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David Duchovny, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, and Bruce Harwood in The X-Files, ‘Wetwired’ (1993). Image: IMDb/Fox

A two-bit motel room in small-town Maryland. FBI special agent Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder (David Duchovny) reclines on a couch, propped up on his muscular bicep. He wears a loose white tee and listens intently, though with unusual scepticism, as his powerful pant-suited partner paces the room, decrying the moral dangers of salacious cable news shows.

‘Recent studies have linked violence on television to violent behaviour,’ says special agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), her silhouette backlit by the glow of the cathode-ray TV, truly putting the ‘ass’ in ‘assert’.

‘Those studies are based on the assumption that Americans are just empty vessels, ready to be filled with any idea or image that’s fed to them,’ Mulder replies—his delivery lacking any obvious irony—yet Scully insists ‘the causal connections are there.’ She posits that a dangerous cocktail of ultraviolent imagery and amphetamine use catalysed the murderous monster of this week’s remit.

‘TV doesn’t make a previously sane man go out and kill five people, thinking they’re all the same guy,’ says Mulder, incredulous. ‘Not even ‘Must See TV’ could do that to you,’ he all but winks at the audience.

When human beings do bad things, can and should we hold pop culture responsible? The truth, as they say, is out there.

I wonder if Edgar Maddison Welch ever saw this—that is, The X-Files’ season three episode ‘Wetwired’—and if he had, whether he may have thought twice before taking an assault rifle to a Washington, DC pizza shop in December 2016, and firing three rounds while ‘self-investigating’ a non-existent child trafficking ring. Compelled by the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory, Welch reportedly explained his motive by texting a friend, ‘I’m sorry bro, but I’m tired of turning the channel and hoping someone does something’.

Welch was only seven or eight when ‘Wetwired’ first aired in 1996, just as the cult show was gaining mainstream attention. In the years since—and despite Mulder’s cavalier, never-gonna-happen attitude toward the media’s influence on civilian behaviour—the episode’s ripped-from-the-headlines ethical dilemma has only become more pertinent: when human beings do bad things, can and should we hold pop culture responsible? The truth, as they say, is out there.

It’s also complex, subjective and context-dependent.


The FBI’s most unwanted made their network premiere in 1993, forever evolving the aesthetic, characters and themes permissible in a small-screen sci-fi series. Since then, the names Mulder and Scully have become synonymous not only with little green men but with women in STEM, bisexuality, and a paranoia born of government corruption.

Over the show’s nine original seasons (plus two feature films, two spin-off series and a recent reboot), showrunner Chris Carter orchestrated a complex, often convoluted narrative arc—dubbed the ‘mythology’ or ‘mytharc’—charting a decades-long Deep State ruse to produce alien-human hybrids before extraterrestrial colonists invade Earth. Ridiculous as the details sound (and are), the core premise of a shadowy government cabal just hits different in 2021, now that conspiracism has evolved from kooky fringe thinking to mainstream debate.

These days, Mulder and Scully’s worst fictitious fears are mirrored in real-life conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, QAnon and the imminent New World Order. A growing audience of denialists is quick to dismiss verifiable facts like climate emergency, the gender pay gap and the current global health pandemic, believing that when the lamestream media says one thing, the opposite must be true. Now, the truth—or, rather, post-truth—is out there on the internet, morning talk-shows, and maybe even in the minds of your family, friends and neighbours, where it culminates in violent acts of domestic terrorism like the pizza shop attack or this month’s riot at the US Capitol. So, to repurpose the ‘Wetwired’ question: to what extent did The X-Files itself, with its black helicopters and lethal alien virus, accidentally precipitate this era of disinformation and distrust?

A surf journalist turned screenwriter, Chris Carter by no means invented conspiracy theories nor, more specifically, conspiracy fiction.

In the first half of the 20th century, novels like The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and The Ministry of Fear (1943) popularised the genre’s ‘man on the lam’ premise. Then, in the 1960s, the Vietnam War, Watergate and several high-profile political assassinations started scratching at the collective Western conscience, seeding the ‘it goes all the way to the top’ plots that preoccupied 1970s literature and film.

Similarly, The X-Files was born in the wake of the Gulf War and an economic recession. However, it also coincided with the end of the Cold War, Apartheid and—as of President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration—the conservative Reagan Era ethos. This is not to say that political hijinks in the nineties were devoid of conflict and dishonesty, but that the resurgence of a relatively liberal social spirit likely cushioned US viewers’ capacity to dabble in The X-Files’ paranoiac mood before returning safely to reality.

Notably, the show’s popularity plummeted post-9/11, leading to its’ 2002 scrapping. Two reboot seasons—produced from 2016–18, during a time of rising conservatism—were also poorly received.

