a series of sentences making a series of paragraphs that bring life in the minds and hearts of readers to Captain Ahab, Ebenezer Scrooge, Harry Potter, or Count Dracula. Something that blipped into an author’s mind is encoded as text and circulated, and if it resonates with a large enough audience, the real world adopts it. It takes on a life and an endurance beyond the page. It started in a fictional world, but now it’s part of ours.

Quite literally, the author changes the world.

That’s a seductive concept. And while very, very few writers will create any characters as enduring as the ones I mentioned above, any author who is read at all does transport his fictional concepts into real human beings…where they then live, grow, evolve, haunt. They take on a life beyond the words that created them.

One of the highest compliments I’ve ever received was from somebody who had read one of my stories. She was talking to a friend and something in the conversation sparked a memory for her. Midway through relaying that memory she realized it wasn’t something that actually happened…it was a scene in my story that had stuck with her so effectively that her brain didn’t remember that it was fiction. In her mind, at least for a moment, it wasn’t something she’d read; it was something she’d experienced.

I gave her words, and she gave them life. What an incredible honor that is for any author, any writer, any director, any artist.

Carpenter certainly knows a thing or two how it feels to see his fanciful ideas shaping reality. Halloween gave generations to come a new costume. Escape from New York inspired one of the most iconic video game characters in history. When somebody jokes about a car having a mind of its own by calling it Christine, it’s Carpenter’s film that turned that name into a cultural touchpoint. King reached readers; Carpenter reached everyone else.

Cane reached readers, too, at first, but gradually gained more power. He wasn’t just filling people’s heads with visions of Hobb’s End; he was chiseling it into the New Hampshire countryside. He’d put a monster in this greenhouse, a murderous old woman in that hotel, a pack of violent children near the church.

And he’d do it because he could.

We don’t know if Cane created Trent, but it almost doesn’t matter. Trent has memories of a long life before he ever even heard of Sutter Cane, but those could be artifical. (Or, as Cane would call it, backstory.) Is he a gifted freelance insurance investigator, or is he just a character written as one? A character who only exists out of narrative necessity?

Whether he’s a real person or a fictional character, though, Cane is a powerful enough author that he holds dominion over him.

He toys with him. When Trent tries to escape the town, Cane keeps rewriting things so that every road leading out turns him right back inward. When Trent tries to lose or destroy the manuscript for In the Mouth of Madness, Cane keeps writing it right back into his hands. And in my favorite moment, while a distressed Trent dozes on the bus, Cane appears to him in a dream.

“Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?” Cane asks him, and Trent awakens to find everything is now blue.

In truth, this is not unique to Trent. Cane invents characters, uses them, and then writes them out. He reconfigures the world to suit his needs and his vision. Like any author, Cane is constantly editing.

Trent’s tragedy is that he is the only character who remembers the previous edits. His world is constantly being updated around him. People he grew close to are proven to never have existed. He’s been to places that nobody can find. He remembers things that can’t — and could not have — happened, all because he retains memories of those earlier drafts…those earlier versions of reality.

“Reality is not what it used to be,” a man tells Trent. The man came to Hobb’s End just like Trent did. His family was rewritten, and now he’s alone. “The thing I can’t remember is what came first,” he says. “Us, or the book.”

The man readies a gun for suicide and Trent objects. But the man doesn’t hesitate.

“I have to,” he explains. “He wrote me this way.”

As I discussed in the two previous entries, Carpenter’s films are about their characters figuring out the rules the govern the world around them. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Trent is in the horrifying position of trying to figure out rules that are always changing, and it’s a miracle he retains his sanity as long as he does.

What finally breaks Trent is a conversation with Cane’s publisher. He learns two things. The first is that Styles never existed. Of course she did; he has memories of her and she was an integral part of the story. In fact, rewatching the movie with this in mind, we see that Styles and her boss interact a number of times, meaning Cane really did rewrite things to remove her from the story — and the world — entirely.

That’s frustrating to Trent, but not unexpected. He’s used to these tricks by now.

Then he learns something else. While explaining to the publisher why he will not turn over Cane’s final manuscript, the publisher tells him that he already has. Trent brought it to him months ago. It’s been in stores for weeks. The movie will be released shortly.

Throughout the film Trent fights against what Cane keeps telling him is his character’s purpose. Trent is the character who travels to Hobb’s End to retrieve the manuscript, get it published, and unleash unthinkable horror upon the world. Trent refuses at every turn to play his role, no matter what the emotional or psychological cost of noncompliance.

And then he learns that he did it anyway. If Trent wouldn’t cooperate, Cane would just write that he’d done it already. We don’t need to have a chapter in which he does…we just need a chapter in which he did.

