What The X-Files Understood About the Search for Truth

Twenty-five years ago, the sci-fi drama series began its sophisticated exploration of the messiness of human belief.

David Duchovny (left) and Gillian Anderson (right) in 'The X-Files'
David Duchovny (left) and Gillian Anderson (right) in The X-Files (Hulton Archive / Getty)

P. T. Barnum once exhibited a mummified monkey head attached to the tail of a fish. He called the grotesque hybrid the Fiji mermaid and advertised it as a “genuine fake,” a PR move that only fueled the public’s curiosity. It didn’t matter how the creature came to be. A hoax that draws crowds is still a kind of truth. The legend of the Fiji mermaid reaches the FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in a salty circus town in Florida, an above-ground-pool kind of place where everything seems half unreal already. I grew up not far from there; I’ve felt it. The lies the place tells are part of its allure.

Beliefs create themselves on The X-Files, which premiered 25 years ago, on September 10, 1993. Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), partners on a unit dedicated to investigating unexplained phenomena known as X-Files, became sci-fi archetypes: the believer and the skeptic paired up to probe spooky cases. It seemed like their job was to determine what was real, but more often they looked at what they felt was real, and why, and whether there was a difference. The show was less about absolute truth than about the truth as a concept, and how it bends around collective perception.

It’s like this: Alien-abduction stories follow a pattern. Are the elements these stories often share (paralysis, testing, memory loss) proof that abduction lore is true or that everyone who tells them has internalized the same lie? Mulder’s sister Samantha vanished when they were kids. He believed she had been taken by aliens, but throughout the series Mulder confessed to worrying that he couldn’t trust his memories. Maybe his sister’s abduction was just a story he told himself to give meaning to a senseless loss. To which The X-Files said, Of course. But that story could still be true.

In the pilot, Scully was assigned to Mulder to spy on him: a fine plan on paper, not that anything that makes sense on paper held up on The X-Files. She was a scientist, a medical doctor, and a young woman who wanted to distinguish herself in a male-dominated field, so the suits at the FBI assumed she’d hammer the last nail in Mulder’s coffin, shutting him down before his curiosity could expose bureau secrets. This was a failure of imagination.

Mulder and Scully were Schrödinger’s believer and skeptic, setting the molds even as they broke them. The famous poster on Mulder’s office wall wasn’t “I believe” but “I want to believe”—for all his open-mindedness, he couldn’t fathom belief that doesn’t strive for proof. Scully, who still clung to the cross around her neck, was the one who saw believing as a Catholic leap of faith. The partners were symmetrically curious, both drawn to the spaces where facts should be but aren’t; on their first case, when Scully lets herself consider an irrational theory, she laughs.

The FBI higher-ups conspiring to cover up the existence of aliens wanted Mulder out of the picture, but in pairing him with Scully, they only drove the thorn deeper into their own sides. If the personal conflict at work in The X-Files was between belief and skepticism, the global conflict was between connection and alienation—summed up in the way the strange, instant alchemy between Mulder and Scully made them unknowable to the bureau conspirators, whose business was so impersonal they didn’t have names. The most unconscionable monsters in the world of the show weren’t ghouls, but men in suits working deals behind closed doors, trying to maintain their grasp on the power they felt slipping away. The X-Files was afraid of progress; its discomfort with technology was primal. But with its episodes about wild-eyed cult members and murderous, incestuous rural families, it was even more afraid of what people who fear progress will do to prevent it.

It’s a genre cliché that believing in monsters is easier than believing we are the monsters; Mulder heard as much from a psychologist in the show’s revival, which debuted in early 2016. But the monsters in the show’s mythology are mindless chess pieces: classic little gray men in flying saucers, hidden from view by the conspirators and planted in plain sight only occasionally, as a distraction. For Mulder and Scully, accepting the existence of alien life is not a means of avoiding human monstrosity but a guaranteed reckoning with it, in the sense that people governed by the basest instincts of self-preservation stand between the agents and the answers they seek.

To witness the paranormal on The X-Files is to step behind the conspirators’ curtain. Even those who never asked for that experience pay the price. Strange encounters are the lens through which the show sees oppression, and it’s striking how often witnessing a fringe event is conflated with life on the fringes. People in a low-income neighborhood with bars on their windows are killed by a creature that wears the face of their worst fears (in Season 7’s “X-Cops”). The homeless and mentally ill are sent to a leper colony (in Season 3’s “731”) and experimented on until they’re mistaken for aliens, then buried in a ditch after mass execution. Rumors of voodoo swirl around a camp where Marines are beating and killing Haitian refugees (in Season 2’s “Fresh Bones”); as soon as Mulder and Scully catch on, the gates are closed to everyone but the military. “In case you haven’t noticed, Agent Mulder,” his informant drones, “the Statue of Liberty is on vacation.”

The X-Files had a thorny track record with victimhood at an individual level. Attempts to reimagine various cultures’ beliefs and folklore as paranormal phenomena almost always wound up reinforcing broad stereotypes (Haitian voodoo was milked for gross-out shock value, for one). And female abductees, Scully included, were subjected to bodily horrors that converged on their wombs, turning a woman’s ability to reproduce into a plot device. But if the show sometimes failed to give its victims enough agency, it was also startlingly aware of how powerful institutions can do the same, denying marginalized people the right to trust their own experiences, much less speak out about them.

