Why Was The X-Files So Appealing?
The success of The X-Files was in large part due to its expression of a confluence of three powerful, ancient, and legend-like beliefs-paranormalism, conspiratorial thinking, and populism.
The demise of The X-Files series cries out for an assessment of its appeal. In the volatile world of big-time television, a decade-long run is no small potatoes. Clearly, the show said something to audiences that most programs don't. What was The X-Files' special magic? What made it intriguing to tens of millions of viewers?
My sense is that the program’s appeal was confluence of two immensely attractive and primordial ideas: paranormalism and conspiratorial thinking-along with a strain of populism, which often comes with paranormalism, and nearly always accompanies conspiracy theories.
The X-Files was not a documentary, of course—it was fiction. (At the same time, or so the show’s producers claimed, it was “inspired” by “documented accounts.”) It didn't lecture to us a paranormalist or a conspiratorial (or a populist) point of view. In fact, my guess is, its creators and producers adopted a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the occult events it depicted. For most of us, the events it depicted were just a bit too fantastical to be taken seriously as fact. [See also ”The X-Files Meets the Skeptics,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1997.]
But the program did contrast a paranormal/conspiracy point of view (Agent Mulder’s) with a more scientific or skeptical perspective (Agent Scully’s)-and week after week, the skeptical perspective always lost. Moreover, viewers actually saw evidence of both paranormalism and conspiracies at work with their own eyes. We saw the aliens scuttling about in the shadows and we saw the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his cronies, also in shadowy places, conspiring to cover up evidence that the aliens are on our planet.
Spotting The X-Files' paranormal theme is a no-brainer. Not only were the words “paranormal activity” flashed on the screen in the program’s opening credits, but throughout, Mulder’s supernatural theories were always verified. When Scully told him that that the presence of aliens on Earth contradicts the laws of physics, Mulder replied, when it comes to aliens, “the laws of physics rarely apply.” At another point, Scully, who is trained as a doctor, said: “I've always held science as sacred. I've always put my trust in accepted facts.” Mulder had a different take on the matter: “Might we not,” he asked, “turn to the fantastic as a possibility?” Week after week, the show overturned Scully’s trust and validated Mulder’s “possibility.” No doubt about it: In The X-Files, traditional science was thrown out the window and paranormalism reigned supreme.
The X-Files was also a classic case of a conspiracy narrative. Conspiracy theories argue the following. First, treachery is afoot; somebody (or something) is trying to do harm. Second, not only do the conspirators want to do harm to others, they want to do harm to us- good, decent people. Third, the conspirators are organized; indeed, that’s what conspiracies are all about. Fourth, their actions are secret and clandestine; the conspirators are very good at covering their tracks. And fifth, they are powerful; in fact, all conspiracy theories are centrally about the distribution of power, about monopolizing and withholding it (Fenster 1999).
Conspiracy theories are nearly always populist theories as well: They support and trust the common man and woman, especially, first, their view of things, and second, their right to power. Conspiracy theories and populism share a strong distrust of the elite, people in high places, the rich, the powerful, the well-connected-including scientists and other well-educated, pompous pundits. And, crucial for our understanding of The X-Files, most varieties of populism see science as symbolizing or representing elitism-that is, as contrary to the views and the interests of the common man and woman. Science is complicated and difficult to learn and superficially it seems to be monopolized by, and to support the interest of, the powers that be. Turning the tables on what most scientists think, the populist strain of conspiracy theories sees science as traditional rather than revolutionary, conventional rather than going against the grain.
In conspiracy theories, the conspirators control public life by controlling access to valuable information. To fight against a conspiracy, we must first believe in it. And the central idea of conspiracy theories is that we must uncover the truth, which is what The X-Files is all about. As usual, Mulder said it best: “The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.” In principle, by telling the truth, we can undermine the control that the powerful have over us. One of the things that makes The X-Files interesting is its ironic twist on this age-old theme. More on this momentarily.
There are many varieties of conspiracy theories. One major type is the paranormal conspiracy theory. What paranormal conspiracy theories share with conspiracy theories in general is the view that nothing is as it seems. There are evil, shadowy figures who hide valuable information from the public. In The X-Files, the conspirators constituted a multinational “consortium” that “represents certain global interests,” which kept the truth from the rest of us. It was a conspiracy so vast that even the FBI was kind of a pawn, a puppet, a middleman between these powerful forces and the public. The valuable information in this case was of a paranormal nature-that extraterrestrials are here, they are here as a result of violating the laws of physics, and they mean to do harm to us by colonizing our bodies.
In the paranormal conspiracy theory, the underdog tries to reveal the truth about scientifically unexplainable phenomena and undermine, and ultimately defeat, the dominant, establishment view, thereby empowering the public. The underdog is opposed to a “rigid scientific view of the world.” In place of this rigid view, the anti-conspiracy theory favors intuition, what feels right, what seems right, experience, memory-in short, what contradicts or can't be explained by science.
In such paranormal narratives, there is usually a believer and a skeptic, and the tension of the narrative is introduced in the debate between them. We want to be there to witness its resolution, that is, the manifestation of the truth of paranormal powers. The believer has usually seen evidence of paranormal powers with his or her own eyes, but either can't get his or her hands on hard, physical evidence, or the evidence keeps being stolen or destroyed by others, usually the conspirators. In contrast, the skeptic has faith in traditional science, trusts hard evidence, and thus debunks the paranormal point of view. One fascinating feature of The X-Files is that week after week, Agent Scully, a physician, an extremely intelligent woman, never quite comes to accept Mulder’s paranormal and conspiracy beliefs.
Most commonly, the believer is a powerless, marginal person and often a woman; the skeptic is almost always a man (Hess 1993). In The X-Files these sex roles are reversed because the screenwriter and creator, Chris Carter, explicitly stated that he wanted to “flip” traditional sex stereotypes and make Mulder the believer and Scully the skeptic.
So, the populist, paranormalist, and conspiracy elements in The X-Files are expressed by: first, an anti-scientific viewpoint, that is, the view that traditional, established science is wrong, the laws of physics can be overturned, and the intuition of the common man and woman is right; second, a condemnation of government secrecy-it is opposed to the fact that the powers that be are withholding valuable information from the public and are harming us; and third, the hero, the outsider, the paranormal believer, discovers evidence that contradicts the official, dominant view, and attempts to unmask the conspiracy and empower the powerless, the common man and woman, by giving us this valuable information.
Of course, in The X-Files, the conspiracy couldn't really be unmasked and the treachery couldn't be defeated because it was an ongoing series and hence the same evil forces had to continue to do their machinations in episode after episode. There was no triumph, no resolution. The only triumph was the reality of the evidence that Mulder and Scully gathered. But, again, because the conspirators were so powerful and commanded such a huge arsenal of resources, that evidence had to be destroyed or taken away; hence, the triumph of getting their hands on the evidence was negated. The only true victory in The X-Files was the viewers’ knowledge of what really happened.
As a result, the triumph of the paranormal and conspiratorial views in The X-Files was only an intellectual and cognitive victory-not a political one. At the end of each show, the evil remained; only our view of the world changed. We know the truth, but the evil in our midst, it seems, will always abide.
- Fenster, Mark. 1999. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Hess, David J. 1993. Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.