Which leads to Trent either fulfilling Cane’s circular narrative or breaking out of it; he picks up an axe and murders somebody, just as Cane’s agent tried to murder him at the film’s start.

It’s an act of calculated madness. Cruel, but he feels he has no other choice. “Every species can smell its own extinction,” he tells Wrenn.

If he’s going to survive the otherworldly invasion brought about by Cane’s latest masterpiece, he’s going to need to be somewhere very secure. He gets locked away in the institution. It’s a cruel and dehumanizing place, but it’s preferable to the literal apocalypse unfolding outside its walls.

We don’t see much of the apocalypse, but we see (and hear over the radio) enough to know the situation is hopeless. Mankind is in the active process of being exterminated. Cane’s tales were so believable that people knew his monsters existed…and they certainly didn’t stop believing when the monsters actually showed up to kill them.

But even then, as the world burns, Cane isn’t done running his favorite character through the wringer.

The door to Trent’s room swings open. There’s no explanation for it. There’s no need for one. Cane is long past hiding his narrative contrivance.

Trent stumbles out. He encounters no other human being. The movie theater is within easy walking distance of the mental institution. Why not? That’s where we need it to be. It’s playing the film adaptation of Cane’s brand-new novel, In the Mouth of Madness.

Whatever was going to happen already happened. However much Trent managed to postpone tragedy — if at all — he can’t postpone it anymore. He might as well pour himself a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show.

He sees himself on the big screen ranting about reality, insisting that reality is what he says it is, promising that it is solid and unchangeable…and the Trent watching the film laughs.

And laughs, and laughs.

What else can you do?

Early in the film, Trent and Styles debate the nature of reality. She tells him that reality is just an agreement everyone has with each other, and that what really scares her about Cane’s work is how scary reality would be if it shared his point of view.

Which is what happens. It’s what Cane wants to happen. It’s what Cane rubs Trent’s nose in at the end of the film. The Trent on the screen — actual clips from the movie we’ve just seen — was the real Trent. Now the real Trent is eating popcorn and watching it. Reality and fiction have switched places.

It’s a pretty good joke, even if Trent is the only one left who can appreciate it.

Of course, there’s another possibility: Trent really did go insane, and he did so very early in the film.

His visions and nightmares start not after but during an all-night binge of Sutter Cane. Anything we see after that could be representative of his descent into madness. Seeking out the author, exploring the town he just read about, meeting characters from the story…it’s possible that none of that happened.

And if that’s the case, well…what did happen?

We do know that Cane’s writings caused insanity, that his horror rewired minds, that his fans became fanatics. (“Do you read Sutter Cane?”) There are riots. Violence. A crazy man attempts to murder Trent with an axe. Readers bleed from the eye, move through life in a daze, ignore their personal hygiene, mutter seeming nonsense. They detach from reality. Whether that’s due to Lovecraftian Elder Gods speaking through Cane or just due to his particular, creative approach as an artist, the result is the same.

Trent’s mind wouldn’t even have to stretch very far to imagine what at first seems like a very complex hallucination. As Cane explains late in the movie, “All those horrible, slimy things trying to get back in? They’re all true.” The horror we see unfold in Hobb’s End, the specific motivations of the hideous creatures forcing their way back into our world…well, Cane already wrote that, and Trent just read it. All his mind needs to do is let fact and fiction change places.

Cane’s agent, as well, never traveled to Hobb’s End to see the monsters; he only read the sample chapters Cane sent along. Ditto everyone else participating in the violence in the streets. They didn’t go on the same pilgrimage Trent thinks he did; they just read the books. We don’t know what’s happening in their minds. Trent doesn’t know what’s happening in his.

And so when Trent appears outside of a bookstore, disheveled, carrying an axe, and starts hacking away at a Sutter Cane fan…is that an act of calculated madness to keep him safe from ancient beasts? Or, y’know, is that actual madness because he thinks the ancient beasts in Cane’s writings are real?

Remember that Dr. Wrenn, after listening to Trent’s entire tale, dismisses it. He is a professional who works with the mentally ill on a daily basis, and after listening to Trent’s elaborate, paranoid ramblings, he doesn’t see it as anything of particular worry. The guy is crazy, and now he’s in a cell. Wrenn is satisfied, professionally, with that alone.

Of course, then, what of the apocalypse? Without the monsters clawing their way back to an Earth that once was theirs, what ends the world?

Well, as we’ve been told, it ends with a whimper. We never see the monsters outside of either Trent’s tale or his point of view. The murders and deaths and killings are real, whatever Trent does or does not see as the impetus.

