The premiere of Season 10 of The X-Files has come and gone, and so far, I’ve been pleased.
While the first episode may not have been the strongest episode ever, it gave us a solid dose of those mythological in scope, all-encompassing conspiracy theories we’ve come to know and love. Episode 2 was way more solid, truth be told, and pulled no punches when it came to violence and gore, which was a pleasant surprise.
It is good to have the old X-Files back. Conspiracy theories are all well and good, yes, but I have to say that I prefer the monster-of-the-week episodes with lots of scares and gore. They affect me more, they arrest my imagination and my heart and genuinely terrify. Those episodes make me question so much as they confront me with truly horrifying stories.
It’s why I keep coming back to The X-Files. I love how The X-Files forces me to think even as it entertains me, even as it scares me.
So, to continue from this post, here is Part 2 of my list of X-Files episodes that continue to scare me. Again, these episodes are presented in the order they aired.
(Also, spoiler alert, though, for real, these episodes aired at least ten years ago, if not longer. At this point, it’s your fault if you haven’t seen them. But at any rate, if you haven’t seen The X-Files, watch the whole show and then come back.)
“Grotesque” – Season 3, Episode 14
While the X-Files is known for its characters and writing, it is not particularly known for its cinematography. I guess they had other things to focus on. However, “Grotesque” has a vivid, graphic visual style that enhances the horror on screen. Make sure the color balance and other settings on your TV are adjusted before you watch it, because this episode is dark.
Whole scenes are filmed in shadowy rooms, or in virtual caves where there is barely any light. Scenes oscillate between the monochromatic and lurid with color. The lighting, when there is any, is incredibly harsh, dividing that character’s faces into light and dark. It gives the episode a tenebristic feel, which is all very appropriate given the chilling premise of an artist, Mostow, who claims he is possessed by a demon. The demon forces him to kill young men, disfigure them, cut them up, and use their remains in clay sculptures of gargoyles.
Mostow claims that, by using gargoyles as his subject matter, he can ward off the demon. Traditionally, gargoyles were used in architecture to guard against demons. Their monstrous, twisted stone faces were though to scare demons and protect houses of worship—that’s why you see them perched all over gothic cathedrals in western Europe. Every culture has a version of gargoyles. So it makes some sense that Mostow would try to use this archetypal figure to save himself.
But of course, he isn’t successful.
“Grotesque” has psychological, paranormal/supernatural demon horror, and some nasty body horror. It’s got a serial killer and a gargoyle demon that jumps from host to host to continue its murder spree.
There’s a lot of scary stuff in this episode, not least among them Mulder’s own struggle with madness as he works to build a profile of the killer. Even though I know what will happen, this episode makes me scared all over again that Mulder won’t resist the urge to give in to the demon. Watching his struggle is terrible.
But concerning the murders, there is something extremely terrifying to me about sculpting the remains of the victims into clay gargoyles. It’s not enough that Mostow murders and desecrates the bodies of the victims; no, he has to go one further and use them in his twisted, haunting art.
That really gets under my skin, I suppose for the same reasons I talk about with Irresistible—the killer imposes further degradation and indignity on his victims for his own selfish desires.
It’s uncomfortable to consider how art and murder intersect in this episode, how art could possibly intersect with psychopathy. But art is a way for an artist to gain insight into his reality and share that knowledge with the world. What does it mean that an artist feels compelled to kill young men, commits the heinous deeds, and then incorporates the victims into a tortured sculpture of a monster? Does this make it any less art? Do we have to expand our idea of what art is?
Instead of talismans to keep a demon at bay, Mostow created depraved monuments to the evil in our hearts, which threatens to consume us. It already literally consumed the men encased in clay.
This episode hits deep, striking at the age old fear all human beings have, which is that we all have the capacity for great depravity and evil. Mostow’s insanity is not confined to his own mind. Despite their best efforts, the men who vowed to protect society from such evil were the most at risk, even falling prey to its power.
What happens to us when the good men falter? When they aren’t good anymore?
“Home” – (Season 4, Episode 2)
Ah, “Home.” This is, perhaps, the most horrifying episode ever. And the most infamous, for good reason.
