By Daniel Ferreras Savoye
Contrary to the common notion shared by authors and fans alike, the series The X-Files is much closer to the fantastic mode than to science fiction, for the narrative tension upon which most episodes rely is the result of the opposition between what can be accepted as possible and what defies our understanding of reality rather than of the defamiliarization created by an entire new universe. Suffice it to 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 to perceive the profound differences between space fantasy or anticipatory fiction and the fantastic when it comes to the representation of reality. Just as the ghost does not make the fantastic, as shown by Casper the Friendly Ghost or Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” the alien does not make science fiction, and in the case of the X-Files, the always elusive presence of an extra-terrestrial life-form, underlined by Mulder’s personal tragedy, the loss of his sister Samantha 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 the fantastic.
The very reason to be of the X-Files is to attempt explaining the unexplainable, which remains the fundamental narrative dynamics of the fantastic 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 the fantastic, 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 upon this specific pattern and consequently, the series as a whole constitutes an exemplary corpus of study to illustrate many fundamental traits of the fantastic mode.
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 “(…) disturb with natural facts, where still remains something unexplained, almost impossible.” ( … de troubler avec des faits naturels où reste pourtant quelque chose d’inexpliqué et de presque imposssible.) (Maupassant, Chroniques, “Le Fantastique,” (“The Fantastic”) 1883.) If Maupassant clearly perceives the acute difference between the fantastic and the marvelous modes, he does not however distinguish the fantastic mode itself from the uncanny, which remains one specific category of the realistic mode 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 the fantastic narration: the fantastic mode has to appear realistic in order to establish narrative authority by contrasting the possible and the impossible, hence 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 would cite the author of “The Raven” a few lines apart from his definition of the fantastic. Regardless of how improbable the story of “The Cask of Amontillado” might appear, for 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 the fantastic mode at the end of the 19th century or its substitution by psychoanalysis, which would then have to be considered as a “literary genre” in itself, Todorov’s canonical study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Introduction à la littérature fantastique, 1970) establishes a clear and useful distinction between the fantastic and realism in its uncanny modality, citing some of Poe’s short stories as good examples of the latter and hence complementing Maupassant’s original description; it is indeed much easier to confuse the fantastic with the uncanny than with science fiction or the marvelous, for, ultimately, the fantastic depends upon a loyal representation of an easily identifiable reality in order to make the impossible seem almost possible.
The X-Files perfectly embody the conception of the modern fantastic Maupassant anticipated by administering the supernatural paradigms in the most subtle way in order to preserve a constant tension between the believable and the unbelievable. Naturally, the supernatural element has become more discrete than ever, for the receptor of today is even more skeptical than the already disillusioned reader of the late 19th century, who, according to Maupassant, could no longer be seduced nor frightened by the legends of yesteryear and needed to be presented with a very 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 fantastic, for they reduce the supernatural dimension to such an extent that it sometimes disappear, as it happens in one of the most disturbing entries of the series, “Home,” which presents the life and times of a terrifyingly grotesque in-bred family but does not include any supernatural element in its narrative universe and hence cannot be considered as fantastic. This particular episode could even be deemed naturalistic for it exploits a thematic staple of naturalism, the degeneration of a family, as well as its characteristically harsh descriptive style of 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 19th century – not unlike the backlash “Home” stirred when it was first aired. This particular episode should also remind 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 might 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 a mere onomastic point of view, the title of The X-Files functions very much like that of The Twilight Zone: whereas the words “file” and “zone” belong to an administrative register and suggest precision and cataloguing, “X” and “Twilight,” on the contrary, emphasize the unknown, the imprecise and the indeterminate. Within its very title, the show hence suggests the basic opposition that underlines the fantastic, 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, for Mulder being the believer and Scully the skeptic allows for the tension between what is rationally acceptable and what is not to become dynamically and dialectically articulated throughout their interaction. By their very pairing, the two main characters of the show incarnate the most basic opposition indispensable to the fantastic effect: while Scully represents the normalized, unidimensional view of reality, Mulder, on the contrary, welcomes, embraces even, the possibility of the unbelievable, hence the famous “I Want to Believe” poster that decorates his basement FBI office. Mulder’s desire to pursue the apparently “unreal” echoes the aesthetic intent of the fantastic mode 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 and above 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 hence incarnate the fundamental formalist concept of defamiliarization, the sensation art must produce in the receptor in order to defeat the “anaesthetizing” effect of familiar reality, that which precisely is disrupted by the irruption of the supernatural occurrence in the fantastic mode.