But at the height of its powers from 1996–99, how did The X-Files’ mytharc represent and disseminate conspiracy theories about evil elites? And to whom did this appeal?

To what extent did The X-Files itself, with its black helicopters and lethal alien virus, accidentally precipitate this era of disinformation and distrust?

The show’s central vector of anti-authoritarianism is Fox Mulder: a psychological profiler turned paranormal fanboy and archetypal hero. Brave, determined, even cocky, Mulder’s quest to expose government subterfuge is underpinned by his childhood trauma and adult cynicism. His fixation with the nefarious Syndicate—made up of government officials, industrialists and scientists who are in cahoots with the would-be alien colonists—is offset, almost pathologically, by Scully’s clear-eyed rationalism; though, as the series progresses, she too experiences the inexplicable, opening her mind to ideas and possibilities that blue-pill normies would find objectively ludicrous.

Intertwined with The X-Files’ overarching tale of Deep State chicanery are tangents about devious vaccination programs, microchipped citizens, and humankind’s galactic origin story. Additionally, some standalone ‘monster of the week’ plots tap into Satanic Panic, child sacrifice, and a myriad different mind-control devices—themes that prevail again today in online conspiracist discourse thriving (for the time being) on sites like 4chan, 8kun and the recently deactivated Parler, where the typically young, white, male users are Millennial and Gen Z successors to The Lone Gunmen.

Byers, Frohike and Langly were The X-Files’ resident conspiracy theorists. Their self-selected moniker riffs on the Warren Commission’s official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald alone assassinated President John F. Kennedy, without meddling from powers domestic or foreign. A controversial conclusion in 1964, it re-entered the court of armchair scrutiny in the early nineties, spurred by Oliver Stone’s incendiary film JFK (1991).

Given that ‘lone gunmen’ is a contradiction in terms, the trio’s name could be interpreted as a knowing gotcha! at Chief Justice Earl Warren, who determined that Kennedy’s death was not a CIA, KGB, Mafia and Castro crossover event, as some pundits speculated. Alternative fact: it could be evidence of the guys’ flimsy credibility, since their underripe social skills and overbearing libertarianism were often played for punch-down laughs. A decade or so later, this brand of flippant ribbing would trigger the toxic radicalisation of 4chan and Reddit incels, some of whom would be dubbed ‘lone gunm[e]n’ in news reports of their ideologically-driven mass murders.

The core premise of a shadowy government cabal just hits different in 2021, now that conspiracism has evolved from kooky fringe thinking to mainstream debate.

Men resembling The Lone Gunmen are likely who many folks picture to be the typical X-Files fan, and no doubt there are countless geeky, defensive ‘devil’s advocates’ in the community. The series’ key demographic back in the day was 18–49-year-olds, with an initial 9pm Friday timeslot reaching personality types who weren’t out on the town at that time (VCR-owners notwithstanding). When transmission moved to Sunday evenings in late 1996, the show’s Nielsen ratings rocketed, partly by virtue of its greater accessibility—it even followed the Super Bowl that year—and partly thanks to the engrossing writing, cinematic production values, and Scully and Mulder’s undeniable chemistry. Levelling up from niche intrigue to mainstream juggernaut, The X-Files also became the cultural fount of the world’s first online fandom.

In November 1997, Entertainment Weekly quipped that ‘sites devoted to the show are spreading over the Web faster than an alien fungal growth’, with Yahoo! returning close to 500 results for the search term. A large proportion of those hits included the neon-rich GeoCities and Angelfire shrines that flourished on the overtly earnest web 1.0—mostly passive repositories of FAQ info and potato-quality images (which landed early web-builders in a ‘free speech’ squabble with The X-Files’ network, Fox).

But ‘X-Philes’, as fans called themselves, were also congregating on interactive forums like to analyse episodes and write their own extensions to the show’s increasingly entangled mytharc and romance narratives. X-Philes were one of, if not the first digital cohort to be fuelled by a white-hot passion that’s taken as read on today’s internet, and their fervour popularised the infrastructure of such participatory portals as message boards and fan fiction.

‘It seems to fit very well with the nature of the series,’ Anderson noted in a 1998 NineMSN live chat (a template that foreshadowed Reddit’s future AMA series). When Duchovny clumsily posited that The X-Files’ internet fandom is likely thanks to sci-fi nerds loving computers and being, in today’s parlance, Extremely Online, Anderson clarified that ‘it seems logical’ for a show about the power of technology to amass a web-centric following.

