I Only Want To Believe: Love and Religion in The X-Files

A personal look at what The X-Files' key themes of love, belief and faith have meant in the life of one writer...

This article comes from Den of Geek UKSpoilers ahead for The X-Files.

“Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

– H. L. Mencken

It might be an unexplainable phenomenon, but my love for The X-Files has survived the three greatest romances of my life. Though I missed the show when it first debuted on September 10th, 1993, I caught my first episode in reruns that summer. It was the one where Mulder and Scully are trapped in the Arctic while investigating the deaths of a research team, a kind of small screen version of The Thing. It was well-done, though predictable, and like nothing I’d ever seen on television before. The next few episodes – involving faces on Mars, UFO crash sites, and an assassin who could start fires with the touch of his hand – were intriguing, but didn’t entirely sell me on the series. Then I settled into the couch, one more time, having convinced the woman I lived with to watch the show with me.

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Betsy was a no-nonsense Masters graduate and, until recently, something like the biggest party I had ever attended. I was involved with someone else when we met, but we were quickly sucked up into a whirlwind of drinking, smoking, and adventure that took us all the way to the sun-drenched paradise of Fort Lauderdale. It was like nothing I’d ever known. There is no heaven without hell, though, and our bliss ended two years later in evictions, repossessions, and failing job opportunities. We sulked back to the wintery wonderland of Michigan, our tails between our legs. Though we chose to stay together, and even got married a few years later, she was not the same girl I had known. Coming home, she began to embrace the religion I barely knew she carried with her. I, meanwhile, tried to breach that unseen world but nonetheless remained firmly agnostic.

I think we saw something of ourselves in the characters of Mulder and Scully. There was the cynical, rather antisocial investigator who completely disregarded religion, yet had an undying faith in things supernatural. Now he had been paired with another agent, an equally brilliant medical student sent to debunk all of his outrageous findings, a hard-headed realist who wore a gold cross around her neck. As unlikely as it would seem, there was an irrefutable chemistry between these two characters, something based more on the challenge to each other’s intellect than any kind of sexual tension. It didn’t take long to see that these agents had developed a friendship that went beyond mere coworkers, something that would become a deep and unspoken love. It was Mulder and Scully, more than little green men or the monsters-of-the-week, that made this show what it was.

In the first episode we watched together, Scully woke to find her father sitting in a chair in her living room. He seemed to speak but there were no words. She turned to answer a call, informing her that her father had died. When she looked back to the chair, whatever she had seen was gone. Despite her grief, Scully went to work that day, meeting with an incarcerated killer named Luther Lee Boggs. He claimed that he was able to channel souls and was willing to help the FBI with a pair of missing teenagers in order to stay his execution. Ironically, it was “spooky” Mulder who didn’t believe him, while the reasonable Scully momentarily opened her mind to such extreme possibilities. Betsy was an only child, raised by a faithful single mother, and she had an uneasy relationship with her estranged father. I had been told by my own mother, at the age of ten, that the only thing that happened when we died was that we were eaten by worms. We looked at each other as the episode played out, with tears in our eyes.

Time and time again, we found ourselves in the spiritual complexities of these characters. There were dichotomies found within both Mulder, with his distrust of the Christian religion and belief in an alien apocalypse, and the practical science and intangible Catholicism of his partner Scully. Due mostly to a revolving stable of writers for the show, these aspects of either character could flip to emphasize the differences between skeptic and believer.

In just this way, one night my Episcopalian wife was convinced that there were spooky voices coming through the baby monitor. She also claimed to have seen a rocking chair moving on its own and knew that it was her grandmother. Though ever the disbeliever, I nonetheless did some research, then spread a protective layer of salt at each windowsill and burned a candle upside down to ward off the spirits I was convinced weren’t even there. Whether it was her prayers or my mystical fumblings, the brief haunting of our son quickly ceased.

However, our marriage ended as well. While there were many problems, the reason she gave the judge in divorce court was “irreconcilable religious differences.” Unlike our television heroes, we couldn’t find the middle ground where belief and love could meet. She was four months pregnant with our daughter when I woke to find them gone.

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Still, there was a strange moment when we met again at her mother’s house to watch The X-Files. I had found a small, cheap apartment in a bullet-riddled section of the ghetto just outside of Detroit, but there wasn’t enough money for television. So we settled into the couch once more, strangers who once shared a future, and watched the premiere episode of the ninth season. Again with the irony, the previous season had ended with Mulder going missing (as he’s dragged up into the sky by a godlike alien tractor beam) just before Scully revealed that she was pregnant. There was an entirely new conspiracy afoot now, with some new faces fronting the action, and the search for the truth went on in an entirely new way.

