Horror is the most divisive genre around.
Part of the reason for this is how and when our opinion of horror is formed. You see a monster movie on TV as a kid and one of two things happen: you either run screaming into the night, traumatized, or you want more. The funny thing about this is how this opinion of horror sticks. People who can’t stand it can usually point to one or two instances from when they were kids as to why this is the case. The fear that we feel as a child is a very intense emotion because as kids we generally feel safe and secure, and the fact that fear even exists means that we aren’t as safe as we think we are. How we respond to this realization forms our opinion about whether or not we like to be scared.
Clearly, I was a kid that enjoyed the rush.
To me, being scared is FUN. I’m the one who was terrified to play hide and seek in the dark, but loved the rush when someone caught me. I devour horror culture, from magazines to comics to movies to novels. I love haunted tours. I go night swimming. And, of course, I delight in traumatizing friends and family by convincing them to try these things out for themselves.
But where did all of this start? I sometimes think back on the horror that influenced my childhood and am convinced that had I been born ten years later, I never would have loved horror from such an early age. I was definitely the goody two-shoes in my household. My brother still (I like to think lovingly) refers to me as “Beaker.” I was (and still am) an avid reader, and was devouring Steinbeck and Melville at age 11. The end result was that my love of horror sort of flew under the radar. Of the two of us, my brother was the wild child and I was the bookworm, so my parents were never really worried about what I was reading or watching. My parents also weren’t super strict on what we could or couldn’t watch. Honestly, it feels like a generational thing; I’m convinced that if I had been born even five years later, shifts in the parenting paradigm would have meant that my parents would have been way stricter about what I watched. I know lots of people who watched R-rated movies when they were way too young, but find that as I ask people progressively younger than me the answer is more and more, “No WAY would my parents have let me watch that!”
In any case, I was fortunate in that I wasn’t censured all that often in terms of my pop culture choices, leaving me open to experience kinds of nightmares. Each week until the end of October I will highlight an item that helped developed my love of being terrified. What things that go bump in the night scared you?
Week One: The X-Files
I was nine when The X-Files first came out and definitely should NOT have been watching it. I distinctly remember being at a sleepover and my friend turning on the TV to find this gem. It still gives me the creeps today. The X-Files was definitely what began my love of not only horror, but sci-fi as well. At the time, NO ONE was doing what The X-Files was doing on TV. The show has remained one of my all-time favourites, despite the issues I have with the trainwreck that the mythology episodes became in the final seasons. I am a completist, so whenever I marathon it I watch season 9. But it’s a solid hate watch, and I maintain that the treatment of our heroes in the series finale has got to be one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my viewing life. In spite of this, its stand-alone episodes remain some of the most effective that television has to offer.
In its first season, The X-Files didn’t really have an overarching plotline. In the days before Netflix, networks and creators had to choose carefully how a show was structured. If it had a continuous plot, it was a potentially dangerous game…if there was no opportunity to catch up, they risked losing audience members who had fallen behind. They also risked not picking up new viewers because if someone turned it on at random and didn’t know what the hell was happening, they weren’t likely to continue.
The X-Files changed the game. It became one of the first shows to really gain fan momentum with fan forums (remember those?), detailed episode guides (in book form, people!), and the ability to make your head canons and shipping preferences a reality in fan fiction form online. Not to mention – the comics! If you missed an episode, several per season were detailed in comic book form.
By the time I was deemed old enough to watch it, The X-Files became a weekly ritual at home. By then, it had leveraged the impact of its online communities to gain momentum as a continuous arc. Much of this arc had a more science-fiction feel to it, as it focused on Agent Fox Mulder’s doomed and obsessive search for his sister, Samantha, whom he believed was abducted by aliens when they were children. While it never truly forgot its roots as a scary, creepy show, some of the scariest episodes of the run remain in the first half of the series.
The X-Files was also extremely unique in how it was shot. Shooting in Vancouver, they had access to a lot of dark woods, and much of the first two seasons feels almost claustrophobic in how shadows are used. It also boasts some of the most iconic visuals, the ones that once you have seen, really stick with you. The Flukeman working his way into that Porta-Potty. The giant fish tanks full of human clones. The switch blade stiletto used to murder aliens. The black oil virus clouding over a victim’s eyes. The World War Two plane at the bottom of the ocean with the man inside screaming for help 50 years later. The array of horrific images is endless.
Here are some episodes to give a shot. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to be a “scariest episodes ever!” list. And before you even ask, no, Home, is not on here. While Home is a disturbing AF hour that was banned from its own network after initially airing, I was already a solid horror lover at that point and had seen the likes of The Hills Have Eyes. If you want a scare, I’m not debating it is excellent! This list is simply the episodes that were most influential to me as a budding young horror fan, and as such are mostly from the first two seasons.
