Monday 28 May 2018

We Don't Go Back #80: The X-Files – Home (1996)

This is the first of four posts this week, to mark the completion of a new stage of development with the We Don't Go Back book. Basically it's in the first round of proofreading now. Not long to go.

Spoiler warnings are for wimps, but here's one anyway.

You know how the X Files worked. But let's for a second pretend you don't.

For most of its run, the show followed a fairly straightforward formula. FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), investigate unusual and inexplicable cases. Mulder is credulous; Scully is a skeptic. Often, the results of their investigations are inconclusive. While, as the series progressed, a complex mythology developed, speaking to a whole raft of conspiracy theories and myths surrounding UFOs and their relationship with the US government, most of the best episodes were one-off case-of-the-week stories. These tended to draw from urban legends and conspiracy lore, and most episodes, you'd have Mulder expressing familiarity with the urban legend at hand, with complete credulity, and Scully refusing to believe it, and the two of them investigating with a charming frisson of unresolved sexual tension. The case would be closed, probably, and they'd uncover enough proof to convince Mulder and nowhere near enough to convince Scully.
Things are getting weird. I'm starting to worry.
With that framework in place, with that rich and apparently inexhaustible seam of modern American folklore to mine, it's sort of perplexing that so few episodes of The X Files wind up in folk horror territory, and that even those that do don't really go full folk horror. In a very real sense, The X Files can't, inasmuch as the tropes of the series depend on Mulder and Scully being in genuine peril from an extraterrestrial takeover (or something) of the government; the case-of-the-week episodes are breaks from that, breathers, almost, and almost require Mulder and Scully not to find out the truth.

The truth is out there, but it has to remain out there, inchoate, not grasped. A truth in the bush is worth an infinite number in the hand, and that's not a principle at odds with folk horror. Nor is the status of Mulder and Scully as outsiders and representatives of reason. But the fact is that in these episodes they are generally untouched and untouchable, aloof observers who witness the inexplicable phenomena and perhaps even end it sometimes, but who nonetheless do not risk anything doing so, and are not changed by their contact with it.

And on the very few occasions where The X Files did go folk horror, the peril is directed in different ways, and while Mulder and Scully might end up in jeopardy, and might even occasionally take a bullet, they're always standing at the end, ready to come back to the real jeopardy in the alien conspiracy arc. And this is not to say that these episodes don't matter! They're often the ones people who care really rate. But they're also the ones where Mulder and Scully are almost observers, and as such are not the outsiders who clash with the action.

American federal agencies are terrifying, implacable, utterly unreasonable things, and FBI agents, as near-faceless symbols of this terrible power, carry a weird, numinous authority – and that's another reason why the case-of-the-week episodes are different. The Big UFO Conspiracy Arc Thing comes from within the intelligence framework, because in TV Land, it's only the intelligence framework that has the power, temporal and imaginal, to threaten its own. And The X Files even from time to time directly addresses that and sometimes makes a joke of it (for example in its third season, in Jose Chung’s From Outer Space), but it's the reason why the folk horror episodes of The X Files so very rarely feel like folk horror. Part of the attraction of The X Files is the terrifying, ambiguous, implacable FBI agent as protagonist, and the thrill of that is how that is subverted. And that constant exploration of badges and secrets, authority and conspiracy, comes first, and leaves less space for psychogeography or hauntology than you'd think.
The Old Peacock House.
But for all that there are remarkably few episodes of The X Files that do folk horror, there are nonetheless some, and these episodes approach these stories in a particular way.

For example, the fourth season episode Home. Mulder and Scully come to a small town in Pennsylvania, after some kids playing baseball find the corpse of a horribly deformed infant in a field, which was, the autopsy reveals, buried alive. The deformed, inbred Peacock brothers (Chris Nelson Norris, Adrian Griffiths and John Trottier) who live on the nearby farm – there since the Civil War, we learn; no electricity, no running water – immediately draw the agents’ suspicion, even though there are apparently no women on the farm. Mulder constructs a plausible scenario where the Peacocks are guilty of kidnap and rape.

They are, but not in this instance. In fact, the mother of the infant is the Peacock boys’ quadriplegic mother (Karin Konoval, Maurice the Orangutan from the most recent run of Planet of the Apes films), who not only engages in incest with her sons, but more or less demands it.

It's a nasty little story. The agents’ investigations directly lead to the Peacocks murdering the sympathetic local sheriff (Tucker Smallwood) and his wife, who are, tellingly, Black; the Peacocks’ racism and self-serving hypocrisy is a companion to their inward-looking corruption, and while at the end, their home is raided and they face heavy, bloody losses, the Peacocks do endure enough to survive.

The political subtext of Home was rage-filled enough during the Clinton years, but it's fair to say that it's aged far too well. The Peacocks’ deep-seated Americanness, their belief in their own rightness, purity and superiority, is, too an outsider, sort of MAGA (and it's a real temptation to use MAGA adjectivally, the way that some of us here in the UK have started to use “Brexit”), even though actually it's not poor people who make up Trump's base.
A photograph.
Here, the inbred, monstrous backwoods clan, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre gang, are explicitly Old Money, a family with a lineage, proud and corrupt. Once again, we have Lovecraftian hicks, but here they're tied to the American Dream in a way that invites reflection, or at the very least offence.

And of course, as Americans in fiction, they cannot be stopped. OK, obviously that's a provocative statement even by my standards, but what I mean is that characters who symbolise the USA, even the darker side of it, don't tend to get entirely defeated;the mythology of the USA depends on the USA being eternal. A defeat is a thing that's picked over, and examined, and agonised over, and reified as temporary. The USA goes on, historically great and if not currently great, great again shortly. And so, the representatives of American society cannot be defeated fully, even by the darkly powerful agents of Federal Order. They go somewhere else. They begin again, still deformed and still hungry, but unbowed.

Mulder and Scully meanwhile are catalysts rather than protagonists. Folk horror happens around them, it even happens because of them, but it doesn't happen to them.

And The X Files was always pretty good at this, at interrogating America, at what America was becoming, the dark powers at its core and what they did to the people and to their own, directly and indirectly. It makes sense that of all of the handful of folk horror themed episodes, the one where the people of White America are so grotesquely portrayed should be the one of the nastiest.

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