The X-Files: A History of the Fandom

Feature Matt Allair
11/9/2015 at 8:40AM

The X-Files fans have always been out there. We look back at the internet-driven history of X-Files fandom...

In a dark world with aliens, mutants, ghosts, anomalous activity, and government conspiracy, The X-Files found a light. It spoke to people who felt like outsiders or felt disenfranchised in some manner. It found a truth that meant something different to every loyal follower. That truth was always out there, but so were the fans.

The X-Files was the first internet-based fan base of the '90s, undoubtedly the forerunner to how we discuss and debate our favorite television shows online today. The creative team was savvy enough to build up an interactive relationship with the fans who went online to comment on every aspect of each new episode, from monsters of the week to Scully’s morphing hairstyles, and Mulder’s dry humor. Since those days, countless series have tried to follow a similar template in their outreach, but the show had captured such a zeitgeist in its prime and its impact has never left even after series’ end in 2002.

From the early X-Files conventions to the fan sites that helped ignite interest in a revival, we look back at what X-Files fandom has meant to the sci-fi classic... 

X-Files Fandom is Born

The first season of The X-Files had a small following in terms of total viewership. There are stories about Chris Carter attending an early convention where only a dozen people knew about the show. That following grew with persistent word of mouth on the internet. In the ‘70s, if Star Wars had made it fashionable to like science fiction, which many argue it did, then The X-Files allowed subjects like the paranormal and UFO’s to be openly talked about on the web, when prior to that such subjects were spoken of in hushed tones.

“My cultural life shifted from the real world, where almost no one admitted to watching ‘that UFO show,’ to the internet,” says X-Files fan Sarah Stegall. “The internet was the one place I could go to hold an intelligent discussion with other fans about the Cigarette-Smoking Man's real agenda, or whether Ratboy was a double agent, without having to excuse or justify even watching the show.”

Stegall, who wrote X-Files reviews on The Muchkyn Zone, had her early writing catch the attention of the Ten-Thirteen Production team. It led to her assisting as a researcher for the first three episode guidebooks.

In the early years of the series, the official fan magazine had not been published. The magazine only started after Fox realized it had such a bonafide hit and the first episode guide didn’t get published until 1995. There was more online buzz before the commercial aspects of The X-Files had caught up, which allowed for a freer flow of media content.

“Best of all, unlike most ‘fan magazines’ with their carefully controlled content, it was a free-for-all discussion, where the most outrageous and insightful and sometimes brutally honest discussions about UFOs, the government, conspiracies, Mulder's hair, and Scully's wardrobe could take place without interference,” Stegall says.

Michael Marek, the webmaster of The X-Files Timeline, was able to do something rare amongst X-Files fans. He found a way to view all the episodes in advance, before their primetime showing. His work helped fans get spoilers ahead of other sites.

“I had a C-Band satellite dish and Fox was sending a pre-feed of the evening’s programming to stations every Sunday morning,” Marek says. “So I would be up, with VHS recorder running, watching the episode starting at 7:44 am and also taking notes like mad. The result is that ten hours or more before The X-Files episode actually aired, I had my summary posted on the web... and lots of people wanted spoilers.”

Early fans broke a lot of ground with “Fair Use” issues and the internet. When Fox tried to intimidate fan sites that used images and audio media from the series, fans created a viral pro-fandom campaign titled “Free Speech is Out There: Protecting X-Phile WebSites.” Many contemporary fans sites seem to have a greater understanding of Fair Use, and have seen benefits from that movement.

Techno terms like “Foxed,” which means when a studio threatens legal action against an online blogger or forum user, came out of that period. Other terms now synonymous with the show came out of X-Files fan sites. The pro-Mulder and Scully relationship segment of the fan base is also responsible for the phrase “Shipping,” regarding the fervent fan-fiction movement that exists to this day. Such phrases like “NoRomos” – No Romance, or “Fini-shippers” – fans who didn’t want to see a Mulder and Scully romance until the end of the series, came out of the fan fiction movement.

Early fans adopted the phrase “X-Phile,” the Latin, Greek, and French meaning of the word, Phile, is enthusiast, of course. The impact from fans on the writers in the early years has been noted before, some episodes taking quotes from forum discussion boards, writers lurking on the boards, naming characters from actual fans, as in the case of the Leyla Harrison character from season eight’s episode, “Alone,” and fan name sheets in the season nine opening credits. Many of these events took on a certain lore over time.

Waves of fan sites grew in the late ‘90s and early 2000s including XF Roadrunners, Inside The X, Rohan’s X-Files Realm, and Autumn Tysko’s Reviews. The various forums included the Official Site Delphi Forum, the alt.tv.xfiles news group, various British forums and the Idealist Haven, which remains the most active. One long time fan from Idealist Haven shared:

“I came to the show a bit later—after the movie—and what grabbed me was DD and GA's chemistry and portrayal of Mulder & Scully. I started using the videos to catch up on the story and fell in love with the mytharc right away. I also found the movie-quality production, and the overall writing to be compelling. It was a unique show — which is why I'm still drawn to it.”

