By Daniel Ferreras Savoye
Contrary to the commonly accepted understanding, the popular TV show The X-Files is in reality much closer to fantasy than to science fiction, as its narrative authority is built on the opposition between the believable and the impossible, rather than on anticipatory speculation or space fantasy adventures. A close structural analysis of the series’ main paradigms demonstrates how the narrative universe of The X-Files perfectly illustrates the most fundamental traits of a modern fantasy, by administering supernatural elements – including aliens – within a hyperrealistic environment in order to suggest the failure of our epistemological tools when confronted with the unknown.
Keywords: The X-Files; fantasy; hyperreality; unexplainable phenomena; structural analysis
Contrary to the common notion shared by authors and fans alike, the series The X-Files is much closer to fantasy than to science fiction, as the narrative tension that most episodes rely on is the result of the opposition between what is accepted as possible and what defies our understanding of reality rather than of the defamiliarization created by an entirely new universe. Compare the narrative settings of Star Trek – a fine example of space fantasy – or of Black Mirror – a good instance of dystopian anticipation – with that of The X-Files in order to see the profound differences between space fantasy or anticipatory fiction and fantasy when it comes to the representation of reality. Just as ghosts do not make fantasy, as shown by Casper the Friendly Ghost or Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” aliens do not make science fiction. In the case of The X-Files, the elusive presence of an extraterrestrial life form, underlined by Mulder’s personal tragedy – the loss of his sister Samantha, who is allegedly abducted by aliens – merely functions as a recurring supernatural element that disrupts what appears otherwise to be a highly identifiable universe, thus creating the narrative tension characteristic of fantasy.
The very raison d’être of The X-Files is to attempt to explain the unexplainable, which remains the fundamental narrative dynamics of fantasy narration, as exemplified by Maupassant’s “Le Horla” or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The irruption of a supernatural element in everyday reality is not enough by itself to create the characteristic narrative tension of fantasy, it must also be perceived as unacceptable and, as the narration progresses, elicit our constant attempts to reduce it to rational terms. Most episodes of The X-Files are built on this specific pattern and consequently, the series as a whole constitutes an exemplary corpus of study to illustrate many fundamental traits of fantasy.
In both form and content, The X-Files illustrates quite clearly Maupassant’s forerunning conception of the modern fantastic mode, which, in order to be effective, must “… de troubler avec des faits naturels où reste pourtant quelque chose d’inexpliqué et de presque impossible” (“… disturb with natural facts, where still remains something unexplained, almost impossible”) (Chroniques, “Le Fantastique” [“The Fantastic”]). If Maupassant clearly perceives the acute difference between the fantastic and marvelous modes, he does not however distinguish fantasy from the uncanny, which is one category of realism that does not include the possibility of the impossible within its narrative universe. Nonetheless, Maupassant’s view points to the paradoxical importance of realistic elements and their fundamental role within the economy of fantasy narration: fantasy must appear realistic in order to establish narrative authority by contrasting the possible and the impossible, constantly flirting with the possibility of an extreme, uncanny representation of reality, which does not, however, transgress any physical laws. Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” comes to mind, and it is significant that Maupassant cited the author of “The Raven” a few lines apart from his definition of fantasy. Regardless of how improbable the story of “The Cask of Amontillado” might appear to be, as it is that of a man walling in another man alive, it does not escape the laws of our reality and thus corresponds to the realistic mode of narration. In spite of the many misconceptions it defends, such as the disappearance of fantasy at the end of the nineteenth century or its substitution by psychoanalysis, which would then have to be considered as a literary genre in itself, Todorov’s canonical study, Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique, establishes a clear and useful distinction between fantasy and realism in its uncanny modality, citing some of Poe’s short stories as good examples of the latter, complementing Maupassant’s original description. It is indeed much easier to confuse fantasy with the uncanny than with science fiction or the marvelous, since ultimately, fantasy depends on a loyal representation of an easily identifiable reality in order to make the impossible seem almost possible.
