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If I Quit Now, They Win: What The X-Files Taught Me About Love
Sophie Robinson , October 11th, 2021 07:42

In this month's subscriber-only Low Culture essay, poet Sophie Robinson recalls how the cult 90s sci-fi show offered her alternative realities and online community during a difficult childhood

Only love can heal the wounds of the past. However, the intensity of our woundedness often leads to a closing of the heart, making it impossible for us to give or receive the love that is given to us. To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice. We must face the confusion and disappointment that much of what we were taught about the nature of love makes no sense when applied to daily life.
Bell Hooks – All About Love (2000)

”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've kept me honest. You've made me a whole person. I owe you everything... Scully, and you owe me nothing. I don't know if I wanna do this alone. I don't even know if I can. And if I quit now, they win.”
Mulder – The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

My story starts with me as a fan. And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.
Carrie Brownstein – Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl (2015)

The year was 1994. I was nine years old, lost and strange and lonely. My parents had divorced two years earlier and I spent most of my time living with my mum and stepdad, who alternated between loving union and bitter arguments, with each other and with me. I had one good friend at school, Zoe, whose parents were also separated. Like a lot of children who experience trauma and loss at a young age, we developed a furtive interest in two things: sex and horror. At Zoe’s house after school we did what all good latchkey kids did before the internet was a thing: flicked through forbidden books and magazines looking for anything illicit, watched her mum’s VHS tapes, and played a weird game we called Midwife, which mostly involved one of us taking off our knickers and lying on the floor with our knees spread, and the other poking her head under the prone girl’s school dress and yelling “PUSH!”

One sunny spring evening, having exhausted Midwife and her mum’s stash of magazines, Zoe flicked on the TV. It was past the watershed, past Blue Peter and Neighbours and The Simpsons and Eastenders and the news, and The X-Files was starting. We sat together, little bums sinking into the beanbag chair, transfixed through what happens to be one of the most famously frightening cold opens of the entire show: a businessman is working late, alone in an office building. We watch him from the perspective of a panting, unseen intruder, behind a small air vent in the wall. The screws of the air vent start to twist as the man works; it pops off, a long, filthy arm reaches out, then screams and blood and darkness.

The opening credits roll, all spooky music and grainy shots of FBI agents waving flashlights (it seemed dated even then, a year after the show began airing). Zoe and I cling to each other in silent fear and excitement, our hands a knot of sweaty fingers.

The episode was ‘Squeeze’. Season one, episode three. Special Agent Fox Mulder, nickname “Spooky”, has gone from up-and-coming criminal profiler to weirdo exile. Convinced his younger sister was abducted by aliens when they were children, he becomes obsessed with a subset of unsolved crimes and unexplained events the FBI dubs X-Files. Determined to put an end to Mulder’s interest in these paranormal cases, the FBI assigns him a new partner, Special Agent Dana Scully, a scientist and medical doctor fresh out of the FBI academy. Agent Scully is assigned to Mulder in order to bring a scientific, logical perspective to the X-Files, and to report back on her findings to Mulder’s superiors.

In ‘Squeeze’, Mulder and Scully are still getting to know each other. Mulder, passionate and hot-headed and unable to lie about his beliefs or pander to those who don’t take him seriously, is ridiculed by other agents on the case. Scully, a sceptic and a scientist, stands up for him in front of the other agents. Between them they figure out that the criminal who is killing people and extracting their livers in closed crime scenes, without any evidence of a break-in or an escape route, is in fact Eugene Victor Tooms, a 100-year-old but seemingly ageless animal control worker who can squeeze into impossibly tight spaces and who survives on the livers of other humans.

I know how that sounds, written down. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I have never hesitated to buy into the mythology and storytelling of The X-Files: whether it’s a liver-eating contortionist or an alien race or a government conspiracy, I have always been enthralled and easily pleased by the show’s plotlines, as long as Mulder and Scully were at the helm. It was Mulder and Scully I loved, and it was from them that I learned about love over the following formative years.

My interest, that first night, pressed up against Zoe on the beanbag chair in that terraced house in Kent, was in the horror of being alive. As a child who had experienced an unusual amount of the adult world of violence, isolation, cruelty, injustice and fear, I felt like the TV was telling me the truth that night. It made sense to me that Eugene Victor Tooms would break into houses and kill people and eat their livers for no other reason than that the world was a frightening and unfair place.

