Closing the X-Files

By Bruce Headlam
Reprinted from Saturday Night Magazine,
December 1995

What is it about The X-Files? Filmed in Vancouver, the Fox television series about two FBI agents investigating paranormal activity has grown from a minor cult hit into a huge mainstream success. It has spawned a host of imitators having to do with the supernatural, made sex symbols of its stars, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, and its hokey catch phrase, "The Truth is Out There" (emphasis on "truth"), has become part of the language. Why do over 40-million otherwise sensible viewers spend an hour every Friday night watching alien abductions, deadly viruses, genetic experiments, and liver-eating mutants?

At first glance, it's difficult to understand how The X-Files stayed on the air long enough to become a hit. The opening credits are a cheesy video montage of ghostly bodies, giant eyeballs, and screaming faces. The plots for the first-season episodes were a pastiche of creaky horror movies -- The Thing, The Silence of the Lambs, The Boys from Brazil, Firestarter -- delivered on a shoestring budget. (It looked as if it was filmed in Canada) In the series' opening episode, we meet Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a lonely and dour young FBI agent and medical doctor who is assigned a new partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), whose nickname at the agency is "Spooky." A once promising agent, Mulder now putters around the FBI basement ("Nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted," he tells Scully) pursuing his pet interest in The X-Files, unsolved cases having to do with unexplained phenomena. Gillian Anderson is short and wide and unfortunately given to wearing high heels with her woolly, FBI-issue pantsuits. David Duchovny's hangdog features appear to have already been caricatured by Mort Drucker in a MAD magazine parody. The delivery of lines is so flat and the action so deliberately muted that it seems as though the entire cast is on Demerol.

And yet The X-Files has become the most talked-about programme on television and the darling of the Internet. On-line fans of The X-Files -- they call themselves X-Philes -- now communicate with the show's creators and with each other on over 100 dedicated web sites. "The X-Files have finally made the Info Age sexy," gushed a recent cover of Shift magazine.

The conventional theory for the show's appeal is that it's more about political paranoia than about unexplained phenomena. (The X-Files turns on the supposition that the government has decided to cover up paranormal activity, and it's left to the two renegade FBI agents to expose the truth.) There have been other television shows about paranoia -- The Prisoner, for example -- but The X-Files came along at a time when a great deal of attention had turned to the kind of conspiracy theories that interpret everything from the siege at Waco to fluoride in the water as part of a sinister plot launched against the citizens of the United States by their own government. There are probably already academics preparing papers on the relationship between The X-Files and the Oklahoma City bombing.

The problem with the Zeitgeist school of criticism is that it doesn't account for taste. The X-Files also succeeds because it's oddly compelling television, morbid, literate, and, at times, extremely funny. But now, in its third season, the series is starting to show the strain of trying to satisfy its inner on-line audience while still appealing to its broader public. In truth, under the weight of its audience's electronic will, the show's producers have lost sight of why The X-Files worked in the first place.

Waco may have brought attention to militant paranoia, but there's nothing new about Americans believing in hidden conspiracies. Thirty years ago, Richard Hofstadter, in his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," noted the common characteristics of conspiracy theories: fear of elites, accusations of sexual abuse, the driving belief that a single sinister plot is "the motive force in historical events."

Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, seems, on the surface, an unlikely character to troll these waters. A former beach bum and contributor to Surfing magazine, he started out wanting to replicate one of his favourite shows from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which starred Darren McGavin as a down-on-his-luck newspaperman investigating the supernatural -- sort of a Rockford X-Files. As it turns out, Carter had a better sense for political undertow: The X-Files isn't paranoia, it's paranoia camp, Carter's grim parody of conspiracy theories.

The series takes the preoccupations of the tabloids -- UFOs, serial killers, birth defects, miracle cures -- up-market. So when Mulder begins to investigate murders that appear to be the work of vampires, he doesn't start poking around cemeteries. He goes to a local pick-up bar and meets a blood fetishist. (It's no longer scary to see Dracula claw his way out of a coffin. Try watching him order a drink in a noisy bar.)

Carter, who directs as well as writes, loads the screen with the visual earmarks of the paranoid style. The scenes shot in the FBI offices are dark and claustrophobic, as if J. Edgar Hoover took all the light bulbs with him. The look owes a lot to Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, right down to Scully and Mulder holding clandestine meetings in an underground parking garage. A mysterious government figure is even given the code name "Deep Throat".