The X-Files perfectly embodies the conception of the modern fantasy that Maupassant anticipated by administering the supernatural paradigms in the subtlest way, in order to preserve constant tension between the believable and the unbelievable. Naturally, supernatural elements have become more discrete than ever: the receptor of today is even more skeptical than the already disillusioned reader of the late nineteenth century, who, according to Maupassant, could no longer be seduced or frightened by the legends of yesteryear and needed to be presented with a believable narrative universe in order to accept the possibility of the supernatural. Consequently, some episodes of The X-Files are to be considered uncanny rather than fantasy, s they reduce the supernatural dimension to such an extent that it sometimes disappears, as in one of the most disturbing entries of the series, “Home,” which presents the life and times of a terrifyingly grotesque inbred family. It does not include any supernatural element in its narrative universe and hence cannot be considered to be fantasy. This particular episode could even be deemed naturalistic, since it exploits a thematic staple of naturalism, the degeneration of a family, and it uses a characteristically harsh descriptive style for the most sordid and perturbing aspects of reality, both to be found in the works of the founder of naturalism himself, Émile Zola, which caused some scandal at the end of the nineteenth century – not unlike the backlash that “Home” stirred when it was first aired. This particular episode also reminds us of the infamous Leatherface and his family, from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which, for all its gore and horrid images, still remains within the boundaries of reality, however perturbing it may be. The abnormal is not the supernatural, and some of the monsters that populate The X-Files are indeed human and possible. But not all.
The X Format
From an onomastic point of view, the title of The X-Files functions very much like that of The Twilight Zone: while the words “file” and “zone” belong to an administrative register and suggest precision and cataloging, the terms “X” and “Twilight” emphasize the unknown, the imprecise, and the indeterminate. Within its very title, the show suggests the basic opposition that underlies fantasy: that of the known against the unknown. This opposition is found again within the most fundamental structural elements of the narration, namely the characters of Mulder and Scully. Mulder being the believer and Scully the skeptic allows for the tension between what is rationally acceptable and what is not, which becomes dynamically and dialectically articulated throughout their interaction. By their very pairing, the two main characters of the show embody the most basic opposition indispensable to fantasy: while Scully represents a normalized, unidimensional view of reality, Mulder welcomes – embraces even – the possibility of the unbelievable: hence the famous “I Want to Believe” poster that decorates his basement office. Mulder’s desire to pursue the apparently “unreal” echoes the aesthetic intent of fantasy, which could be summed up as the ultimate attempt of narrative defamiliarization. Mulder as a narrative function is essentially motivated by his need to demonstrate the existence of the rationally unacceptable, as if familiar reality – the day-to-day operations of what is, after all, a bureaucratic institution known for its lack of sense of humor and imagination, the FBI – were simply not enough. Mulder and his desperate need to escape familiar epistemology is an example of the fundamental formalist concept of defamiliarization, the sensation that art must produce in the receptor in order to defeat the “anaesthetizing” effect of familiar reality, which is disrupted by the irruption of supernatural occurrences in fantasy.
Formally speaking, The X-Files corresponds to the traditional shorter form favored by fantasy, both textually and cinematographically, which allows the creator to present and maintain a binary opposition between the possible and the impossible without the need to resolve it, promoting uncertainty and unbalance. It could be argued that Stoker’s novel Dracula is far from the short story format practiced by Poe (“Ligeia,” “Morella”), Guy de Maupassant, or H.P. Lovecraft; however, not only is it a fairly isolated example for its time, but also, its narrative structure, which allows for a variety of both voices and tones, allows for a constant change of perspective that implicitly fragments its unity. Until Stephen King (i.e., Carrie, Needful Things, Pet Sematary, and Christine), the modern fantasy has been perfectly suited to a shorter format, and still is in the cinematographic realm, as proven by the popular Creepshow (1982), written by Stephen King, Tales from the Hood (1995), and the more recent American Nightmares (2018). The short format is highly privileged in fantasy as it prevents the supernatural elements that produce the fantastic effect from overpowering the essential realistic dimension of the narration and helps preserve the fundamental tension between the real and the unreal.
