The X-Files, for all its later imitators (Fringe, Supernatural) was a unique show. One aspect of that uniqueness was the way it blended mytharc episodes about alien abductions, alien invasions, and government conspiracies with Monster of the Week episodes about paranormal criminals. These usually had a pretty strong thread of horror running through them and dealt with some classic “horror” creatures – vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, among others. They also devoted a large number of episodes to serial killers with varying degrees of paranormal abilities, since Mulder and Scully were FBI agents and a murder spree was the most obvious reason to put them on a case.
And so, for Halloween, we present the 13 scariest hours of The X-Files for your viewing pleasure!
13. The Host (Season 2, Episode 2)
The ‘Flukeman’, the Monster of the Week in ‘The Host’, is best remembered for one of freakiest monster designs of the series. Played by one of the show’s later and best loved writers, Darin Morgan, the combination of the Flukeman’s design with the dark, dimly lit shots of him lurking like the shark in Jaws under the water in the sewers is a perfectly alarming effect. (Long before viewers were complaining about Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, you had to, as the Barenaked Ladies put it, “watch X-Files with no lights on” because otherwise you couldn’t see what was happening).
The Flukeman’s origin, as a human suffering from a mutation caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, adds another level of scary, tapping in to fears about mutation as a result of radiation that were around throughout the Cold War and during the rise of nuclear power in the late 20th century. And the prospect of being infected with a flukeworm that gives you a bad taste in your mouth before exiting that way is seriously icky. But really, it’s the Flukeman’s monster design combined with Morgan’s performance that makes it so memorable, and so scary.
12. Sanguinarium (Season 4, Episode 6)
Having an operation is a scary thing, however much you want it, however much it will help in the long run. Allowing other humans to render you unconscious and then cut you open is simply a frightening prospect. So of course, in The X-Files, we see a set of doctors abusing the trust placed in them by their patients.
More specifically, a doctor who practices black magic uses it to keep himself looking young and handsome by sacrificing patients who come in for plastic surgery. This is one of the goriest episodes The X-Files ever did, which adds to the terror factor in this story about hex and counter-hex. The use of gore is unusual for the series, but in the context of this story, which is all about doctors whose job is to slice up other people turning that in to a weapon, it makes sense that the ickiness factor is turned all the way up to 11. It drives home the terror of the episode in a way that makes sense for a story about death-by-surgery.
11. Field Trip (Season 6, Episode 21)
A giant killer mushroom sounds more silly than scary, but this is The X-Files, and they know how to make the silly into the scary.
The actual explanation aside (Mulder and Scully are being slowly digested by a giant mushroom that’s causing them to hallucinate) the theme of this episode is familiar. This is a story about not knowing what is or is not real, about the fear of being trapped in a dream that is slowly killing you. We’ve seen this theme countless times in SFF film and television. Sometimes it’s funny (Red Dwarf), sometimes it’s emotionally touching (Supernatural), sometimes it’s horrifying (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The X-Files leans in towards the scary aspect of the trope, re-enforcing the horror and tragedy of the situation with the opening image of the skeletons of the poor couple who were killed earlier, lying together in a heart shape, dying in their sleep.
10. Duane Barry (Season 2, Episode 5)
We bumped a couple of properly unnerving episodes that usually appear on these lists – ‘Eve’, ‘Detour’ – and added this one, which usually doesn’t. But it’s worth highlighting that although the Monster of the Week episodes tended to be the scary ones because they were the stories rooted in horror folklore and fiction, the idea of alien abduction is pretty scary too.
In ‘Duane Barry’, this frightening aspect of the alien story arc is combined with a terrifyingly real scenario – a hostage situation with an active shooter – and then finally it throws in human kidnapping as well, as Barry kidnaps Scully so he can get the aliens to take her instead of him.
The reason Barry takes hostages in the first place is because he is so terrified of being abducted by aliens again. The abductions themselves are scary, and the episode acts as a reminder that alien abduction tropes that are regularly laughed at on film and television are really very frightening if taken seriously, involving major trauma and abuse. When Barry’s fear leads him to put others in danger, culminating in him taking Scully off so that she can suffer instead of him, the genuinely scary aspect of the whole set-up of the show is driven home in a really effective way.
