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In the Dark

Looking back at The X-Files on its 20th anniversary

What I remember first about that year is the darkness of the nights. We would pile into a car and if we all had late enough curfews we would drive out of town, past the last light, on some country road we didn’t know the name of, fields and stars as far as we could see. When there was a lightning storm on the plains we’d drive toward it, watching moon-colored omens craze across the sky; otherwise light was what instinct led us to avoid. My friend had an ancient and indestructible Oldsmobile the color of a polluted lake and we would drive it as fast as we could down unlit alleyways and crash into other people’s trash cans. We would buy grape Slushes at Sonic and sneak into the park off Canterbury Avenue, across from the golf course, where we’d sit among the trees and tell each other stupid and wonderful things. We had been there as children hardly any time ago; now, in the dark, it was transformed. If you’ve ever been 17, and especially if you’ve ever been 17 in a small town, you’ve had your own year of dark nights. But when you are 17, and especially when you are 17 in a small town, you believe that there is opening before you a mysterious and uncharted realm that exists for you alone. You and your friends are conspirators in a shadow country.

I didn’t watch The X-Files, which premiered that fall, 20 years ago now, on September 10, 1993. I was wasting time at an advanced enough level not to need help from television. But The X-Files was there, in the background, for that year and for several years after it. In my memory of that time it seems to be running, muted, on every TV in every room I enter after dark. We are huddled around a phone trying to figure out whether there are such things as girls we might plausibly call, and in the other room we see the back of my friend’s mother’s head and Mulder’s and Scully’s faces staring out at us. Years later, when I watched the show in sequence, I never minded the incoherence of the main story line, which infuriated longtime fans, because I was already used to imagining the series as a montage of empty atmosphere, and in fact I had fallen half in love with it as such. The show’s cinematography, lush by today’s standards and astonishing in 1993, looked shadowed and moody, and because Scully’s expression was a striking combination of horror and numbness and bravery and trauma, none of which we had experienced and all of which we wanted to pretend we had experienced, nothing could have seemed more natural than that the show would move along the margins of our secret world. Although if you had asked me whether we were the border surrounding it or it was the border surrounding us, I would not have known the answer.

The names alone were thrilling — fittingly, since as I later learned no show was ever less eager to violate its characters’ anonymity. Mulder and Scully: Somehow they were both left-field and all-American, weird and out of time and stylish. They could have been in Bringing Up Baby or they could have been rock stars or they could have been murder victims in a film noir. (That year, I went to every old movie that played in our town’s converted vaudeville theater.) And they were deep, they were haunted with overtones. Mulder with its echoes of mull (to ponder) and molder (to decay, to turn to dust), and Scully with its obvious skull.1 Not watching the show, I still knew its major gimmicks, that the heroes were FBI agents investigating the paranormal, that Mulder was the intuitive one who believed in telepathy and aliens and Scully was the skeptical one who didn’t, and it resonated because something like that conflict was at work in our lives, too. If we made fun of The X-Files for the simplicity of its contrast between “belief” and “science,” it was because our own experience was just that simple, and because unlike Mulder and Scully we had no language wherein to discuss it.

I took pride in being furiously rational. At the same time I often felt that my sanity was a mirage and that with one second’s concentration I could dispel it forever, like smoke. Mulder and Scully argued about whether the craft that went down in the dark woods of Wisconsin was a UFO, while we drove at midnight to the old Robin Hood Flour plant by the train tracks, a looming tower of rusted cylinders deserted before we were born, and argued about whether to break in. Mulder and Scully uncovered monsters in the timberlands of Oregon and Virginia and Maine, while in Oklahoma we told stories about the murderous spirit who haunted the reservation in the form of a beautiful woman. Known as Deer Woman, she could run alongside vehicles on the highway and if you caught a flicker of movement and looked over into the next lane and made eye contact she would steal your soul, which sounds comical until the moment when you are painfully young and driving at night down a road with no other cars.

We had been lied to so often that we spent half our time seeing through lies, but inexplicable things still happened. We had been told not to understand things we understood, and at the same time we knew that there was more to the world than anyone was willing to tell us. The truth was somewhere, and perhaps it was mundane and perhaps it was magical, but then when you are 17 in a small town, magic is never very far out of reach.

And then there was the big thing, the one that was omnipresent in our town, the one The X-Files groped toward but never quite knew what to do with. When our Life Sciences class arrived at the unit on evolution, our teacher, who was also and primarily the wrestling coach, made it clear that he was continuing under protest. He held a piece of chalk as he said this, and stabbed mildly at the air with it.

