Christmas episodes of television shows are usually an excuse to bring in a touch of sentimentality, good-natured comedy, a jovial atmosphere, maybe an important life lesson, and a sense of good will.
Unless you’re The X-Files. Oh no, we’re going full on haunted house, bodies under the floorboards, pop psychology, and a touch of murder/suicide. Happy Christmas and a very happy New Year from all at The X-Files.
“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is not a pitch black horror Christmas by any stretch, but it’s somewhat typical that The X-Files will not give audiences a normal Christmas episode. The year before we got an emotional Dickensian tale of the past visiting Scully, wrapped up in a mythology package, with a massive cliffhanger at the end.
With the sixth season looking towards a more quirky nature, Chris Carter’s Christmas tale mixes a darkly comedic atmosphere, some finely tuned dark moments of horror that straddle the line between being disturbing and very, very funny (the bodies under the floorboards being a particular highlight), along with some of Carter’s characteristic stylised dialogue, which, although a crutch in some episodes, works fantastically here because it’s part of the joke.
Being a Chris Carter writing and directing effort, it once again sees the originator of the series going into full on auteur mode, but where his previous episode in the dual role prior to this saw him firing on all cylinders what with its plethora of long takes and split screen, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is visually more sedate, and in fact at times could almost come across as a stage play, considering that the majority of it takes place on one set.
In other words, it’s a bottle episode.
This being The X-Files, this is no mere “bottle episode”, given that the haunted house at the centre of the tale is a gorgeous piece of work from production designer Corey Kaplan, and with Carter on writing duties there is a lot of dialogue, some of it very psychological in nature with a ton of syllables (paramastabatory?).
It never once becomes heavy-handed though. In fact the episode has a lovely spring in its step, even when it’s throwing in horror clichés, such as lightning flashes, ghosts who carry gunshot wounds into the afterlife, coupled with an atmospheric Mark Snow score, and brilliant performances from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who really get into it when they get a chance to act a little more comedically.
Being the sixth season of the series, it also sees the series relaxing its previous disdain for big name guest stars. While the series never threw in big movie star names at random in an attempt to chase ratings, the sixth year did see an influx of known names making guest appearances after five seasons of rarely doing any frequent stunt casting, what with Michael McKean and Bruce Campbell showing up in episodes that take place around this one. Here, we get Lilly Tomlin and Ed Asner walking in and practically stealing the show with their torture act which sees them trying to coerce our heroes into a murder/suicide pact, not for any sense of maliciousness, but because they don’t want to be taken of the tourist literature.
Their performances are joyfully malicious, with a spring in their step and a believable relationship. At first they target each of our intrepid duo individually, but when they are on-screen together, Asner and Tomlin are an absolute hoot, and their final moment of the episode, sitting in front of a roaring fire-place, debating the Mulder and Scully relationship like pair of fans, and then disappearing while holding hands, is a genuinely sweet moment, and comes after 45 minutes of some wonderfully bile comedy from them.
As for the episode itself, it is a Yuletide X-Files classic; self-contained, very funny, darkly humorous, but with a brilliant atmosphere and some wonderful dialogue.
Carter has never been one to simply try to ape the comedic stylings of Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan, the kings of The X-Files comedy sphere, instead opting for visually dazzling tales with big themes. His tale of Christmas loneliness and despair appears more basic than his black and white James Whale tribute, or his Wizard of the O- meets-Rope tribute, but appearances are deceptive and the episode is deeper on a character level.
While he frequently gets the most flack from fans of the series for his portrayal of the Mulder/Scully dynamic, and even some critics for his writing style, the truth is, as their creator, he has always been one of the greatest at portraying the moments where his characters debate in the philosophical undercurrent of the episode itself.
Some of the scenes in this between them are gorgeous, not least the teaser sequence in which it’s mostly just the two of them sitting in the car; Mulder telling a characteristically skeptical Scully a beautifully constructed ghost story about Lyda (Tomlin) and Maurice (Asner), a tale of dark, dark despair. Once they’re into the residence, with Scully having no choice but to follow because her car keys have mysteriously “disappeared”, her somewhat “meta” commentary on their frightened reactions to their surroundings and how it pertains to the nature of Christmas is somewhat classic Carter; deep and thematic, and nearly a little to heavy for a comedy, but works very well.
Like “The Post Modern Prometheus”, there are some bigger ideas going on, but it’s really on a character level than plot, and it’s really about how our heroes react to themselves and their relationship with each other that forms Carter’s focus, as opposed to making a tribute to some of the material that has inspired him.
Never putting a foot wrong, the episode is something of a Christmas staple for this Christmas loving X-Phile, as important in the holiday season as Gremlins, Die Hard and Love, Actually. That it throws in ghosts, a copious amount of blood in its climax and an important Christmas message is the icing on its cake, and the final moment between Mulder and Scully is just the loveliest and gives you a warm Christmas glow, a small and lovely concession to the holiday season.