Episodes: The Thing, The X-Files, and why I'm drawn to horror


(Hey, we're talking about scary TV this week, why not?)


My mother would never say this, but I think when she first moved to the farm I grew up on, she thought it was haunted.

The way our farm was laid out was like this. You had the relative comfort and safety of the front yard, flanked by the house and my father's giant machine shed. In the corner of the yard, a tall light cast its beams across the gravel expanse. Just past the light was the gently sloping hill my sister and I used to sled down in winter, which led down to the hog sheds where most of our pigs lived. These were filled with the grunting, snuffling noises of fellow mammals, and if things got truly hairy, there was a light switch right there.

But take a left at the bottom of the hill, rather than going straight, and you'd loop around, past a thicket of trees, to where many of our other pigs were kept, in large, open lots. It was her job to go check on them, and later, it was my job. Most of the time, you'd go at twilight, the bright blue of the sky contrasting with their pale, piggy flesh, mottled with mud. But sometimes, you'd be out at a school function or a family thing, and you'd get home well past dark, and you'd have to wander out to see how they were doing, make sure the food and water was flowing, only a flashlight cutting through the impenetrable dark.

My mother doesn't believe in ghosts. I don't either. But she occasionally would tell me that when she first moved to the farm, she could feel a presence in those trees, watching her. I could feel it, too. Nothing was there but thousands of years of primate instinct, telling us how horribly we were alone and exposed. Better get back to safety, to the protection of our clan, our bright lights, and our roofs. Or suffer the consequences.

***

There's no good reason for me to be drawn to horror as much as I am, but it's probably my genre of choice. I have a tendency to keep up with most horror TV shows, even the terrible ones, and I will see just about any horror film that gets even middling reviews. (Weirdly, I never quite acquired the taste for horror fiction, despite giving it many tries, though I very much enjoy a handful of horror novels.)

In watching the 1982 version of The Thing tonight, as I try to do roughly every October, I realized that it must be something primordial. So much of horror is about isolation, about being trapped outside of reality in an unusual place. Sometimes, that's very literal, as in The Thing or The Blair Witch Project, while sometimes, it's a normal situation that gets canted a few degrees to the left, as in many, many ghost stories. But the gist of the thing is this: You knew your life, and then something happened, and you don't any more. You've wandered off course, and who knows when you'll get back on it?

This is very much explicit in The Thing, which is a movie all about people in an unusual situation that seems mundane to them, who are very quickly reminded of just how precarious their existence is. I often forget how the film's enemies are two in number. There's the Thing, of course, just waiting to gobble up and assimilate the characters, but there's also the unforgiving weather outside, the deep freeze waiting to devour them just as surely. There are scenes in this film where it really does seem like these men are going to freeze to death, because it's preferable to becoming host to some alien terror.

Or maybe it's the other way around. The aliens are bad, sure. But the cold and the loneliness and the isolation just might be worse.

***

The early X-Files episode "Ice" has the feel of a young band ripping through cover versions of some of its favorite hits while it tries to figure out its voice. This is, in essence, a new version of The Thing, just without complicated visual effects, and it's part of the show's early experimentation with just how far it could push the Mulder-Scully partnership (pretty far, as it turns out). This is, for me, the first great X-Files episode, but also an atypical one. Mulder and Scully are rarely so cut off from the rest of the world as they are here (at an Arctic research facility). It happens every so often, but the show is at its best when they're recognizably in our reality, but in some faded corner of it.

Symbolically, The X-Files is about the death of the old, weird America in the face of corporatization and homogenization. It never comes out and says this, but a big theme in many episodes is some local boogeyman getting chased out into the wilderness by the unforgiving sameness of modern technology. It's a show about analog switching over to digital, and a show where many of the main character's rants about the government spying on people now sound like weird prophecy.

"Ice" is devoid of a lot of those elements, but it has the intense isolation the show had in its finest hours, when Mulder and Scully seemed like a tiny island to each other, amid the ever-building noise of life. My other favorite genre is romance, and it's built atop the same principles, the more I think about it: Here we are, alone, and here is someone else. The only question is if they try to kiss us or try to kill us.

***

There are no pigs on the farm any more. My father got out of that business as I was exiting high school, once he realized I probably wouldn't be taking over the family business. (I don't think he particularly minds having whole winters off.) So there's no good reason to go out back, where the pig lots used to be, and stand in all that darkness. He's put up lights on his grain bins, anyway, so it's not as dark as it once was.

There are fewer trees, too, the thicket no longer as thick. I've gotten older, or just more used to darkness, and I can't feel its eyes on the back of my neck, like pinpricks anymore, like I did even when I was 17 and should have known better.

But stand, long enough, on that front yard and look out into the sea of blank space that surrounds the farm at night, and it's not hard to imagine yourself the only person on Earth. I live in the city now, and sometimes go out for walks late, late, late at night, when a footstep that falls in behind you could be someone. People back home ask if I ever feel in danger, and I smile and say no, I don't. That footstep behind me is somebody else, no matter who. But that big, blank sky? That's nothing and nobody, and that's where the true terrors live.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.