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The X-Files | Mulder and Scully Helped Me Understand My Grandmother

The X-Files isn’t the obvious show to share with your Grandma, but the UFO hot zone of the Falkirk Triangle has a lot to answer for.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The X-Files episodes ‘Duane Barry’ (S2, Ep5) and ‘Ascension’ (S2, Ep6). Proceed with caution.

To the best of my knowledge, my Grandma was never abducted by aliens. Although, she grew up and lived in Falkirk, which happens to be home to the small lowland village of Bonnybridge, the UFO capital of Scotland. The village sits underneath “The Falkirk Triangle”, a patch of sky between Falkirk, Glasgow, and Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh. The village is home to hundreds of UFO sightings each year. Businessman James Walker first put Bonnybridge on the paranormal map when he was forced to pull over by a bright hovering light while driving between Falkirk and Bonnybridge..

Coverage of Bonnybridge and the Falkirk Triangle in Scottish newspaper the Daily Record, Wednesday 26 April 1995. | Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

Stopping his car, Walker watched in disbelief as the UFO shot away from his vehicle at great speed. Walker’s UFO encounter happened in 1992, and a year later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Chris Carter’s paranormal conspiracy thriller series The X-Files first aired on Fox. Coincidence? Well, yes. Although both events are evidence of a burgeoning pre-millennial fascination with both the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and wild government conspiracy theories. The UFOs of Falkirk and the paranormal investigations of Mulder and Scully also intersect with my relationship with my Grandma.

At the age of 7, I was too young to get in on the ground level with The X-Files. While the show was slowly becoming a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist, I was becoming fascinated with science fiction and the UFO craze. I never went as far as going UFO hunting in Bonnybridge, mostly because Mum rarely came with us and Dad didn’t drive so we’d always take the train to visit Grandma and her sister, Auntie, in Falkirk. I could have asked Auntie to take us, but she was often quite a serious woman. She was a former schoolteacher who, despite her eagerness to take us on surprisingly enjoyable educational trips, would have likely balked at the very idea of taking a pair of binoculars into the Bonnybridge night.

Disappointingly to a former schoolteacher, my geography was also terrible, so it never occurred to me that Grandma and Auntie’s family home was only a nine-minute drive away.

Discovering The X-Files Episodes ‘Duane Barry’ and ‘Ascension’

Visiting their house in Falkirk sometimes felt like traveling back in time. We’d often play the exact same games they had played as children – bagatelle, happy families, old maid. My sister and I certainly enjoyed ourselves, but there was an unshakable feeling of it all being a bit old-fashioned. Despite becoming obsessed with Doctor Who in 1996, I didn’t appreciate this particular form of time travel. I remember mentioning my love of Doctor Who and Star Trek to Grandma, and she gave Dad a withering glance and quipped “Is your dad forcing you to watch what he watched as a boy?”

Another abiding memory of Grandma’s opinions on my viewing habits was when she warned Dad about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It’s for teenagers James, it says so in the title!” It was clear that Grandma did not share my tastes in television, and that was fine! Why would she? She was way older than me, and you don’t expect your grandparents to like the same things that you do.

This brings us to The X-Files. By 1997, I was 11 and my TV tastes had caught up with the popularity of The X-Files. I can’t remember the first episode I ever watched, but I remember the first time I heard about it. A girl in my school regularly bragged about the various video nasties that her dad used to let her watch.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in The X-Files episode ‘Ascension’. Scully is bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. She has a bruise on her cheek and a trickle of blood from the mouth.
Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is kidnapped by Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) in The X-Files episode ‘Ascension’ (S2, Ep6). Showrunner Chris Carter reported having to fight the censors over the image of Scully in the trunk. | 20th Century Fox, 1994.