Similarly to Jean Ray’s The Adventures of Harry Dickson, which pitted a rational detective against irrational enigmas, The X-Files also illustrates by its very structure the parallelism between fantasy and realism in its detective fiction modality: just like a detective story, fantasy narration presents a mystery and an attempt to solve it, which often involves some type of investigation, as we see in Dracula and Maupassant’s “Le Horla,” where the protagonist attempts to understand the nature of the ghost that haunts his nights by collecting the clues it leaves behind and setting nightly traps to prove his own theories to himself. In the final analysis, what distinguishes fantasy from uncanny realism in detective fiction is the fundamental impossibility of closing the narrative structure: whereas detective fiction always presents a satisfactory explanation for what appeared to be unexplained, fantasy does not, and the unexplained remains the unexplainable – and this is amply demonstrated by the traditionally open-ended report that concludes many The X-Files episodes.
By framing the supernatural occurrence within the rigid, hyperrealistic environment of an FBI investigation, The X-Files introduces one more level of credibility to the narration: the protagonists of a fantasy adventure benefit from the rational seriousness we usually associate with the Bureau. The computer font captions on the bottom of the screen, which introduce time and/or place at the beginning of each episode, formally complement this administrative atmosphere, unidimensional by definition, by reducing the narrative context to mere topographic and chronological information and promoting the identification of the receptor with a realistic, not to say excessively dehumanizingly rational, environment. By openly merging two very similar, albeit antithetical, narrative structures – the detective story and the fantastic tale – The X-Files, just like Jean Ray’s adventures of Harry Dickson, benefits from the positivist premises of this particular narrative category, which in turns enhances the epistemological rupture generated by the supernatural occurrence by radicalizing the terms of its fundamental binary opposition: FBI agents are supposedly more rational than average citizens and are trained to investigate the unexplained. The possibility of the supernatural event is hence all the more convincing and consequently, more threatening than ever when it defeats official representative figures of law and order, whose mere presence by itself already reinforces narrative authority – indeed, if we cannot trust the FBI, then, whom can we trust?
As most typical protagonists in fantasy, and in spite of being apparently covered by the administrative authority of the all mighty Bureau, Mulder and Scully are usually isolated in their confrontation with the supernatural and the opposition they encounter, especially within their own organization. This is a recurrent paradigm of the series, corresponding to a definite tendency of the mode: the protagonist of fantasy adventures is typically isolated, confronted by collective disbelief, as his or her conception of reality has irremediably shifted, along with the epistemological certainties that go with it. In The X-Files, this opposition is already a given, not only due to Scully’s decidedly skeptical frame of mind, but also because she has been expressly assigned to the X-files to keep an eye on “Spooky Mulder”: that is, to debunk his assertions regarding the possibility of the impossible. The FBI functions as both the repository and administrator of the official normalized epistemological order, which cannot admit any supernatural occurrence. The fact that some of its highest, most powerful, and shadowy figures, such as the Cigarette Smoking Man, work to hide the evidence of any rationally unacceptable phenomenon only enhance the possibility of the latter’s existence, by causing the unknown to become closer and more tangible: it is undeniably there, even if it solely remains out of our reach due to a conspiracy at the highest levels.
As the series progresses, the opposition between the agents and their superiors becomes more acute and creates a supplementary layer of narrative tension that parallels the basic conflict between the possible and the impossible that we find at the core of most episodes. Nevertheless, Mulder and Scully, as narrative functions, are indissociable from the FBI, which still represents the ultimate, unequivocal authority, above that of local law enforcement. In spite of their bordering-on-rebellious attitude and their often precarious position vis-à-vis their superiors, they are still endorsed by the Bureau and directly benefit from its immediate semiotic value: they officially represent the rejection of the unexplainable – it is, after all, their job – while at the same time accepting the possibility of its existence. In fantasy narrative structure, these two FBI agents – the skeptic and the believer – represent the two somewhat conflicting sides of Jean Ray’s Harry Dickson, the detective of the unknown, who struggles to successfully rationalize the uncanny but often must accept a side of reality that escapes acceptable epistemology. Although Mulder and Scully are constantly confronted by events they cannot possibly comprehend, they remain Bureau employees, subject to rules and regulations and implicitly normalized. While they do not always follow procedure, they regularly face and endure the administrative consequences of their misconduct. Besides their concern for rules and regulations, which are never absent from their actions, Mulder and Scully also look and dress the part of official bureaucratic servants, in their formal and usually sober attires – they could be lawyers or accountants – and usually adopt a rather dry, flat attitude. If we are indeed occasionally treated to some wit, the series emphasizes seriousness over humor, in order to preserve the fundamental frame of fantasy, i.e., a realistic representation of reality – and a fun FBI is not realistic.