It’s his mind assigning that form to something very simple: The most widely read author on the planet is driving his readers nuts.

Enough people read Sutter Cane that the number of insane quickly outnumber the sane.

“Sane and insane could easily switch places,” Styles tells him early on. “If the insane were to become the majority, you would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”

She’s making conversation. Nothing to worry about, really.

In the Mouth of Madness is often considered Carpenter’s last great film. I don’t buy that, but I also know I’m a bit more willing to search for merit than most people. (Seriously, though, the existence of Vampires is evidence that this can’t be his last great film.) If this movie does end up standing as his final major cultural achievement, though, that’s not such a bad thing. It deserves attention, however it gets it.

It’s not a movie that I hear people talk about often. In fact, I only ended up watching it because a friend told me I needed to. It had been on my radar as a love letter to Lovecraft, but beyond that I didn’t know anything.

And while I do think it’s the weakest of the Apocalypse Trilogy, that’s less to do with any failing on this film’s part than it is to do with the incredibly high bar set by the other two films. Taken on its own merits, In the Mouth of Madness is a weird, memorable, and often very funny film.

It’s the least scary, but that’s almost certainly because its central danger is the most complex. It’s relatively easy to put yourself in the place of someone who can no longer trust anybody he knows, or someone tasked with stopping an evil presence she doesn’t even understand. I think it’s far more difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who is a character doomed to remember all the rewrites of the story he occupies.

Which, to be totally honest, is probably why Carpenter leans pretty heavily into comedy here. It doesn’t come at the expense of horror, but it keeps us tagging along, and keeps us interested in a situation it’s safe to say none of us will ever experience.

I like that, actually. I like that the Apocalypse Trilogy closes off with a film that both finally brings us the apocalypse and keeps it at a distance. We already can’t relate to Trent’s plight, so having his film be the one that actually faces the apocalypse makes it something easier to enjoy as we sit in the dark, watching, stuffing our faces with popcorn.

It’s just fiction. It’s just something some writer came up with somewhere. We just like being scared. Nobody pulls our strings.

And we’ll laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thank you for reading.

Trilogy of Terror: Prince of Darkness (1987)

I’ve often wondered why science and religion have such a difficult time coexisting. I’m not an especially spiritual person, but even when I was a practicing Christian, I didn’t see why the theory of evolution — as just one example — would be seen as such a threat.

Does the existence of a set of rules that govern our universe eliminate the possibility of a God? Why should it? Or, rather, should it have to? Can’t God have created and applied the rules of evolution? I’m not saying He did, or that we need a God to explain anything at all, but having a creator and having demonstrable rules never seemed to me to be mutually exclusive.

I don’t know if John Carpenter agrees with me, but Prince of Darkness certainly does. It’s a spiritual horror film that is also, to exactly the same degree, a scientific horror film. It examines one serious central threat not through two separate lenses, but through two overlapping ones. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Carpenter’s evil in this film isn’t something can be understood by either science or religion. If anyone is to get the full story, they’ll need to understand it through both, at once.

The evil is represented here by a sealed canister of swirling green liquid, locked away beneath a disused church. It’s watched over and monitored daily by a single elderly cleric of The Brotherhood of Sleep, an all-but-extinct order. This lone watchman passes away as the film begins, and nobody is left who understands it.

The responsibility falls to an unnamed priest played by the always fantastic Donald Pleasence (Dr. Loomis in Halloween and its sequels, and the president of the United States in Escape from New York), not because he is in any way, shape, or form equipped to handle the problem, but because he’s the only one anyone can think to call. The priest inherits the meager belongings of the cleric: a key to the church basement and a journal containing information that worries him immediately.

The priest knows this is too large a responsibility to fall to him alone, and he reaches out to quantum physicist Professor Birack (Victor Wong, the bus-diving wizard from Big Trouble in Little China) for help. Again, also not because Birack is in any way, shape, or form equipped the handle the problem, but because the priest has no other options.

One of my favorite things about Prince of Darkness is something we don’t actually see. In a one-line bit of spoken backstory from a completely different character, we learn that the priest and Birack participated years ago in a series of debates hosted by the BBC.

This debate series was certainly framed as a science vs. religion event, and we can easily see from the demeanor of the two men — and they way they interact — that the debates didn’t lead to any major conflict.

Instead, though they both view the world differently, applying the personal understandings that they believe in their hearts and minds to be true, they achieved a mutual respect. So much so that many years later they still wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to each other for advice.

Both the priest and Birack defer to each other as authorities in their disciplines, and the fact that they don’t clash and rather work together to fill in each other’s gaps is downright refreshing, and a far more interesting and rewarding narrative decision.