I didn’t become a fully blown X-Phile (to use the term the fandom knows itself by) right away. After that titillating night at Zoe’s I thought often about that liver-eating killer, any time I wanted a perverse thrill, a rush of adrenaline, making me look over my shoulder as I padded to the bathroom at night, or check under the bed before I went to sleep. Me and Zoe would watch the odd episode, and at Christmas when my nan came to stay I slept on the sofa for a week and watched late-night reruns whilst my sister slept and the rest of the house got drunk in the kitchen.

When I was 12, my home life had become unbearable. After one particularly vicious incident, I was sent to live with my dad and heavily pregnant stepmum a few streets away. My mum didn’t speak to me for over a year, even if she saw me in the street walking home from school, even if my sister cried my name and begged to be able to say hello. The school bus drove past my mum’s flat on its way to and from my school, and I would strain at the window on the top deck to try and catch a glimpse inside.

Living with my dad meant an end to the arguments, the turmoil, the violence. But it also brought with it a much colder sadness, a deep loneliness. My stepmum, eight months pregnant upon my arrival, was not prepared to have a pre-teen in the house and set some ground rules: I was not to eat with the family, I was not to expect her to do my laundry or help me get ready for school, I was not to expect to spend time in the family space. My dad worked long hours and the house was big. My room was on the second floor, in the converted attic. I had left my mum’s in a hurry of fear and violence, with only a carrier bag and my school rucksack, and my room at my dad’s was bare. I slept in my school uniform for two weeks and didn’t wash it. I survived on crisps from the school vending machine and bowls of cereal I ate in the dark kitchen once my stepmum was in bed, washing and drying my bowl and placing it back in the cupboard when I was done. It was like being a ghost.

Sophie Robinson by Christa Holka

Slowly, I settled into my dysfunctional new life. I figured out how to use the washing machine, my stepmum started buying me microwave meals which I ate in my room. I acquired a small TV with a VHS player built into it, and a library card. My local library had free VHS rentals and, miraculously, had the first two seasons of The X-Files on VHS. Each tape contained five episodes, and you could rent one video at a time. Over the following weeks and months, I devoured the first two seasons twice over, lying on my tummy on the blue carpet of my room, my face mere inches from the TV, mesmerised. It was like prayer.

The storylines I was absolutely too young for transfixed me the most: anything with death and mortal peril and strong feeling and things that seem like they can never be fixed but somehow do get fixed by the end of the 42-minute episode. In season two, Scully is abducted by aliens and disappears for months. The storyline was designed as a way to allow Gillian Anderson to take maternity leave. After the abduction, Mulder is bereft. He is assigned a new partner and carries around Scully’s crucifix necklace.

After three months, Scully is returned in a comatose state. The doctors say there is no evidence of how she became comatose and no evidence of where she has been or what has been done to her, and not enough signs of brain activity to keep her alive. Believing her to be dying, Mulder visits her one last time and holds her hand. Throughout the episode, as Scully lies comatose, we enter her dreamscape: she is floating in a boat in the middle of a large lake, tethered to the shore by a fraying rope, dripping with mist and ready to break. As Mulder takes her hand his words reach her across the lake of her dream: "I feel, Scully, that you believe that you’re not ready to go. And you’ve always had the strength of your beliefs. I don’t know if my being here will help bring you back. But I’m here."

The following day, Scully wakes up. She makes a full recovery and rejoins Mulder on the X-Files. I rewound that scene so many times, lying in my scratchy school shirt in front of the TV, that the library made me pay for a new copy of the VHS. The loneliest girl in the world, in a dirty school uniform with greasy hair and chin acne and a mum who didn’t love me, all I wanted was the safety of that love, a shelter from the storm, someone to call home.

Late at night I would lie awake staring up through my skylight, thinking about aliens and UFOs, about being abducted, about being loved enough to be missed if I disappeared from the Earth altogether, about Mulder’s consuming sadness in Scully’s absence and his belief in her recovery, about how you can love someone even if they’re a million miles away. I thought of my mother, pregnant, asleep in bed next to my stepdad, my brother in the crib beside them, my sister asleep in the next room. I imagined myself in the middle of that misty lake. I love you, please take me home. Mulder and Scully taught me that anything is possible if you love someone well enough for long enough, if you have the courage to keep returning to them with an open heart. The show’s taglines hinted at the danger and possibilities of this weird world: trust no one, I want to believe, the truth is out there.

