‘The X-Files’ Marks a Return to the Paranoid Style in American Television

What do Mulder and Scully have to do with a 1964 Harper's essay about Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign?

Upon the return of Agents Mulder and Scully, we examine the history of their conspiracies. (Youtube)
Upon the return of Agents Mulder and Scully, we examine the history of their conspiracies. (Youtube)

Binging on The X-Files  ahead of last week’s new episodes brought me to one story I might have never remembered, because it’s not a “monster of the week” story and it’s not all that concerned with the show’s larger narrative of conspiracy, shape-shifters, viruses and abductions. On it’s surface, the episode simply exists as a nostalgic ode to baseball.

The 19th episode of season six, “The Unnatural” unfolds largely through a series of flashbacks that this dude Arthur Dales has when Agent Mulder confronts him with an old photograph of a baseball team from Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, “The Roswell Grays.” Mulder recognizes one of the shape-shifters in that photograph, an alien bounty hunter who’s still very much at the center of his grief, so Dales tells Mulder the memory. Dales was a cop, assigned to protect the Negro League players from death threats in the small town. Through this constant, guarding vigilance, Dales figures out the star player on The Roswell Grays is in fact a gray alien, Dales keeps his secret, and they develop a close friendship. For those of you one step ahead, 1947 was the same year as the Roswell incident, in which an unidentified flying object crashed into a farm in Roswell before the government claimed it to be debris from a classified project.

There’s this one line Dales says to Mulder, “That which fascinates us is metaphorically true,” that got me thinking.  The X-Files isn’t just a brilliant science-fiction thriller show, but this prototypical example of how paranoia and conspiratory thought have become a commonplace staple of American television, evidenced best through the programming on FOX (FOXA).  You also see it at work with the network’s 24, in which paranoid fears about terrorism are entertained and almost always completely validated. Look at the majority of longer dramas on the channel now for further proof of this propagated, paranoid brand— Sleepy Hollow, Gotham, Scream Queens and Wayward Pines all feature parts largely-driven through validated hunches, uneasy speculation and conspiring entities, where you never know just who is in cahoots and who should be trusted. And don’t even get me started on their news coverage. Mulder wasn’t kidding when he said “trust no one.”

The brilliance of The X-Files, then, comes from these moments where  patterns, hunches and synchronicities aren’t just used as plot devices, but themes, that look at the very personal histories shaping what we believe and what we discount, of where we let our imagination shape our convictions and where we hold-on to logic. This frame recalls my conversation with the creators of a show The Observer previewed last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called Real Enemies. While a big-band jazz ensemble played an original 12-tone composition over a large doomsday clock, amazing old found footage from America’s treasure trove of both conspiracies and conspiracy theories played on a giant square of televisions, above the stage. The theories escalated from the things we’ve since proven to the wilder, more out there ones—our surveillance state of government, the CIA dealing coke with the Contras, the MK Ultra program that used LSD as a means for mind-control? All on the books, official. Reptilian aliens, the moon landing being faked? Not so much.

"Real Enemies" (Noah Stern Weber for BAM)
“Real Enemies” (Noah Stern Weber for BAM)

In an effort to explain the structure of Real Enemies, the show’s writer Isaac Butler asked me to consider our human inclination to create narrative out of things we don’t understand. “Conspiracies are our modern day mythology,” he told me.  “We have these gaps in our knowledge and we fill them in. We fill them in in a bunch of different ways, and conspiracy theories are one of those ways. In many ways, all this is is the natural human inclination toward narrative run amok.”

Mr. Butler recalled the famous  E.M. Forrester quote, “The King died and the Queen died is not a plot. The King died and the Queen died of grief is a plot.”

“You can’t have a narrative without causality,” he said. “What you really have is this thing where you’re looking at these disparate events and going ‘whats the causality here?’ Your brain is doing this thing that we always see conspiracy theorists or cops do on television shows where they put the different pieces of information together on a wall and start connecting them with string.”

To embrace Mr. Butler’s maxim, acknowledging that our brains are even doing that thing is a big first step toward preventing such moments of paranoid conspiracy  from consuming us. We talked a bit about the large pocket of Americans who actually believe that the Federal Government is secretly planning to round citizens up and put them in FEMA labor camps (see: INFOWARS.) This fringe, paranoid belief is based on quantifiable, discomforting fact. It’s true that our country has rounded up people and put them in camps (see: the Japanese internment camps during WWII.) It’s true that FEMA is a poorly managed and debatably shady government organization (see: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) And it’s also true that FEMA’s first director during the Reagan years, a man named Louis O. Giuffrida, wrote an army war college thesis on how one would implement and need to round up black dissidents and put them in camps given a hypothetical, urban riot. The dots here are fascinating, and it’s easy to see where the mind might connect them to a larger projected evil. Hell, documented grand schemer Oliver North even worked with FEMA in 1990. But nonetheless, the strings connecting these dots are bullshit.