Prince of Darkness posits that science and religion are often two different ways of saying exactly the same thing. And “saying” (as in, consciously selecting the words you will use to express something) is important here.

The film’s central evil has been spoken about and recorded in various different ways throughout history. Indeed, one of the largest obstacles between our characters and an understanding of what they’re up against is the fact that The Brotherhood of Sleep’s texts have been rewritten and distorted many times for 2,000 years. “Writing upon writing,” the priest explains, “sometimes two or three times, and improperly erased.”

It’s not a simple matter of translating the texts; it’s a matter of being able to read them, understand which of the coexisting versions of the material are most important or most accurate, and deciphering why they were rewritten — or, I suppose, overwritten — at all. It’s a tangle of scripture and equations that probably made enough sense to The Brotherhood of Sleep, but are nigh on impenetrable to anyone else.

It’s up to a group of students recruited by Professor Birack and his colleague Dr. Leahy (Carpenter’s frequent collaborator Peter Jason, from They Live, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Ghosts of Mars, Body Bags, and next week’s In the Mouth of Madness) to unravel the mystery of the canister and figure out how to keep it sealed.

What they learn is that the canister contains Satan.

…sort of. The canister contains the very real force that humanity has always understood as Satan. The Brotherhood of Sleep knew that whatever this evil thing really is would be beyond the comprehension of…well, pretty much everyone, themselves likely included. And so in absence of an understandable scientific explanation, they came up with and successfully circulated a spiritual one.

That’s why we — and the characters of the film — know Satan as a red-skinned demon with a pitchfork. It was an image that would stick, an image that would catch on, an image that although false would serve the purpose of warning people of a very real danger. It was — if we’d like to bring yet another discipline into it — a profoundly, globally effective marketing campaign. “Just say no to Satan.”

By painting this evil force as an untrustworthy imp with hooves and horns, the Brotherhood of Sleep rebranded the swirling green liquid for the masses. It is no longer something they could ever want to get close to, let alone study or analyze. In essence, had they attempted to explain it for what it actually was, there would have been necessary holes that their knowledge couldn’t fill, and others — especially through the generations — may have felt compelled to try to learn more and plug those gaps.

By more or less saying, “This is Satan, he will send you to Hell, do not tap the glass,” The Brotherhood of Sleep kept others far away. Ultimately the right decision and outcome. It was a lie for humanity’s benefit.

And so we gradually learn the scientific truths that religion rewrote (and overwrote, and partially erased), not to hide reality from us but to actually help us understand it in simpler, more accessible terms.

They say someone was cast down from Heaven rather than that Earth received a visitor from beyond the stars. They say that God works in mysterious ways rather than that the laws of physics break down at the subatomic level. They say that Christ is the son of God, our savior whose words must be adhered to, instead of saying that he was an alien who warned humanity that opening that canister would unleash a force they could not control.

It’s honestly a fascinating enough concept on its own, and Carpenter elevates it by having it permeate almost every scene in the film. He doesn’t leave the dual, complementary understandings of the world around us in the realm of the thematic; he brings it about through the set design with its religious symbols sharing the frame with scientific instruments, and the soundtrack with its synthesized choir. Every aspect of the film and its presentation ties back to science and religion overlapping, and it’s phenomenal.

Speaking of the soundtrack, my one hesitation with saying The Thing shows Carpenter at his best is the fact that he didn’t compose (much of) that movie. That’s not to say anything negative about the legendary Ennio Morricone’s work for that film, but it does represent one of the very, very few times Carpenter didn’t score his own material.

In Prince of Darkness, Carpenter directed, wrote (under a pseudonym), and scored the experience. He had his hands in all aspects of its production, which is why I think it holds together so well and might actually be the most cohesive of his films. You are surrounded on all sides by Carpenter’s vision, and it’s not a happy one.

The first time I saw Prince of Darkness, I admired it without enjoying it. I’m paraphrasing here, but a friend of mine once described The Fog as being a great movie in search of a good ending. For me, at first, Prince of Darkness felt like a great ending in search of a good movie.

This was without question my own fault. Somehow, in my mind, I’d accumulated a few details about the film that led me to assume it carried a much different tone. I knew it was about college students unleashing Satan, and I knew it starred Alice Cooper. Of course, both things I “knew” weren’t quite correct, but going into it I expected a much lighter experience than what I got.

It sounded like a sillier, dark comedy with some fun stunt casting. I figured Cooper would play a sort of showboating Father of Lies who would work with the kids and ultimately betray them, they’d learn too late that they were in over their heads, and it would be a fun little disposable romp.

It wasn’t that, and my expectations were so profoundly off the mark that it took me a long time to adjust to what it actually was.

