Fox Mulder and the Problem of the Romantic Conspiracy Theorist

There’s this thing called the “Twenty Year Rule” that pertains to collective cultural nostalgia, and if one is to give credence to this idea, then the recent resurgence of interest in The X-Files comes as no surprise. IDW Publishing has been running a well-received comic adaptation over the last several years, and just a few weeks ago Fox confirmed that they’re in talks to reboot the series, original cast and everything. And the nerdosphere rejoiced! Are you excited? I’m kind of excited! Kind of.

Okay, “mixed feelings” is more the appropriate descriptor.

I was one of those 7th graders that experienced The X-Files as a springboard into the world of media for grown-ups. The X-Files walked hand-in-hand with the likes of Independence Day and Men in Black, the more intellectual alternative to Independence Day’s mindless bombast. It crossed all the right wires at the right time—it was about a fun, timely topic, but not too topical. It was science fiction, but not too science fiction. But most of all it had that wonderful will-they-or-won’t-they tense chemistry between its two leads—topical premise or no, the show would neither have lasted as long as it did nor have remained in the popular consciousness without the Mulder/Scully dynamic. But the whole show would not exist but for the bedrock premise that is the romantic, tortured conspiracy theorist.

Conspiracy narratives are nothing new, and moreover, they’re fun. The “man who knew too much” narrative certainly didn’t start with The X-Files—that template was one of Hitchcock’s favorites. The “romantic conspiracy theorist” is an offshoot from the “man who knew too much,” perhaps an inevitable one considering how popular American conspiracy theories became in the wake of the Watergate Scandal and the nascent fascination with Roswell in the early ’70s.

And maybe we loved The X-Files growing up, but when the subject of the show comes up in conversations with my fellow children of the ’90s, it is often accompanied with the question: “Do you think conspiracy theories have become so mainstream and pervasive because of, you know, The X-Files?”

Well, maybe. But if so, who cares?

Obviously, there is no way to tell exactly how much The X-Files influenced our tendency to believe every vast conspiracy theory we hear, but we can see that the pervasiveness of conspiracy theory is increasing, and we can see how the proportion of American voters that believe in conspiracy theories is changing. We know, for instance, that 21% of American voters believe in the whole Roswell thing. That’s a lot when you consider the number of registered American voters—even at 21%, that’s still about 31 million people. Like most of the conspiracy theories on The X-Files, this one’s pretty harmless—but then there is the increase in belief in the harmful ones to take into account, as well. Nearly 40% of American voters believe that global warming is a hoax, and nearly 30% believe in the formation of a “secretive power elite with a globalist agenda,” or a New World Order, is in the works. That’s way more than the 9/11 truthers, a mere 11%, or about 16 million people. A drop in the bucket!

This is to say nothing of the unsettling chunk of Congressmen that continue to insist that the President of the United States fabricated his own birth certificate. These aren’t doomsday preppers, camping out on their inherited farmland somewhere on the prairie—these are US Congressmen elected to the most powerful legislative body in the world. On a more intimate level, many of us have anti-vaccination people in our lives, and on a charitable day you may find yourself feeling a bit like Scully trying to explain that, no, Mulder, vaccines don’t cause autism.

Big name conspiracy theorists also have a much bigger platform than they’ve ever had before. Blowhards like Alex Jones and David Icke have massive followings. Anti-vaccination advocates like Jenny McCarthy have become influential enough that we’re beginning to see resurgences in disease that were nearly wiped out in the United States. Some anti-government movements such as “Sovereign Citizens” have exploded in the last two decades, directly resulting in multiple deaths. Nearly every major event in the news media, from Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon bombing, is met in some corners with the presumption that there is a nefarious, usually government-backed conspiracy behind it.

These beliefs are cut from the same cloth of what we saw on The X-Files, the same cultural roots, and they do have far-reaching negative consequences. And thanks to social media, information and ideas are traveling faster and wider than ever. This information does not need peer review, but belief by the reader, and it is accepted as gospel. Distrust in authority structures such as government and scientific peer review makes conspiracy even more believable.

