Negative Space: Truth and Shadows in The X-Files

Twin streams of light cross in a shadowed hallway, illuminating little. Smoke unfurls from a Marlboro cigarette, and hands seek each other out in a dim hospital room. The iconography of The X-Files is minimal to the extreme and steeped in ambiguity: empty spaces, creeping shadows, and answers hidden beyond the next corner, always out of reach. Each frame bleeds darkly. Faces are sketched in the barest of lines. Between one heartbeat and the next, people, places, and things are sublimed—in the chemical sense, disappeared; slipped between fingers, diffused into nothing, and whispered like a secret into air already thick with secrets. Halfway through the Pilot, Special Agent Fox Mulder explains to his new partner, Dana Scully: when he was a child, his sister was taken from him. His memories of this event were lost to him for years. Now, with only a faith that others dismiss as delusional, he is driven to hunt for answers, within and beyond his own story. In a series famous for the convolutions of its plot and its aversion for the straightforward, concrete, or verifiable, this is a theme that outlives eleven seasons and two movies. “The truth will save you, Scully,” says Mulder; “I think it’ll save both of us.”

It is, of course, more complicated than that.

The X-Files emerged from the convergence of an array of ideas, fields, and subjectivities proliferating from the newly dominant postmodern perspective of the early 1990s, which is critical to understanding how the show speaks about “the truth.” Every episode ends with more questions than it had when it began. This is not simply the natural outcome of supernatural cases, but rather the result of active intervention. At the end of the Pilot, for instance, every piece of evidence gathered by the agents is burned or vanished deep into the bowels of the Pentagon. The cases aren’t just unsolved; they are unsolvable, eternally held captive in an enforced state of limbo, both for Mulder and Scully and, frequently, for the audience. There is no single, verifiable truth. In the United States, postmodernism rose within a post-war, post-recession moment as a way of understanding a fragmented world; this coincides with a crisis of memory visible in the rise of child sexual abuse into the public sphere in the ‘70s, the Satanic Panic in the late ‘80s, the birth of trauma studies within literary and psychoanalytic theory in the ‘90s, and the emergence of real-life claimants of alien abduction, multiplying and escalating over the unfolding decades. The X-Files’ sensibility is therefore distinctly of its time. Trust no one—even, or perhaps especially, yourself.

Samantha Mulder is an obvious wound in the narrative. The X-Files is largely organized around the questions that arise from inexplicable absences. Missing sisters, missing memories, and missing time persist against all logic and reason, but also against the very forces which vanished them. Absence is an active state in The X-Files in a double sense. First, because these absences are the results of action taken with deliberation and violent intent against vulnerable bodies. And second, because, like art etched in negative space or the fear evoked by shadows skulking along the edge of a scene, the absences have weight and meaning. They have an impossible sense of presence; in spite of the violences that vanished them, the absences say more than they should. When time is “lost,” like in the Pilot, the absence itself is what suggests that something has happened. “Time can’t just disappear!” shouts Scully, but those nine minutes, impossibly “gone,” alert us—because of their impossibility—that something has gone wrong. Samantha is the same: “She just disappeared out of her bed one night. Just gone, vanished. No note, no phone calls, no evidence of anything.” For some injuries, an absence of evidence is the only sign that they happened at all.

The premise of the Pilot is what would eventually be called classic X-Files. In Bellefleur, Oregon, the graduating class of ‘89 is disappearing from their homes and reappearing in the woods, dead, with mysterious marks dotting their backs. “They found Karen Swenson’s body in the forest in her pajamas, ten miles from her house,” Scully says. “How did she get there? What were those kids doing out there in the forest?” Questions build upon questions. When Mulder and Scully discuss the case in their motel, the camera moves outside for a moment, and a dark shape shifts in the shadows, backlit into formlessness. The power is out in the room, and Mulder and Scully’s faces seem like the only source of light in the whole world. The camera draws closer; they draw closer. We draw closer. Meanwhile, graves are being disinterred. When the camera later frames Mulder and Scully over an emptied pit in a cemetery, Mulder pulls answers out of apparently nowhere—“I think I know who did it. I think I know who killed Karen Swanson”—as if the emptiness itself gave up the answer, signifying violence that could not have been otherwise spoken.

But then: the motel burns, along with all evidence inside it. Nothing is settled in the end; maybe nothing ever can be. But that isn’t the point. The Pilot tells us the story of a small town where young adults have been disappearing in the night without explanation, in order to tell us—and Scully—the story of Samantha Mulder. What happened to Samantha? What happened to Karen Swanson? What happened to Peggy O’Dell? What is happening to Theresa Newman?