Here’s what it actually was: bleak.

Everything about Prince of Darkness is so stubbornly, unrelentingly bleak. It’s stiflingly bleak. It’s disturbingly bleak.

I mentioned last week that some of the fun in The Thing comes from trying to pinpoint the moment at which the characters no longer have any chance of winning. You can’t really play that game with Prince of Darkness, because the characters never had a chance of winning. They started on the losing end and things only got worse for them from there.

And that’s what caught me off guard. Not the fact that evil triumphs or that bad things happen, but that nothing good occurs at any point.

Though, of course, that isn’t true. What Carpenter manages to do is frame even the small positive moments as bleak, making them feel unnerving and unwelcome. This resulted in what I first interpreted as a tonal mismatch, but what I now see as, simply, Carpenter’s vision of this particular little universe.

The film opens with things that really shouldn’t disturb at all. Students attending a lecture, the priest talking to some nuns. The Brotherhood of Sleep cleric dies, but he does so in his bed, without incident, quietly in the night. If Carpenter wanted to give us a miserable death he could have, but he gave us a peaceful death that still manages to read as miserable thanks to the blocking, the editing, and the creepy, pulsing dirge of the score.

At another point in the introduction, a male student named Brian has an obvious interest in a female student named Catherine. He notices her and lets his attention linger. Then she’s joined by another man and they walk off, leaving Brian to assume they are in a romantic relationship. Oh well.

Carpenter films and presents this as though it’s absolutely harrowing. He presents Brian as a stalker and Catherine as his prey. When the other man arrives on the scene we feel a sense of relief because God knows what this guy had intended to do. It was certainly nothing good, the way he watches her from the darkness, not making himself known, dwelling…considering…planning…

And yet it’s not that. With an easy tweak of the presentation and honestly not much more of a tweak in the performances, this could be traditionally romantic.

The next time Brian and Catherine meet, they actually talk. They have a conversation. It turns out she’s not in a relationship. The two students make plans to meet up for a date. They do, it goes well, they have sex. They develop feelings for each other.

This is, more or less, the standard romantic template in film. But Carpenter never lets us feel the romance that they feel. He keeps it at a distance. We hear the soundtrack, which tells us to feel something very different from romance. We see where the camera trails off to find a too-busy nest of clicking ants.

The presentation is knowingly off-putting. As mundane things happen in the characters’ lives, we are never allowed to let our consciousness drift from the knowledge that this is a horror film. In one scene, Brian watches a science program on television. Big deal. Carpenter’s camera shows us the back of the TV, crawling and infested with insects.

The character sees one thing; Carpenter forces us to see another.

The romantic aspect of the film — which is honestly quite small — seemed so strange and out of place to me that first time. So much so that it interfered with my enjoyment of the movie.

It was weird and bizarre in a way it should not have been, or at least it seemed to be. I wondered why he was being such a creep. I wondered why she would be interested in such a creep. But that was just the presentation screwing with me.

Watching it while trying to block out Carpenter’s trickery, it’s just two college students flirting. At once point Brian makes a misjudged sexist joke, for which he immediately apologizes and she forgives him. They start over. This should be cute. The fact that it isn’t cute, or doesn’t feel cute, isn’t their fault. They didn’t choose what kind of movie they’d star in. If they could have chosen, it certainly wouldn’t have been anything like Prince of Darkness.

In another early moment, a homeless woman approaches the priest, takes his hand, and thanks him for reopening the church. It shouldn’t register as anything more than that, but it feels tense and sinister enough that we second guess the situation. Carpenter then shows us that she’s holding a cup full of rotted flesh, covered in writing maggots.

The priest enters the church and examines his hand, repulsed and haunted by what he’s seen. We’ll be repulsed and haunted, too.

Because neither the priest nor Birack can solve the situation with the canister, they enlist the help of a number of students, Birack dangling the prospect of extra credit. Again, not because they are in any way, shape, or form equipped to handle the problem, but because there’s nobody else around to enlist.

The plan is that the priest, Birack, and Leahy will supervise the students over the course of the weekend, putting everybody’s talents and knowledge into the problem, working non-stop until they can be sure the problem is under control.

It’s a lot of work, but they figure they can solve enough of it quickly enough to at least keep whatever in in the canister at bay.

One student works to translate the Latin as best she can, but she can’t make sense of the complicated equations in the text, so she passes those on to another. One student examines the complex locking mechanism on the canister to figure out how it works, while another monitors energy readings. Some of them seem to be little more than sets of hands, rigging up the necessary equipment. Others are strictly intellectual, interpreting data handed to them and trying to fit it all together.

