It’s impossible to overstate the many ways in which The X-Files influenced genre television from the mid-1990s onward. In its mix of standalone episodes vs. mythology chapters, its dynamic of central characters, and its homages to classics of pop culture… that’s just the beginning! But most importantly… it let small-screen TV be scary again.
Sure, thrills and chills were a part of the TV landscape in that day and age; in the 1980s a host of low-budget, cheesy anthology shows like Freddy’s Nightmares and Monsters hit the scene, and we had a brief return of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in some form or another. (Some of those 90’s Outer Limits eps are legit creepy, yo.) Twin Peaks in its first run was also, notably, influential in its ability to bring shock value to network TV. But The X-Files really re-established gothic storytelling with a firm foothold on the small screen, and there are a few episodes that still stick with us for just how freaky they were.
Opinions are FIERCE about which X-Files eps are the scariest, but what I’m going for here are my most memorable creepy experiences… so your mileage may vary! But see if any of these also hit hard for you…
“Ice” (Season 1, Episode 8)
This might not immediately spring to mind of all fans as a peak-scary episode of the show (The third-ever episode, “Squeeze” is often highlighted as an early creeper – Tooms!), but for me it’s a sentimental favorite. I’d heard about this spooky new show on Fox but, shamefully as a young genre nerd, I hadn’t tuned in yet; it was “Ice” that actually introduced me to The X-Files, and I was immediately hooked. The alien-parasite-in-the-frozen-tundra plot here often gets cited as being quite reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (the same short story inspired both), something I did notice at the time but quickly forgave as the sense of claustrophobia and dread is so powerful. “Ice” sets the pace for what the show would become as a great test of Scully and Mulder’s bond of trust so early in their partnership.
“Sanguinarium” (Season 4, Episode 6)
I’ll be honest, if we were doing a list of all-time favorite X-Files episodes then “Sanguinarium” would not be on my list. Love the fact that it started as a spec script written by two fans of the show and Kim Manners’ direction is always solid, but there are a lot of weird plot holes and the overall arc never really pays off as a result. That said – man, did this hour of TV freak me out. The premise of a plastic surgery unit as a front for ritual blood killings is grisly enough, but this is one gory episode; it was probably the point at which the poor nurse vomits up pins during a questioning that I first shouted “OH, **** NO!” out loud, to my television. It wasn’t the last. Yeeesh! (Bonus: Twin Peaks’ own Ben Horne, Richard Beymer as the evil doc in charge!)
“Die Hand Die Verletzt” (Season 2, Episode 14)
As a counterpoint to “Sanguinarium,” this fine episode from the show’s second season demonstrates how to deliver a truly memorable story while also thoroughly scaring the bejeezus out of you. In a small New Hampshire town, some of the local school’s faculty apparently used to be part of a fledgling devil-worshipping cult, but decided to abandon their ways and cover it up; turns out, Lucifer kinda took their break-up personally. Every bizarre instance, from beating hearts outside their bodies to a giant man-eating anaconda, is positively shiver-inducing, and there’s a really unsettling Rosemary’s Baby like sub-plot too. And how about that Mrs. Paddock?! (Susan Blommaert) – the substitute teacher might be the creepiest minion of Satan since Mrs. Blaylock in The Omen.
“Irresistable” (Season 2, Episode 13)
Undoubtedly, “Irresistable” is unique in X-Files canon as it’s a rare episode that has no paranormal elements at all. Mulder and Scully are summoned under a fellow agent’s misinterpretation of extraterrestrial cattle mutilation only to find something much more sinister: A series of brutal killings that all lead to the truly revolting “death fetishist” Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund, almost unfeasibly evil). The strength of the episode is in underlining that our own fellow man might be the most terrifying monster of all, and it provides a really terrific showcase for Gillian Anderson as Scully fights back and avoids becoming Pfaster’s next victim while at the same time, struggling to conquer the PTSD of her recent abduction by Duane Barry (See: Season 2, Episodes 5 and 6.)
“Home” (Season 4, Episode 2)
Yeah, if you’re a serious X-Files fan you undoubtedly saw this one coming, and really it’s still hard to argue that “Home” hasn’t well-earned its reputation as the most shocking episode of the show’s entire run. It’s the first that ran on Fox with a viewer discretion warning and the only one ever to receive a TV-MA rating. The return of fan-favorite writing team Glen Morgan and James Wong to the show (their last episode before taking a break from the show was “Die Hand die Verletzt” – they know from freaky!), “Home” is often quite rightly deemed The X-Files venture into Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory, uncovering a real rural horror show of deformation, cruelty, and incest. What in the end really makes this unsettling tale so successful is not just how scary it is, but how ultimately self-reflective it is; it’s a nightmarish reversal of the fable of the American dream.