In fact, the show’s writers had been aware of X-Philes since at least 1994, when they snuck the names of prominent online fans into a plane manifest in the season two premiere ‘Little Green Men’. It was the first of several times that fans were referenced in canon, prototyping the kind of conversations and parasocial relationships that are now commonplace between celebrities—which, in 2021 terms, includes politicians and newscasters—and their social media devotees or detractors.

Reflecting back on the rise of the X-Phile, journalist Kate Knibbs recalls this ‘full digital community… with fierce infighting and strange niche factions but an overwhelming sense of camaraderie’ in a 2015 Gizmodo article exploring the show’s impact on contemporary fan culture. ‘It was one of those lucky moments of convergence,’ she says, ‘where a show that questioned authority and promoted fringe or alternative thinking came out just as the greatest tool for subversion and spreading unconventional ideas became mainstream.’

An X-Files fan website, c.1997. Image:

Conspiracy theories have long been a fish in the percolator of digital discourse. But mis- (and dis)information have proliferated over the past twelve months, as COVID-19 lockdowns kept many folks indoors for longer than usual with little to quell their pandemic stresses. Some internet users have spent countless hours hunting for answers that justify the confusion and chaos wreaked by this vindictive mystery virus. Google searches for the term ‘QAnon’ ramped up in March 2020, peaking in August after President Donald Trump failed to denounce the unfounded theory that a secret cabal of Satanic elites is, among other baseless claims, eating kids’ adrenal glands to extend their own despicable left-wing lives.

The QAnon cult first reared its head on 4chan when, in October 2017, someone calling themselves ‘Q Clearance Patriot’ claimed to have top-secret access to government intel concerning Hillary Clinton’s impending arrest. The user’s cryptic missives, dubbed ‘QDrops’ by adherents, continued throughout 2018, traversing such thematic territory as Satanism, child sacrifice, and the oncoming apocalypse. Posts are laden with rhetorical questions crafted to create intrigue, while the profuse use of initialisms and jargon keeps outsiders out (a cloistering literary affect used liberally by X-Philes, too). Enigmatic slogans like ‘Trust the plan’, ‘Follow the money’ and ‘Some things must remain classified’ evoke the awkward bravado of such X-Files taglines as ‘Trust No One’, ‘Deny Everything’ and ‘The Truth Is Out There’.

A dedicated online community pores over Q’s posts, in which Trump seems forever on the precipice of busting the case of the cannibalistic Democrats wide open. To date, none of Mountain Dew Nostradamus’ predictions have come to pass, and the open-ended chronicle of these ‘crumbs’ is comparable to serial comics, or a long-running TV series shepherded by a showrunner fudging the particulars as he goes along, or even fan fiction fanning flames of undue adoration for a self-mythologising celebrity huckster. Just as X-Philes took to web forums where their fanfic negotiated Carter’s plot-holes, QAnon ‘bakers’ navigate their soothsayer’s inconsistencies with Miracle Mineral Supplement and confirmation bias. After all, ‘The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read,’ says Walter Kirn, in an essay on Q’s moreish literary mechanics. It wants to write.

‘It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them,’ he says, inadvertently conjuring Mulder’s appetite for the supernatural, and Scully’s hard-science methodologies alike. So who are Q’s truest believers? And is there any overlap with X-Files fans who’ve taken Carter’s musings to heart?

I often wonder how a right-wing, anti-science, QAnon worldview fits into the mytharc rubric. Is Donald Trump a Mulderian hero kicking against the Deep State pricks, while crooked Hillary Clinton stands in for the villainous Cigarette Smoking Man?

In on the ground floor at 4chan, QAnon’s early adopters were mostly American men aged 18–34. Those arrested for escalating their so-called patriotism offline—such as Pizzagate gunman Welch, 32; along with Matthew Wright, 32, who in 2018 created a barricade at the Hoover Dam with an armoured vehicle full of ammunition; and Anthony Comello, 24, alleged to have murdered a man he believed was instrumental to the Deep State—fit that demographic. They are likely too young to have watched The X-Files in its initial run, though the reach of streaming services and the power of nineties nostalgia can’t be ruled out.

More concerning is the ever-growing throng of brainwashed Baby Boomers (aged 56–74, ping Roseanne Barr) to whom disinformation seems irresistible. As digital media literacy is a relatively new concept to this cohort, they are perhaps most susceptible to the impassioned language of conspiracist discourse. After all, they didn’t grow up learning to parse the linguistic and contextual differences between creepypasta, catfish and shitposts, not to mention the painfully solemn language of LiveJournal.

Gen Xers (aged 40–55) have always been The X-Files’ clearest core audience, as exemplified by the show’s online fandom in the nineties. (It’s worth mentioning that X-Philes weren’t just awkward, unwashed neckbeards, either, but young, liberal, queer women.) Notably, Gen X seems to be under-represented among the anti-vax, flat Earth, lizard-people-truthing crew. I’d love to believe that seeing The X-Files’ outlandish ideas portrayed with a certain self-awareness, even artifice, actually inoculated those viewers against falling prey to pseudoscience online.