While Leahy keeps them hard at work, the priest and Birack sit in sequestration, talking bigger ideas, sometimes arguing, sometimes building on each other’s knowledge, working together to figure out what, if anything, they can do to keep Satan right where he is.

The expectation is that everybody will live in this church at least through the weekend, working any moment they aren’t eating or sleeping. And it’s honestly a pretty impressive representation of the kind of dynamics you’d expect to see crop up among a group of grad students.

The students look and act like average students. They mainly keep to their friends and hew close to their own professor. One warns another that a cute girl is married. They joke with each other. They drink beer and get on each other’s nerves.

One of my favorite, perfectly human moments in any film comes when Leahy heads down to the kitchen for a snack run. He’s alone, but he amuses himself by bouncing an apple repeatedly in the air with his hand and forearm, trumpeting away through tight lips as he does so.

On his way out he passes a student watching cartoons, and he leans in to trumpet into his ear.

It’s a perfectly observed moment for anyone who has had exactly that kind of professor in the past. Someone who knows what he’s doing but also has a sort of rehearsed quirkiness and who makes sure you’re aware of it.

It’s an adorable little bit of business that immediately lets you know exactly how any conference and most lectures with Leahy are bound to go. Even with very little verbal characterization, you know precisely who he is.

The student he bothers at the kitchen table is played by Dennis Dun, who I thought was another tonal misstep for the film. He cracks wise and makes sarcastic comments and at one point even tells a complete joke — setup and punchline — while boxed into a closet by monsters. He’s comic relief, but he feels so out of place with what’s happening in the film that it’s irritating.

Of course, Dun was the deuteragonist of Big Trouble in Little China, a far more comedic film than we have here, and he was great. It’s taken me a while to warm up to his character in Prince of Darkness, but I think his comic relief falling flat is also part of Carpenter’s vision. Everything is bleak. Everything. Even in the presence of the guy who should keep things light now and then. He quips and jokes just as he should but the darkness refuses to retreat.

As they go about their work, they sleep in shifts. Sometimes planned, sometimes not. And when they sleep, they all have the same dream. They may not see all of it, but the dream repeats like an S.O.S. message…which is exactly what it is.

The dream is heavily distorted, a broadcast over a weak signal. They see the exterior of the church they are in. A dark figure appears in the doorway. A garbled voice croaks a warning we can barely make out.

The priest recognizes it from the cleric’s journal and explains the dream to them. It is indeed a broadcast…from the future. From this very spot. Something terrible has happened. Something unstoppable has been loosed. Somebody in the future is sending this distress message back in time, to anyone within the immediate vicinity, warning them, pleading with them to help.

This is what we see of the apocalypse in Prince of Darkness. In The Thing, it was a computer simulation. Here it’s an actual, direct broadcast of what is going to happen if the team can’t solve the problem. In the future, it’s too late to stop the apocalypse. Their only hope is to broadcast into the dreams of someone in the past — anyone in the past — who can stop it before it begins.

It’s a desperate gamble — a Hail Mary, if you will — but it’s all the future’s got.

While the team tries to figure out what to do, the contents of the canister establishes again and again that it’s beyond their ability to either comprehend or control.

Satan, though contained and weakened for two millennia, has enough power now to control small things. Insects. Nearby objects. Even the homeless. If he’s not outright controlling them, he’s at least influencing them, drawing them near, interfering with their minds. They surround the church to prevent anyone from leaving, and eventually barricade the doors.

When one student leaves, he’s approached by a hobo played by Alice Cooper — see! I knew he was in here somewhere… — and impaled on a bicycle.

When another (Robert Grasmere, who worked on the visual effects in this film and also had a non-speaking role in They Live) leaves, he’s stabbed to death. He then returns later, animated by insects long enough to deliver a warning (“Pray for death.”) before the bugs abandon his corpse and let it collapse.

Of course, staying inside the church isn’t any safer. At one point in the film, Satan has enough strength that he’s able to shoot a jet of the green liquid into the mouth of one of the students. She gags and stumbles around helplessly, and is soon…well, not quite possessed, but certainly not herself.

“Worker ants, driven to a higher purpose, unknown to the individual. Street people…our colleagues,” Birack says. “All controlled.” A student asks if it’s demonic possession, and Birack makes a distinction. “Of a kind,” he says. “Not what we would expect, though. Never that.”

As more of the characters are overcome, we can understand that distinction more clearly. As in Get Out, one’s consciousness is not replaced; it’s just relegated to the passenger seat. It’s still there, it’s still present, it’s still aware, but it’s no longer driving.

That’s why each of the hosts for Satan acts somewhat differently.