This was at a particularly grim point in the UK’s cultural history when the film Child’s Play 3 (1991) was being blamed for the horrific murder of a young boy by two older kids. It’s therefore likely that this girl’s assertion that she too had seen Child’s Play was childish bravado. The fact that she’d seen The X-Files was probably much more likely, given that it was airing on British television, and could easily be “accidentally” chanced upon by curious kids. I remember her outlining scenes of alien abduction and experimentation from what must have been The X-Files episode ‘Ascension’ (S2, Ep6).

It sounded like the coolest show ever to me, so why hadn’t my parents shown it to me? They’d introduced me to other sci-fi shows like Doctor Who, and Thunderbirds, and Dad and I would regularly rent videos of all the Star Trek shows from our local video shop.

Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) is abducted by aliens in The X-Files episode ‘Duane Barry’. Barry is elevating above the bed, bathed in a bright light. Grey aliens with bulbous black eyes stand by his bedside.
Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) is abducted by aliens in The X-Files episode Duane Barry’ (S2, Ep5). The ‘greys’ in the episode were played by children. | 20th Century Fox, 1994.

I remember seeing a copy of ‘Abduction’ – the feature-length edit of The X-Files episodes ‘Duane Barry’/‘Ascension’ (S2, Ep5-6) two-parter on our next trip to the local Blockbuster. It looked amazing, the huge red and black X on the cover, the blurry alien figures peering out from behind it. I flipped the video over and saw what must have been the abduction and experimentation that had been described by the girl at school. A man laid out on a table, looking terrified as four aliens looked down upon him, bathed in eerie blue light. I was desperate to watch it, but my ambition was undone by a pink circle on the back, which contained the number 15 in bold red type.

The X-Files Episodes ‘Squeeze’ and ‘Tooms’

When I was growing up, my parents were sticklers for the (admittedly legally enforced) recommendations of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). They would be fairly lax about things if I was a year or two away from the recommended age. My dad lied about my age to get me in to see Star Trek: First Contact (1998), as I was only 11 and the film had a 12 certificate. This was before the BBFC adopted the 12A, essentially the UK analog of the USA’s PG-13. But stood in Blockbuster, aged 11 asking to rent a 15-certificate video? No chance. This was just as bad as the time when I had convinced my mum to rent me Mortal Kombat 2 for my SNES, right up until the guy behind the counter informed her that video games also had 18 certificates.

It was through my SNES that I became able to watch The X-Files. In order to play the games console, I’d convinced my parents to let me have a television in my room. It had an inbuilt aerial and so I worked out how to tune it to the right frequency to pick up the four standard UK channels. This allowed me to watch all sorts of dubious programming after I’d gone to bed, and it allowed me to watch The X-Files. While we had cable television, I had to make do with the delayed repeats on the UK’s publicly funded network, the BBC so as not to arouse suspicion.

Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchinson) in The X-Files episode ‘Squeeze’. Tooms is glistening with sweat, and his eyes are yellow/orange.
Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchinson) in The X-Files episode ‘Squeeze’ (S1, Ep3). Hutchinson’s performance was inspired by the ‘stillness’ of Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). | 20th Century Fox, 1993.

Being a few years behind, I had to cobble together the overarching conspiracy stuff from what scraps of information were being fed to me via the mythology episodes. However, when I started watching it, I realized that Mulder and Scully didn’t just investigate alien abductions and UFO sightings, they also investigated all manner of spooky goings-on including vampires, bigfoot, and criminals with supernatural abilities. I remember kids at school mentioning the creepy Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchison), a serial murderer who could squeeze himself into tight spaces. I remember seeing his yellow eyes peering out from a VHS cover in my local Blockbuster, too.

Again, my parents, who hated horror movies with a militant passion, refused to rent it for me. What still strikes me as odd about this was that they would regularly watch quite grisly murder mystery shows, and Dad would regularly talk about whichever Patrica Cornwell novel he’d been reading with Auntie when we’d visit her and Grandma. How were those serial murderers more acceptable than Eugene Victor Tooms?