Side note: I didn’t see this episode as a child—which is probably a good thing—because the episode was deemed so intense and disturbing that FOX refused to include the episode in the first round of syndicated episodes of the show, after they were first aired. I didn’t see it until I bought Season 4 on DVD, and by then I could well understand all the way this episode is so very, very messed up. From community tensions to a new, twisted definition of motherhood, this episode does not let up.
I re-watched this episode for this post, and it’s hard to organize my thoughts regarding this episode. Where should I start? The most appalling cold open in the show’s history, where a baby is delivered with a fork and then three ghoulish men bury it in a field? The kids who later find the baby’s body? The brutal slaughter of the sheriff and his wife? The uncomfortable, weird pep talk from Mrs. Peacock as her son’s stand before her, stark naked? The Peacocks’ filthy, booby-trapped house? The reveal that Mrs. Peacock is not only alive but a quadruple amputee kept on a wheeled board under a bed? Or should I begin with the realization that Mrs. Peacock is a willing participant in the whole sordid affair?
More importantly, what the fuck? What in the actual fuck?
Everything in this episode is perfectly calibrated to mess you up. There’s gruesome violence, several kinds of body horror (childbirth, deformity, infanticide, murder, dismemberment) incest, home invasion, and the worst inbred hicks since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I’ve seen this episode many times, mostly as I watched through my fingers. The perversion of the family structure is always hard to watch, but when you think about it, this episode is more about the preservation of a way of life.
The episode contains three levels of community—the family, the town, and the country. Mulder and Scully, representing the country and the federal government, seek to preserve order, but their presence in the town ruffles a few feathers, especially those of the Sheriff. He sees their presence as an intrusion that threatens his picturesque town with the nastiness of the wide, modern world. The fact that he is forced to call the FBI to assist in the case brings up a lot of resentment. As a viewer, you can understand his perspective. No one wants to admit that their community has problems, and no one wishes to expose their community to further troubles.
But can’t the same be said for the Peacock family? They just want to go about their business (their nasty, blood-chilling business) and avoid anyone who isn’t a part of their family. They also have a way of life they want to preserve. Why should they obey the rules of a community they do not wish to belong to? What right has anyone to tell them what to do?
I love how this episode cuts right to a paradox inherent in American life. America means you are free to live your life however you want to live it, within reason. What is reason? Where is that line drawn? Who draws it? What right does the FBI have to tell this creepy family how to live?
You could argue that infanticide is definitely outside the acceptable bounds of personal freedom, and I would agree with you, but the Peacocks are prepared to kill a bunch of law enforcement officers to fight you on that. That’s an American tale as old as time, or, er, America.
You could argue that the victims necessitate outside interference, but what if the “victims” don’t want to be saved? I think the worst part of this episode was the realization that Mrs. Peacock isn’t just a willing participant, but the most vehement protector of the family’s twisted ideals and practices. She’s the one who commands her sons to murder in order to protect their lifestyle. She’s the one who will do anything for her sons, as long as they make her proud by doing whatever she says.
She doesn’t care what the outside world thinks “motherhood” means. She has her own definition, and that means incest and murder and living under a bed.
God, it makes me shiver.
All in all, this episode stabs at unpleasant truths about the way we live our lives and how others might judge us. What happens when real conflict arises? Is your house truly your castle? What are you willing to do to protect it?
Once you watch “Home,” you can never go back.
“Unruhe” (Season 4, Episode 4)
This episode is the X-Files episode responsible for giving me a life-long phobia of people lying in wait under my car, stabbing my foot with a syringe full of knock-out medicine, and kidnapping me.
“Unruhe” may seem like your typical serial killer targeting women schtick, but it’s so much more than that. True, there is a fair bit of the serial killer trope, but there are several ways in which this episode is not about your average serial killer.
For starters, Gerry Schnauz has the uncanny ability to project his twisted, nightmarish fantasies onto undeveloped film, which Mulder and Scully find. The images are full of distorted, shadowy figures and dream-like symbols all surrounding a screaming woman who is falling backwards into the darkness. Gerry has a pretty messed up inner-monologue if this is what he carries around in his head all day.
