An "X-Files" Effect? Science Fiction, Horror, and the Promotion of the Paranormal
Today I’d like to discuss Matthew Nisbet’s article in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 2016), which is keyed to the upcoming X-Files revival and claims that skeptics shouldn’t worry that the X-Files is having a negative effect on popular perceptions of science. According to Nisbet, research shows that fans of science fiction have an overall positive view of science and therefore science fiction shouldn’t be condemned for promoting a belief in alien abductions, monsters, and other paranormal phenomena. But when we drill down into the evidence Nisbet provides, we can see how scientists’ own biases toward science fiction have shaped their investigations and, by leaving out key elements of how the public engages with paranormal material, developed an incomplete understanding of popular reception of paranormal claims.
Nisbet, for example, has himself studied the relationship between science fiction viewing and perceptions of science. He concludes that “somewhat counterintuitively, heavier viewers of science fiction programs … tend to be more positive in their views” of science. This, he says, is because “the science fiction audience is by nature strongly enthusiastic about science, meaning that their viewing habits may capture an underlying latent support for science.” He therefore blames paranormal-themed reality programs for fostering paranormal beliefs and concludes that we do not need to fear The X-Files specifically and may enjoy the program without concern that it is helping to create new believers in the paranormal. This is in contrast to Richard Dawkins, who in his 1996 Dimbleby Lecture warned, without empirical support, that the program was inculcating a belief in the paranormal because “week after week, the rational explanation loses” to the supernatural one.
This is not a new concern, and we find evidence of it going back centuries, at least to the time when Matthew Lewis had to defend his ghost play The Castle Spectre (1797) against claims that it was dangerous to the public to depict spirits on stage. Indeed, all of Gothic literature came under attack for allegedly promoting belief in the paranormal, and similar concerns have occurred at regular intervals ever since without ever establishing with certainty whether fictional depictions of the paranormal lead to increased belief in its reality.
The Skeptical Inquirer article follows closely a 2013 chapter Nisbet wrote for the book Hollywood Chemistry, which also was interested in the X-Files, but the research in both articles tends to be from the 1990s or early 2000s, which was all prior to the modern wave of paranormal belief that launched in the mid-2000s with ghost hunting and psychic shows and took off in this decade thanks to ancient astronaut and cryptozoology programs.
Nisbet, of course, recognizes that pseudo-documentaries play a far greater role in shaping beliefs than fiction programs, though he has no data to quantify it. The trouble is that in praising science fiction viewers for their positive attitudes toward science, he mistakes science fiction (and closely related mainstream dramas such as CSI, which are all but science fiction in their use of fantasy technology) for a representative sample of (a) science in media and (b) audience understandings of science. As a result, Nisbet becomes confused in trying to explain why science fiction in general produces positive attitudes toward science while The X-Files in particular “may have only a limited, and often difficult-to-discern, influence on beliefs in the paranormal.”
I would suggest that one of the key reasons that Nisbet wasn’t able to see a clear a correlation between X-Files viewers and the paranormal is because of the problem of genre. Nisbet’s research—and all of the studies he cites—focuses on science fiction, which is only a part of the X-Files’s DNA. The X-Files is, arguably, a horror show at heart, and as I argued in my 2008 book Knowing Fear, the horror genre is, more than science fiction, the fictional genre that explores the costs and consequences of knowledge, manifesting in the form of monsters of various types. The horror genre rests on the uncertainty of knowledge and the dangers of pushing beyond acceptable limits. By contrast, science fiction tends to use science as a framework for exploring moral issues rather than epistemological issues. The audience for science fiction is, undoubtedly, largely drawn from fans of science, but on the other hand the audience for horror is more likely to draw from people who are more inclined to supernatural beliefs, though as I laid out in my book, scholarly research into the reasons people choose various genres finds that the reasons tend to be highly individual and not easily generalizable. The X-Files, having fans from both camps, will produce ambiguous results.
The question, ultimately, is whether we are able to conclude that there is a clear effect of fictional depictions of the paranormal on viewers, or whether people who already hold these beliefs are drawn to fictional depictions of what they already believe. This can’t be easily teased out, but what we do know is that there is a feedback loop between fiction and belief. To take one example: Over a period of three weeks in 1964, The Outer Limits depicted specific types of aliens who engaged in abductions of human beings. A few days later Barney Hill told his hypnotist that he had participated in the same scenario with the same aliens. Afterward, NBC made a TV movie based on Hill’s account, and Travis Walton watched this movie and claimed he had been abducted in the same way depicted in the movie. Similarly, the modern image of the chupacabra is borrowed wholesale from the 1995 movie Species, but married to preexisting folk belief in the demonic powers of the goat-sucker (night jar).