The original series’ disenchantment with authority is key to its relevance in the current climate, but the revival (consisting of a six-episode run in 2016 followed by a 10-episode season in 2018), couldn’t sustain the same angry pitch as the early years. The mythology was too muddled, and Mulder and Scully were too weary. The new seasons were at their best grappling not with politics but with the passage of time, though those two themes did align this year in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” the writer and director Darin Morgan’s pointed satire on the death of “the truth” as meaningful currency. Mulder and Scully came of age as counterarguments to ’90s complacency. It was never clear where they fit once paranoia went mainstream.

It feels like breaking an unspoken code to talk about The X-Files as though it changed; the show wanted the gravitas of an abiding fight between uncompromising characters. But Mulder and Scully grew up. By the time the eighth season began and Scully was blaming aliens for Mulder’s abduction, it was clear they’d been playacting as skeptic and believer for years, staying in their boxes because they took comfort in them. This is the tension humming through the series: The only simple truths are the “genuine fakes” people construct, whether to manipulate others or just to get through the day. Clear-cut concepts—believer, skeptic, nameless villain, little gray men—inhabit a world that is otherwise hazy and confused, screaming for definition. Think of how often Mulder and Scully are lit in silhouette, made mythic but small against the negative space around them. They are ideas about what it means to be human, but this somehow only makes them more vividly individual.

The structure of the series evokes the same tension. The X-Files pioneered the balancing act between serialized mythology and stand-alone cases, which it took so seriously it essentially became two shows: one (myth arc) an elegy for everyone caught in the conspirators’ crosshairs, the other (monster of the week) a set of experimental tone poems about intimate fears. Though most shows assemble collaborative writers’ rooms, the X-Files writers broke scripts independently; continuity went to hell, but the world of the show was split through a prism and made vibrant by its contradictions. The series adapted to make room for comedy, anguish, and an extended riff on Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. But even as The X-Files redefined itself, infinite possibilities were kept in check by its self-imposed formula: The mythology never bled into the monster-of-the-week episodes, especially at the peak of the show, and Mulder and Scully’s platonic-romantic relationship could never cross the line into an overt affair.

When the partners did get together, it was late in the series and mostly offscreen. Their relationship was confirmed only after Mulder was abducted at the end of Season 7, freeing the show from having to accommodate the shift in their dynamic. Even then, questions about Mulder’s “involvement” in Scully’s potentially supernatural pregnancy persisted through the last episode of the revival. But if the gaps in the story left room for inconsistencies, they were also capable of drawing viewers in. At its best, The X-Files had a knack for subverting expectations for big moments and delivering small, human ones instead, like when Mulder greeted Scully after her abduction with just a VHS tape as a gift—a tragically underwhelming attempt to convey his intense affection. Everything ordinary that happened on-screen hinted at a greater, sublimated truth that was too vast to hold.

As much as the series strained for answers, it wasn’t lost on The X-Files that the unknown is usually more appealing. And yet not knowing is never enough. The show both worshipped and rebuked Mulder’s restless search for his white whale, the capital-T Truth. His refusal to let go—of anything—upended his life and the lives of those around him, but it also positioned him as a kind of rogue hero, working to expose corruption from within the government even if it cost him his beliefs. In the language of The X-Files, to believe honestly is to doubt, and to doubt is an act of voluntary self-destruction. Scully’s cancer in Season 4 is a direct result of her attempt to reckon with her abduction; she removes and studies an implant in her neck and nearly pays for it with her life. But she and Mulder keep working, tearing the world open to see what ails it. “In the source of every illness lies its cure,” Scully insists. Like radiation, this is invasive work, demanding the bravery to confront uncertainty.

The X-Files wasn’t interested in assigning meaning to its own chaotic landscape, but it was fascinated with how meaning is assigned. Mulder and Scully once debated the substance of stories, as if they knew they were in the middle of a black-and-white Frankenstein retelling (Season 5’s “The Post-Modern Prometheus”). Unverifiable legends, Mulder suggested, are “true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” If the truth is always out there on a vanishing horizon, the closest anyone comes to that truth is how they choose to respond to it. This is why the scale of the show tapered down over time, getting increasingly more personal: By the original series finale in 2002, which hinged on a rigged trial, the only point of proving the conspiracy was to save Mulder’s life.

What The X-Files understood was the way all conflicts turn inward. In a 1994 article for The New Yorker, James Wolcott wrote that The X-Files seemed born from a “creeping sense of personal mortality.” The general fascination with UFOs had given way to alien abduction, Wolcott suggested, because fear of abduction is more psychological. This was the end of Season 1—before Scully and Mulder were abducted, before episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Morgan’s Emmy-winning hour about a reluctant psychic undone by his ability to see how people are going to die, or “Tithonus,” Vince Gilligan’s take on a haunted immortal who lived too long. A tumor wouldn’t push into Scully’s brain for another three years, but already the show had touched that nerve. Sometimes the only real thing is the ending, and everything else—every attempt to extend life, to fit it into boxes, to fill in the gaps—is just a distraction. “She’s dying,” Scully’s sister once snapped at Mulder, a New Age–y crystal dangling from her neck. “That’s perfectly natural.” But then, none of us really understands nature.