TV discussion

The X-Files @ 25: Won’t somebody please think of the monsters?

Mulder: “Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?”

Whilst nominally about the paranormal, the strange and unexplained, The X-Files, at its core, is about monsters. Whether we’re talking actual aliens, bizarre biological specimens, creatures of the cryptozoological or supernatural variety, or simply the horror that arises in (in)humanity, almost every one of its 218 episodes and two movies dealt with monsters of one kind or another.

And whilst there has been much discussion and ranking of The X-Files’ best and favourite monsters, there is somewhat less in the way of thought for the monsters themselves and the show’s treatment of them. And Mulder’s treatment of them. Because – let’s be honest here – it usually is Mulder who ends up dealing with them, if only because Scully (most of the time) refuses to believe in monsters. Which is in itself something of an insult to monsterkind. Get over yourself Scully.

The X-Files was wise enough not to start with the assumption that its diversity of monsters were all inevitably evil and in need of destruction. Many of them inspired sympathy, empathy, or feelings of compassion. But not all of the monsters who inspired such feelings actually deserved them, and conversely, some that didn’t – perhaps did.

One of The X-Files’ most iconic monsters is the Flukeman: a ‘quasi-vertebrate human’, created ‘in a primordial soup of radioactive sewage’. Visually and behaviourally it is one of the most primally horrifying creatures that the series came up with, inspiring disgust with it’s maggot-esque features and propensity for swimming in sewage, as well as fear that it would come up through the toilet and bite you with its terrifying hooked mouth, impregnating you with its larvae and ensuring your death. Not a nice beast at all, but actually one that is just acting on instinct, reproducing in order to survive.

This is also true of the jellyfish-like creature in ‘Agua Mala’, as well as any number of other parasitic or primeval critters; animals without higher reasoning, and therefore an inability to decide to do evil. That they would need to be ended or avoided in order to preserve human life was inevitable, but there could be no real moral judgement on them because morality was something they were incapable of understanding.

The other real iconic monster that The X-Files produced is Eugene Victor Tooms, the stretchy-man from ‘Squeeze’. It might at first look as though Tooms is merely following a survival instinct in his harvesting of human livers, but his choosing of his victims and taking of trophies from them says differently. He is a monster born of human evil who knowingly perpetuates evil. Tooms and his ilk are a world away from those monsters who are merely fulfilling a biological need.

Then there are the more well-known creatures of folklore with which we could perhaps co-exist peaceably if we just tried. Big Blue, from ‘Quagmire’: as much as we might like Mulder to discover the reality of his existence we are also just a little glad that he didn’t, and that the Nessie-like sea monster was allowed to continue swimming free. We see Mulder’s sadness when the wildwoman in ‘The Jersey Devil’ is shot like ‘a rabid animal’. She isn’t just potential scientific evidence for him; he feels compassion for her.

But sometimes this compassion is problematic and arguably misplaced. An oft-cited example is The Great Mutato in ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’. Despite his part in the drugging, violation, and impregnation of two women, Mulder feels that poor Mutato doesn’t deserve punishment because he’s had such a hard life. And yes, it’s true that Mutato is also a victim, of Dr Pollidori, the other monster in this tale, but he has knowingly committed offences here. So what’s the lesson? If you’re a monster with a hard luck story then you should be let off? This is a monster that splits viewer opinions, and towards which attitudes have changed across the years.

But Mutato isn’t the only one to experience the duality of monster/victim. Polly, the little girl in ‘Chinga’ is somehow channelling the power of her cursed doll. Chester Ray Banton in ‘Soft Light’ is an accidental monster, whose shadow is now a black hole. Unloved Leonard in ‘Humbug’ searches for a new brother and kills people in the process. Terri and Margi murderously overflow with cosmic energy in ‘Syzygy’. And there are many more whose monsterhood is tied up with their victim status and for whom we feel a possibly conflicting array of emotions. Because crime and punishment cannot be wholly extricated from extenuating circumstances and personal responsibility.

The most despicable X-Files monsters are, perhaps unsurprisingly, human. Or perhaps something rather less than human, by dint of being monsters. Donnie Pfaster in ‘Irresistible’; Robert Patrick Modell in ‘Pusher’; Luther Lee Boggs and numerous other murderers; the Cigarette Smoking Man and the entire conspiracy of men.

One can understand Mulder’s initial motivation of wanting to uncover the truth about aliens (and the government conspiracies that go alongside) in an attempt to discover the fate of his sister, but his overall obsession with monsters of all kinds runs deeper than this. In his twin quests of searching for an absolute truth that is out there somewhere, and wanting to believe (an act of faith) Mulder gravitates towards the thing that he intuits must exist: monsters.

He knows that monsters of one kind exist (the ones who took his sister, the bad kind), and he wants the truth about them. But if they are real, then perhaps another, opposite, kind exist too. The monster that Mulder is continually seeking is the one that will restore his childlike sense of wonder, will enable him to make the leap from wanting to believe to actually believing. The one that is – magic. There are no unicorns in The X-Files, but there may well as be.

The closest that Mulder comes to this epiphany (the opposite of his praying mantis epiphany), is when he meets Guy Mann in ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’. Guy Mann is an actual monster (the non-monstrous kind) who becomes a victim of a human monster. But when the effects of the monstrous curse wear off, and he is standing in front of Mulder in all his monster glory – well Mulder has to believe, because he has seen the transformation with his own eyes. It’s not quite Bigfoot, but it’s close.

There is nuance and subtlety in The X-Files’ plentiful supply of monsters. And viewer perception of their various portrayals is ever-shifting across time. Because what is monstrous in one era may become accepted in the next, and what was once seen as wholly normal may gradually become horrifying. What makes a monster is always up for debate, as is how one should treat them. But hunting monsters – in search of magic or retribution – that will never go out of style.

What is your favourite X-Files monster? Let us know!

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