What would have been interesting is to look at what self-described believers in the paranormal watch and how that either reflects or shapes their views. What limited evidence there is suggests that UFO believers in 1990s were often fans of the X-Files, and that the X-Files in particular helped to increase the number of people who believed in what had previously been fringe conspiracies by “mainstreaming” them to a much larger audience. Michael Barkun says as much in A Culture of Conspiracy (2006/2013), but he doesn’t have specific statistical data to prove it. Earlier research that surveyed X-Files viewers who claimed paranormal experiences of their own found that they were more likely to recall pseudoscience from the show and believe it, according to Christopher Henry Whittle’s On Learning Science and Pseudoscience from Prime-Time Television Programming (2003).
Because Nisbet focused narrowly on the depiction of scientists and the genre of science fiction, his research necessarily left out broader questions of the depiction of the paranormal, particularly in the horror genre. Audiences are not likely to distinguish as neatly between science, pseudoscience, and the occult as Nisbet might like (witness Ancient Aliens as “science” for example), and by restricting inquiry only to the genre that best aligns with researchers’ own feelings about science, they are likely to miss out on the broader story of how fictional works wrestle with questions of how we know, what we know, and why we know it—the essential questions that underlie science but aren’t always explicitly depicted with Bunsen burners and Van der Graff generators.
It’s great that Nisbet was able to relieve his (and the magazine’s) audience’s anxiety that their favorite shows are somehow working against science, but he shouldn’t forget that in fiction “science” isn’t confined to science fiction and CSI.
12/16/2015 02:58:23 pm
It's also worth noting that "positive attitudes toward science" is a pretty poor proxy measure for not encouraging paranormal beliefs. It's possible, after all, to feel good about science while being totally wrong about what it actually consists of. (Witness the amount of rubbish that gets into IFL Science, or TED Talks.) The likelihood is that many in the audience who develop such a "positive attitude" are motivated by it to reframe their own paranormal beliefs as scientific rather than to reexamine their validity using actual science.
12/16/2015 03:34:33 pm
The X-Files is definitely at its core in the horror genre. The anomalies, monsters, freaks, etc. are rarely sources of wonder, usually just of grisly murder. This typically goes unrecognized because (a) most pop culture observers don't get that paranormal aliens are not science fiction aliens but just another cultural version of angels and demons etc. and (b) the show heavily borrowed from Silence of the Lambs which itself had succeeded in being a horror movie without the horror label. This issue with understanding the X-Files is just a microcosm of the larger inability of the pop culture mainstream to understand what "UFOs" actually mean to people.
12/16/2015 05:40:47 pm
12/17/2015 07:44:57 am
Orphan Black? Humans? Doctor Somebody-or-other?
12/17/2015 08:08:55 am
Who is that Doctor? I can never remember his name.
12/17/2015 08:30:21 am
An Over-Educated Grunt
12/17/2015 09:13:11 am
The Expanse just launched, supposed to be quite good. I haven't had a chance to see it yet thanks to work, but it's on my near-future to-do list. See also the upcoming new Star Trek, Childhood's End, the examples already given... for all their many faults, Syfy seems to have started to notice the error of their ways.
12/17/2015 11:56:06 am
And while we're almost on the subject- I now fully understand why conservationists didn't want Skellig Michael to be used as a filming location. It looks gorgeous in the film, but not a place that could stand loads of visitors.
12/20/2015 03:23:13 pm
spookyparadigm isn't saying that the viewers were libertarian, but that the conspiracy theories which were the inspiration of many of the X-Files episodes had their basis in fringe beliefs primarily originating from the far right or libertarian cultures - beliefs which were “the implausible visions of a lunatic fringe.” Put simply, Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness.
12/16/2015 03:49:14 pm
X-Files is NOT science fiction. Most if it, from what I remember of the series, follows closely with all of the fringe theories about aliens, government conspiracies, monsters, paranormal events, etc. I'm sure there are plenty of people who watched and then read fringe stuff, quickly inferring that much of the X-Files was based on "suppressed" facts and evidence by the government and academia.