Given that the protagonist of fantasy narration is usually an unremarkable individual in order to establish narrative authority by promoting identification with the receptor, the protagonists of The X-Files – just like Jean Ray’s Harry Dickson – present an interesting compromise. Although Mulder and Scully are doubtlessly intelligent and intellectually well-prepared, they do not, on the other hand, exhibit any particularly remarkable qualities, either physical or mental: they are incapable of the physical prowess of action heroes and their deductive capabilities are usually defeated by supernatural occurrences. They are fundamentally unprepared to deal with the unknown, which often causes them to fall victims to their own investigation, as happens in “Darkness Falls” (Season 1, Ep. 20), where Mulder and Scully are attacked by nightly swarms of nearly microscopic insects in the depths of the Washington State National Forest, or in “Field Trip” (Season 6, Ep. 21), where they are in the process of being devoured in the fields of North Carolina by a monstrous spore-type organism that subdues its victims by making them hallucinate while drenching them in digestive acids. In both instances, the helpless, evidently overwhelmed agents owe their lives to an external rescue mission, and their powerlessness when confronted by the supernatural occurrence corresponds perfectly to that of the typical protagonist of fantastic adventures.
We find the same pattern in “Død Kalm” (Season 2, Ep. 19), which shows the agents stranded on a ghost ship in the Norwegian Sea, prey to a mysterious oxidizing agent that accelerates the aging process and turns them into two utterly decrepit individuals, who grow increasingly feeble until they lose consciousness, in spite of Scully’s desperate efforts to trace the origin of the process. After they are rescued by the Navy and wake up in a hospital, Scully is told by a physician that the notes she took during the event helped establish the protocol that brought her and Mulder back to life, restoring some usefulness to the alleged heroes of the fantastic event. However, once again, the agents’ survival was contingent upon the intervention of an external, well-equipped force, which tends to intervene as a deus ex machina to save the day and the heroes of the series. “Død Kalm” was critiqued upon its release for this reason, as the in extremis rescue of the heroes appeared to be quite unbelievable, consequently provoking a loss of narrative authority. What has gone so far unnoticed, however, is that the main paradigms of “Død Kalm” – a ghost ship and the ravages of decrepitude – are the same as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “M.S. Found in a Bottle,” which tells the tale of a shipwreck victim in a mysterious sea near the South Pole, who washes up onto the deck of an enormous ship manned by an utterly decrepit crew:
Like the one I had at first seen in the hold, they all bore about them the marks of a hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity, their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude, their shrivelled skins rattled in the wind, their voices were low, tremulous, and broken, their eyes glistened with the rheum of years, and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. (134)
Unlike some of Poe’s most well-known stories of the uncanny persuasion, “MS Found in a Bottle” belongs to the fantastic mode, as it describes the impossible in a realistic manner and establishes narrative tension by confronting the narrator with a series of incomprehensible phenomena that defeat his understanding, despite his constant efforts to rationalize his situation by exploring the mysterious ship, just like in “Død Kalm.” As another interesting coincidence, Poe’s story features a Swedish sailor, the only member of the crew along with the narrator to survive the original shipwreck, similar to the Norwegian sailor who takes Mulder and Scully aboard the abandoned ship in “Død Kalm.” Furthermore, the beginning of Poe’s tale presents a deadly calm sea, “As night came on, every breath of wind died away, and a more entire calm it is impossible to conceive” (129), which describes the overall context of “Død Kalm” and perfectly illustrates its title. Naturally, Poe’s story ends up in tears as the monstrous ship and its geriatric crew are swallowed by a gigantic ice vortex, a coherent, logical ending to the epistemological crisis generated by the unknown and which would have suited the narrative structure of “Død Kalm,” were it not for the necessity to keep the intrepid Mulder and Scully alive for the next episode.