The real life Operation Paperclip group. (Wikicommons)
The real life Operation Paperclip group. (Wikicommons)

The X-Files was better at exploring the temptation to connect historical dots than any television show in history. Look at the third episode of season two, “Paper Clip”, which attempts to explain the history of how the X-Files program started. It’s factually on record that our government brought several high-profile Nazi scientists, engineers and technicians over after the war to help jump start our space program. Using this sordid bit of history, which has always been at the center of conspiracy theorist speculation, The X-Files enhanced its own origin story and blended a factual, historical precedent with fiction. It’s no far reach to say the glut of programming on FOX follows suit, as fiction.

While talking about his show, Mr. Butler suggested I check out a 1964 essay from Harper’s called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He explained how Richard Hofstadter’s piece, which used Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign  that year as a frame for examining how paranoid thought permeated the right wing of ’64, was a landmark essay for scholars who study conspiracy theories. “He has this quote in there where he says to the paranoid ‘time is forever just running out,'” recalled Mr. Butler, who explained how that was the foundation for the doomsday clock motif of Real Enemies.

Much of Mr. Hofstadter’s essay attempts to unpack the paranoid thought process. He writes about how the paranoid set themselves these unattainable, existential goals, where ‘the enemy’ must be destroyed or rooted out. “Because the goals are constantly unattainable, you have this cycle of, ‘well, why did I fail?’” said Mr. Butler. ” It must be these external, paranoid reasons— which leads again to another set of unattainable goals and their failure, over and over again.” Throughout The X-Files’ narrative, Mulder sets himself on this loop over discovering just what happened when his sister Samantha was abducted, and how it came to pass.

Mulder's sister Samantha, abducted when they were both little kids, constantly resurfaces at different ages and in different capacities.
Mulder’s sister Samantha, abducted when they were both little kids, constantly resurfaces at different ages and in different capacities. (Screenshot, YouTube)

The “style” angle to his examination of paranoia is particularly interesting.  “Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good,” writes Mr. Hofstadter. “But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”

In an insight from the ’60s, Mr. Hofstadter expresses his belief that the modern right wing feels dispossessed. “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion,” he writes. “The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Hofstadter  also admits that paranoid thought is a political ideology unto itself, manifesting in similar ways across different party lines and acknowledging such paranoia was equally present in the more radical left-wing press of the ’60s. Mr Butler also stressed that conspiracy theories aren’t limited to the right. “The susceptibility to and likelihood of viewing things as conspiracies can be plotted ideologically,” said Mr. Butler, “but it’s a separate ideology. Someone can be Liberal or Conservative or Libertarian or Authoritarian. We tend to plot those on ideological lines, and conspiracism can actually be understood that way too. Then you go through a mixture of lived experience, political, whatever, in such a way that something will make you more inherently likely to believe or disbelieve conspiracy theories.”

Mr. Hoftstader first delivered that essay as a speech to Oxford on November 21, 1963. The day after, JFK was assassinated. Coincidence?

The Smoking Man.
The Smoking Man. (Pintrest)

Well, I sure hope so. And this brings me to another episode of The X-Files, the seventh episode of season three, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” Right in the show’s pilot we’re introduced to this Cigarette Smoking Man, a mysterious antagonist who’s part of a larger conspiracy group called The Syndicate that’s behind the central plot line of extraterrestrial cover-ups. This man, who isn’t given a name until the show’s final episodes, is always around when something shady and conspiratory happens in the show. He’s also got a lot more invested in Agent Mulder than we’re originally led to believe. But it’s this episode of season three where we finally get some of his backstory. Turns out he’s the one who assassinated Kennedy. Seriously, no shit. Dude framed Lee Harvey Oswald. And soon thereafter, he smoked his first cigarette. Soon after that, he also assassinated Dr. King.

“Musings”, like the “Paper Clip” episode, is brilliant because it manages to blend in historical precedent that there has been much debate and paranoid theorizing over into the larger narrative of The X Files. To cleanly explain the largest conspiracy theories of American history and offer an origin for the man’s smoking habit? It’s not only a stroke of genius writing, but a triumph of meta narrative devices. And the scariest thing is, in it’s own narrative style, the plot never feels too absurd. It makes sense.

“Now, most people, common people, really… can barely manage to control their own self-centered, myopic existence,” says General Francis early on in the episode. “There are extraordinary men… those who must identify… comprehend, and ultimately shoulder the responsibility for not only their own existence, but their country’s, and the world’s as well.”

Like a conspiracy theory itself, this quote brings me back full circle to Mr. Butler’s original sentiment—correlation does not equal causation. It’s fun and entertaining to forget that when we want to get lost in a riveting story, but the challenge then becomes remembering that those stories are fiction, and observing the difference when we watch the news.

Screenshot (YouTube)
Screenshot (YouTube)

“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values,” writes Hofstadter. “He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”

Being a journalist helps you see how most of the conspiracy theories that surface online via faux news sites are just bad reporting. We follow the process of validation and vetting no matter how cumbersome, because real conspiracies are out there, and many have been exposed through time, research and documents becoming un-classified. But the shows and news coverage alleging of  conspiring beings, be they from space or from Washington, are setting us on a dangerously paranoid narrative trajectory. The American people have many more real domestic threats to worry about.

“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well,”  Hofstadter concludes. Maybe it’s not nearly as comforting to accept, but the truth is out there, and it’s likely much more boring than we want to believe.

‘The X-Files’ Marks a Return to the Paranoid Style in American Television