My first love was The X-Files.
As a child, I loved the show because it was smart and scary and grown-up. It had everything–monsters, aliens, unsolvable mysteries, government conspiracies, the quest for “The Truth,” and of course, Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. I didn’t always understand the implications of what happened in each episode, but I was transfixed. I couldn’t get enough of those weird, shocking, and eerie stories.
I remember being allowed to watch certain episodes with my parents and then sneaking into the den after they’d gone to sleep so I could watch the syndicated episodes that aired at midnight. I had the novelizations of several episodes. I went opening day to Fight The Future. I had a huuuuuge crush on Mulder. I worshipped Scully and wanted to be grow up to be like her–whip-smart, confident, not here for anyone’s bullshit, sassy, and a boss FBI agent and medical doctor.
As an adult, I still love the show. The 90s-era costumes and special effects haven’t aged well, that’s true, but the show remains a classic because it’s entertaining and thought-provoking, as the best horror/sci-fi stories should be. With rare exception, each episode was riveting and imaginative. I love re-watching old episodes, comparing how I felt about them as a child with how I feel as an adult with bitter, world-weary eyes. I appreciate how The X-Files wasn’t afraid to get dark and eerie and icky. It did so with conviction, as fearlessly as Mulder and Scully did every time they ventured into the jaws of danger each episode.
In fact, I’m convinced that this is why The X-Files was a critical success and an enduring classic. Not only did the show create insane, gripping horror scenarios, but it took the time to develop premises, characters and conflicts. From the monster-of-the-week episodes to the mythology arc, the show knew exactly what it was doing, producing hour after hour of scary TV that crawled under viewers’ skin and burrowed into hearts and minds across the globe.
Part of what made The X-Files so good at being scary was how it combined different types of horror in each scary episode. Those episodes pushed a lot of different horror buttons, combining physical threats with existential turmoil. Each horror subgenre and trope has been used on The X-Files, many times combined into one episode. As a horror fan, it makes for engaging, brutal episodes and creates a more interesting show.
In short, The X-Files comes at you from all angles.
In honor of The X-Files series event that airs Sunday, January 24, I wanted to share a list of episodes that scared the crap out of me as a kid and as an adult. I also wanted to highlight how masterfully the show trades in difficult, unpleasant concepts. The episodes are hard to watch, but The X-Files always maintained that we are all better off confronting those dark parts of ourselves. After all, the truth is out there. Sometimes we only have to look at each other, and ourselves, to find it.
Here is the first half of my top ten scariest X-Files episodes, arranged in order of airdate. If you think I missed one, let me know in the comments! And stay tuned for the second half, which will be posted soon!
(BTW, The X-Files is well past the statute of limitations for spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show, go watch it and then come back.)
- “Squeeze” – Season 1, Episode 3
It only took three episodes for The X-Files to show the world that it wasn’t messing around. “Squeeze” is a classic episode with a classic villain – Eugene Tooms.
In case you weren’t traumatized as a small child and haven’t seen this episode, Tooms is a monster who murders people by ripping out and eating their livers. He accomplishes this by stretching and squeezing his body through air ducts, ventilation shafts, and chimney, so he can corner his victims in their homes where they think they’re safe.
As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, the actor that plays Tooms is creepy beyond measure. He always gave me the heebie jeebies. He’s cold and detached until he attacks people–that’s when he flies into a frenzy, like an animal. The scene where he attacks Scully is downright terrifying.
I always admired how this episode combined monster tropes with the serial killer genre, and with heavy doses of home invasion fears thrown in. In particular, I am personally terrified by home invasions.
And ever since I was a child, I’ve been haunted by the ending shot of Tooms, sitting patiently in his cell, confident he’ll get out one day to continue his murderous feasting.
2. “The Host” – Season 2, Episode 2
This episode can be summed up thusly: revolting.
One of the best monster-of-the-week episodes, “The Host” tells the story of a terrifying creature, some kind of hellish cross between a man and a flukeworm, that gets caught in the sewage system, where it starts attacking sewage workers. It doesn’t take long for Mulder and Scully to realize that the creature needs a host to reproduce, and all those nasty bites it delivers infect people with fluke eggs.