Ice was the first episode I saw, and is a clear homage to The Thing. In it, Mulder and Scully are stranded at a crime scene in Alaska where several scientists studying an ice field committed violent murder-suicide. As they investigate an organism that the scientists were studying, paranoia grows as their own crew becomes snowed in and begins to get picked off one by one, even turning Mulder and Scully against each other. Watching the usually calm and collected Mulder point his gun at his partner and scream about how everyone might be infected is pretty intense. Despite the cheezy CGI that is a product of it being nearly 25 years old, this one holds up, and provides a claustrophobic and scary hour of TV.
Squeeze is gross. It will make you feel icky. It features a genetic mutant named Eugene Tooms who needs to kill five victims every 30 years and eat their livers to survive. The icky part? He can stretch and contort his body to slip into any sized space and consume victims at his leisure, returning to his nest made of old newpapers and bile in an abandoned apartment building afterwards. Played by the always creepy Doug Hutchinson, Eugene is a smart, cold, and scary monster who knows how to play the system…and make you think that the locks on your doors are not going to be enough.
Two men in different states are found murdered, their bodies completely drained of blood at the exact same time. Upon investigation, it is discovered that they have identical daughters, born after successful IVF treatments. An investigation reveals a very, very unsettling genetic experiment producing little girls called Eve. This episode was the first real look I had at the cost of scientific progress, and it disturbed the crap out of me. This was what The X-Files did best; they included just enough real-life background to make things seem not all that far-fetched after all.
Die Hand Die Verletzt: 2×11
A teenaged attempt at getting laid goes horribly wrong after a horny juvenile accidentally summons an evil force while trying to impress a girl. What follows is an episode that combines the chaos that results from group hysteria and paranoia, as well as how something as innocent as a PTA can be covering the darkest secrets. This episode is an excellent display of satanic tropes, and they are used effectively to convey the consequences to welching on your deal with Satan. The X-Files was the first look that I had into anything to do with the occult, and the history behind the rituals was fascinating to me.
Donnie Pfaster is by far the most insidious, creepy human villain that The X-Files ever produced. For me, it was the first visual representation of how human beings can do horrible things to each other. Near the end of the episode, and in a sequel episode several seasons later, it is suggested that Donnie Pfaster is a representation of Biblical evil on earth. However, that aside, his actual actions are enough to make you want to avoid your bath tub for the next 50 years. Donnie is a rapidly escalating death fetishist who goes from cutting the hair from the bodies at the funeral home he works at, to gradually building to murder to satisfy his urges…and his next target is a certain redheaded FBI agent. The ultimate creeper, I think that how much he actually makes your skin crawl is expressed best in a scene in the sequel episode in which he wrestles Scully to the floor after a very brutal and convincing struggle. As he ties her hands behind her back, she tells him that the only reason he’s still alive is that she didn’t ask for the chair and that he won’t get such an easy ride again. His response? He cocks his head, looks her over, and calmly says, “I’m going to run you a bath….”
F. Emasculata: 2×22
This is an often overlooked episode of the show, which is a real shame. This one is a masterful blend of all of the elements that make it so great! It combines some seriously disgusting gore with disturbing military elements and government conspiracy. The ending packed a real punch for me as well, in a very cool examination on how being on the “right” side sometimes means doing what is necessary instead of what is morally right for the greater good. This was done in a nail biting way, in which Mulder gets verbally schooled by his great nemesis and pushed into making a call that went against every fiber of his being. This was the first time I’d seen a hero pushed into a choice that they hated to make for the greater good, and it forced me to think about which of us actually has the right to make those choices for everyone. This is what separates horror from a lot of other genres….the characters often live in the grey. Look at Dexter! We were all okay with him murdering as long as he followed the code, right?
Pusher is the nickname of our villain, Robert Patrick Modell, who has discovered an ability to control people’s actions with the power of suggestion. There are a TON of disturbing visuals here, and unlike a lot of mind control stories I’ve seen since, the terror conveyed by the individuals as they are committing these actions is really disturbing. One in particular that comes to mind is the poor unfortunate Agent Collins. Mulder and Scully round a corner to find him covered in gasoline, fumbling with a lighter and screaming “STOP ME!” The end game feels like our heroes are in real peril, with Modell “pushing” Mulder into a deadly game of Russian roulette.
Hope you enjoyed this list! Any of these episodes can be watched on their own, so feel free to dive in anywhere! Next week I will post another influential piece of horror culture. What made you love horror? Or, what terrified you into avoiding?