The X-Files : More Than Just Entertainment

This was the very first essay I ever wrote at the start of my college English major in 2001.
Our assignment was to discuss a TV show or movie and explain why we think it's not just
frivolous entertainment. It's no coincidence that I picked The X-Files. Since then, The
X-Files is showing up everywhere in academia, from comparative literature to Master's
theses and PhD dissertations. It appears more and more people are considering it to be a
topic for serious discussion. But we could have told them that years ago. Couldn't we?

What's Under YOUR Bed?

A red-haired woman walks through a hotel room. She stops by the bed and places pieces of clothing into a suitcase lying open there. The only sound in the room is the hiss of the air conditioning and the whisper of the clothes as she folds them into the luggage. Next, she moves to the dark closet, groping through the shadows at the back, looking for clothing left behind. Satisfied that she hasn't missed anything, she walks to the empty bathroom. Flipping on the light, she begins gathering items from the counter. Bottles and tubes clink together as she places them into a small bag. The outer door opens, and a tall, dark-haired man pokes his head in, scanning the room. "Are you ready?" he calls. "Just a minute," she shouts back. Turning off the bathroom light, the woman returns to the suitcase, throwing the cosmetics bag in before she zips it. The man picks up the luggage and follows her out the door. He glances around the room one more time before pulling it closed behind him. From the gloom under the bed, two eyes glow red in the dark.

The beginning of a teen slasher movie? A documentary on hotel room safety? No, it's an episode of The X-Files, the weekly television series that follows FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully as they explore the paranormal and grotesque. From lake monsters, to alien visitors, to human mutants, The X-Files has dealt with hundreds of scary topics for nearly nine years. And viewers have been watching in record numbers. It is consistently one of the top rated shows, winning awards ranging from the Emmy, to Golden Globes, to People's Choice. Why is it so popular? It's just a television program. Nothing they talk about is real, is it? Maybe not. Then why all the fuss over a piece of mindless entertainment? Because, during the last nine years, The X-Files has not only entertained us, it has helped us find ways to safely confront our fears without leaving the security of our homes.

Everyone will admit to at least one phobia: snakes, fire, heights, flying. These are some of the fears we attain, for any number of reasons, as we mature into adults. But there are also fears we seem to come by instinctively: the monster under the bed, the boogeyman in the closet, the shadow after dark that dogs your footsteps, always out of sight. We don't usually talk about these fears. They stay hidden away in the deepest parts of our psyche, waiting for a chance when we're relaxed and unsuspecting to jump out and shout "Boo!" By presenting some of these fears in the form of entertainment, The X-Files gives us a way to deal with them, while never having to actually confront them head-on. When Scully is kidnapped by a death fetishist/serial killer, we are called to face a fear that has been ingrained in us since childhood - abduction by a stranger. What types of horrible things will happen to her? We experience a sense of terror that is reflected on the face of the character we're watching. How will she be able to get away? Will she be able to get away? We've all thought about what we would do if such a thing were to happen to us, running through various scenarios in our minds. So when Scully manages to escape, we feel relieved that she's triumphed over her abductor. When the kidnapper is arrested, justice is satisfied, and good wins out over evil, again. In the space of an hour, we've faced the fear of kidnapping and found out that we are not alone in that fear. We've waited in suspense, along with the victim, to discover whether or not she will survive. When she is rescued, we not only are relieved that she's all right, but also because it didn't happen to us. And we experienced all of that without ever being in danger or leaving the comfort of our sofa or recliner. One particular fear can now be locked back into its dark cupboard, neatly resolved and secure where we can't see it.

Until we're asked to face a new fear.

A dread of things monstrous and inhuman has been passed down to us through stories and legends since before the invention of the written word. Fairy tales and songs warn us to beware of werewolves, vampires, evil witches, and demonic madmen if we don't want to fall victim to the darkness surrounding us. But what if the monster isn't out in the dark? What if it's already inside us? Mulder and Scully follow along as a camera crew rides with local police during a night of disturbing occurrences. We're shocked when a police officer is attacked by an unseen assailant who leaves huge insect stings on his arm. It frightens us when a sketch artist draws a picture of Freddie Krueger from a terrified woman's description of someone who tried to break into her house. When the artist is found with slash wounds which look like they might have come from Freddie Krueger's nails, we begin to dread what may happen next. Who else will die? How will they die? And what, exactly, is harming people? It's almost a relief when Mulder figures out that each person's worst fear is coming to life because of the full moon. Before they can find a way to prevent more deaths, the police officer is attacked again. Our hearts pound as the two FBI agents race to his aid, only to have the assailant vanish as the morning sun appears on the horizon. Finally, we can sit back and relax. A life was saved and the danger is over. But we can also rest easy in the knowledge that something similar could never really happen.

Or could it?

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. No one has said it better than William Shakespeare. And no other television show has given us more extreme possibilities to consider than The X-Files. From reincarnation, to time travel, to magic and immortality, we are constantly asked to ponder the question, What if... What if the toxins in our environment caused something simple to mutate? What would happen if evolution ran amok, creating homicidal freaks of nature? Could sea monsters, aliens, and zombies really exist? The characters in The X-Files seem to think they can. In fact, Mulder and Scully may have been the only thing standing between us and the Biblical Apocalypse at the turn of the millennium. The living dead are a key component in one man's bid to end the world. We watch in horrified fascination as bodies are re-animated for the purpose of creating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The suspense is heavy as three zombies come to life, doing whatever is necessary to achieve Armageddon. But at the last minute, the heroes arrive, destroy the zombies, and stop the impending disaster. We can breathe easy, because mankind is safe. By preventing the creation of the fourth zombie, Mulder and Scully also halted the end of the world. There's a sense of relief that they saved the world, but also because we know deep down there really aren't such things as zombies. Or are there? We'd like to feel secure in our belief that they don't exist, but we've been challenged to question our perceptions and consider ideas beyond the realm of known science. Suddenly, we find that it doesn't seem quite so improbable anymore.

From its inception in the 1950s, television was created to entertain - to take us away from our everyday lives into a place of fantasy. We laugh, we cry, we bite our nails, and then we go on with our lives, never giving another thought to the joys or troubles of the fictional people we've seen on the screen. But every so often, a show comes along that makes us think - about our fears, our doubts, and things better left in the dark. After we turn off the TV set, we can't help but reconsider all the possibilities. Such a show is The X-Files - so much more than just entertainment.

The X-Files belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, and FOX.
No copyright infringement is intended, no monetary profit is made.