Formally speaking, the X-Files corresponds to the traditional shorter form favored by the fantastic mode both textually and cinematographically, which allows to present and maintain the binary opposition between the very possible and the definitely impossible without the need to resolve it, hence promoting uncertainty and unbalance. It could be argued that Stoker’s novel Dracula is far from the short story format as practiced by Poe (“Ligeia”, “Morella”), Guy de Maupassant or H.P. Lovecraft, however, not only does it remains a fairly isolated example in its time, but furthermore, 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, Christine), the modern fantastic has been perfectly suited by 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 very recent American Nightmares (2018). The short format is highly privileged in the fantastic mode for it prevents the supernatural element that produces 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 very rational detective against irrational enigmas, the X-Files also illustrates by its very structure the parallelism between the fantastic mode and realism in its detective fiction modality: just as a detective story, the fantastic narration presents a mystery and an attempt to solve it, which often involves some type of investigation, as we can see in Dracula and even in 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 the fantastic from uncanny realism in its detective fiction modality is the fundamental impossibility of closing the narrative structure: whereas detective fiction always presents a satisfactory explanation for what appeared unexplained, the fantastic does not, and the unexplained becomes the unexplainable – and this is amply demonstrated by the traditionally open-ended report which concludes many of the X-Files episodes.
By framing the supernatural occurrence within the very rigid, hyper-realistic environment of an FBI investigation, the X-Files introduces one more level of credibility to the narration, for the protagonists of the fantastic 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 very 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 of the fantastic, 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, is a recurrent paradigm of the series which corresponds to a definite tendency of the mode: the protagonist of the fantastic adventure is typically isolated, confronted to 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 assigned to the X-files expressly to keep an eye on “Spooky Mulder,” that is to debunk his assertions regarding the possibility of the impossible. The FBI functions hence as both the repository and the administrator of the official, normalized epistemological order, that which precisely 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 contribute to enhance the possibility of the latter’s existence, by causing the unknown to become closer and more tangible: it is undeniably there 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 which 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, say for instance above that of local reinforcement. In spite of their bordering 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 the fantastic 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 who often must accept a side of reality which 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, implicitly normalized, and if they do not always follow procedure, they do 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 adopting 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 the fantastic, that is a realistic representation of reality – and a fun FBI is just not realistic.
Given that the protagonist of the fantastic narration is usually a most 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 the supernatural occurrence. They are fundamentally unprepared to deal with the unknown, which often causes them to fall victims to their own investigation, as it 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 which subdues its victims by making them hallucinate whiles drenching them in digestive acids. In both instances, the helpless, evidently overwhelmed agents will owe their lives to an external rescue mission, and their powerlessness when confronted to the supernatural occurrence corresponds perfectly to that of the typical protagonist of the fantastic adventure.