12/16/2015 06:28:07 pm
Jason you said:
12/16/2015 07:51:10 pm
I by no means dispute the correctness of the view that the paranormal explanation was favored on the X-Files; I meant that Dawkins provided no evidence that this caused the audience to accept the paranormal more readily.
12/17/2015 07:45:17 am
Ancient Aliens and shows of that ilk are far more damaging than X-Files ever was, or will be, because X-Files was a fictional program. The current crop of pseudoscience programing is so damaging because the presenters claim some professional credentials or grand life experience and therefor their theories are based on evidence and facts.
12/16/2015 07:01:43 pm
I never watched the X files when it was new but watched an episode a few weeks ago. I was struck by how awful it was...bad acting, bad script, terrible effects. I kept thinking "THIS is the great X Files??!?!?!?!?" Maybe I just happened to catch one of the crappier episodes and others were better.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
12/16/2015 07:51:53 pm
Maybe you did. I haven't seen very much of the show, but my impression is that the episodes that were deliberately silly were the best. A lot of people would no doubt disagree because they got wrapped up in the overarching conspiracy-theory storyline. Obviously that storyline appeals to the conspiracy-minded, but it was also popular because it was innovative at the time. The X-Files was one of a handful of shows in the early to mid-1990s that pushed the boundaries of how serialized (non-episodic) a show can be. However, the conspiracy-theory storyline also demonstrated one of the pitfalls of serialization: if it goes on too long and gets too convoluted, it just collapses into nonsense.
12/16/2015 11:28:19 pm
I remember one where Mulder and Scully were arguing over the implications of a bunch of dead cows being found in Texas. Mulder seems to think Scully's interpretation that the killings are the work of satanic cultists is paranoid and dramatic; no, he thinks it vampires. That always stuck in my mind as a funny moment.
12/17/2015 11:12:53 pm
Great episode! It sorta underscores some of the less obvious tongue in cheek ones....
12/16/2015 07:16:21 pm
My problem with all of this is: should we blame a work of fiction for how it is interpreted by a certain percentage of its audience? Should Outer Limits be blamed along with X-Files for alien conspiracy theories? What about the Twilight Zone or The Invaders or countless other shows from the last 50 years? Most people can think critically enough to distinguish fiction from non-fiction. The problem lies in the current lack of proper labeling. Ancient Aliens on the History channel is the problem; Discovery and the Science Channel and NatGeo running shows on Bigfoot and UFOs and mermaids are also part of it. If they were all on the Syfi channel, properly labeled, wouldn't they be seen very differently? By the way, I loved the X-Files and am looking forward to its return.
12/16/2015 07:39:21 pm
Anecdotally, a local conspiracy magazine 'New Dawn' ran a letter-to-the-editor in which the writer claimed (Based on the first few episodes.) that the X-Files was based on '...real but supressed events...' the editors slapped that person down pretty harshly but were still quite happy to exploit the shows mystique for their own agenda.
12/17/2015 10:01:35 am
Similar to people thinking Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" was also factual.
12/17/2015 10:13:32 am
Dam Brown still maintains today that The Da Vinci Code is based on fact.
12/17/2015 10:47:59 am
I've never seen or read an interview with Dan Brown where he has stated his book is anything other than a work of fiction. What I've seen is religious groups spreading the claims that "The Da Vinci Code" is based on facts. Yes, he does reference real places and organizations, but that does not make the book true. Steven King writes about real places in Maine, does that mean there's an ancient alien living in the sewers and dressed as Pennywise the Clown killing children around Bangor, Maine?
12/17/2015 10:57:47 am
12/17/2015 11:21:08 am
"The Da Vinci Code is simply an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate and suggests that the Book may be used to "as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith." -Dan Brown
12/17/2015 11:26:00 am
It wasn't that long ago when Dan Brown said he did not believe in conspiracy theories like UFOs, ancient astronauts, Loch Ness Monster, etc - but that the Jesus Bloodline was a valid historical mystery.
12/17/2015 11:30:14 am
That's interesting, I wonder why he removed that...
12/17/2015 11:35:28 am
These are things you have to learn to save.
12/17/2015 11:45:36 am
12/16/2015 07:59:36 pm
Smart science fiction (or horror, or whatever) can never be accused of promoting pseudoscience. I doubt anyone would suggest that "Star Wars" promotes pseudoscience even though very little of its "science" is reality. Science-smart as well as science-illiterate types walk away entertained (or not), but they haven't picked up any beliefs detrimental to their concept of reality.