We were all free, he said, “to not necessarily buy into what’s in the book.” Half the class nodded and looked grim. I remember with a vividness that makes my stomach drop chasing after a girl to a raft retreat in some hills three hours from town, my first experience with real evangelicals. My friend and I lost our way looking for the cabin and arrived in the middle of the night. There had already been some kind of bonfire and a sing-along with the youth leader’s guitar and now the teenagers were all spread out in the dark summer air, under humid masses of trees, communing with the Spirit. They each held an arm up, unsteady antennas. There was excitement when we appeared because an angel had come down to dance with one of the girls and we were the first audience for the story. No, they insisted, you couldn’t see the angel, but you could tell it was there, she wasn’t just reaching her arms out, she was holding on to something. I went rigid with contempt, at which point the youth leader, whose name was R.J., got out his guitar again and tried to win me over by sing-talking about Bono. I spent the night in a rough wooden bunk in a room with five or six earnest boys from farm towns, across the house from the girls, and if this had been an X-Files episode, if the roof had split open and the floodlights of a UFO pounded down on us, I’m not sure whether I or they would have felt more vindicated.

Of course what I didn’t know then was that The X-Files rigged its own central question, that the dichotomy of science vs. belief never resolved in favor of the former. Scully was always wrong, always, and most episodes let you know she was wrong before she even appeared onscreen, before she had a chance to speak. The liver-eating immortal bile-mutant would slither through the air conditioner shaft toward its victim in a shot whose objectivity was not tainted by the presence of a perspective character, and then we’d cut to FBI headquarters, where Mulder, in his Ambien-furred morning voice, was saying, “Hey, Scully, what if the killer’s some kind of bile-mutant,” and Scully would look stricken and respond with a theory about swamp gas or atmospheric contaminants, a theory so self-evidently lame that the viewer was not even expected to remember it. Scully’s wrongness and the show’s determination to see the paranormal everywhere unwittingly reversed the whole polarity of the series: It became clear before long that what Scully meant by “science” was not “the scientific method” or “testing hypotheses based on observable evidence” — an approach that would lead you to believe in ghosts by about the 30th time you saw one — but simply “the canon of currently accepted scientific knowledge,” which bizarrely became the show’s most tenuous article of faith.

But as I said, I found that out only later, after I’d left my hometown for good. And by that time I was already discovering how wrong I often was, too.

You could argue, and I would almost agree with you, that beneath all the obvious post-Watergate, post-JFK assassination government-conspiracy machinery, the real subject of The X-Files‘ stylized paranoia was the American city’s anxiety toward small towns. The show out-noired noir by recognizing that the most extreme context for modern alienation was not the mean streets of the detective story but a white-collar bureaucracy that extended infinitely above the main protagonists — literally into space — and that threatened to control them without their knowing how or why. But Mulder and Scully spent most of their working hours, especially in the stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes that made up the bulk of the series, pursuing mysteries in Lake Okobogee, Iowa (where Ruby Morris was abducted by aliens in “Conduit”), or Delta Glen, Wisconsin (where the agents investigated a cult in “Red Museum”), or Miller’s Grove, Massachusetts (where cockroaches attacked humans in “War of the Coprophages”). The strangeness and isolation of small towns was a theme the series returned to again and again, enough that Darin Morgan, the show’s cleverest writer,2 could already subvert the concept by the second season, when, in “Humbug,” he sent Mulder and Scully to a town populated by circus freaks whose behavior was surprisingly normal.

In this show about not knowing, then, the agents confronted two distinct sets of frightening unknowns. On one side was the shadow government represented by the Cigarette-Smoking Man. On the other was the evil that lurked beneath the surface of every American hamlet. Often, Mulder and Scully’s role was simply to act as interpreters between their own antagonists, rendering chaotic eruptions of small-town horror comprehensible to men in marble corridors in D.C. Think of all the shots of the heroes in their oversize ’90s glasses laboring at their field reports, or again of all the shots of them cruising through a hostile rural enclave in businesslike topcoats and a sensible rented Buick.

The X-Files was probably the first great TV show to be galvanized by the Internet and the last great TV show to depict a world in which the Internet played no part. Its fan culture found a home online early in the series’ run, but though the role of computers became both more central and more realistic as the show progressed,3 it was possible at least through the fifth season or so to see the Web as a distraction, something with no important bearing on anyone’s life. Remember when you could turn it on and off? We often credit the Internet with the disintegration of the old American monoculture, because it liberated us to be absorbed by our own interests, to spend our time downloading obscure anime, say, rather than caring about Madonna or ABC. But the Internet also created a new type of monoculture: It made every place accessible to every other place. We could no longer assume that the peculiarities of our own environments were private. Our hometown murders might appear on The world of small-town X-Files episodes is still that older world of extreme locality, where everyone in town grows up knowing that the rules here are different and we handle it ourselves. Children vanish or trees kill people or bright lights appear in the sky, but there is no higher authority to appeal to and it has nothing to do with what goes on 10 miles down the road. In my hometown we knew that the spillway by the lake was where you painted a memorial if your friend was killed in a drunk-driving crash. It’s the same thing. Here is here. And this, it goes without saying, is just the opposite of the here-is-everywhere world inhabited by the conspiracy, which is global in scale, utterly connected, and ruled by pseudonymous men whose flat-affect, no-eye-contact meetings were almost the personification of a chat window.4

The small-town grotesques in the series lived with secrets. The Syndicate curated them. Almost more than belief and science, the sustaining tension in The X-Files is between two manifestations of the American psyche, one fading and the other just taking form, as they encounter one another for the first time and recoil in horror.