A great deal has been made of the show's reversal of gender roles and of the sexual tension between the two agents. Scully plays the role of the cool rationalist. A half-man/half-alligator found dead in a Florida pool? He suffered from ichthyosis, a rare skin condition. A young boy killed apparently by the curse of a Satanic cult? Munchhausen's by-proxy, a psychological disorder that causes adults to induce illnesses in children. "You really do watch the Discovery Channel," Mulder tells her while he scans the sky for flashing lights. For him, science is the single-shooter theory: the paranormal is his grassy knoll. Scully's the Hester Prynne figure in the drama, trying to live by the puritanical laws of science while Mulder drags her further and further into the dark forest of UFOs and killer mutants. Reluctantly, Scully begins to come around to Mulder's point of view (although she hasn't come around to Mulder yet). Even when she returns to the lab, she's marked by her encounters, as if she's wearing a bright letter A, standing for, in this case, Aliens or, possibly, Abduction.

The show's sexual tension also operates on a darker level. A common characteristic among conspiracy theorists is that they make accusations about sexual deviance and even sexual abuse. The "fantasies of true believers serve as strong sado-masochistic outlets," writes Richard Hofstadter. The X-Files offers up a catalogue of gruesome bodily invasions: alien fetuses, implants, prehistoric insects, strands of extraterrestrial DNA fed into humans, cannibalism, futuristic viruses. There has never been a television series so fascinated with disease and physical degeneration. No episode is complete without Scully performing an autopsy. (She even performs one on an elephant.) By replacing the Close Encounters model of benevolent contact with aliens with the metaphor of infection: what would happen if ET sneezed? -- the show exploits the same elements of post-AIDS anxiety you find in books like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone or movies like Outbreak: the unstoppable epidemic, the failure of science, the culpability of technology, the complicity of the government.

Why, after three seasons, is The X-Files starting to lose its early suggestive power? Part of the problem is the show's popularly on the Internet. (The difference between fans of The X-Files and fans of the original Star Trek is that the Trekkies didn't emerge from their parents' basements until after the show had been canceled.) Carter regularly goes on-line to chat and make suggestions, some of which have made it onto the show itself. Some of these are innocuous enough, jokes about Mulder's collection of dull ties, requests for more information about the character of Deep Throat. But by pandering to its on-line fans, The X-Files runs a risk of turning arch and self-referential. A vague reference made to Mulder possibly cultivating a side-interest in pornography became part of the on-line interpretation of the show. "I would have thought you'd already read that one," Scully says to Mulder in a third-season episode as he flips through a fourteen-year-old's Playboy magazine looking for clues.

The larger problem with The X-Files is that, as the characters get closer to the heart of the mystery, the show's pulse begins to lag. Take, for example, the extraterrestrials. In the early episodes, the only evidence for the aliens is a few unsupported theories, some blinding lights, and some digital static stored in a computer. When they finally do show, they're a crushing disappointment: long-limbed with large heads and big cow eyes, like extras from the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The extraterrestrials on The X-Files present the same dramatic problem as the figure of Jesus in those 1950s Biblical epics: with all that swelling music and heavenly light, the action just grinds to a halt.

The mistake, though, isn't simply making the aliens so banal. By introducing them as concrete fact rather than just glimpsed possibilities, The X-Files has abandoned one of the most interesting aspects of political paranoia, namely, the psychological identification of the theorist with the enemy. The "fundamental paradox of the paranoid style," Hofstadter writes, "is the imitation of the enemy." The anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan don vestments, perform rituals, and establish an almost ecclesiastical hierarchy. Jim Garrison (and later Oliver Stone) fabricates evidence of a conspiracy in order to prove the existence of an invisible government that plotted Kennedy's assassination. The Unabomber kills scientists with sophisticated explosives to propagate his ideas about the dehumanizing effect of technology.

When the series began, Mulder was as compelling a mystery as anything in his X-File cabinet. A lonely insomniac who broods over his own sister's abduction twenty-two years earlier. Mulder was rude, secretive, and obtuse -- even more so than his conspiratorial FBI superiors -- often misdirected in his theories about the paranormal and, once or twice, completely wrong. Looking for little green men, he had become one himself. When he finally does meet the aliens, you half expect them to ask, "What, don't you have a girlfriend? What's the matter with you?"

By the third season, we know that nothing is wrong with Mulder. Aliens have landed, his sister was abducted, and the government is up to no good. That ambiguity gone, The X-Files has lost the eerie fatality that propelled it through its first two seasons. The conspiracies now are cardboard. In place of the invisible hands of government power, the authorities offered by The X-Files now are sleazy prison wardens and dumb-ass local sheriffs. Scully, who herself has been abducted and returned by aliens, no longer offers plausible alternatives to Mulder's crazy theories. The truth isn't out there, it's just out. Mulder isn't "spooky" any more. Where's the fun in that?