I think this monster is the nastiest, grossest X-Files monster ever, with its milky white skin, mucous-y film covering every inch, and those bloodcurdling half-human, half-worm features. Flukeman, as he’s been lovingly termed by fans, has the best monster make-up of the show’s history. I don’t care how old you are or how tough you think you are, Flukeman scares everyone. His face looks so wrong and unnatural–I don’t think our caveman brains can handle how strange and perverse he looks. This show had everything–monsters, aliens, unsolvable mysteries, government conspiracies, the quest for “The Truth,” and of course, Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
Flukeman scared the crap out of me and still does.
In addition to having an amazing monster, this episode went heavy on body horror, which adds a whole new level of ickiness. The monster’s bites are disgusting, and the fact that it pulls people into wastewater too attack them is vile. It’s also a terrible, undignified way to die, where a nasty flukeworm will suck the life from you. Gross!
God it’s frightening.
3. “Irresistible” – Season 2, Episode 13
Every woman knows the feeling–some guys are simply scary. They make you nervous immediately. I’m not talking about the aggressive douche bags, though they’re awful as well. I mean the ones with normal faces, who seem polite, if a little stiff. They don’t do anything objectionable upfront, but there’s a sinister gleam in their eyes and certain foreboding tone in their voices. They may be polite and complimentary but they’re also insincere and arrogant. There is something…off about them. And even though you have no proof, you know what’s wrong. They’re waiting for an opportunity to get you alone, to gain power over you, to hurt you. They want to hurt women.
Cue “Irresistible”, which is probably The X-Files episode that upsets me the most. Donnie Pfaster has a thing for ladies’ hair and fingernails, so much so that he takes jobs at funeral homes so he can cut the hair and nails off the corpses of young women. But that’s not quite doing it for him anymore, and so he decides to go after living women.
While Tooms may be the creepiest monster on the show, Donnie is worse in a lot of ways, mainly because there isn’t anything inhuman or supernatural about Donnie. He’s real. Men like him kill women every day.
This was the first X-Files episode to eschew the paranormal in favor of going whole hog in on the stalker/serial killer/pervert horror. Gross as hell. The episode is also drenched in psychological horror, especially when Scully realizes that his victims couldn’t escape Donnie’s perversion, even in death.
As a woman, one of my deepest fears is that some asshole will kill me, degrade me in both life and death, and think that he has true power over me. That he has won. It’s talked about a lot, but I’ll talk about it some more–women deal with this shit every day, and while it doesn’t usually come in the form of a psychopath serial killer, women can always tell when one of those awful men view you as nothing more than a conquest and your body parts mere trophies.
This episode always upsets me, especially the way Donnie fetishes hair and nails. The way he desecrated that young girl’s corpse before her funeral. Somehow, the worst part is that he wants to shampoo their hair before he kills them.
But I think the most moving scene in the episode is when Scully must perform an autopsy on Donnie’s first murder victim. Not only is Scully coming to terms with her own abduction, she feels like she’s further desecrating the body and degrading the poor dead woman. And she does this while a room full of men watch. It’s unmistakable how uncomfortable she is, as if she’s an accessory to the crime. As if she’s perpetuating the crime while a bunch of men watch.
What does that mean for the audience, who continues to watch?
How can someone reduce a person to the disembodied pieces of what society codes as feminine, as sexy? Well, just read up on Jerome Brudos, Anatoly Onoprienko, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Robert Hanson, and Joel Rifkin.
Laden with meaning, “Irresistible” explores how society allows misogyny to percolate into one person, where it grows unchecked, eventually festering into a tangled mess of hate and evil. Monsters can hide in plain sight. Nothing is solved by pretending like they don’t walk among us.
4. “Die Hand, Die Verletzt” – Season 2, Episode 14
This is the “Satanic Panic” episode of the show, which hearkens back to the fear and mass hysteria that swept through parts of the United State in the 1980s. The major fear was that satanists were abducting children to use them in so-called black masses, during which the satanists would worship the devil.
On this episode, teenagers in a small town start dying. The town leaders are convinced that it’s the work of satanists and occultists, but Mulder and Scully are not so convinced. That is, until they discover that satanists actually run the town, but they are pretty…unthreatening, more like your garden variety, boring, non-human-sacrificing satanists. If they’re not responsible for the murders, then who is?
For a lot of parents, I assume this episode hit home because of the deep-rooted fear for their children’s safety. But I didn’t know anything about the satanic panic as a kid, and so I didn’t experience the horror of this episode on that level. No, to me, I was scared by the fact that children were killed in the episode, that a lot of it took place in a school, that the substitute teacher made the kids dissect pigs, and that the substitute teacher was obviously the devil. I’m not sure which part was worse.