Since The X-Files was partially inspired by the increasing mainstream-ification of conspiracy Americana, inevitably there is a real link between Fox Mulder and the type of person that inspired his character. Despite jokes the show would make at Mulder’s expense, The X-Files ultimately plays his quest straight—the conspiracy is real, and everything is, indeed, against Fox Mulder. By the end of the show, the vast majority of his paranoid delusions are vindicated. But the show also tended to ignore the very real pernicious aspects, as well. Conspiracy theorists in the real world are reactionary; observe the terror at the prospect of a Stalinesque “New World Order.” Conspiracy theories are anti-science; there is no place for peer review. Conspiracy theories often have horrific racist undertones; one need look no further than how “ancient aliens” theories belittle the accomplishments of ancient, non-white civilizations.

The show was never interested in these aspects of conspiracy culture, nor was it obliged to explore them; however, it is impossible to ignore how The X-Files drew from what popular culture, and the show’s topics du jour weren’t just about aliens. For instance Mulder’s co-conspiracy nuts, who went by the moniker “The Lone Gunmen,” were themselves named in reference to theories that challenged the idea that the assassination of JFK was at the hands of a single man. It’s also really hard to ignore that the pilot for The Lone Gunmen, the short-lived X-Files spinoff which aired in March of 2001, featured the US Government plotting to frame some terrorists for flying an aircraft into the World Trade Center. Yeeaahh.

Mulder was inexorably a product of his time, but times have changed. Our relationship to conspiracy theories and the people who purport them have changed, and the potential entertainment value for the 90s-style “truth seeker” conspiracy theorist has dwindled. I’ve heard it argued that, “We aren’t supposed to sympathize with Mulder’s crazy,” and, well, no, we really rather are. Mulder is constantly vindicated. It is he who wins Scully to his side by the end of the series, not the other way around. And I don’t think that conspiracy theory narratives are going to go away—nor should they go away—but I want to think that we’re reaching a level of sophistication in both our fiction and our relationship to conspiracy theorists that we need to more thoughtful about these kinds of narratives. The X-Files did absolutely romanticize Mulder’s quest for truth far more often than it played it for comedy or sexual tension, and that approach does, on some level, help to prop up this increasing proportion of the population who do believe in vast conspiracies.

Conspiracy theorists are no longer so fringe, no longer safely in the realm of “harmless wacko” or a “tortured lone wolf” like Mulder. And with that in mind, for a rebooted X-Files to have any relevance to a modern audience, the character of Mulder and his relationship to the world of conspiracy should evolve into a more complicated and problematic figure. This isn’t to say the show should dispose of its basic conceit that “The Truth is Out There,” but allow itself to look inward at the subculture it draws so heavily from, as well. The portrayal of characters like Mulder and the Lone Gunmen as, at worst, misguided eccentrics rings hollow in today’s atmosphere.

The most contradictory facet of conspiracy theorists with a platform is that they are the enemies of truth far more often than their adversaries, real or imagined. Jenny McCarthy has done far more damage to public education about vaccination than has “Big Pharma” in recent decades. Sometimes the person with a paranoid agenda is just as liable to obscure the truth as the government agent who does so intentionally. But need one jump to and marry themselves to extreme conclusions in order to question everything the Powers That Be tell them? In this era, in which figures like Edward Snowden exist alongside people like Alex Jones, how can we explore the idea of responsible skepticism in our fiction more thoughtfully? An X-Files reboot could well be the perfect place to do just that.

The show dealt with a wide variety of conspiracies during its run, but towards the end it was mostly tied up with the evil US government and their evil pro-alien agenda. The truth was out there, but after 9/11 the “truth” as per the show got pretty squirrelly—which was honestly probably a good call. No one wanted real-world terrorism theories dragged into their primetime sci-fi romance. The X-Files was always pulp drama, but it was pulp that appealed to a smarter, more sensitive crowd, the kind of crowd who could see themselves in both Mulder and Scully.

An X-Files reboot can’t be just the same thing over again. Nothing would doom this premise to failure more completely than keeping it locked in the time it was originally conceived, because the world has changed. And if the show’s attitude towards conspiracy theorists doesn’t evolve with the times, I have a feeling that this reboot is going to be short-lived and not well-remembered. And that would be a shame.


Lindsay talks movies, nostalgia and tropes on YouTube, co-hosts the book review series “Booze Your Own Adventure”, and is co-founder of ChezApocalypse.com. If you want your timeline flooded with tweets about old cartoons, feminism, dog pictures and Michael Bay, you can follow her on Twitter.

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