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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

How “The X-Files” Opened Up a Whole New World of Scary Possibilities on Television

With all the quality horror content on television screens over the past decade, it’s almost inconceivable that there was once a time when small-screen scares were in short supply. While there was always some spooky material being produced, it took several successful shows to prove that mainstream audiences could enjoy serialized horror, with one specific program leading that charge. This special little show would eventually become one of the biggest cultural phenomena in media history, inspiring books, movies, games and fan interaction on a level that had never been seen before, paving the way for future televised scares. Naturally, that show was Chris Carter’s The X-Files.

By modern standards, I know that most folks will have a hard time describing The X-Files as particularly “horrific” (especially after years of shows like The Walking Dead, The Haunting of Hill House and even cult hits like Channel Zero), but with controversial episodes like “The Host”, “Sanguinarium” and the Tobe-Hooper-inspired “Home”, it’s clear that, for the longest time, Mulder and Scully’s adventures were our go-to destination for weekly TV frights. Ironically, the show’s creator was originally known for developing Disney comedies, but after transferring to Fox, Carter decided to work on something completely different, changing the face of television forever in the process.

Blending his fascination with real-life government conspiracies with the popularity of investigatory thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs (and more than a little inspiration from cult programs like Twin Peaks and Kolchak: The Night Stalker), Carter came up with a unique cocktail of TV terrors that could really only have happened in the 90s. Distrust of the US government was at an all-time high, and once-niche interests like cryptozoology and ufology were on the rise, making it the perfect time to debut a show dealing with alien abductions, genetic abominations and secret government plots.

Of course, Carter isn’t singularly responsible for the show’s success, as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson‘s landmark performances as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are what kept the series alive for so long (perhaps too long, one might say). While people came to see monsters, aliens and tabloid-esque conspiracy theories, they stayed because of the duo’s compelling relationship. Featuring a platonic friendship that slowly escalated into an now-legendary romance, The X-Files also benefited from one of the first online followings in media, with thousands of viewers sharing fan-fiction, artwork and theorizing about where the show (and their dream couple) might end up next.

Fox and Dana were also backed by a memorable supporting cast, featuring the likes of the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and The Lone Gunmen, a group of tech-savvy conspiracy-theorists who would eventually get their own short-lived spin-off series. Eventually, the show would also introduce Agents Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) and John Doggett (the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick) as spiritual successors to Duchovny and Anderson’s characters, though they ended up as recurring roles instead of actual replacements.

A lot more going on than little green men!

Another iconic aspect of the show was its unforgettable title sequence. The theme music by itself was enough to give me nightmares as a child, though I admit that some of the video effects in the opening seem rather silly nowadays. Even so, the credits did a perfect job of encapsulating exactly what the show was about, preparing viewers for a disturbing descent into a world of hideous monsters and convoluted conspiracies. In some ways, this intro would become even more famous than the show, with endless parodies and references in other media.

Even if you’ve somehow never seen an episode, I’m pretty sure that you’re already aware of the dynamics behind the show, as its been infinitely imitated since the 90s. In most episodes, some seemingly unexplainable event would occur in the minutes preceding the opening credits, resulting in an investigation by Mulder and Scully. The pair would then go on to suggest both rational and paranormal explanations for what they’ve seen, though the truth would most often be then-innovative sci-fi concepts. There would also be episodes dedicated to furthering the series’ overarching plot, involving shadowy government organizations pulling the strings from behind the scenes and possibly colluding with extraterrestrials.

This formula would go on to become a staple of speculative television, recurring in everything from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Supernatural and Fringe (which was JJ Abrams’ attempt at recreating X-Files mania for a new generation). At the same time, the show also pushed network limits with its depictions of terrifying abductions, human experimentation, brutal murders and some genuinely impressive practical gore effects. While some of these elements would occasionally get the show in trouble with the network, most viewers knew what they were signing on for once they tuned into an episode of the show.

Unfortunately, despite its massive popularity, the series eventually imploded in on itself, with overall quality steadily declining during the later seasons as the show got lost in its own convoluted mythology. While we were fortunate enough to get the original 9-season run (plus a highly entertaining theatrical release) from 1993-2002, the show would wind up in limbo during most of the 2000s.

We’d eventually see another (also underrated) feature film in the form of The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008, but the show would only truly return with the intention of tying up loose ends with a six-episode season in 2016. By then, however, The X-Files formula had been appropriated and perhaps even improved on by countless other shows, making it an obsolete relic in the modern television landscape. While it was still great to see Duchovny and Anderson together again on the small screen, this revival ultimately led to an unsatisfying (and long-delayed) conclusion in 2018 with another limited run of ten episodes.

Just as disturbing now as it was then!

At the very least, that final season gifted us with “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, one of the show’s all-time best episodes and a more fitting finale than the one we actually got a few weeks later. This episode dealt with the popular Mandela Effect theory and served as a humorous homage to the show’s history of dealing with eerie and strange subject matter.

Be it fiery demons stealing blood-soaked infants or mutant contortionists harvesting human livers (and don’t even get me started on the fluke-man), The X-Files opened up a whole new world of scary possibilities on TV, setting a precedent for adult entertainment that allowed other creators to have fun exploring similar formulas. It’s possible, and even likely, that we wouldn’t have the undead-slaying shenanigans of either Buffy Summers or the Winchesters if Chris Carter hadn’t pushed the envelope of horror on mainstream television back in the day.

It’s been almost thirty years since The X-Files premiered, and I’m surprised to see so many friends and colleagues joining me in revisiting the show since we’ve been stuck in quarantine. I may not be satisfied with how the story concluded and the show was heavily formulaic even in its prime, but it inspired so much that’s great about contemporary television that I can’t help but be thankful that more people are now appreciating this cultural landmark. Plus, some of the alien super-virus plot threads are genuinely unnerving in this day and age, which makes the show that much more effective.

In any case, like Reggie Something said in the aforementioned “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, maybe the real X-Files were the friends that we made along the way, or in this case, the horrors that were later inspired by them. The show may be a little dated at this point, but it’s still one hell of a spooky ride, and definitely worth revisiting here in 2020.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3632767/x-files-opened-whole-new-world-scary-possibilities-tv/

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