One day in the spring of my senior year of high school, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. I was not at home, having left that morning on a trip to visit colleges. It was the first time I had been on an airplane.

There was something wrong with the government, we all knew that. Some injustice or some imbalance, some flaw too deep to be named, seemed inherent almost in the landscape. The silos spoke of it and the trucks spoke of it and the big sagging barrels in the fields that were hay bales spoke of it, and the oil wells rolling their shoulders on the horizon thought of it but didn’t know what to say. The TV above the Super Mario Bros. machine at Mazzio’s played a never-ending montage of police swinging batons, Los Angeles burning, the white Bronco gliding down the freeway, oil fires in Kuwait, and when our fathers sometimes pulled their tables together they smiled terse smiles over their pizza and talked about taxes and said it was coming on time for a change. If we borrowed their cars and forgot to hit the preset for KMOD or KOSU we might catch ourselves listening to hypnotic radio hosts who claimed that the president was mad, a cokehead and a murderer, none of which we could prove or disprove, it was all so far away. The margins of knowledge receded into a distance that left the feeling of wrong intact but removed the explanation. Mulder and Scully still dressed as if they were going to church, in the same spirit that caused Christmas lights to appear above our porches every December, but it was off somehow, untenable. We had learned about the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence but felt obscurely that we could no longer believe in them. We felt even more obscurely that this was a loss that had been in some way inflicted on us. What we had thought were our best habits now seemed merely the bones of a world whose skin was falling away.

This is why I stopped at saying that I would almost agree with you if you thought The X-Files‘ paranoia had to do with cities and small towns. For all their differences, the series’ two realms shared a basic assumption about America, which was that in its essence it was still meant to be the country found in, say, Frank Capra movies: white, Christian, family-based, governed by old men. This was a status quo that was already doomed, though still superficially in effect, when the show began. Mulder and Scully function as its representatives, figures of a weird reactionary beauty, struggling to understand and then prevent the profound transformation breaking out across their world. Earth is not alone, aliens are among us, our way of life is under threat; is it so hard to locate within these sources of terror the sense of a vanishing historical phase? Think of the way Mulder and Scully have chemistry but not sex:5 Sex implies procreation, a future, a continuity that their experiences have destroyed. (When Scully discovers that she had a child in Season 5, it’s an alien hybrid, created from harvested eggs.) Instead, they move in the dark with a sort of numbed longing, whispering to each other through cell phones, not a hair out of place.

I went to college on the East Coast and spent four unhappy years watching dirty snow pile up on sidewalks. The day the plane landed freshman year I had a melodramatic impression that my life was over and in fact it was, at least as I remembered it. I spent a great deal of time remembering, an absurd amount of time. I did not know — because I had still not watched The X-Files, had still seen it only in the background of things — that Mulder’s obsession was just as wrong as Scully’s: There are forms of resistance that hasten the disappearance of the thing they are trying to preserve. Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens when he was 12, and his monomaniacal quest to find her underlies the plot of much of the series. But it leads him into a world of conspiracies and lies that annihilates his ability to experience the world as he knew it before she was taken. Trying to prove the reality of his loss makes the loss the only thing that’s real to him. It costs him his personal life, his friendships, his career. The show repeatedly underlines the self-defeating tendency of Mulder’s work.6 Innocents die (Scully’s sister in “The Blessing Way”), monsters are freed by the system (Eugene Victor Tooms, the liver-eating mutant, in “Squeeze”), the truth retreats from view (in “Gethsemane,” for instance, when the conspiracy manipulates Mulder into suspecting that everything he’s learned about the conspiracy is a lie planted by the conspiracy).

“What is more precise than precision?” Marianne Moore asks in a poem. “Illusion.” In the same vein Albert Einstein said that all true science begins in “the sensation of the mystical.” But The X-Files was never interested in science. I remember as clearly as anything a night when one of my best friends showed up at the ice cream parlor with a goldfish. His parents had just been divorced and he was assigned to do a school project with a girl and in a sort of helpless gesture of sympathy the girl had brought him a fish. She hadn’t thought as far as a bowl so they were taking it around in the plastic bag from the shop. It was the most beautiful thing. We ate our sundaes and it sort of hovered there, this bright discrepancy. Recently I asked my friend about this and he couldn’t remember that it had ever happened, or he said that it seemed vaguely familiar but he couldn’t recall any details. His girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, had no memory of it at all. Neither did anyone else I talked to. Was it real? Did I invent it somewhere? Possibly these are the wrong questions to ask. Possibly there are no questions, and it is simply that the wound of the past never closes, and that time is gone forever. My friend who did or did not have a goldfish was the one who eventually introduced me to The X-Files. But that time is gone. Of course it’s gone, of course it is.

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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