Lisa — Ann Yen, who has the best blank stare I’ve ever seen — types madly away at a keyboard, serving as a medium for Stan exactly as she did for The Brotherhood of Sleep when she was translating their texts. Leahy stumbles around, barely able to move, weeping over the fact that he’s no longer himself. But the most interesting host is Calder, played by Jessie Lawrence Ferguson.

In one of the film’s many unspoken bits of quiet characterization, Calder wears a cross necklace when he arrives at the church. Aside from the priest, he may be the only Christian in the film. We can’t know that and normally it wouldn’t matter, but when he’s overcome he wanders around, emptily singing “Amazing Grace.”

It’s not Satan singing that song through him; it’s Calder, fighting his possession. And when he senses that he’s going to lose the fight — fight he probably only had in him due to his faith — he slits his own throat to prevent himself from becoming one of Satan’s minions.

Of course, as we already saw with the bugs puppeteering another corpse, Satan in this film has the ability to keep his unwitting helpers going after death. Calder reanimates and wanders the church. He eventually finds a mirror and stands in front of it for almost the entire remainder of the film, transfixed. He sees himself. He sees the fact that he slit his own neck to escape from this nightmare. He sees that it has not worked.

And he laughs. He laughs and laughs and cries and laughs, because he knows there’s no way out. He knows that’s him in the mirror, but also not him, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s absolutely chilling, and so perfectly executed.

Aside from giving Calder just a little bit of strength in his still-doomed struggle against Old Scratch, though, what role does faith play in Prince of Darkness?

Well, it plays the most important part, though it’s too late to do any good.

One of the characters examines the canister and figures out that it’s locked from the inside. While that might seem like a pretty massive design flaw when your prisoner is The Angel of the Abyss, it makes sense. If The Brotherhood of Sleep wished to prevent future generations from letting him out, placing the lock on the inside would solve that problem.

Of the problem of Satan unlatching his own cage, though, that’s where faith comes in. As long as stories of Satan’s evil circulate and are believed, as long as mankind wants nothing to do with him, Satan remains weak, unable to open the complicated lock on his own prison.

As the years ticked by and humanity became more scientifically literate, the number of people who understood the world through an entirely spiritual lens necessarily decreased. Not a problem in itself, but with fewer people giving Satan the time of day, his power grew, and grew, until we reached this moment, the moment at which he can begin to reassert dominion and wriggle loose of his bindings.

“It’s your disbelief that powers him,” the priest tells Birack, in the closest thing to true conflict they have. “Your stubborn faith in…in common sense…that allows his deception.”

He tells Birack that they need to spread belief again if they are to weaken him and keep him trapped.

“You must prove it scientifically,” he says, knowing even as a priest that Bible stories won’t cut it. “Convince the outside world.”

Birack, though, replies with a harsh truth: “The outside world doesn’t want to hear this kind of bullshit.”

And he’s right. The world has moved on. No scientist declaring that Satan is real will convince the masses to convert, to believe, to fear something they’ve already dismissed as legend. The best they can hope to do is to keep it imprisoned, and with every second that ticks by, it gets more and more difficult to do so.

Keep this in mind, by the way, for next week. Here, a lack of faith gives the enemy strength. In the Mouth of Madness will show us the exact opposite.

Actually, hey, as long as we’re connecting this to the other films in the trilogy, a student in Prince of Darkness says, “Faith is a hard thing to come by these days.” This is an almost exact lift of MacReady’s line in The Thing: “Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.”

And Calder laughing madly when he sees his helpless self reflected in the mirror? Sam Neill will do something very similar with a movie screen next week.

Anyway, the film doesn’t so much build toward its conclusion as it collapses toward it…which I mean as a compliment. Even the first time I watched Prince of Darkness and disliked it, I thought its ending was phenomenal. And still, even now, I think it’s the film’s runaway highlight.

Having made absolutely no headway toward keeping Satan contained, the few characters who don’t already serve as host to The Deceiver of the Whole World can do little more than lock themselves in tiny rooms and hope for a miracle. Or, in the priest’s case, pray for one.

One of the students serves as a dedicated vessel, and has the ability to reach through mirrors into another universe…a universe in which the more traditional, physical manifestation of Satan waits. Technically he’s referred to as this Satan’s father. The end result is the same; the scientific Satan on this end reaches across the boundary to the spiritual Satan on the other.

In such a simple, brilliant special effect, Carpenter films the surface of calm water as the surface of a mirror, and the image of the vessel reaching through to take the hand of The Devil is striking and immediately memorable.

She begins to pull him through to our world, and all is as good as lost.

Catherine realizes that this is their last chance to force evil back. She dives at the vessel and tackles her.

