PRINT May 1995


The X-Files

The truth is out there. . . .

THERE’S ALWAYS PLENTY to fear. In fact, as the millennium winds down, it’s getting to the point where you’re crazy not to be paranoid. There’s all the usual stuff to worry about, just like usual—death, famine, war, crime, disease, heartbreak, sorrow, grief, the ordinary, endless litany of average human fears. But these are more complicated times. Now you can also fear (and with perfectly good reason, too): biological weapons and nerve gas in the subways, terrorist bombings in your office building, the AIDS virus the Ebola virus the flesh-eating streptococcus bacilli and a host of other retroviruses emerging from the rapidly deforested jungles of the world, coteries of right-wing wackos running shadow governments within the actual government, elected officials in the pocket of who knows what corporate interests, a worthless dollar backed up by nothing but faith and free-falling into oblivion. It’s a tiny step from one paranoiac idea to another. Soon you see it everywhere, it’s impossible not to see it, the truth, hidden right in plain sight.

So when you read in the Harper’s “Index” that one in five Americans believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, and about the same number believe the government is run by a conspiracy of some kind or other (the list of usual suspects here will include the Masons, the Illuminati, the Trilateral commission, Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, and space aliens working in concert with some or all of the above), it seems reasonable enough. After all, the rest of your paranoid nightmares have proven true.

“The truth is out there”: The X-Files says so, right in the opening credits. And every week a little more gets out; every week, a little more of what might just be the Real Thing rises into plain sight. The X-Files is about the collective traumatic moments of the powers that be, all the cases that are unsolved, unexplained, inexplicable. The Files (supposedly) are the FBI ’s records of UFO sightings, abductions, the serial killings that span decades; they’re the homicides that couldn’t have happened, the government mind-control experiments, the saucer crashes, the alien voices, the little gray corpses. So when I say I believe everything I see on The X-Files, you know what I mean, you and the rest of the show’s cult. I mean: of course, through (supposedly) fictional FBI agents Fox “Spooky” Mulder and Dana Scully, the truth could get out. I mean: of course, the truth could be there, hidden in plain sight on the Fox All-WhiteTrash-Nation TV Network. Who would believe anything they saw there? No one, that’s who (no one except us, that is). And that’s just the way they want it.

In the world of the Files, just like the Real World, everything operates according to the logic of paranoia (all the better to lull us into disbelief): repression, return of the repressed. And as with actual paranoia, this logic works on every level, informing everything, transforming everything. Special Agent Mulder is a paranoid, is who he is because of an early trauma, a primary repression—his sister was an alien abductee, vanished into the white light when he was 12. Every episode is a certain return to this primal scene, a classic attempt at “working through”; every episode marks an attempt to recover the lost object. But, of course, he’ll never find her this way; Mulder’ll never find her, because there are (officially) no ET’s, no saucers, so no abductions either. She’s just gone. Except—

Except that the repressed always returns. So, in a recent episode, Mulder’s sister comes back too. She’s not alone. There are seven identical men around the country; they all turn up dead at the same time Mulder’s sister turns up alive. Dying, they ooze green blood and then melt into glowing green goo. Of course all of this is impossible, none of it could be true—but since Mulder is a paranoid (and Scully, now that she’s been abducted, is becoming one too), he chases after them just as if they were real as Real. The bodies keep piling up-and keep melting away. An alien assassin is shot by the FBI, and the body vanishes; Mulder’s sister is killed, bleeds green goo, and vanishes as well. She’s an alien now, there are seven of her, too; no one knows which one is real, except that one of her is still alive. And then she’s gone, leaving only traces, and a half-dead Mulder, behind. He’ll recover, but there’s no conclusion, the episode’s just over, credits scrolling up a black screen.

But nothing is ever over, it’s always only the beginning of the truth, nothing is ever proved. It’s the paranoiac’s pincer action. Again—repression, return of the repressed . Everything is still waiting to be uncovered: sooner or later, The X-Files will get to it. Eventually all your paranoid fantasies will show up. There was the episode about bovine growth-hormone (alien DNA); the episode about random homicides in office buildings (government/alien mind-control experiments, digital readouts that told people to kill); the episode about Chinese herbal medicine (the spirits of the ancestors were angry); the episode about toxic waste (fluke worm mutated out of control); the episode about deforestation (million-year-old green glowing bugs coming out of clear cut trees). . . . The truth is out there—Mulder and Scully know that. Now you do too.

Mark Van de Walle lives in Santa Fe, where he is an editor for The magazine. He contributes regularly to Art Issues and to Artforum.