~Top 10 Monster of the Week episodes ~ Category: Horror
It’s been over a month since I wrote my review for The Jersey Devil. However, I believe last month excuses slacking behavior. You might think that a global pandemic is the perfect occasion for watching and reviewing, but my ADD-like mind performs poorly when I have too much time on my hands. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I initiate a million projects, get bored with them, and jump to something else before finishing.
Basically, I’m mentally incapable of watching 217 episodes of The X Files right now. On normal days, they would be something to look forward to it. Now, it feels like a chore. This is a sentiment I obviously want to avoid, lest I abandon this project altogether.
Therefore, I decided to do things differently for this entry, and to write about the one thing that unites us all right now: fear.
If I may ramble and reminiscence for a bit before jumping to the ranking: when I was a child, I was afraid of just about everything. I used to have ongoing nightmares where the basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) resided in my closet, or the shark from Jaws (1976) tried to eat me in my sleep. Yet, I have always been fascinated by that which frightened me, so much so that I browsed urban legends and creepypastas until I was too afraid to even move.
I didn’t really get into horror as a genre until I borrowed American Horror Story: Asylum (2012) from my local library a couple of years ago. To this day, I still consider it to be the perfect gateway to a wide array of movies and series that tackle the macabre: the story and acting stands strong, it’s sinister enough to give those new to the genre chills, but not nearly terrifying enough to scare them away indefinitely.
Thanks to AHS: Asylum, curiosity overcame fear and I quickly became desensitized to horror. Now, it is my absolute favorite genre.
The X Files, although an amalgam of several genres, focuses first and foremost on a horrific aspect. Every episode explores the concept of what sets humans off: be it killers, monsters, conspiracies, cults, ghosts, witches, psychoses, diseases, or death. Of course, truly horrific episodes, that scare the living daylight out of its viewers, were not an option for a show airing on prime time. Therefore, the imagery remained rather mild. However, the writers continuously flirted with nightmarish twists, which resulted in some truly unsettling Monster of the Week episodes.
Before I list my top ten, I would like to add three disclaimers:
- Fear is subjective. Therefore, what sets me off is going to be different from what sets you off. In fact, I can imagine that not a single top ten on this subject is going to be the same. If you are afraid of bugs, Darkness Falls (S1E20) might be somewhere on your list. If you’ve had a particularly bad experience with online dating, then perhaps 2Shy (S3E6) will make an appearance. Neither of those things scare me, though. But I can see why they might be scary to some. Vice versa, some spots in my top ten might be run-of-the-mill episodes to you. Horror is that which universally frightens us, but, at the same time, is highly personal.
- I don’t remember every episode in detail.
- As the title already indicates, I’m only focusing on Monster of the Week episodes.
After some finagling, here’s the result of my top ten scariest Monster of the Week episodes of The X Files:
10. Irresistible (S2E13)
I am sure that Irresistible will make an appearance on many lists. In fact, most people will probably rank it higher than I did. I might have seen too many documentaries on serial killers to be truly fazed by Donnie Pfaster. However, he’s a frightening individual nonetheless. Underneath his seemingly soft demeanor hides a cold-blooded murderer. He rapidly escalates as he tries to (re-)capture the high he receives from murdering women and collecting trophies off of their dead bodies.
The most horrifying part is that, unlike all those monsters and mutants, people like Donnie exist. They might be your neighbor, your bus driver, or your delivery man. They might watch us, and target us, patiently waiting before executing their next move.
When Scully looks at Donnie, she sees him as the true incarnation of evil: a demon.
Whether he is an actual demonic entity, or this is a manifestation of the evil Scully sees in him, is still up to the viewer in Irresistible. I preferred to believe the latter. Turning him into a demon instead of a human being capable of doing such awful things to other human beings, weakens the credibility of his character. This is why Orison (S7E7), where the writing staff decided to take the full-on demon route, devalues him as a character. I guess an ordinary serial killer was not X-Filey enough, but I find this to be an unfortunate decision.
9. Squeeze (S1E3)
I reviewed Squeeze a while ago and talked about how Eugene Victor Tooms terrified me when I was a child. Looking back, Tooms is one of those classic characters whose design in and of itself isn’t particularly creepy. However, the direction, is.