The bodies of women are often the only marker that something has been vanished or gone wrong. Disproportionately so. Watching the Pilot again, I am reminded of an article that I cited in my undergraduate thesis on trauma and The X-Files. Dr. Roger Luckhurst, a Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck University of London, wrote an essay in 1997 on “the science-fictionalization of trauma” for Science Fiction Studies journal. In it, he renders “a synthesis of the principal accounts on abduction” thus:

You are American, more likely white, female, mid-30s than not. You suffer aversions, phobias (to specific places, sleeping at night, sex, medical doctors, dentists, perhaps children), and you have a profound dread, built around an absence, a gap, that you feel is structural to your life. (30-31)

It is a very good article overall. However, I am struck by the lack of any explicit reference to the simple and total violence of being a woman. (You could say I have a profound dread, built around an absence, a gap, that I feel is structural to this essay.) Luckhurst discusses the emergence of sexual abuse, as I mentioned earlier, in reference to the conversation around trauma and forgetting (33), but he makes no mention of the gendered dynamics of violence that feminists had been unveiling for quite some time. Nor does he mention the emergence of marital rape into the public consciousness, for instance, which was named and castigated by the United Nations as a violation of human rights in 1993. This seems like a rather glaring hole in Luckhurst’s theorization. When he does attend to women, he emphasizes the invention of invasive and artificial reproduction technologies as an example of the “technological sublime” (38) of that era, which serves to alienate individuals from their world(s). This, he argues, explains the ubiquity of reproductive horror and awe in abduction narratives. Perhaps that’s so; however, it seems insufficient to explain what he names as the principality of women in accounts of abduction. (Also, there are many more reasons than the invention of embryo freezing and the ultrasound for women to feel dread at the thought of sex. Or, god forbid, children.)

Although The X-Files certainly delights and revolts in the reproductive repercussions of abduction, the show’s attention to the violences enacted on women seems simultaneously broader and more nuanced. (Please note that I am in an ongoing argument with myself on this point. Please also note that I say “the show,” not “Chris Carter and his writers.” Sometimes, here as elsewhere, the narrative seems to arrive at brilliance as if by complete accident.) The series pays particular attention to the ways in which women are vanished by socially permissible structures of violence, be they evil alien-government consortiums or any number of existing institutions in the real actual world, including the criminal justice system. This suggests a different view of trauma: that women are more likely to be abducted, or harmed, or vanished not merely for their reproductive capacity, but because of a deeply-entrenched structural vulnerability founded in centuries of gendered subjugation and violence. Consider how Donnie Pfaster stalks his first living victims based on their precarity: a sex worker, a teenager, a young woman in a dark parking lot. Consider how Mulder’s father, presented with the choice between giving his son or his daughter over to the consortium, chooses to sacrifice Samantha. Consider how Scully says: “I know that this world is as full of predators as it has always been.”

Abducted women are the silent, screaming negative space that gives The X-Files its narrative and emotional shape. In “Nisei,” Scully meets a group of abductee women in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who recognize her as one of their own: “Oh my god,” says Penny Northern. “She’s one.” Although men have belonged to the group, the room is filled only with women. They tell Scully that she was “taken.” “Taken where?” Scully asks, as the camera pans across a row of women seated facing her, framed in the shot as her multiply fragmented reflection. “You remember it, don’t you?” asks one of the women. The camera goes out of focus; Scully loses something of her own form. Visibly hesitating, she closes her eyes. “I don’t know,” she says. She is naming a gap here: a thing she can’t remember, or perhaps only cannot know—a slight but potent distinction. The words seem to stall, and misdirect, and fill a space that resists the filling. Shortly thereafter, Scully learns that the gathered women are all either sick or dying—headed towards a different kind of gone. “This is what’s going to happen to all of us,” says Penny Northern. The government’s bunkers and underground warehouses are full to bursting with the unheard-but-felt cacophony of dead and vanished women. You feel it in the Pilot already, when the camera rests on Karen Swanson’s blank face, and when blood gushes out of Peggy O’Dell’s nose. You feel it when Mulder surreptitiously tugs up Peggy’s hospital gown while she’s seizing on the floor, and when the camera skims across Scully’s back, bare and bitten in the candlelight.

Some truths are unspeakable. Some phenomena can’t be explained. Ultimately, The X-Files tells us that doesn’t matter: keep looking. Sometimes it’s enough to find a place of absence, and to know that something happened there. It’s enough to hurt. It’s enough to wonder why. In the Pilot, there’s that moment when they’re in the car, when the screen goes white and they lose nine minutes. Just before, the radio goes static, and Mulder fumbles for the dash. “What are you looking for?” asks Scully. Then: the car screeches, and nine minutes vanish into nothing. The camera refocuses; we come to, blinking dark spots from our vision. “What happened?” Scully demands. These are the most critical questions of the whole series—What are you looking for? What happened?—and they can only be answered by the profound and unquantifiable feeling of something that isn’t there at all. But that is an answer, the show says. In the graveyard, in the climactic scene of the episode, Scully stares after Mulder, both of them at their wit’s end. And then—something changes in the air. Something changes in Scully’s face. She breathes somehow differently, and though Mulder is turned away, unseeing, he feels it all the same. He turns back; “What?” he says, and reapproaches. And in that moment, staring together into the void of all that they don’t and cannot know, they reach out and find something that feels like the truth.


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