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Episode Analysis

Millennium | ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ and the Ghosts of Samhain

As Halloween draws in, we draw back the veil on ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ – a Millennium episode that went where The X-Files feared to tread.

In what could stand as one of The X-Files’ most profound mysteries, Chris Carter’s series never across its entire run embarked upon a Halloween-focused episode. 

What became the unofficial spin-off series from that show, Millennium, instead turned and embraced the spookiest of holidays head-on with ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6), producing not just a visually striking and atmospheric hour of television but, in the grander framework of Carter’s series, a mythological homily to the legend of Samhain.

Millennium never matched the runaway, zeitgeist-baiting success of The X-Files but it provided three extremely distinct seasons filled with episodes that built off the true-life work of criminal profilers in the U.S. and how they caught some of the most heinous killers in history, not to mention the fiction of writers such as Thomas Harris, but arguably informed works of art in a similar vein to come, in particular Bryan Fuller’s Harris adaptation Hannibal and David Fincher’s Mindhunter.

The series starred Lance Henriksen, long a jobbing character actor known for pulp and genre fiction, especially the mid-1980s work of James Cameron, as retired FBI profiler Frank Black, a husband, and father who is rebuilding his life after a psychological breakdown due to the harrowing nature of his work. Frank has what he describes as both a gift and a curse; a near-supernatural ability to “see what the killer sees,” to implant himself in the troubled mind of his quarry which allows him to, Fox Mulder-style, make investigative leaps and deductions impossible to the average detective or agent. 

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Building Towards ‘The Curse of Frank Black’

Come the second season’s ‘The Curse of Frank Black’, the new life Frank attempted to create has fallen apart. Carter’s series sees Frank recruited by the Millennium Group, a private consultancy firm that work with law enforcement on extreme cases, after his home—known as the ‘yellow house’ in a leafy Seattle suburb—is targeted by the so-called ‘Polaroid Man’, a killer who stalks his intended victims with snapshots. Many of Frank’s investigations are informed by existential angst, apocalyptic warnings, and generalized anxiety about the coming ‘millennium’, the year 2000, and the possibility of a cosmic, Biblical struggle between good and evil. 

As Frank is drawn back into the darkness of a world he escaped, by the end of the first season, his wife Catherine is abducted by the ‘Polaroid Man’ who, in Season 2 premiere ‘The Beginning and the End’ (S2, Ep1), Frank himself murders in an act of unbridled savagery that scares him, and Catherine (Megan Gallagher), enough that he moves out of the yellow house, separating from his wife and daughter (Jordan, played by Brittany Tiplady) and falling even further into the world of the Group.

A shot of a dark street with the words "The Curse of Frank Black" in white distressed serif.
The opening titles to the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). Second showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong had originally expressed ambitions for a triptych of holiday episodes including an Easter special, but in the end, only a Christmas episode, Midnight of the Century (S2, Ep10), was made. | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

This context is key because while ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ exists as a stand-alone work of near-silent, immersive horror, Frank’s journey across the episode is informed by the broader mythology of Millennium in play during a second season which, under the stewardship of writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who also penned this episode, takes the series not just deeper into the historical backstory of the Group but strives to tether Frank to a longer-form narrative arc than in a first season largely made up of episodes on a case-by-case basis, episodes as much about the killer as Frank. Morgan expands on this in an interview with Sci-Fi Flix Magazine:

“Chris had said the reason he made the show was because of the yellow house. So, we thought, why don’t we take Frank out of the yellow house and make it so that he’s on a hero’s adventure, where he has to go through the dark forest in order to get back to the yellow house? That was essentially where we started.”

Across the first five episodes of Millennium Season 2, Morgan and Wong connect the series, on a textural and thematic basis, much closer to The X-Files as they embrace the idea of an internal, semi-supernatural mythology behind the Group and the apocalyptic fears that lie at the heart of their work, not to mention an element of historical conspiracy and secret history in episodes such as ‘Sense and Antisense’ (S2, Ep3). ‘The Curse of Frank Black’, however, is a crucial step on the hero’s journey Morgan alludes to above, inspired by the ‘monomyth’ of Joseph Campbell and his work on comparative mythology in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and Morgan and Wong connect it directly to the long-held myths and tropes around the Halloween holiday.

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Ghost Lore in ‘The Curse of Frank Black’

Millennium would often begin an episode with a key, related quote, or a piece of text on screen, and ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ opens with a reference that chimes with the central supernatural question deep-rooted within the episode – do you believe in ghosts? 

“Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead? Since Willie’s death, I catch myself every day, involuntarily talking with him, as if he were with me.”

Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most famed Presidents, whose son Willie tragically died of typhoid at age 11 in the White House just three years before Lincoln’s legendary assassination in 1865. Many over the years claim to have seen both Lincoln and Willie’s ghosts in the White House, with the President presumably among that number in relation to his son. Throughout ‘The Curse of Frank Black’, Frank is haunted, not just by spectral visitations of ghosts and classical demonic figures, or messages through numbers and symbols, but by reminders about his own past and the losses which still haunt him.

Director Ralph Hemecker, who does a remarkable job of foregrounding what for long stretches of the episode are scenes with little dialogue (heavily influenced by 1964’s celebrated Japanese ghost story Kwaidan from Masaki Kobayashi) with a sense of chilling, seasonal flavor, makes a point of accentuating the Halloween aspects of the story. Frank lights a pumpkin candle (which spookily blows itself out once he leaves); he takes his young daughter Jordan (dressed as Marge Simpson, in a nod to The Simpsons cultural dominance in the late 1990s) trick or treating; he mistakes the screaming terror of a woman in a house for a horror movie playing on a big television.

Frank’s journey, however, very quickly steers him away from that of a loving father enjoying a Halloween ritual with his daughter. Jordan—heavily suggested to hold similar ‘gifts’ of perception as Frank himself—fears one house because “there’s ghosts there.” Frank returns with “there’s no such thing as ghosts.” This is his position at the beginning of a story where broader, cosmic forces seem determined to make Frank see a truth that lies beyond the veil, often by prosaic means that defy standard explanation – his CD player repeatedly plays the same tune (‘Little Demon’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) even with no CD present; his car breaks down; his mail delivers post with the same acronym A.C.T.S. repeatedly, and the same numbers 26:8 appear everywhere.

Frank Black holds a lit candle in one hand and a match in the other.
Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) lights a candle for a newly carved jack-o’-lantern in the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). Speaking to Cinefantastique (October 1998), Glen Morgan said “I didn’t want to do any more dialogue. Lance is so great with looks.” | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

Crucially, a parallel is drawn between Frank and a man he first encountered as a small boy just after the end of the Second World War, which Morgan and Wong show us in two key flashback sequences. The first, on Halloween night 1946, sees Frank dared by his friends while trick or treating to knock on the door of Mr. Crocell (played with tragic brilliance by Dean Winters), the neighborhood recluse and child ‘bogeyman’. Frank ends up going into the house where Crocell, who in a scene shot with skilled visual economy by Hemecker is revealed to be a Second World War veteran suffering clear post-traumatic stress syndrome from losing many of his friends to the horrors of war, introduces Frank to the myth behind the holiday:

“You know what Halloween is all about? Halloween is believed to have been started by the ancient Druids who believed that on this evening, Samhain, the lord of the dead, summoned evil spirits. For the Celts, it was the last evening of the year and an especially propitious time for examining portents of the future. And the devils and witches were free to roam the earth. And on this night the spirits of the dead returned to visit past family and acquaintances from this life.”

Mr. Crocell opens the door and looks down. His tie is loose and his top button undone.
Mr. Crocell (Dean Winters) opens the door to the trick-or-treaters, including a young Frank Black, in the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

Crocell asks if Frank truly believes the dead can return on this night:

“Just to tell someone who had no idea that he’d never see them again that there’s a better place than this and that they’re waiting for him. Just for a minute. Just so I could have the chance to say, ‘So long.’ Just for a second. Just to let me know that there’s a better place than this.” 

The young Frank simply repeats the refrain his older self does – that ghosts don’t exist. Crocell offers him a ‘treat’ in the form of one of the cigarettes he is chain-smoking, thereby positioning himself as the ‘devil’ figure haunting Frank even this early on, over 50 years before the Halloween on which he experiences his own curse.

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The Haunting of Frank Black

Some years later, a second flashback—around the late-1950s when Frank is in full ‘teddy boy’ mode—sees Frank and the same bunch of adolescent friends watching Crocell being carried out of his house, having passed away. He has, in the subsequent years, been mythologized by the community around him. “I heard Crocell holds communist meetings in his basement,” one ventures, tethering him to the House of Un-American Activities witch-hunts that gripped American politics in a fervor during that same decade. 

A body is loaded onto an ambulance in black and white.
Fast forward and a teenage Frank watches Crocell’s body taken out of his house in the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). It’s implied that the traumatized veteran has taken his own life. | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

“This kid at Roosevelt told me the cops think Crocell killed those missing prostitutes and buried them in his cellar,” another suggests, “I always heard he, you know, liked men. That’s why he killed women.” Frank rejects all of these cliched attempts at profiling Crocell as a homosexual, serial killing, Communist traitor, guessing that he simply killed himself. Frank demonstrates here an early understanding of psychology that informs his later work, deducing even perhaps on a subconscious level that Crocell was simply haunted by the ghosts of war and his inability, in a world where men were men and prejudices permeated, to be helped through his pain. Frank understands, too, how a legend can replace truth.