12/17/2015 10:07:52 am
I think you've hit on an important element. There's a vast difference between Physicists speculating on how alien technology might work, it's a completely different thing when someone without a degree or a degree in Journalism is on a television show stating as fact that aliens came to Earth and built the pyramids.
12/16/2015 08:01:19 pm
I found this post very helpful. I'm glad to have discovered your work. I think another factor in Nisbet's assessment is an equation of science fiction with hard science fiction, which represents a small segment. Much of it takes great liberties with science, and is closer to fantasy and even religion and magic, with scientific terms and alleged credibility behind it. So science fiction fans may not be as scientifically grounded as Nisbet might assume. Thanks again for this essay.
12/17/2015 05:51:44 am
"which is keyed to the upcoming X-Files revival and claims that skeptics shouldn’t worry that the X-Files is having a negative effect on popular perceptions of science"
12/17/2015 07:53:35 am
The problem with "X-Files", I think, is that it uses the paranormal as merely one aspect of its overarching theme of external loci of control. Anybody who believes that major power, not accessible to the average person, is being exerted in any covert manner can probably be influenced by a show which proposes that such power takes even more forms than we might imagine.
12/17/2015 09:09:21 am
Never watched the X-Files after "Squeeze" episode because it tried to lift the "film noir" style and copied motifs found in the nutbooks.
12/17/2015 12:30:20 pm
The X Files is both 'fantasy' and 'horror' and is called such. It is not exactly science fiction because they only pretend the theories work in most episodes. Not one X file ever gets vindicated, unless they have caught the monster, or the conspirator. It does have aliens, but they never knew what to really do with that. Hopefully they explain some of it next time around.
12/17/2015 02:12:01 pm
The "Holy Blood & Holy Grail" guys were basicaly hoist with their own petard. They claimed it was factual, and facts can't be copyrighted- only the way they are expressed.
12/17/2015 03:27:30 pm
I read that they, along with some other authors who sued Brown, did so because their books had the same major themes, that Jesus and Mary wed, produced children, the family blood line exists to the present, and the secret is protected by the church through various "secret" agencies within the church. The courts rejected the claims.
12/17/2015 04:32:21 pm
The courts didn't reject the claims made in the books. As I suggested above, they effectively accepted them, because in order to establish copyright on the claims themselves (as opposed to the words in which they were expressed), the authors would have had to prove that they had invented the claims, rather than discovering "the truth".
12/17/2015 06:15:27 pm
David Bradbury, the court did not accept that the claims were valid. The court accepted that the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" intended their work to be a work of non-fiction, and therefore the concepts could not be copyrighted because of that intent. It's a very different story from accepting that the claims are actually factual. And yes, it's a difference that matters, because copyright law doesn't actually care whether you've done a good job of proving your claims. You don't get extra copyright protection for being an idiot that you wouldn't get if you actually did proper research. That's why the intent matters more than the content when it comes to copyright.
12/17/2015 05:55:04 pm
Several early episodes were very clearly Silence of the Lambs inspired. Most obviously Beyond the Sea, but also Young at Heart as clear "homages" though there were bits and pieces elsewhere.
12/17/2015 06:14:30 pm
PS: Dear lord there are a lot of fan-made music video tributes to the X-Files on youtube. Wow.
12/17/2015 06:20:57 pm
The one issue I take with this particular article, and a few others like it, is that it's remarkably like the argument that video games or cartoons or comic books cause violent behavior in children, which has been DISPROVEN over and over and over.
12/17/2015 09:17:43 pm
I often think of those violent-videogame watchdogs who got so much press in the 90s, thinking that first-person shooters were going to turn innocent children into homicidal psychopaths. Fast forward about a decade, and Dennis Fong, who made a name for himself in competitive Doom and Quake tournaments, co-founded a website that was acquired by Viacom $102 Million in 2006.
12/17/2015 11:31:11 pm
Sorry, *for* 102 million.
And of course, you're all ignoring the obvious elephant: Freud and Historiography which in turn led or for some, still leads back into the idea that there is a "Hermetic" category or taxonomy within and of History as a SCIENCE. It's an urban legend. That is how Jason can run this blog along with many others across the web. Of course, you all by default say that one can go so far right that violence will erupt into xenophobia and vice versa to include the left or conversely, that one can go so far left, that one ends up fascist or close too it. Axiology is and remains the bane of science fiction just as gender attacks Gothic. Axiology and Genre remain. As does the presumed discourse this typology is running non stop while thumbing it's nose at culture.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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