I used to have a phobia when I was younger: ommetaphobia (fear of eyes). I blame Squeeze for this. I vividly remember watching this episode and the accompanying nightmares I had of dark yellow eyes staring at me from the corner of the room.
Although I more or less got over this fear, Squeeze deserves a spot in the top 10 for all the nightmares it once gave me.
8. Detour (S5E4)
Going from one example of ommetaphobia to another: of course, the red eyes in Detour had to make an appearance on this list.
Detour is one of my favorite episodes. When I watched it for the first time, I was well into my teens and had gotten over my fear of eyes lurking in the dark. Fortunately. Those red eyes following your every move in a dense forest would have given me the creeps for many nights and days to come.
Detour ranks before Squeeze because, let’s be honest, red eyes are scarier than yellow. And, on a more serious note, whereas Tooms mainly turned creepy thanks to excellent directing, the Mothmen combine excellent directing with a design that still stands strong after more than twenty years.
Although Detour is a pretty shippy and generally lighthearted episode, those Mothmen are among the scariest monsters The X Files has to offer.
7. Tithonus (S6E10)
I’m the first to admit that I’m biased when it comes to Tithonus. It is my favorite episode, I consider it to be close to perfection, and I cannot wait to review it.
Without getting into all of the reasons why I will literally defend this episode with my life, I want to look at the horror aspect. Tithonus is all about another phobia of mine: thanatophobia, or, a fear of dying. However, at the same time, I’m morbidly fascinated by the end of life. It’s a fear and a fascination that Scully and I both share. She cannot believe that Alfred Fellig would rather die than be immortal. Alfred, from his side, provides the viewer with a healthy dose of existential dread: life does not last, love does not last, and everything must perish in the end.
Soon, it is established that death is something inevitable. From the moment The Grim Reaper decided that someone’s time is up, that person will die and there’s nothing they can do about it. When Alfred tells Scully that the hooker on the corner of the street will die, and she gets attacked by an armed assailant, Scully rushes in to rescue her, only for the woman fleeing the scene and getting hit and killed by a truck.
None of our actions matter once Death has singled you out.
As the episode builds to its climax, so does the music. Tithonus is Mark Snow at his finest. The score crescendos when Death draws ever closer to Scully, which adds a lot to the ever-persisting tension. The only way to escape him, is to deceive Death. But that’s an entry for later.
The horror in Tithonus isn’t as defined as it is for other episodes on this list. Yet, this is a very personal kind of horror to me, which is why I ranked it all the way up to number 7.
6. Fresh Bones (S2E15)
Need I say more? Those two pictures pretty much sum up why Fresh Bones ranks at number 6. I believe it’s one of the most disturbing images in The X Files and I’m genuinely surprised that the network let it slip.
5. Roadrunners (S8E4)
Something season 8 (which is a highly underrated season, btw) does right, is that it finally manages to implement the warmer and brighter Californian setting into the stories that are being told. The season almost gives off a Carnivàle-esque (2003) vibe: a dry, hot climate, a bright color scheme, and a bleak atmosphere, with surreal stories that draw inspiration from Christianity and devilish cults. Roadrunners is no different. In fact, the entire concept of the episode would have made for an excellent Carnivàle subplot.
Roadrunners opens with a hitchhiker stepping on a bus that drives around the desert at night. The unfortunate hiker then witnesses a man getting killed while the passengers on the bus cheer and chant.
Scully investigates the mysterious disappearances happening in the area on her own. When her car breaks down, she is left stranded in the middle of nowhere, without any reception. Only the friendly people that live in a nearby hamlet might be able to get her out of there. However, it becomes apparent that they don’t want her to leave.
Ultimately, she is defenseless against the mob that worships Banana Slug Jesus: a massive parasite that leaves its hosts paralyzed, epileptic, and compliant. The cult believes that he or she who is able to withstand the parasite, is the chosen one.
Roadrunners follows a classic horror pattern where Scully finds herself out of the frying pan and into the fire. Each predicament seems to be more dire than the one before. Tension keeps building in this episode and the viewers are presented with a fair bit of gore when the parasite crawls through Scully’s spine, all the way up to her brain, until Doggett finally manages to cut it out.