There was little inkling of what would come by the mid-2000s, when the series ended its initial run. One of the staffers at Idealist Haven who chose to go under the name ‘K’ offered up his explanation as to why that forum has remained so active to this very day: “I actually credit our fanfic and creative forums for helping to ensure the Haven's longevity.” 

He also noted the creative spirit of authors and fan videos that kept the memory of the show alive.

“I don't think there's any question that the fandom has evolved,” he says, “Time has a way of doing that. Fans that were teenagers when the show debuted are now in their mid to late 30's, many with kids of their own. I would be surprised if life's changes haven't re-shaped how people see the show and its characters – at least a little.”

The New Generation of X-Philes

When I helped launch our own fan site, The X-Files Lexicon, in the summer of 2005, it took various interviews and outreach to build up the trust of the talent from the series and fans. By 2008, The Lexicon was invited to assist with the extras content of the Blu-ray The X-Files: I Want To Believe, and had its work quoted in the self-published LAX-Files book. My personal experiences with fans couldn’t have been nicer. I found many to be very smart and kind. There was a maturity to the fandom that was appealing. While there was a huge percentage of fans that were devoted to the Mulder and Scully relationship, and even a small percentage of Doggett and Reyes fans, other fans have shown themselves to be very attracted to the more thoughtful themes, the paranormal subject matter, and the discussions about the on-the edge science. Many of these fans are very intelligent, stimulating, and have always been interesting to speak with. This is a fan base that includes writers with Ph.D.’s that have written about different aspects of The X-Files.

Our site has been a comprehensive resource that acts as a facilitator between talent and the fans. While there might have been an assumption the series was in its past tense, something interesting started to happen by 2007. Fans organically started up a series of petitions to Fox to greenlight a second feature, and I believe the effort worked. By October of 2007, word came out that a second X-Files feature would go into production.

By this time, the advent of countless new sites came into play. The biggest has been X-Files News, the one fan site officially approved by Fox. X-Files News launched in October of 2007 as a news resource for the production of I Want To Believe, which went under the production title of “Done One.” The website now works to support X-Files communities everywhere, and constantly looks to lend their talents to organize events, charities, and initiatives outside of their own website, and its efforts.

The staff takes the view that they don’t see their work as being just their intellectual property but a shared experience with the whole fandom.

 “The idea was to build a site that would not only serve as a source for news about the production… but would also serve as a gathering place for the fandom to come together again,” says Tiffany Devol, X-Files News content director.

"The fans that visit our site and interact with us on social media have become a family, and it’s nice that no matter where we are in the world, there’s a place for us to come home to," she says.   

While acknowledging that X-Files News has enjoyed a massive following, Devol has observed that the secret to X-Files News is simply this: the fans. They admit to having been lucky and privileged to have met so many amazing people in this fandom and wouldn’t be able to do what they do without them. X-Files News bridges the gap between new and old fans, and embraces the collaborative spirit of the community. Noting her perspective about the site’s role, Devol says, “We celebrate the amazing talent and drive this fandom has and the collective effort of the fans is what has gotten #XFilesRevival to where it is today. This fandom should be enormously proud of what it has accomplished so far.”

Other sites have remained just as dedicated in their own way. Eat The Corn offers in-depth analyses of the series. Its webmaster, Kimon, explains that the site is like an “archival site that safeguards material with these intense discussions on the show from the early days of the internet.”

Kimon has expanded his site into one that focuses on the writing, the science, the music, and the X-Files comics, as well as an archival site for interviews with cast and crew. He believes the show should be placed in the context of television history. To him, it recreates the feeling of “living in the world of the show in the time it aired.”

Current sites like X-Files Universe, which appeared in a similar timeframe as the other sites, have offered their own unique perspective. Its webmistress, Maurisa Pruett, explained that what drove the creation of X-Files Universe was her initial experiences with the original FOX site for The X-Files, the Delphi forum. When that shut down, she felt such a loss that when she found out that a second X-Files feature was green lit, she created her own forum with the help of some key volunteers. “I maintain XFU because it has turned into a type of wiki for the show... a time capsule of how people feel and the questions they have about the series,” she says. “XFU provides a quality forum for fans to discuss the show. That's been my goal all along, a respectful forum run by fans of the show.”

I shared a similar vision when we created The X-Files Lexicon, just ahead of Wikipedia trends, to distill down the best writing from fans and staff about the series, to understand what it all means, and how that understanding might apply to our real world.

From Fan-Fiction to Reality

While countless professional writers have tackled The X-Files in print, some fans have gained their own notoriety. In January 2009, when beloved Director Kim Manners passed away after a fight with cancer, Erica Fraga was inspired to write LAX-Files about the Los Angeles locations used from season six to nine, and all proceeds from the book went towards the American Cancer Society in honor of Kim. Her auctions and a book-signing event in 2011 went to the same cause. Already over $10,000 has been raised for the ACS. Erica’s modest view of her role is “a simple player in a large group of awesome nerds.”

