Graveyard Shift

Behind The Scenes Of The Infamously Nasty Defibrillator Scene From 'The Thing'  

Maggie Clancy
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In the era of CGI, it's worth remembering that not all special effects are created with computers, green screens, and tracking suits. Our eyes quickly adapt to ever-changing technology, and it can be easy to pick out "older" CGI from its contemporary counterparts. The same cannot be said of John Carpenter's The Thing, a masterclass in both suspense and practical effects - the latter of which is still celebrated by horror enthusiasts to this day.

One of the film's most memorable scenes is The Thing chest scene, affectionately known as the "chest-chomp" by fans. The defibrillator scene in The Thing was an arduous process, with each of the creatures - including the one that chomps off Dr. Copper's arms - painstakingly made by hand and operated using radio controls, puppetry, and even hydraulic rigs. 

The Thing's chest-chomp still makes audiences squeamish, despite the fact it uses over 40-year-old special effects techniques. 

The Idea For The Scene Came From Special Effects Creator Rob Bottin - And It Was Initially A Joke
The Idea For The Scene Came Fr... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Behind The Scenes Of The Infamously Nasty Defibrillator Scene From 'The Thing'
Photo:  Universal Pictures

Director John Carpenter had worked with special effects supervisor Rob Bottin on his 1980 film The Fog, so he knew he could trust Bottin's judgment.

According to Bottin, the film's most memorable scene began as a joke between the two men. When Carpenter asked his FX supervisor what happens next in the film, Bottin replied

I would say a joke out of black humor like, you know, this guy's stomach rips open and turns into a big mouth, you know, and he bites this guy's arms off. And John would start laughing and go, "You know, that's not a bad idea."

The Effects Team Spent 10 Days Creating A Prosthetic Norris
The Effects Team Spent 10 Days... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Behind The Scenes Of The Infamously Nasty Defibrillator Scene From 'The Thing'
Photo:  Universal Pictures

With production of The Thing underway in 1981, special effects artist Rob Bottin and his team worked tirelessly on a slew of monster prosthetics. Actor Charles Hallahan, who played the ill-fated Vance Norris, spent 10 days with Bottin to help create the chest-chomping beast. Bottin took molds of Hallahan's hands, legs, face, and his entire torso. As Hallahan explains in The Making of The Thing, "I must confess I think I spent about 10 days with them [the special effects crew], all told. They molded my face in a lot of different expressions, then with my hands, my legs, my torso."

The attention to detail didn't end with the features of Hallahan's body. According to CineFix, Bottin and his crew were so meticulous with the design that they even mimicked Norris's chest hair patterns to make them look as realistic as possible. Hallahan elaborated, "They even took photographs of my chest without a shirt on and they assigned one person to make the hair pattern match."

The Scene Took 10 Hours To Set Up And An Entire Day To Film
The Scene Took 10 Hours To Se... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Behind The Scenes Of The Infamously Nasty Defibrillator Scene From 'The Thing'
Photo:  Universal Pictures

The chest-chomp scene required a wild amount of attention to detail. Setting up actor Charles Hallahan's rig, complete with puppeteers, harnesses, and loads of fake blood, took roughly 10 hours. And that 10 hours was spent simply setting the scene; it didn't include the time it took to reset this intense and messy sequence.  

The scene was supposed to be one-and-done, but there was something director John Carpenter wasn't pleased with: the tentacles emerging out of Vance Norris's chest. According to CineFix, Carpenter thought it looked like "Las Vegas fountains," and had the team reset for a second - and final - attempt.

Actor Richard Dysart Thought The Fake Charles Hallahan Was Real
Actor Richard Dysart Thought T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Behind The Scenes Of The Infamously Nasty Defibrillator Scene From 'The Thing'
Photo:  Universal Pictures

Actor Charles Hallahan spoke to CineFix about how convincing the Vance Norris replica was. He said it was so realistic that his colleague, actor Richard Dysart, who plays Dr. Copper, thought it was the real Hallahan:

[Dysart] came in that morning and I was already in the harness, and he said, "Put some clothes on that guy, for god's sake, disgusting," and he came running over, and it wasn't until he was right on top of me that he realized that was fake.