Killer computers. A partially-amphibian murderer back from the dead. And something very nasty lurking under the toilet seat.
It was all in a day’s work for FBI agents Mulder and Scully on The X-Files.
When the show first landed on TV screens 25 years ago, it was a breath of fresh air for a number of reasons. But the paranormal focus afforded to its plots, and the genuinely hair-raising effect this had on viewers, became a big part of its popular appeal.
When the show launched in September 1993, horror fans could barely have dreamed they’d have it so good.
These days, it’s certainly a healthy time for all things spooky on the small screen.
As well as American Horror Story, which has continued to mine eccentric, outlandish and creepy goings-on over the course of eight feverish seasons to date, we have seen recent cult treats like The Terror and Channel Zero, new high-profile shows such as big screen spin-off The Purge and Stephen King medley Castle Rock, and now even The Twilight Zone is getting a reboot.
But a quarter-of-a-century ago, the formative adventures of David Duchovny’s Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Scully set a standard for small screen horror – then a decidedly rare commodity – that is genuinely hard to beat.
Before the UFO-laden, alien invasion-teasing, government conspiracy plot-lines and themes came to dominate the show’s reputation, it was The X-Files’ widely-celebrated ‘monster-of-the-week’ episodes that cemented its place in the popular consciousness.
The two central agents’ explorations of unexplained murders, murky disappearances and generally strange goings-on provided much of the early intrigue, and allowed for an anthology-like platform of different creatures and nightmares to contend with from week to week.
Season one had some real corkers too, taking in a number of the show’s most classic fiends, and episodes.
A special kind of fear
The truth was out there. But boy were Mulder and Scully put through the wringer in order to get it, with each foray into the unknown more perturbing than the last.
‘Ice’, featuring an enjoyably acerbic supporting turn from perennially under-appreciated ‘that guy’ actor Xander Berkeley, took notable inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing to craft an atmospheric tale of paranoia and insanity at a remote Alaskan outpost.
‘Eve’ gave us the most unnerving little girl twins since The Shining; ‘Shapes’ provided a neat, Native American spin on the werewolf legend; and ‘Darkness Falls’ mustered a special kind of fear for anyone who has ever found themselves plagued by hordes of midges on a woodland camping trip. One of the show’s more under-appreciated gems, that latter instalment is a fine example of its ability to muster riveting chills from an unexpected source.
Then of course there was Eugene Victor Tooms, the contortionist liver-gatherer who made his notorious entrance in episode number three, and was so irresistibly frightening that the show’s creators brought him back later on that season.
The very thought of a sly, unwavering and unfeeling killer who can enter any room or place, no matter how secure, and rip out your organs with his bare hands, certainly leaves an impression.
The Breaking Bad connection
Later seasons would also provide their fair share of monstrous scares, from the grotesque sewer-dwelling ‘Fluke’ to the shudder-inducing Donny Pfaster, and the hideous Peacock family in ‘Home’. The latter still hold bragging rights as the most disturbing killer yokels on screen, aside from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (sorry Wrong Turn).
It’s also interesting to note that it was The X-Files’ monster-of-the-week episodes that first gave Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan the chance to cut his teeth in the TV writing sphere, turning his hand to everything from killer shadows to mutant fast food workers – and, perhaps most memorably, murderous mental-manipulator Robert Modell, whose soothing intonation (“cerulean blue makes me think of a gentle breeze…”) still sends shivers up the spine.
If you ignore the cheesiness of those early ’90s TV trailers, that is…
Operating largely as self-contained, standalone chillers, the show was adept at coming up with new, original threats that appalled and fascinated the viewing audience at the same time, while also deftly giving us fresh and occasionally satirical spins on classic horror creations and archetypes.
All of this meant that just hearing The X-Files’ iconic opening theme would be enough to have kids (and maybe a few adults too) nervously hiding behind a cushion.
A winning formula
Anchored on the level-headed, logical scepticism of Scully, and the wide-eyed, dryly humorous determination of Mulder, The X-Files gave us two equally likeable and competent leads, whose instant chemistry helped play such a crucial part in drawing in viewers.
By pitting them against a procession of weird, wonderful and occasionally terrifying adversaries, the show was able to win us over with the central characters, while also evoking constant surprises and suspense through those various monsters of the week.
Other shows, such as Supernatural, have attempted to emulate this, with mixed success.
Horror anthologies, from the rebooted Outer Limits to Masters Of Horror and Fear Itself, have also attempted to capture the thrill of a different creepy scenario with each instalment; again, with mixed (though sporadically spectacular) success.
Now, with horror TV at its healthiest – or at least, most prolific – in decades, it is perhaps ironic that the very show which set the modern standard should find itself somewhat out of favour.
The relaunched X-Files has divided and frustrated fans in recent times, getting ever more bogged down and contrived in its own confusing mythology – and moving ever further away from the effective standalone horror episodes so crucial to its original success (Mulder and Scully meet the Were-Monster, notwithstanding).
Twenty-five years ago, The X-Files was a revelation for horror-loving TV enthusiasts everywhere. And its strongest early episodes are still perfect excuses to curl up on the sofa, with the lights off, and imagine the long, spindly fingers that may be working their way through a gap in the floorboards behind you…
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