The X-Files Episodes ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’ and ‘Chinga’

By the time I was 12 in 1998, they were more open to me watching The X-Files but would either watch it with me or record it off the TV and let me watch it once they’d vetted the material. I distinctly remember watching The X-Files episode ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’ (S5, Ep5) with them, and being struck by the difference in style and tone. As someone who was into 1960s and 70s UK television, the black and white never bothered me, it captivated me in a completely different way from some of the other episodes of The X-Files that I’d seen.

I also remember watching Stephen King’s episode ‘Chinga’ (S5, Ep10), the episode with the killer doll, fully expecting Mum to turn it off at any moment because it was so creepy and horrible. She must have been distracted that night because the mother smashing herself in the face with a hammer to the indifference of her creepy daughter Polly is ingrained in my pre-teen memories.

Polly Turner (Jenny-Lynn Hutcheson) in The X-Files episode ‘Chinga’. Polly is lying in the forest in a night dress, with a glowing heart on her chest,
Polly Turner (Jenny-Lynn Hutcheson) in The X-Files episode ‘Chinga’ (S5, Ep10). Although Stephen King shares a co-writing credit, the bulk of the episode was rewritten by showrunner Chris Carter who felt that he didn’t have a good handle on Mulder and Scully. | 20th Century Fox, 1998.

By this point, The X-Files was a huge cultural powerhouse. Mulder and Scully had even been on The Simpsons! In the summer of 1998, we went on holiday and there’s a photo of Dad, my sister and me sitting in a cafe. I’m wearing an X-Files baseball cap, so I was clearly a big fan. That summer also saw the release of The X-Files: Fight The Future in UK cinemas, but given the fact I was only 12, there was no chance of being snuck into the local cinema to see a 15-certificate movie. My parents told me that I’d have to wait until it was released on home video, which back in the late 90s, could be a lifetime away.

Luckily, it was released the week after the Season 5 finale aired on the BBC, which was perfect timing.

Also during that summer, we regularly visited Grandma and Auntie, down the road from Scotland’s UFO capital. Approaching my 13th birthday, I was, to my shame, probably less tolerant of the more educational tone of visits to Grandma and Auntie. Until one day, Grandma made an off-handed comment about watching The X-Files, my ears pricked up. I don’t remember how it came into the conversation, but I remember my Dad, in a tone similar to the disdain Gran had shown for him sharing Star Trek with me, saying “You don’t watch The X-Files do you, mum?” In an offended tone, she replied “I do watch The X-Files, I watch it once Auntie goes to bed.”

This was amazing, and it confirmed something I began to believe as I got older. Gran was often sidelined and undermined by her older, slightly more puritanical sister. Watching The X-Files was, like it first was for me, an act of rebellion. Auntie held no truck with the more fantastical elements of life. She once said that she told my Dad and his sister Santa wasn’t real at what sounded like a very early age. The fact that Grandma would watch this show about alien abductions, government conspiracies, and squeezy serial killers when nobody was looking was mind-blowing.

And yet, it’s also not that surprising. She, like Dad and Auntie, was a big fan of a murder mystery. She loved David Suchet as Poirot, John Thaw as Inspector Morse. Despite all the paranormal and conspiracy bells and whistles, The X-Files is fundamentally a mystery show. It was at this moment that, as I approached my teenage years, I saw a commonality with Grandma that I didn’t know I had. It was a proper coming-of-age moment when an older relative becomes an independent human being with their own life and story to tell. She passed away in 2018, and I still regret not asking her more questions about her life, but she was always much happier listening to what was happening in everyone else’s lives. In an age of streaming, there’s a lot of navel-gazing about what’s happened to the shared viewing experience, where are the shows that the whole family can enjoy? What Grandma’s secret X-Files habit taught me is that good TV transcends generations and that all we need to do to bring back that communal experience is start a conversation. You might just be surprised by how much you have in common with these older relatives that feel unknowable. As Mulder and Scully taught us, the truth is out there…

This article was first published on June 14th, 2022, on the original Companion website.

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