A few years later, all my pretenses of being a spiritual seeker faded as the show itself had faded. Like Mulder, I still yearned for something greater, though it was hard to say what that was anymore. I thought it might be love. Like the poster that hung on his office wall, I wanted to believe.

By then I was living with a raven-haired girl who had long ago captured my heart. Her name was Michelle. She had opened my eyes to other possibilities when I was first married, but I was not ready to act on those beliefs then. But now she was almost the Mulder to my Scully. When we first moved in together, we started watching those old shows together. Nestled into another couch in yet another apartment, we went back and forth with the debate of faith versus reason. The faith, in this case, was mine in believing that our regrets and missed opportunities were not greater than the present moment. The reality was that our life together was always going to be a complicated thing.

Some of our conversations were similar to the first episode that Betsy and I watched. Scully had begun to believe what Boggs was telling her, considering the possibility that her father really was speaking through this killer. But she followed the facts instead, while Mulder faltered, and saved the kidnapped teenagers. By the time Boggs was executed, she had already rationalized everything away. Mulder, exasperated, asked why she couldn’t believe. I’m afraid, she said, I’m afraid to believe.

As we reached the end, the closing moments of the final episode echoed my burgeoning faith. Not in a supreme being, but in the power of love to overcome all things. Mulder and Scully had evaded the alien forces within the government and were laying together in a hotel room, much like they did in the first episode. Scully pointed out that Mulder had always wanted to believe, but believe in what? He replied that he wanted to believe that those who were gone were not lost to us, and that if we listened to what went before it might give us the power to save ourselves. Scully said, “Then we believe the same thing.”

Mulder reached out for the cross hanging from her neck and said “Maybe there’s hope.” 

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But there was no more hope to be found then. Amidst heartbreak, tears, and cancelled engagements, Michelle and I went our separate ways. I put Mulder and Scully back into their DVD case and briefly shelved my belief that love would conquer all.

Then came the next movie.

Another series.

And, even before that, I was nestled on another couch, having more Mulder and Scully conversations with someone else. Her name was Dana, and she had been here before. I was dating her all those years ago, when I first met Betsy, just a few years before Chris Carter’s vision ever hit television screens. She was a mother now, full of bright smiles and a million questions about life and beyond. Raised as I was, without religion, she was forever looking for something bigger than the present moment. Like another Dana once said, I can hear her telling me, I have seen things that I cannot deny.

Not surprisingly, we’ve sat together through church services, bible studies, and psychic readings. The idea of life on other planets is as reasonable and possible to either of us as the idea of a supreme being, yet both of us have wondered if this is all there is. It’s hard to tell who might be Mulder and who might be Scully this time around.

Dana has not seen The X-Files since it returned last year, nor do I suspect Betsy or Michelle have watched it. The show was very much a product of its time and that time seems to have passed. Chris Carter has said that this is the perfect moment for Mulder and Scully, citing WikiLeaks, global surveillance, and political conspiracies (not to mention the fear of aliens, though they are now reputedly swarming the borders of countries rather than planets). But there are far more terrifying things on the evening news and on Twitter than could ever appear in an X-File. The thought of alien cover-ups at Area 51 seem downright hopeful right now, and when the Cigarette Smoking Man said something about ‘fake news’ in this season’s premiere episode… well, I just don’t want to think about it.

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But more than this, what these new episodes seem to lack is the often spiritual yearning that was present in the original series. Whereas the aliens were once a real force and a threat, they have now become secondary to the danger posed by our own government. Rich white men are once again going to be the cause of the apocalypse. Even Mulder has said “I only want to believe, real proof has been strangely hard to come by.” Granted, even in its finest moments, the overarching plotline to this show became a bit convoluted, so it’s hard to say where it will go in the final episodes of this season (which is rumored to be the last, now that Gillian Anderson wants to be done as Scully).

But I’ve already begun to lose my faith in the show.

What I have not lost faith in is Mulder and Scully. Yes, they are merely characters on a TV show, but they have been with me through much heartbreak and searching. Whether they are friends or lovers, parents or science experiments, what they have always been is partners. What they have always had is love… and, as scary as that is, it’s probably the only thing that can save any of us now.