They fall through the mirror, leaving The Devil where he is. And before anybody can even try rescuing Catherine, the priest destroys the mirror with an axe.

She’s trapped. She’s gone. She’s stuck, alone, with the Prince of Darkness.

It’s such a perfectly unexpected moment, and yet thoroughly fitting. We expect our heroes to either live or die. It’s rare to see a character — especially one as sympathetic as Catherine — be sealed away in the depths of Hell for the crime of saving the world.

It’s an absolutely chilling fuck-you to the character. Not from Carpenter, but from the universe. And it’s so God damned perfect.

But it’s over. That’s the important thing. After several long nights of losing every battle, they’ve won the war. Catherine is gone, but so are many others. What matters is that they came out on top.

“We stopped it,” the priest says to Birack as a new day dawns. “We stopped it here. Through the grace of God, I stopped it. The future conjured up by that vile serpent will not happen now.”

It’s a time for gratitude, for thankfulness, for relief, for remembering those who died to keep the apocalypse at bay.

And then Brian has a dream. The same dream. The broadcast from the future. And this time, he can see the mysterious figure more clearly: It’s Catherine.

They stopped nothing. It was always Catherine in that vision. Always Catherine that served as Satan’s vessel in the future. That was always what was going to happen.

They didn’t fight it or postpone it at all. Everything happened the way it was always going to happen.

At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it, and I have difficulty seeing it any other way. I’ve read reviews and summaries that say the ending is inconclusive, or even that the characters manage to succeed at the last moment.

And I suppose I can see where they might get those ideas. Carpenter admittedly doesn’t end his film with a title card reading “THEY’RE FUCKED.” But I think Carpenter gives us enough reason to believe that the apocalypse has not been averted. (And the film being part of something call the “Apocalypse Trilogy” is only one of those reasons.)

I think the decided bleakness of the entire experience is crucial. That’s why we have to accept that when Catherine falls through the mirror, in an act of massive self-sacrifice, nobody is saved. Her act, structurally, needs to be meaningless, lest Carpenter undo every bit of groundwork he’d spent 90 minutes laying.

Throughout Prince of Darkness we are not allowed to laugh at jokes. We are not allowed to feel good about romance. We are not allowed to believe at any point that these characters have any chance of making any amount of progress. For Carpenter to undermine himself at the very end, for him to give the characters a victory — however Pyrrhic — would be for Carpenter to betray his own achievement.

No. Catherine is gone. That is both a nightmare and reality. That is what makes the movie matter. For all the blood and trauma and madness of that weekend, everybody ended up where they had to be for the apocalypse to come to pass.

At the end of The Thing, it’s possible the characters have succeeded in saving the human race. At the end of Prince of Darkness, the characters probably have not. As we will see, at the end of In the Mouth of Madness, the characters definitively haven’t. These films build on each other toward more conclusively tragic endings. If we allow ourselves to believe that good triumphed over evil in Prince of Darkness, the film loses its place in that progression.

To put it more simply, nothing about Prince of Darkness was happy. Why would its ending be?

Of the Apocalypse Trilogy, The Thing is pretty much universally considered to be the best. And as much as I love to argue…I can’t argue with that. It is the best of the three films, in almost every regard.

But Prince of Darkness is my favorite. It’s just so remarkably effective at what it does — and is bravely uncompromising in its bleakness — that I can’t help but admire it.

After I watched it the first time and disliked it, I still thought about it, constantly, for days. Honestly, it may even have been weeks. It haunted me. The feelings it triggered in me never subsided for long. It was always there, on the other side of that mirror, waiting.

And now, after I’ve seen it another five or six times, I love it. The Thing was always great, and though it grows a little bit in my estimation every time I see it, Prince of Darkness grows by enormous leaps each time. It started in a position that didn’t impress me, but improves so much each time that it’s a kind of dark miracle.

It’s also the scariest of the three films, and for my money the scariest Carpenter film overall.

I mentioned last week that nearly every Carpenter film is about the characters figuring out the rules of the universe they inhabit. I think the characters in Prince of Darkness are the ones who make the smallest amount of progress toward doing that.

Which I love, because it’s realistic. Carpenter puts his characters up against an evil so towering and unknowable that they can only be conquered by it, and then he lets that defeat unfold step by merciless step.

It’s cruel, and at no point does it pull any punches.

After all, I promise you, if Satan is clawing his way out of some underground container in our world, we aren’t smart enough to cram him back in there, either. We’ve also stopped recognizing evil for what it is. Someone probably could have stopped it a long time ago, but if you look around right now, I’m sure you’ll agree they didn’t.

And now what will happen, will happen.

I wish us all better luck next week, when we’ll look at In the Mouth of Madness.

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.

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