The agents’ defeat can also be more subdued, as in “Bad Blood” (Season 5, Ep. 12), which shows Mulder and Scully drugged and fooled by a clandestine colony of vampires who escape their vigilance as effortlessly as they elude their understanding. This episode is narrated from a dual point of view, presenting Mulder and Scully getting their stories straight before appearing in front of their supervisor and emphasizing the impossibility of adjusting the supernatural to one single objective description, further alienating the subject from reality. Not only has this highly suspect group of bloodsuckers easily slipped away from their grasp, but the agents themselves cannot agree on what they have witnessed, as the supernatural occurrence resists a satisfying description. Ultimately, Mulder and Scully are just as epistemologically defenseless against the unknown as any typical protagonist in fantasy. Their originality stems from the fact that they are simultaneously with and against the FBI, and so the supernatural is both accepted and rejected by the Bureau, which stands for the ultimate referee of the acceptable, official truth. Nevertheless, at the end of the day – literally – Mulder and Scully display their ultimate normality by filing in their traditional report as good governments employees ought to.
As we can see, and despite all appearances, the protagonists of The X-Files correspond to the profile of the typical protagonist of fantastic narration, who is more average than exceptional, and more victim rather than vanquisher. He or she is confronted with a phenomenon beyond the limits of his or her customary perception and understanding of reality, which naturally renders him or her powerless. For all their apparent resentment with the establishment, Mulder and Scully are not exceptional enough to leave the Bureau and are implicitly normalized by the nature of their social occupation – they might carry guns, but they remain legal bureaucrats.
Monsters and Aliens
The supernatural threat in The X-Files is represented in a diversity of manners, ranging from unexplainable freakish mutations to the equally incomprehensible technological betrayal, and the eventuality of its mere existence is usually enough to justify and sustain the narration. Many of these impossible occurrences could be classified in two main categories: monsters and science gone wrong, both embodied by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, albeit in a romantic, pre-modern fantasy that soon transfers the narrative conflict from the opposition between the possible and the impossible to the decidedly more abstract and openly philosophical considerations of the true nature of love and consciousness, responding to its fundamental romantic intent. Nonetheless, because of its physically impossible genesis, Frankenstein’s monster remains a supernatural creature, in opposition to Notre Dame de Paris’ Quasimodo or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and somewhat prefigures Maupassant’s “Le Horla,” Stoker’s Dracula, and most of the creatures Mulder and Scully confront throughout their adventures. Fantasy monsters are not “acceptable” ones, like hunchbacks or disfigured psychopaths – both anomalies of nature created by nature itself – but entirely inconceivable creatures, severed from any known mechanism of evolution, such as those encountered in “Squeeze” (Season 1, Ep. 3) and “Host” (Season 2, Ep. 2), which feature, respectively, a man capable of elongating his body to the point of penetrating homes through small ventilation conduits (the elastic man) and a half-human half-worm creature that lives in the sewers of Newark (the flukeman). Besides his ability to stretch his body, the elastic man seems to have achieved immortality by surviving on a diet of fresh human liver, and the flukeman is apparently capable of regeneration after being sliced in half. Both of these creatures are clearly beyond the realm of human understanding and will remain so until the end, as the closing shots of both episodes, typical of cinematographic fantasy narrations, do not resolve anything, but rather suggest further unexplainable confrontations in the future: Tooms – the elastic man – is shown smiling at the slot in the door through which he has just been handed food, and the top half of the flukeman, lost in a sewer somewhere, opens his eyes just before the end credits start rolling. It is clear that the elastic man should be able to stretch his way out of jail and that the flukeman was not killed after being severed in half – and, sure enough, both characters later reappear, the first in “Tooms” (Season 1, Ep. 21) and the second in a 2013 comic book series, X-Files Season 10.