In the modern day, the cosmic forces at play serve to teach Frank this lesson himself. The breakdown of his car leads him, on foot, past the yellow house which now lies abandoned. A home not simply haunted by Frank’s memories of a brighter, happier existence with Catherine and Jordan, but quite literally by the kind of teenagers who have mythologized Frank and his story, in the same manner, his friends did with Crocell, telling Halloween scare stories in his basement. One theatrical teen tells echoes of the Season 1 episode ‘Lamentation’ (S1, Ep18), where Frank’s friend and colleague, detective Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich), is murdered in Frank’s basement by what is heavily suggested to be a demonic force, and how Frank is now cursed by his ghost, and others, as a result:

“They say he can see them. They say he can’t escape them. That they follow him everywhere. And it is believed that the Devil uses the souls of the dead to get at people. To drive them insane. So to keep from losing to the Devil and even though he knows his friend is eternally trapped in his house, Frank Black has left and gone to… nobody knows where. And he will never be seen again.”

At which point, Frank, quite comically and theatrically, pops up and scares the teens away, but he also encourages ‘Bob’ (interestingly the name of the demonic force in Twin Peaks, if one is looking for an additional connective) to make himself known if he is there. He is opening up to the possibility he, for years, rejected. Perhaps Samhain can summon his friend and show Frank a better place exists. Yet all Frank sees is the vague shadow of who could be Bletcher hanging on the wall. Nothing is revealed to him and in his frustration, he throws eggs at his living room window, which drip and morph into a demonic face. He sullies the cradle of his own happiness, a light he believes is permanently switched off. 

Mr. Crocell sits in a shaft of light holding a lit cigarette.
Mr. Crocell (Dean Winters) waits for Frank in his attic in the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). Fans of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will recognize him as the oily Keith ‘The Vulture’ Pembroke. | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

Then he returns home and all the signs and portents that have trailed him across the episode finally lead him toward a Bible quote, in Acts of the Apostles (A.C.T.S) 26:8, which simply reads: “Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” In the middle of the night, Frank receives his revelation from the forces Halloween, or Samhain, has unleashed. In his attic, he meets the ghost of Crocell, a twisted, cigarette-sucking visage with rotten teeth, perhaps how the man carried out on the stretcher under a cover looked, who tells him about the nihilistic banality of Hell and teaches Frank the lesson the episode has been keen for him to learn:

“I’ve been sent here because you’ve become me. The way people look at you… what they say about you. Making stuff up. Pretty soon you come to believe it’s true and then it’s really all over. Huh, you know, I threw things at my house, too. Not eggs though. I think I threw dog crap. Yeah, I threw dog crap from my backyard at my kitchen window. [laugh] I never cleaned it off. Imagine that.”

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The Real ‘Curse’

The inference in the broader context of Millennium’s mythology is that Crocell is, in truth, a form of ‘Legion’, the same demonic force who killed Bletcher, a force who encourages Frank to join the ‘side’ of evil in the coming Armageddon by giving up, by going back to Catherine and Jordan and the yellow house, and never use his gift again. “Sit back and do nothing, anyone can do it,” he promises. “Hell, most people do.” This, however, is Frank’s curse. He is the classic reluctant hero. He cannot sit back and not use whatever ability he has been gifted. He can’t return to his family or his homestead while evil still exists, and people suffer. His curse is to persist, even at the expense of his own life and happiness. He must, as Morgan said, continue through the ‘dark forest’.

Frank Black stands on the verandah of his yellow whitewashed home.
Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) revisits the family home to clean up the egging of Halloween night in the Millennium episode ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ (S2, Ep6). The episode’s repeating flashes of demonic figures became a recurring motif. | 20th Century Fox, 1997.

This is why the episode ends with Frank returning, as the night of Halloween passes, to the yellow house where he does what Crocell never did – he cleans the window. He refuses to become the man who gave in. His journey continues past the ghosts Samhain provides, the temptation he places in Frank’s path, and the warnings he gives about the ‘curse’ that befalls him. Frank rejects apathy with action and passes through into the next phase of his journey as night turns into day, the spirits recede, and he resolves to find his way back to the yellow house without letting evil prosper. It is a reaffirmation of his mythological ‘quest’.

‘The Curse of Frank Black’ suggests that whether the legend of Samhain holds any supernatural truth, whether or not the dead return on Halloween, some nights we are haunted by the ghosts of our past. And that maybe we would do well to listen to what they wish to teach us.

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A. J. Black is a writer and podcaster about cinema, TV and pop culture for his blog Cultural Conversation and podcast network We Made This, plus the author of books about modern mythology and Star Trek. Born and bred in the West Midlands, he now lives in Wiltshire with his wife and their dog.

Find him on Twitter @ajblackwriter

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