Secondly, the way he attacks victims is horrifying. His MO revolves around choosing a victim who he feels needs to be saved from “the howlers.” What are the howlers? Why, they’re bad things that make the women think and say bad things. Gerry is convinced he can save these women.
He saves them by stalking them, and when the opportunity presents itself, he bumps into them so he can stick them with a needle, drugging them with a powerful sedative cocktail. They’re knocked out almost immediately. When they wake up, he’s got them in a dark room, strapped into a dentist’s chair. Gerry is there, speaking German for some odd, unsettling reason. Then he uses an orbitoclast to perform a transorbital lobotomy on them, which means that he sticks an icepick through the eye socket and destroys the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
What the hell?
The history of lobotomies is abhorrent, and it’s hard to ever think of such an operation as being in the patient’s best interests except in the most limited and extreme cases. But they were used with alarming frequency throughout the early 20th century on people who suffered from mental illness, to the point that the practice became a quick, easy way to subdue problem patients. But what the procedure produced in terms of calmer patients came at the expense of the patient’s personality, intelligence, and responsiveness. In short, it often robbed a person of what made them a person in the first place.
I can’t imagine how terrified I’d be if someone was about to perform a transorbital lobotomy on me. I know I would dread the pain, but mostly I’d be dreading the loss of my personality, my mind, and my essence. All because some asshole with mental issues assumes this will “save” me from something haunting his own mind? NOPE.
I think another disturbing thing about “Unruhe” is how the episode depicts its serial killer. The episode does a lot of work to make him seem earnest, even sympathetic, despite his horrible actions. You can tell that the howlers are real to him and that he thinks he’s helping defeat them. But you can also see that he’s still wrestling with his painful past, that the one woman he’ll never “save” is his poor sister. So he keeps carrying out the lobotomies even as he knows it will never truly fix his problems. It’s the only thing he can do, in his mind, to stop his pain.
But the episode doesn’t feel sorry for Gerry—he’s still a violent, cruel man who selfishly projects his personal demons onto others. He is a willing prisoner of his delusions. That’s how serial killers are. They are human beings who feel that their pain and angst give them the right to hurt others.
“Chinga” (Season 5, Episode 10)
When you think horror writer, you most likely think of Stephen King, the prolific author responsible for many of the best nightmares committed to the page and interpreted for the screen. King is devilishly imaginative and refuses to pull punches, all of which makes him very effective at scaring the crap out of people.
So it seems only natural that he would end up penning an episode for The X-Files.
In typical Stephen King fashion, “Chinga” combines extreme gore, monsters, possession, and psychological horror in one episode about a vicious killer doll. It also combines King’s trademarked strategy of taking childhood nostalgia and subverting it into something terrifying.
For example, you’ll never think of the Hokey Pokey song the same way again after seeing this episode. Or, if you were like me and had an American Girl Doll, this episode makes you question whether or not that doll is so nice after all.
The episode tells the story of how poor, overworked Scully travelled to Maine for a quick vacation but instead found a small town terrorized by a bratty little girl and her killer doll. No one is more terrorized than the little girl’s mother, who can’t discipline her child for fear that the doll, who has untold powers to force people to kill themselves, will wreck her shit.
When I consider the violence in the episode, I can’t really believe it aired. When the little girl threatens a temper tantrum in the grocery store, the doll responds by making the rest of the store’s patrons claw at their eyes, leaving blood everywhere. One of the butchers stabs himself in the eye with a knife. In another scene, a mean old lady slits her own throat with a broken record while the Hokey Pokey plays in the background. In another, a police officer beats himself to death with his own nightstick. And finally, when the little girl’s mother finally loses her resolve and tries to escape, the doll makes her try to bash her own head in with a hammer.
It really is one of more gruesome X-Files episodes, full of genuine scares, tension, overwhelming apprehension that someone will die shortly, and the disturbing sense of dread because, as the viewer, you don’t know which creative, messed up way the doll will kill its next victim.