The monsters that appear in The X-Files are characteristic of fantasy since they do not belong to any naturally pre-established category of abnormality – unlike Quasimodo or Leatherface. We find reminiscences of stock figures, a bit of vampirism and lycanthropy here and there (“Bad Blood,” Season 5, Ep. 12, “Shapes,” Season 1, Ep. 19, and “X-Cops,” Season 7, Ep. 12), plus a fair amount of old local mysteries and folk tales and traditions, which are consistently recontextualized in our reality, and hence, clearly severed from their marvelous origin. Some of The X-Files monsters can even have perfectly mundane appearances, as with a soft-spoken gardener who is in reality a dangerous and unexplainable pyrokinetic freak (“Fire,” Season 1, Ep. 12) or an innocent little girl who turns out to be the reincarnation of a dead policeman seeking vengeance (“Born Again,” Season 1, Ep. 22). To better distinguish true supernatural monstrosity from its human counterpart, the series even presents the FBI’s own monstrous character, morally speaking, under the guise of “the Smoking Man,” an absolute sociopath with a high ranking position and invulnerable status, and whose taste for lies and deceptions and hatred for human life is demonstrated throughout the series. The Smoking Man is indeed an ethical monster, as inhuman as can be, but unfortunately also very realistic.
In a more modernist fashion, The X-Files also incorporates what could be described as scientific fantasy, which breaks down the limits of our epistemological certainties by introducing an impossible phenomenon with a scientific alibi, as for instance in H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or in many of Jean Ray’s tales of Harry Dickson. A bit before it became fashionable to exploit the betrayal of artificial intelligence (AI), The X-Files dug into the subject from the very first season with “Ghost in the Machine” (Season 1, Ep. 7), where a Central Operating System-based AI technology has become sentient and starts killing its main operators in order not to be shut down, and again in the fifth season with “Kill Switch” (Ep. 11), where another AI uses satellite-based laser beams to destroy its enemies. Although the AI paradigm might suggest the anticipatory mode, i.e., science fiction, it is treated here in the fantastic mode, as yet one more unexplainable parcel of reality that resists rational understanding until the very end: in the tradition of the fantastic, wide-open narrative structure, both episodes conclude with the AI coming back to life, as a definite promise of more incomprehensible digital evil to come. In science fiction, this would be the beginning rather than the end, and the narrative tension would be based on the conflict between the humans and the AI, as in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its cinematographic adaptation, Blade Runner, or as in the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix. In fantasy, however, it is the impossibility of reducing observed phenomena to rational terms that creates narrative tension: the story ends once the existence of this impossibility has been clearly established. When using a scientific alibi, fantasy ends precisely where science fiction begins.
This is perhaps most explicit in The X-Files’ treatment of the alien motif, the presence of which might explain in great part why the show was perceived and is still often categorized as “science fiction,” which is quite an uncanny classification when one considers that some of the most memorable episodes of the show have nothing to do with any extraterrestrial presence. In the economy of the overall narration, the alien shines by its absence, and the episodes devoted to its possible presence on earth remain just as inconclusive as the others. In the same fashion as the AI narrative motif, the alien paradigm functions as another possibility of the impossible in The X-Files universe and is rarely shown and almost never directly confronted. Incidentally, one might wonder why the extraterrestrial creatures – whenever they finally physically appear – is always dead or dying; as beings allegedly of a superior intelligence capable of intergalactic travel, one must deduce that these aliens are remarkably bad pilots or, at least, fairly unprepared for space exploration. But fantasy narration is not about some superior intelligence, it is rather about the limitations of our own, and within the highly realistic universe of The X-Files, aliens are just one more unexplainable monster, which fulfills the same narrative function as microscopic cannibalistic insects, gelatinous spores digesting humans while making them hallucinate, or a wormlike humanoid born in a sewer out of a radioactive soup. They are tangible proof that we do not fully comprehend our own reality and that our reason – our epistemology – is simply not enough to confront the unknown.
The Truth is Somewhere
Other than a few punctual exceptions, the opening credits of The X-Files, including those revamped for the eleventh and final season, end with the well-known tag line “The Truth is Out There,” which in French becomes the truth is “hors là”, that is, “The Truth is Horla.” Of course, this is just a coincidence. It has to be… Doesn’t it?
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