This episode was always very visceral to me, with a fair bit of body horror. Remember how one kid is killed and someone removes his eyes and his heart, and then they show up in the sub’s desk drawer later? Remember the gruesome teen suicide? Remember the man-eating snake? Remember that tense, awful monologue about satanic ritual abuse? Terrifying. All of it.
I was always especially freaked out by the psychological horror inherent in the child murders. The children were being murdered to punish the parents, and it always struck me how unfair it was. Children know how much worse they have it than adults. They can pick up on when children get the short end of the stick, when adults don’t care what the child thinks, even if he or she has a valid point. And as a child, it particularly sucks when kids are fair game to be killed in TV shows and movies. It was disturbing and uncomfortable and unjust, even to my little-kid self. How could these people be so selfish and lazy that their children end up paying the ultimate price?
I think too I was disturbed (still am) by the idea that the Satanists were family people, conservative, affluent, football-loving people, but lazy about their religious practices, much like your average American churchgoer. The show really challenged me in making them so sympathetic. Like many practitioners of religion today, these people may have been unprepared and unwilling to do what must be done to comport with the tenets of their faith.
I can’t help but laugh aloud when the main satanist tries to defend himself to Mulder and Scully–“We’d skip over the rituals we didn’t want to do!” he insisted. It just goes to show how every one can neglect their religion. Not everyone will piss off the devil with their negligence, however.
This episode is a prime example of how The X-Files deftly subverted viewers’ expectations and then shoved that subversion in their faces. It’s human nature to waffle on obligations, religious and non-religious. It’s something that binds us all, even if we are appalled by each other’s different beliefs.
5. “Oubliette” – Season 3, Episode 8
This is another episode that badly freaked me out as a kid. Kidnappings are real. Men like Carl Wade exist. When Carl finds Amy Jacobs, a sweet teenaged girl, he decides to take her all for himself. By abusing his position as a school photographer’s assistant, he finds her address and steals her away in the night. At the same moment Amy Jacobs is kidnapped, a woman named Lucy collapses 20 miles across town, suffering a nose bleed where she bleeds Amy Jacob’s blood. At first Mulder and Scully think Lucy must have been involved in the kidnapping, but soon they find out that Lucy was herself a victim of a kidnapping. The same man who kidnapped Amy kidnapped Lucy years ago, and Lucy spent 5 years in captivity before escaping. All Lucy wants is to build her life, but Mulder is convinced that she can help recover Amy.
There are bad men in this world. When I was little, the kidnapping scenes upset me greatly, as did the idea that the school photographers might be bad people. How did I know who they were really? What did they want to do with my picture?
Not to mention that I was scared by the idea that a bad man could steal me away and keep me in a dank, nasty basement and take pictures of me in the dark. I’m still traumatized by that scene. It was very real and awful, especially when you hear about real-life kidnappings, where children are kept by their kidnappers for years.
But now, as an adult, I’m equally disturbed by what happens to poor Lucy. I used to think she was cold for not wanting to help find Amy, but now I understand that she was tries to protect herself. Even though she escaped years earlier, she was so hurt by her ordeal that building a functioning life was a horrendous struggle. Once Wade takes Amy, the delicate world Lucy built comes tumbling down. The thought of escaping such an ordeal and then being dragged back into her nightmare, literally reliving everything that happens to Amy, makes my soul hurt.
I love how this episode combines the horror of Lucy’s psychological distress; the pain that seemingly has no source, the fear that it is happening again, the terror that she is helpless to improve her life. Damn. That poor woman, I can’t imagine what it would be like for kidnapping victims when their kidnapper is never caught–there’s no sense of safety closure, no sense of closure, no justice served.
It’s a testament to the strength of The X-Files to explore not only the horror of a kidnapping, but the terrible aftereffects. Through a combination of different types of horror–kidnapping/home invasion, supernatural connections, and the psychological horror of helplessness–“Oubliette” is a stark reminder that the survivors of such ordeals live on, bearing terrible burdens. It’s not just about the kidnapping and the captivity. The pain doesn’t stop once the survivor is rescued. The fear doesn’t go away after the episode ends.
Stay tuned for the next half of my Scariest X-Files list! It will be posted soon!