Another first generation fan, Amy Donaldson, applied her religious background in writing a scholarly book -- We Want To Believe: Faith and Gospel in The X-Files. On summing up her role in the fandom, she says: “The X-Files fandom is a community that has earned me some lifelong friends. It is a place to explore the creativity of fandom and to speak the same vocabulary with like-minded people.” She has described the book as representing “the convergence of two significant aspects of my life: faith and The X-Files.” 

The X-Files is truly unique in its honest depiction of faith, and in its appeal for both believer and skeptic,” Donaldson says. There’s a history of X-Philes writing theses on the series going as far back as The X-Files University.

Talent from the series, ranging from actors and writers to directors and producers, has differing views on the degree to which The X-Files has had an impact on their respective careers. Robert “Bob” Goodwin, executive producer and director of nine episodes during the Vancouver years, has observed how the fandom has evolved over the years.

“The one thing that I noticed that I was very happy about when I went on tour with my movie Alien Trespass in ‘09, and we would go on [to] Comic Con, [was that] you’d see large portions, I mean big crowds, which was very complimentary, and I appreciate it,” Goodwin says. “There were a lot of X-Files fans, but a lot of them were really young. I’m finding out there’s a whole new group of college kids, and even high school kids, who have just discovered the show. So, I think that’s a great thing.”

Actress Sheila Larken, who played Scully’s mother, Margaret, mirrored Bob’s point: “When the show was on, it was a family show. Not that they had young kids watching it, but it was like Seinfeld, a family event. To me, it seems now there’s a specific group that seems to follow it. It’s more like the college kids that have rediscovered it, or stream it and watch it non-stop rather than on a weekly basis.”

Sheila is also married to Bob Goodwin, and currently is a personal therapist; interestingly she was a therapist back in the days while filming The X-Files. When asked if the series had an impact on their careers, Goodwin says even after leaving The X-Files, the excitement from the series carried over.

“Waiters at fancy restaurants in New York would recognize me,” Goodwin jokes. 

And for Larken, there was a personal connection, being that they have two children and remain married. “It certainly impacted my life on a personal level both with me and my husband, and there was so much pride with being connected with such a fine piece of drama.”

No Longer Fighting the Future

The X-Files was indeed a fine piece of drama that impacted many lives globally. But only a part of the story has been revealed over the last thirteen years. The X-Files has a following that extends globally to not only just North America and Britain, but South America, Italy, Greece, Russia, China, Japan, Africa, The Philippine Islands, regions of the Middle East, New Zealand, Australia, and far, far beyond.

The present excitement is palpable, and fan activity has only sped up since February 2015 and even towards the end of 2014 one could notice an uptake in interest in the series. Now it has reached hysteria with media outlets doing interviews, and Twitter accounts retweeting every leaked photo or piece of information at a breathtaking speed, and divisions of Fox doing their own outreach with areas of fandom on the official site. If anything, it is growing all the more interesting.

Podcast activity for The X-Files continues, with such sites like The X-Files Truth podcast, and Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files Podcast, the comedian and actor from Silicon Valley who has used his platform to interview talent from his favorite series.

Frank Spotnitz has used resources from his production company to do outreach with fans at the Big Light Social network. Outside bloggers and writers like John Kenneth Muir have observed the progress of this fandom. The next installment will also look into the other fandom for Chris Carter’s other seminal series from 1996, Millennium, a fandom that may be smaller in numbers, but no less fervent.

While sales of the reissues from The X-Files, Millennium, and The Lone Gunmen CDs at La La Land Records are still going strong, Joe Harris, writer of the IDW published comic, The X-Files Season 10, says the comic also has had an impact on bringing back old fans.

“I meet people all the time who don’t otherwise buy comics but were lured to the comics shops after hearing about this series,” Harris says. “And I get so many people coming up to me at conventions who had no idea The X-Files were back… which speaks to the awesome, cross-over appeal and potential this franchise brings to the publishing, and the industry.”

Many readers might have their own experiences with the online aspects of The X-Files fan activity. Many might have even attended past X-Files Expos and conventions, or built up their own relationships online. We have only touched on a segment of an online history that runs very deep, wide, and global in how the love of this series has been expressed since its debut in 1993. It’s a fascinating history for a show that spoke to the public in ways that were far reaching indeed.

Editor's Note: Portions of this article appeared in Den of Geek's exclusive New York Comic Con Print Edition

Den of Geek’s X-Files correspondent Matt Allair is a writer, freelance filmmaker, musician, and the webmaster of The X-Files LexiconWhat have your experiences been like with X-Files fan sites, public forums, fan-fiction sites, or creative sites? Let us know in the comments!

For more on the revival and our retrospective look at the series, listen to our Sci Fi Fidelity Podcast!