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 which vertiginously 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 have helped establishing the protocol that has allowed to bring her and Mulder back to life, hence 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, that tends to intervene as a Deus Ex Maquina to save the day as well as the heroes of the series – “Død Kalm” received some critique upon its release for this very reason, as the in extremis rescue of the heroes appeared quite unbelievable, provoking consequently a definite 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 upon 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, for it tells the impossible in a realistic manner, and establishes narrative tension by confronting the narrator to a series of incomprehensible phenomena which defeat his understanding in spite of his constant efforts to rationalize his situation by exploring the mysterious ship, just as it happens 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, a rather similar character to the Norwegian sailor who accepts to take 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,” besides perfectly illustrating 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 being narrated from a dual point of view, for it presents both Mulder and Scully getting their story straight before appearing in front of their supervisor, it emphasizes 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 blood-suckers easily slipped away from their grasp, but the agents themselves cannot seem to completely agree upon what they have witnessed, as the supernatural occurrence resists even a satisfying description. Ultimately, Mulder and Scully are just as epistemologically defenseless against the unknown as any typical protagonist of the fantastic mode. 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 do correspond to the profile of the typical protagonist of the fantastic narration, who is more average than exceptional and victim rather than vanquisher, for 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 for 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 the unexplainable freakish mutation 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 sciences gone wrong, both embodied by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, albeit in a romantic, pre-modern fantastic manner that soon transfers the narrative conflict from the opposition between the possible and the impossible to decidedly more abstract and openly philosophical considerations in regard to 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, by opposition to Notre Dame de Paris’ Quasimodo or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and somewhat prefigures Maupassant’s Horla, Stoker’s Dracula and most of the creatures Mulder and Scully confront throughout their adventures. The monster that makes the fantastic is indeed not an “acceptable” one, as can be a hunchback or a disfigured psychopath – both anomalies of nature created by nature itself – but an entirely inconceivable creature, 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 and a creature half-human half-worm who lives in the sewers of Newark. 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 human worm 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, very typical of cinematographic fantastic narrations, do not close anything but rather suggest further unexplainable confrontations in the future: Tooms – the stretching 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 fairly clear that the stretching man should be able to stretch his way out of jail and that the flukeman was not killed after been severed in half – and, sure enough, both characters will reappear, the first in “Tooms” (Season 1, Ep. 21) and the second in a 2013 comic book series, X-Files Season 10 (IDW Publishing).
The monsters that appear in the X-Files are characteristic of the fantastic mode for they do not belong to any naturally preestablished category of abnormality – unlike Quasimodo or Leatherface. We find reminiscences of stock figures, a bit a vampirism and lycanthropy here and there (“Bad Blood”, Season 5, Ep. 12, “Shapes”, Season 1, Ep. 19, “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 a perfectly mundane appearance, as 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). As 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 to whom his high ranking position confers an invulnerable status, and whose taste for lies and deceptions as well as despise 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 been described as the scientific fantastic, 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 highly fashionable to exploit the betrayal of artificial intelligence, the X-Files already dug into the subject from the very first season with “Ghost in the Machine” (Season 1, Ep. 7), where a Central Operating System based upon 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 could suggest the anticipatory mode, i.e., science fiction, it is treated here in the fantastic mode, as yet one more unexplainable parcel of reality which will resist 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, again as a definite promise of more incomprehensible digital evil to come. In the science fiction mode, this would be the beginning rather than the end, for the narrative tension would be based upon 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 Washowski brothers’ Matrix; in the fantastic, however, it is the impossibility of reducing the observed phenomena to rational terms that creates narrative tension: the story ends once the existence of this impossibility has been clearly established. When using the scientific alibi, the fantastic ends precisely where science fiction begins.
This is perhaps most explicit in the X-Files’ treatment of the space alien motif, the presence of which might explain in great part why the show was perceived and is still often categorized as “science fiction,” quite an uncanny classification when one considers that some of the most memorable episodes of the show have nothing to do with any extra-terrestrial presence. In the economy of the overall narration, the alien rather 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 it is rarely shown and almost never directly confronted. Incidentally, one could wonder why the extra-terrestrial creature – whenever it finally physically appears – is always dead or dying; for 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 explorations. But the fantastic 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, the alien is 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 proofs 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
Besides a few punctual exceptions, the opening credits of the X-Files, including those revamped for the 11th and last season, end with the well-known tag line “The Truth is Out There,” which in French becomes “The Truth is hors là”, that is, correctly pronounced, “The Truth is Horla.” Of course, this is just a coincidence, it has to be… Doesn’t it?
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