I think it was important to my adolescent, developing queerness that Mulder and Scully’s relationship is so ill-defined for most of the show’s initial nine-season run. At times they are colleagues, partners, best friends, sister and brother, lovers. I adored the mutual respect, the acknowledgement of difference without fear or aggression, the permission, the way Mulder gently touches Scully’s necklace, puts a hand on her lower back, the way she ruffles his hair, the way they make eye contact, the way they begin a phone conversation: "Mulder, it’s me." "Scully, it’s me." The way they never say “Goodbye” or “Hello.” At times they take on maternal and paternal roles for one another. At times they act out, punish each other. At times they are lovers, soulmates, kin. Home. To this day, it is perhaps the queerest heterosexual relationship I have had the opportunity to witness.

Part of what contributed to the dedication and strength of feeling of X-Philes was the show’s timing. The X-Files premiered in 1993, and during its nine-year initial run, the internet took off. There’s evidence within the show itself of the rapidly changing digital and technological world, from bugging and phone tapping to wonderfully nostalgic phrases like “I’ll modem it over to you” to an episode about predatory online chatrooms via early email and bugging and sinister uses for smart technology. There are also some beautiful extinct technologies helping to solve crimes in the 90s: projector slides, floppy disks, car phones, CD-ROMs, answering machines, tape decks, dial-up. In the real world, X-Philes rushed to the internet, and early online forums, chatrooms, and websites had thousands and thousands of digital spaces dedicated to Mulder and Scully and the world of the show. In addition to creating a common space in which to discuss the show, the internet also enabled another interactive element: fan fiction.

We got the internet in 1998 and all I cared about was The X-Files. Having exhausted and worn out (literally, in the case of some of my VHS tapes) the existing four seasons of the show, I was waiting patiently for season five and the highly anticipated X-Files feature film, Fight The Future, and I took to the internet as fast as the dial-up on my dad’s PC would let me. After the rest of the house was asleep I sat, night after night, bathed in the blue light of AOL’s browser, reading fan-written stories about Mulder and Scully. It was daydreaming gone wild, writ large: all of the curiosity and fantasies and theories and unscratched itches I had had about these two complex, difficult and beautiful characters were there for me to explore.

There were distinct categories of fan fiction: shipper fic (my favourite — shipper is short for ‘relationshipper’ and usually involved Mulder and Scully in a more conventional and explicit form of romantic relationship), smut (just sex, really), X-File (an imitation of the structure of the episodes themselves, where Mulder and Scully’s actions centre around the investigation of a paranormal crime), vignette (a single scene), post-ep or missing scene (continuing directly from the final scene or filling a gap in an episode). From forums I learned that you could either be a shipper or a noromo (no romance), and I was absolutely a shipper. I devoured these stories, and learned more than I probably should have about the many ways in which two complicated, lonely FBI agents might have sex in anonymous motel rooms around the US, between autopsies and government conspiracies and kidnappings and chaste but meaningful looks. More importantly, I entered into a kind of hive mind of adoration and worship, of imagination and hope, with people from all around the world who believed in Mulder and Scully so much that they were willing to write their own version of the story.

Sophie Robinson circa 1998

My first earnest writing, outside of a journal I kept religiously from the age of ten, was X-Files fan fiction. Some of it still exists online, more than two decades later, though I recognise almost nothing of myself in it. I wrote versions of stories I had already read, adding my own details and things I would like to see. In my version of the X-Files universe, Mulder or Scully were often enduring things I myself had to endure: violence, alcoholism, family trauma, loneliness and isolation, sexual assault and abuse, abandonment. I used elements of the paranormal to enhance both the trauma and the healing I wanted Mulder and Scully to experience: in one story, Scully becomes an empath who can feel the pain of others. In another, Mulder is haunted by the ghost of his missing sister.

Whatever I wrote about, the personal catharsis I lived out was an extension of my experience of watching the series: insurmountable obstacles are surmounted, feelings of fear and desperation and hopelessness alchemise into connection, comfort and hope, and at the end of 42 minutes impossible situations are endured and resolved, and whatever fate befell Mulder and Scully, they are mostly reunited. Rereading my fanfic now, knowing what I know about the long-term effects of the circumstances I was enduring, I can let myself feel some heartbreak about my situation. One of the sweetest stories I wrote is about Mulder and Scully spending a cosy Christmas together. According to the archive, I published it late at night on the 23 December 1999, at 13 years old, absolutely not destined to have a cosy Christmas with anyone.

