What 'The X-Files' Got Right, And Wrong, About Conspiracy Theories

Celebrating 25 Years of Paranoia

The X-Files first premiered 25 years ago this week, capturing not just the paranoia of a decade soaked in black helicopters and right-wing militias, but the entire paranoid mood of the American century from Roswell through to the computer age. At its best The X-Files would spin rubber monster suits and dark hallways into a coherent and frightening worldview, in which the government is conspiring against us on behalf of an alien-allied elite, to whom we are nothing more than fodder for experimentation.

In 2018, conspiracy theories are more ubiquitous than ever, easily inserting themselves into mainstream discourse, spread by forum freaks and the President of the United States alike. So how does The X-Files hold up, 25 years later? Did it accurately capture our paranoid era?

Judging how well The X-Files captured the conspiracist mentality first takes an understanding of what drives people to conspiracy theories in the first place. Conspiracy theories offer their adherents secret knowledge about how the world "really" works, typically with a level of complexity that makes them indigestible for all but the most diehard. The density of information becomes the conspiracists' shield, since anyone who would want to rebut them simply hasn't done the reading.

Conspiracy theories also provide a moral narrative, a good vs. evil conflict between the truth-tellers and the supreme malevolence organizing the world against them.

But most of all, a good conspiracy theory forms a whole worldview, which provides answers where real life has none. Rather than confusing and messy, the world becomes simple (if frightening).

Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science demonstrates how conspiracy theorists are willing to accept mutually incompatible theories, just so long as both conclusions agree the authorities are engaged in a cover-up. For example, participants who believe Osama bin Laden survived the raid on his Abbottabad compound were also more likely to believe Osama bin Laden was already dead before the raid. The contradictory theories share in common a distrust of the official story: bin Laden was killed in the raid.

"Conspiracism is driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another, but by the coherence of each theory with higher-order beliefs that support the idea of conspiracy in general," the study's authors wrote. "Incompatibilities between beliefs at a local level are dwarfed by coherence with broader beliefs about the world."

It's trivially easy to find real-world examples. Just take a look at any collection of 9/11 Truthers and you'll find easy allies between those who believe the planes were remote-controlled and those who believe there were no planes at all, merely holograms covering for an underground nuclear explosion.

Here are fourteen episodes that capture not only the appeal of conspiracy theories, but also their paradoxical structure.

"The Pine Bluff Variant"

Season 5 Episode 18

A gooey new biological weapon might be unleashed in "The Pine Bluff Variant." 20th Television

While the barest whiff of cheese lingers around most X-Files episodes, "The Pine Bluff Variant" is downright harrowing. Mulder, undercover, is infiltrating a radical anti-government militia called the New Spartans. But Mulder soon discovers the militia is riddled with government agents and a frightening possibility comes into focus: the New Spartans are merely the excuse for a covert bioweapons test. It wouldn't be the first time our intelligence services have orchestrated their own terrorist attacks to thwart, just ask Christopher Cornell, one of the literally hundreds of "terrorists" whose foiled attack relied almost entirely on undercover FBI agents supplying everything and pushing unstable young men into incriminating themselves. Paranoid yet?

"War of the Coprophages"

Season 3, Episode 12

Ewwwwwwwwww. 20th Television

Swarms of insects (including more cockroaches than a Bushwick loft) are killing people and Scully has to find out why. "War of the Coprophages" isn't a big picture episode of The X-Files , more an Arachnophobia -style grossout, but it captures nicely the sense of play more innocent conspiracy theorizing can take on, as Scully investigates weird cockroaches with metal exoskeletons and contemplates the possibility that UFOs might be electrically-charged insect swarms. Short on answers, long on speculation, "War of the Coprophages" shows you don't need government conspiracies to live in a world shaped by mysterious forces.


Season 3, Episode 23

These days, conspiracy theorists spend half their time ranting about Twitter shadowbans and Reddit vote manipulation. In "Wetwired" someone is messing with cable TV to experiment on civilians, shattering their sense of reality. Airing just a few months before the launch of Fox News, "Wetwired" seems aimed at the toxicity of the 24-hour news cycle, but it remains as relevant today, reminding us of just how much social media and YouTube rabbit holes can warp our sense of self.


Season 1 Episode 17

The Lone Gunmen, the ultimate avatars of "X-Files" paranoia. 20th Television

Not only a perfect alien episode, with UFOs over Iraq and extraterrestrials popping up during the Vietnam War, "E.B.E." also captures perfectly the pervasive paranoia that comes with the territory, embodied by The Lone Gunmen in their very first appearance. While Scully doubts their theory that the government tracks us via the counterfeit strips in twenty-dollar bills, she soon has a rude awakening of her own, when a broken pen reveals a covert listening device inside. You are never alone. They are always watching. Pairs well with the first season's last episode: "The Erlenmeyer Flask."

