I’m pleased to announce that my newest book, Foundations of Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts, and Other Alternative Pasts, an anthology of ancient texts used to support fringe history theories, has now been published! I did not know that the book was ready to be published, and I was surprised to discover that McFarland released the title yesterday, especially since the last corrections to the proofs were just finalized on Friday. I must confess that I am a bit disappointed to see that the price is set at $49.95 for a paperback or eBook, especially since the publisher had assured me that they had anticipated wider demand for this book. (Amazon is offering a $1.10 discount!) However, I hope you’ll find that the book is a useful research tool.
The texts collected in the book represent the material typically identified as “forbidden wisdom” or “secret history” among fringe historians, and as such, it makes for a decent transition to Lindsay Ellis’s interesting piece over at Tor.com on the X-Files and the romanticizing of conspiracy theories. Ellis makes some compelling points about the role of popular fiction in providing aid and succor to those who hold conspiracy views, and she also recognizes that such fiction is in a symbiotic relationship with popular culture, reflecting and refracting the growing popularity of conspiracy theories as much as it induces or shapes them. She points to the disturbing fact that 30% of American profess to believe in the New World Order, but dismisses the 21% of Americans who believe in the Roswell UFO crash as practicing mostly “harmless” fun. That’s a danger in itself: perceived “harmless” fun leads into darker conspiracy theories that promote anti-government extremism, racism, and paranoia.
That said, I think Ellis somewhat overstates the importance and uniqueness of Fox Mulder as the tortured, Byronic seeker of truth. The reason for that, I feel, is that Ellis errs in approaching the X-Files through the lens of science fiction rather than through the lens of weird and/or horror fiction.
Ellis recognizes that the theme of the romantic conspiracy theorist did not begin with Fox Mulder, and she traces it to the broader theme of “the man who knew too much,” citing the movies of Alfred Hitchcock (including the one that shares that title) as examples. Indeed, the X-Files nodded to Hitchcock in visually referencing North by Northwest in the first X-Files movie. But Hitchcock’s men who knew too much were often innocents, thrust into accidental roles, not active investigators purposely seeking out forbidden knowledge. They also lacked the paranormal angle found in the X-Files, whether it be the traditional supernatural or its techno-cousin, aliens. (Psycho, famously, undercuts all of the detritus of Gothic horror by swapping out the supernatural for Freud, though I am not sure in retrospect that it was a particularly fair trade.)
The X-Files wasn’t really science fiction; instead, it was closer to the weird fiction represented by H. P. Lovecraft and the Weird Tales tradition. Sure, it had aliens and the trappings of sci-fi, but its primary concern was treating the aliens as monsters, just one thread in a tapestry of the unexplained that mirrored the traditional subject matter of horror fiction and the weird tale: werewolves, psychics, invisibility, cryptozoology, etc. More telling: The primary emotions in the series were paranoia and fear—the themes of horror more than science fiction. Unravelling the conspiracy doesn’t lead to nirvana or transcendence, as in much of science fiction, but rather to the shattering of comfort and illusion, as in H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote that “some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
I would hardly be the first person to compare Fox Mulder to the overeducated New England aesthetes that populate Lovecraftian fiction, but the comparison remains apt. Like Lovecraft’s heroes, Mulder pieces together scattered hints and references to dark historical secrets and comes into contact with powers beyond his ken. However, given that it is Dana Scully who undergoes the Lovecraftian transformation from scientific skeptic to occult believer over the course of the series, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the X-Files splits the Lovecraftian hero in two, but neither is entirely unprecedented in horror fiction.
As I outline in my book Knowing Fear, horror fiction often plays on the concept of what we might view as a conspiracy theorist, the expert in the arcane, paranormal, or occult who possesses the truth that no one else believes, a truth that exposes the underlying connections between seemingly random events. Abraham Van Helsing, for example, possesses such truth about vampires in Dracula, truth that scientists and stolid citizens cannot bring themselves to see. Tales of mad scientists tell of men who see connections to hidden truths that others dare not see. This ties back to the two foundational themes of horror, the discovery plot and the overreacher plot; in the former, someone discovers something that is outside what it is healthy for humans to know and must attempt to suppress the revelation, while in the latter the overreacher actively seeks out forbidden knowledge, bringing about doom. The two plots, seen by philosopher Noël Carroll as opposites, are closely related in that both deal with forbidden knowledge and both posit the existence of a layer of understanding that is both beyond human knowledge and dangerous to access. In short, the two horror plots are closely aligned to the semi-mythic themes in modern UFO conspiracies like those in the X-Files.
Ellis is undoubtedly right that the X-Files was a product of its times, a reflection of 1990s-era conspiracy culture. But by excising the X-Files from the horror tradition on which it drew, she misses a chance to see in the show a continuation of deeper themes of forbidden and occult knowledge that help to explain Ellis’s observation that “the show was never interested in [the reactionary] aspects of conspiracy culture, nor was it obliged to explore them.” The X-Files used 1990s conspiracies as its subject matter, but its narrative grew out of a much older tradition, onto which ufology was simply coloration and costuming. The aliens might have been the Old Ones and the Cthulhu Cult for all the difference it would have made.
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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