Given that Carter, a registered Democrat, used real science as a launching pad for much of the The X-Files substance, I often wonder how a right-wing, anti-science, QAnon worldview fits into the mytharc rubric. Is Donald Trump a Mulderian hero kicking against the Deep State pricks, while crooked Hillary Clinton stands in for the villainous Cigarette Smoking Man? Do conspiracists consider themselves independent investigators akin to the Lone Gunmen, and do they think that’s a good thing? Surely they’re not just empty vessels, ready to be filled with any idea or image that’s fed to them by Murdoch’s Fox News—an entity owned by the same parent company as The X-Files. Coincidence, or something more? (Coincidence, of course—and my need to stretch red string here only illustrates my own apophenia: the human proclivity to see meaningful links where there are none.) Most importantly, who is the Scully—Mulder’s trusted, down-to-round-Earth other half—in this scenario?

The pleasure of The X-Files is in leaning into mystery, in wanting to believe while retaining the humility to witness other people’s expertise. Mulder and Scully balanced their scientific, religious and spiritual beliefs with a healthy scepticism toward authority—and, sometimes, each other—but, ultimately, their bond contravened the show’s simplistic slogan, ‘Trust No One’. As Mulder tells Scully in their first feature film (in an intimate scene that launched a thousand fanfic ships), ‘I don’t know if I wanna do this alone. I don’t even know if I can.’

Scully: Why did they assign me to you in the first place, Mulder? To debunk your work. To rein you in, to shut you down.

Mulder: But you saved me. As difficult and as frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You kept me honest. You made me a whole person.


Media Studies 101 tells us not to believe everything we read in the papers, and some level of scepticism is judicious, even justified. During the Cold War, the CIA directly influenced reporting in the US. In recent years, it’s worked behind the scenes on Oscar-winner Argo (2012), episodes of Top Chef and maybe even a chart-topping West German power ballad. Trouble is, somewhere between cries of ‘Fight the Future’ and ‘Fake news!’, a lot of nuance has been abducted from public discourse.

Conspiracy theories can reroute reasonable scepticism because they play upon our emotions rather than logic. In a time when ordinary folks feel disenfranchised due to rapid social, political and environmental change, their innately simplistic ‘good versus evil’ rhetoric can provide some structure, predictability, power and control—a similar comfort to losing yourself in a binge watch, then debating your favourite characters’ motivations and potential next moves with your friends, url or irl.

No recent screen work of conspiracy fiction has seized broad audiences with The X-Files’ sadomasochistic vice-grip. In 2021, does this cynical genre have a future worth fighting for?

To say that The X-Files is solely, or even largely, responsible for life post-truth is a long bow to draw. But there are undeniable parallels between the X and Q aesthetics, and the former infiltrated turn-of-the-millennium pop culture so pervasively that non-viewers may not even know they’ve absorbed its fearful credo by osmosis. And while the show’s conspiracist torch has been passed from The Mentalist (2008–15) to The Blacklist (2013—present) and Secret City (2016—present), no recent screen work of conspiracy fiction has seized broad audiences with The X-Files’ sadomasochistic vice-grip. In 2021, does this cynical genre have a future worth fighting for?

On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, pop culture pulls up to a similar crossroad as in 1993 when Democratic cool cat Clinton took office. Yet the promise of social, political and environmental stability arriving any time soon feels like a fiction itself. This time round, the real-world wreckage of right-wing conservatism, writ large by conspiracy theories like QAnon, may never be reversed. As such, it’s hard to imagine contemporary pundits calling a narrative as paranoid as The X-Files ‘Must-See TV’—not when MAGA bros have sucked all the fun out of the mytharc, and real life is just dread, 24/7.

I’m not suggesting that TV writers’ rooms forego intrigue, mystery and conflict for fear of leading impressionable audiences astray—to say otherwise would be to abandon the craft of storytelling. (Newsrooms, obviously, are a different beast.) Nor am I implying that governments are short on moral rot. The onus remains on viewers to think critically, stay informed, and reacquaint themselves with Ockham’s Razor—sometimes, the truth isn’t subjective. There’s no microchip in the COVID-19 vaccine; 5G doesn’t spread the virus; kids are not being trafficked in expensive designer cabinets. Q is just a troll writing fanfic that feeds on human vulnerability. While some self-styled warriors wake up and reflexively choose violence, others may be worriers needing a reason to believe, a Scully to trust. Without her, they only see half the story.