It is hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there what the internet was like back then. It wasn’t just our fan fiction that was interactive and user-controlled: the whole internet was. Beyond internet providers, internet users (not companies) were in charge of websites, networks, coding. Much of my early experience of The X-Files fandom and of the internet was entirely text-based, and the speed of the internet and low memory of computers meant that it was customary to label a text-only file like a piece of fanfic with its file size: 8K, 16K, 25K. Those who ran websites were webmasters. The language on these old sites, many of which I explored for this article via the internet archive Wayback Machine, is a strange mixture of more and less formal than current website copy. It’s intensely personal and unbranded, unselfconscious, earnest, embarrassing, touching.

In many ways, those of us who connected through reading each other’s fan fiction and speaking on message boards knew less about each other: absolutely nobody used their real names under any circumstances, everything was usernames and email addresses, and nobody’s email address was their name. I was SecretSaint. In other ways, we knew more: nobody performed, because there was simply no stage on which to perform, and no cultural or financial or social capital at stake. Without any of that, there was only love.

While fan fiction was given a rating by the writer to indicate whether it needed to be age-restricted, nowhere was I asked to give my date of birth. At 13 I interacted with an entire community of people and was spoken to, and spoke as, an adult. Everything was created in language. Slow connections, dial-up, asynchronous communication through email and message boards, and a lack of images and media meant that surfing the web was probably a lot more meditative, though I also remember the absolutely saintly patience it required. Episodes aired in the US up to a full year before they aired in the UK, and once a week I would wait patiently for episode summaries, the odd still photo and the rare short video clip to be posted to the forums I frequented as the episode aired in the US.

Crouched in front of the family computer at 2am, I would place a cushion over the modem to mask the sound of the dial-up from my sleeping family. That connection song seemed to go on forever, static punctuated by strings of bouncy beeps. Once online, I would piece together the episode as it aired in various regions of the US based on summaries and commentaries posted by forum users. If a particularly monumental scene took place between Mulder and Scully, there would sometimes be a short clip, though a one-minute video would take around two hours to download onto my PC, where I would painstakingly watch 10 seconds at a time in RealPlayer, holding my breath, afraid to blink.

The lawless, boundless joy and mystery of the 20th-century internet is explored in a season five episode of The X-Files called ‘Kill Switch’. The episode was co-written by cyberpunk author William Gibson and features an AI created by a bunch of hackers which lives on the internet. Once the AI gains consciousness and begins to destroy anyone who gets in the way of its development, it begins to kill using satellites and laser beams. One by one, the hackers upload themselves to the network to live inside the AI’s world, giving up their physical bodies. The AI tries to take Mulder with them, trapping him inside a virtual reality nightmare, rescued by Scully just in time. Scully obtains the “kill switch” — the file that can destroy the AI — a CD that plays ‘Twilight Time’ by The Platters. The final hacker, Invisigoth, uploads herself to the internet as ‘Twilight Time’ plays, just before the AI’s physical home — a trailer full of computers linked to a hidden rural T3 line — is targeted and exploded by the AI’s satellite. "Heavenly shades of night are falling, it’s twilight time. Out of the mist your voice is calling, ‘tis twilight time."

I understood Invisigoth’s desire to disappear into the digital, to become a river of ones and zeros, to be pure matter. The X-Files websites I frequented were all named in ways that indicated there were a lot of us who felt the same: Gossamer, Ephemeral, Haven. The digital was a mysterious space where we could be anybody. No profile pictures, no biographical information, just usernames and thoughts and desires. The X-Files, the characters of Mulder and Scully, the world of the show, was my safe space, the dreamy and spooky world I entered to escape my own.

The technology was clunky, connections were slow, VHS tapes wore out, had to be rewound, got tangled in the machine, recorded over. I could see the appeal of giving myself over to twilight time, to the dreamscape of my fantasy, to live there full-time. What is an adolescent body but a trailer full of raw data and pulsing electricity, a home to burgeoning desire and data and culture, a box of nerves and wires? And what is love but a desire to return, over and over again, in faith that we will one day find what we are looking for? "Mulder, it’s me," "Scully, it’s me." Rewinding a tape, dialling into the network, longing for connection. "Each day I pray for evening, just to be with you, together at last at twilight time."

Sophie Robinson is a poet and fiction writer living in Norwich. Her most recent book is Rabbit (Boiler House Press, 2018), a Poetry Book Society Wild Card selection. She is currently finishing a novel, and runs Devotion, a radical practice-focussed online writing workshop and event series