"Nisei"/ "731"

Season 3, Episodes 9 & 10

Alien? Or human guinea pig? 20th Television

Here's where The X-Files really ups the ante, proposing that the alien conspiracy is nothing more than a smokescreen for something even more horrific: mass human experimentation on the civilian population by their own government. Nothing more perfectly embodies the conspiracy theorists capacity for accepting two contradictory possibilities.

"Field Trip"

Season 6 Episode 21

Where "Folie à Deux" gives us a mystery so outlandish it brings reality into question, "Field Trip" throws the whole mess out the window. "Field Trip" entraps Mulder and Scully in the sticky, digestive juices of a giant fungi, whose chemical excretions create nested realities, not unlike the simulated world of The Matrix , released just five weeks earlier.

"Folie à Deux"

Season 5, Episode 19

This episode represents the extreme fringe of individual conspiracy thought, where the concept of a mutually comprehensible reality breaks down into lizard people, evaporating bigfoots and dark archon mysticism. In "Folie à Deux," Mulder and Scully meet a corporate drone who is, simultaneously, a giant, vibrating insect creature. There's no evidence to confirm what they see, no possibility of arriving at the truth, just far out events so strange that reality itself must be called into question. More than most episodes, "Folie à Deux" understands that part of the appeal of conspiracism is its essential incompatibility with mundane existence and the promise that some things will simply never add up.

"Kill Switch"

Season 5, Episode 11

Most of the sprawling X-Files conspiracy is retro, alluding back to Roswell and other 1950s era alien threats, but "Kill Switch" leaps headfirst into the technological future of conspiracism. Written by cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Tom Maddox, "Kill Switch" includes consciousness uploading, runaway Artificial Intelligence and worldwide, ubiquitous surveillance. It's like a crash course in all the most paranoid possibilities of the onrushing Singularity.

"Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Season 3, Episode 20

"Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek as a Man in Black. 20th Television

Featuring Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men in Black, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" may be The X-Files at its most comedic, but it also perfectly captures just how weird and outlandish conspiracy theories can get. Real people have seen stranger stuff than cigarette-smoking aliens! Through its multiple perspectives and unbelievable twists, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" may get closer to the truth than any other episode.

Where It All Went Wrong

"Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man"

Season 4 Episode 7

The Smoking Man prepares to kill JFK. 20th Television

It's a fun episode, but in hindsight "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" is where the grand, overarching conspiracy of The X-Files jumps the shark, inserting The Smoking Man (William B. Davis) in the middle of every major event of the 20th century. Not only does The Smoking Man rig sports, elections and trials, but he also personally shot Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Arch-manipulators have a big part to play in conspiracy theories—just look at the Rothschilds or George Soros (both also attractive targets because of widespread anti-semitism among conspiracy theorists)—but "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" is when The X-Files conspiracy began simplifying, rather than complicating. The evolution of the elaborate Pizzagate into the downright abstruse QAnon demonstrates how real world conspiracy theories only ever get more complicated, never less.

"My Struggle" / "My Struggle III"

Season 10, Episode 1 / Season 12, Episode 1

"The X-Files" version of Alex Jones is a little too put together. 20th Television

After 14 years off the air, The X-Files returned and immediately went about destroying its own mythology. In "My Struggle," Mulder outlines his new grand theory in an epic rant (inspired by Joel McHale as "Tad O'Malley," an Alex Jones-type who, unlike Jones, never devolved into a raving, blubbering stain on the species). In content, it's not bad, outlining a concise, conspiratorial view of history ripped straight from the pages of Milton William Cooper's Behold a Pale Horse:

"The H-Bomb. Explosions acting as transducers drawing alien lifeforms through wormholes in spaceships using electrogravitic propulsion. Advanced extraterrestrial species visiting us … World leaders signed secret memos directing scientific studies of alien technology and biochemistry. Classified studies were done at military installations: S4, Groom Lake, Wright Patterson, and Dulce, extracting alien tissue. Tests were done on unsuspecting human subjects in elaborately staged abductions in craft using alien technology from the downed saucers … Your own government lies as a matter of course, as a matter of police … The takeover of America … brought on by weather wars, conducted secretly using aerial contaminants and high altitude electromagnetic waves ... clandestine agendas to fatten, dull, sicken and control a populace already consumed by consumerism … by a well-oiled and well-armed, multinational group of elites that will cull, kill and subjugate."

But laying out the conspiracy essentially deflates it. By the time "My Struggle III" aired in the next season, the conspiracy had been reduced to the Cigarette Smoking Man and the alien virus he kept in his pocket. What had once been sprawling was now petty and small.

The X-Files did what no conspiracy theory can survive: shining direct light on it.