It’s also frustrating to watch this episode because the doll is so evil, so obviously evil, and the little girl’s mother is helpless to stop it. Why would a mother ever allow her child to keep such a doll, you might ask. Well, it becomes obvious that the doll does whatever it wants, and I’m sure the mother knows exactly what would happen to her if she tried to take her daughters doll. But due to the mother’s inaction, her child has become a holy terror, spoiled and petty and angry and vengeful.
How do you discipline a child when you physically can’t? How do you stop an evil that won’t physically allow you to defend yourself?
If you’re Scully, you tell that doll to fuck off and microwave the crap out of that doll. Thank God for Scully.
While this is a very satisfying end to the episode, King won’t let it go that easily. Scully didn’t defeat the doll. It’s only a matter of time before this indestructible evil turns up again to terrorize some new family.
I get chills just thinking about it.
“Road Runners” (Season 8, Episode 4)
In my opinion, the latest scary episode that aired was “Roadrunners”, a bright spot in the lagging eighth season. At this point in the series, Mulder has vanished and Scully has a new partner, Doggett, who she does not trust. Consequently, the episode starts on unfamiliar ground, since the audience knows that, whatever happens, Scully doesn’t have her friend, partner, and confidant to back her up.
Things go from zero to sixty in the show’s opening, when an unfortunate man hitches a ride from a bus full of weird, creepy people. Everything is fine for a little while, until the people on the bus pull over, exit the bus, and beat a man to death in the desert. And descend upon the hitchhiker.
Scully goes, without Doggett, to examine the body of the beaten man, and in typical X-Files fashion, is drawn right into the middle of the mystery. It turns out those creepy bus people belong to a cult. They fervently worship Jesus, but Jesus who has made his Second Coming in the body of the nastiest slug in creation. And the slug needs a host to survive. What follows is a taut, ferocious episode that goes full-force on the body horror. “Road Runners” also explores psychological horror through themes of isolation, self-preservation, group mentality, and cults.
This episode pushes a lot of buttons for me, especially as it pertains to the cult, the slug, and Scully’s helplessness once the cult kidnaps her in order to make her the next host.
Cults in general freak me out—the toxicity of a group reinforcing its own sinister goals with a self-congratulatory persecution complex, the disregard to the rights of individuals, the loss of identity to the group. I hate thinking about how I could be drawn into some group like that and lose all semblance of myself. Because of my fear of cults, I’ve done a fair bit of research on them, and to be honest, worshipping a Jesus-slug and kidnapping innocent victims to be its host is not the worst thing a cult has ever done.
I also have a thing about gross bugs, but who doesn’t, right? The ick factor of this creature cannot be underestimated. The scene where Doggett has to cut the slug out of Scully makes my stomach churn, and I can’t believe it also aired on primetime TV. I could go on and on about the Jesus-slug, by why talk your ear off when I can just show a picture of it?
On a more narrative note, this episode plays like an old-school horror movie, a classic outsider vs. isolated community tale, which is a conflict that The X-Files repeatedly explored. The particular thing about “Road Runners” that haunts me is how helpless Scully is, how powerless she is to protect herself rom the cult. She doesn’t make any dumb decisions and she isn’t overly trusting of any one; rather, the cult exploits all the natural assumptions people make about each other every day. Do you assume that the gas station is going to sell you bad gas? No, and why would you? Do you assume that a kindly old gentleman will lure you into a trap so you can become a host to a Jesus-slug? Hell no, and why should you?
The cult lays a trap that is simple and effective by taking advantage of the trust inherent in every day transactions in society. By the time Scully figures this out, it’s too late. Even her signature skepticism and resourcefulness aren’t enough to help her escape.
Murderous cults who pick off innocent hitchhikers is bad, but those same murderous cults going after Scully, my Scully, hurts to watch. Scully is and was a role model for me, since she is a wonderful example of a smart, capable, and tough-as-nails woman. It’s so scary to watch her squirm on the bed, the slug worming its way through her. To see her rendered helpless through no fault of her own hits close to home, on an existential level, especially once she becomes a host. It’s a terrible reminder that no matter how strong, smart, and resourceful a person may be, everyone can be rendered weak and helpless.
I hope you enjoyed my list of scariest X-Files episodes! Keep watching the new season and feel free to leave comments! Were there any episodes I missed? Let me know!