9. Tithonus (Season 6, Episode 10)
If you’re looking for scary, how about an episode about Death himself? Like the earlier highly acclaimed ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, ‘Tithonus’ follows a character who sees that other people are about to die. However, unlike Clyde Bruckman, who only told us about his premonitions, in ‘Tithonus’ we see events from Alfred Fellig’s point of view. And so we get the sight of everyone in an elevator turning grey before Alfred steps out and the elevator car crashes, and of course, towards the end, we see Scully greyed out and apparently about to die as well (Scully being in danger is going to be a recurring theme of this list).
The idea of a man following around people who are about to die, not to help them or offer them comfort but to take their photograph, is also quite creepy. Fellig is basically a really sinister paparazzo, following people around in order to exploit them for his own gain. And in the end, it seems like Fellig’s “condition” may even have been passed to Scully, who was, after all, told by Bruckman that she wouldn’t die – and according to Fellig, that’s not a good thing…
8. Folie á Deux (Season 5, Episode 19)
It’s Mulder who is in danger in this one and needs to be saved by Scully. This is also another episode featuring a hostage situation with an active shooter, but that’s not the scariest aspect of this story.
There’s the doubting of one’s own senses, which happens a lot in The X-Files, but is particularly extreme here. The monster design is also really effective. While the suit by itself didn’t work out all that well, extensive re-editing including adding a speed blurring effect and a buzzing sound created something properly unnerving, and the fact that only two people can see it at a time makes it even scarier – Skinner’s complete obliviousness is almost as alarming as the monster. Those who have been attacked take on a corpse-like appearance that isn’t exactly reassuring either.
But most of all, the scare factor builds to a height in the climax; Mulder is strapped to a hospital bed, being menaced by a terrifying insect-like monster, with a nurse who is one of the monster’s minions, screaming and screaming but no one believes him. It is the stuff of nightmares. Luckily for him, Scully is the shoot first, deny everything you’ve seen later type.
7. Familiar (Season 11, Episode 8)
While several episodes on this list offer early appearances of tropes and imagery later taken up by other shows, ‘Familiar’ is a much more recent episode, first broadcast in 2018.
But the show very cleverly makes a virtue of that. So many shows have adopted elements of The X-Files’ habits and methods to increase their own scare factor, shooting dark and dimly lit stories, using rain-drenched Canadian woods, showcasing shadowy government conspiracies. ‘Familiar’ returns to those wet, dark woods, but adds some scary imagery taken from other things. There’s a typical ventriloquist’s doll, always an alarming sight, and then the image of a little boy in a bright yellow raincoat in imminent danger, immediately calling to mind Stephen King’s IT.
The image of a small child in danger is enough to strike terror into the hearts of most adults on its own. This episode uses well worn tropes and imagery from other stories to chilling effect to create a truly scary viewing experience.
6. Elegy (Season 4, Episode 22)
‘Elegy’ is a seriously underrated episode, and it’s also really spooky, in a very classic ghost-story sort of way.
Death omens are always a good source of scares because when, inevitably, one of our protagonists sees one, the implication is that they are about to die. Season 4 Scully was still just about clinging to scepticism, but she’s certainly shaken when she suddenly starts seeing dead/dying people and realises it means she is dying herself, of cancer (she gets better).
It’s the same basic idea as ‘Tithonus’, but a more traditional variation. It’s also crossed with a crisis apparition, an image of someone that appears around the moment of their death in another place, usually to communicate with a living person.
The images of the dying people – several of them young women with slit throats – are really spooky and sad at the same time. On top of that, there’s also an evil nurse who has power over a mentally vulnerable individual, which is equally scary in a different and really horrible way.
5. Roadrunners (Season 8, Episode 4)
‘Roadrunners’ is one of The X-Files’ scariest small-town horror episodes. It’s full of classic tropes including dead phone lines (it was the year 2000), and sinister townspeople. There’s also a hefty dose of body horror, with nasty creatures crawling along people’s spines. This was an early Scully-and-Doggett episode, and like Season 1’s ‘Ice’ did for Scully and Mulder, it’s one that helps to cement their relationship by throwing them into an isolated environment where they can only rely on each other.
On top of all that, there’s the added layer of terror brought about by the fact that Scully is pregnant with William at the time. Scully is in enough physical danger herself for the story to be scary – add the danger to her much more vulnerable unborn child as well, and you have a really scary hour. Even if you’re pretty sure it will all be all right in the end.
4. Grotesque (Season 3, Episode 14)
The overall plot of ‘Grotesque’ takes literally the old adage that he who fights monsters may eventually become a monster, as it sees an old colleague of Mulder’s become a killer himself as a result of chasing down too many serial killers (in a case which may or may not also involve demonic possession). That in itself is a scary idea, because it implies that our heroes may someday turn to the Dark Side and they may lose control of their own buried violent tendencies.
The execution of the story adds to the fear factor. There are lots of gargoyles, which are designed to be scary looking in the first place. Then there’s the squirm-inducing habit of the killer of carving up people’s actual faces, and the hiding of dead bodies in sculptures, all of which adds up to a pretty chilling hour overall.
3. Irresistible (Season 2, Episode 13)
‘Irresistible’ is a classic example of the episode of a supernatural horror series that isn’t about anything supernatural, and is therefore one of the most scary stories, because the evil is so human.
And yes, Scully is in danger again.
Poor Scully had been abducted first by Duane Barry, then by aliens, earlier in the season and this episode deliberately played on her trauma following that event. By stripping out the aliens/psychics/demons and so on and having the abductor be a creepy but otherwise normal human man, the story shifts its emphasis onto the simple fact of Scully being abducted and in danger. It allowed the character and the audience to confront those events in a story with a shorter abduction and quicker happy ending, and it was also able to focus more on Scully’s point of view (for practical reasons – Scully’s original abduction was written to accommodate her maternity leave, so the story was told primarily from Mulder’s point of view for that reason). Donnie Pfaster is a human but very creepy individual, but he becomes truly terrifying when we see the impact of his actions on Scully.
2. Squeeze (Season 1, Episode 3)
The very first Monster of the Week, Eugene Victor Tooms is also one of the scariest. Locked-room mysteries are always scary, considering they take away the idea of locks providing protection from whatever evil, real or imagined, lurks outside. Tooms himself then adds to that with his bizarre ability to contort his body in deeply unnatural ways in order to get through the smallest of spaces. Doug Hutchinson’s performance, all wide eyes and sulky expression, adds to the horror.
The sequel, ‘Tooms’, is also terrifying and features Mulder’s endearingly hilarious attempt to get bile off his fingers without betraying his cool exterior. But we wanted to highlight the original outing, since the simple concept is such a big part of what makes Eugene Tooms so scary. The idea that a killer could get past a locked door by squeezing through ventilation shafts is just chilling.
1. Home (Season 4, Episode 2)
Perhaps this episode is at the top of the wrong list – perhaps it should be at the top of a list of “Most Disturbing Episodes”, or “Most Squick-Inducing Episodes”. Ultimately, although Scully and Mulder are in some danger over the course of the episode, it’s the disturbing nature of it that sticks in the mind. You could argue that the images from ‘Elegy’ or ‘Tithonus’, the frightening action sequences of ‘Roadrunners’, or the alarming human evil of ‘Grotesque’ or “Irresistible’ are scarier.
But in the end, ‘Home’ wins out because the way it is presented and put together is just so unnerving. It’s certainly not the only episode of television to deal with the horrific idea of inbred, incest-driven communities living in isolated parts of the USA – Supernatural’s ‘Family Remains’ and half of Season 4 of True Blood deal with the same theme. But did they have a woman with physical deformities being kept under a bed (why under the bed?!), to be regularly impregnated by her own sons, producing babies with more and more health problems each time? No. No, they did not.
There’s just something about how this episode came together that pushed everything up a notch. The result was an hour that so rattled the people who watched it, it got a viewer discretion warning and a TV-MA rating.