Following the cult-craze in the 1990s, there are plenty of cult episodes in The X Files, but I believe Roadrunners is by far the most gruesome among them.
4. Home (S4E2)
Another episode I suspect will make an appearance on many lists, is Home. You all undoubtedly know that Home was the first out of two episodes of The X Files to receive a “viewer discretion” warning. In fact, the episode was so gruesome that many fans questioned if they should continue watching the series.
I understand that sentiment. The content of this episode is, after all, highly shocking. It opens with a baby being buried alive, and things only get worse from there: initially, Mulder and Scully believe that they’re dealing with a woman being captured, raped, and forced to give birth against her will by three deformed brothers. However, it turns out that their delimbed mother is hiding underneath the bed and gave birth to a baby that was conceived by all three of the brothers at the same time, while the eldest fathered the two younger ones too. Top it off with the awful murder of the sheriff and his wife and I get why this episode received a viewer discretion.
This is obviously a very shocking scenario and therefore deserving of a place in the top 5. I didn’t rank Home higher, though, because at this point, I qualify as somewhat of a horror veteran. I’m desensitized to those fucked-up premises. In fact, at this point, I am a lot more susceptible to disturbing imagery than I am to disturbing content.
3. Unruhe (S4E4)
We’re up to number 3 and I’m starting to note a pattern: Scully seems to encounter a lot more stuff I find unsettling than Mulder does. Unruhe isn’t an exception. A serial killer is on the loose and targets her once more after she chased him down at an abandoned construction site.
Enter: one of the most chilling scenes of The X Files. The killer, Gerry Schnauz, is walking on stilts, which is a frightening image in and of itself. There’s a reason that very tall and towering figures, such as Slenderman or The Crooked Man, are common horror tropes. They not only appear and walk strangely, they also literally look down on their victims. Not to mention that many people suffering from sleep paralysis have universally reported abnormally tall and shadowy figures looming over them.
But the horror doesn’t end there. Scully stops and questions Gerry when Mulder calls her on her cellphone and mentions: “Scully, I may have something for you on the kidnapper. It’s something about his legs. They’re unusually long, they’re out of proportion. I’m thinking he’s either very tall, or he’s not but wants to be.”
Scully and the audience realize at the same time that she is talking to the very person who kidnaps and lobotomizes women. It’s one of those rare moments that still sends shivers down my spine after several viewings.
Then there’s also the picture that Gerry creates with his mind. Those demonic creatures with their elongated fingers pulling Scully down into the abyss are sheer nightmare fuel.
2. Familiar (S11E8)
Familiar would have been a pretty bland and forgettable episode, were it not for Mr. Chuckleteeth and his army of Teletubbies from Hell.
For some reason, The X Files takes place in a universe where this demon spawn is considered to be wholesome content for kids. They’re even merchandising him so small children can pledge their souls to a satanic dolly.
Familiar seems to be inspired by such stories as IT (2017), of which a cinematic remake was released a year earlier, and by creepypastas like Candle Cove, where children collectively watch a disturbing show on television while adults can only see static. The concept of monsters only children can spot, has proven to be an effective way to give an audience the heebie-jeebies. The X Files dabbled with this premise too (Scary Monsters (S9E14), for example), but never as persuasively as in Familiar.
Of course, Mr. Chuckleteeth’s design adds a lot to his creep factor. Secondly, this is the only time that The X Files actually went all-out into jumpscare territory. This makes Familiar one of the only occasions that the show shamelessly exploited common horror tropes, so evidently, it earns its spot at no. 2.
1. Via Negativa (S8E7)
Let me tell you about my most irrational fear: experiencing sleep paralysis. Up to 50% of all people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. 8% has regular episodes, during which they wake up and are aware at night, but unable to move or speak. During this state, people can suffer from both auditory and visual hallucinations. They will believe someone’s standing in the room, watching them, drawing ever closer, while they remain paralyzed and unable to snap out of it.
Via Negativa is the second and final episode on The X Files to receive a viewer discretion because of its disturbing scenes and images. The story goes that yet another cult leader tries to reach a higher plane of existence by following the “via negativa”: the negative way. He learned to open his third eye and to reach into people’s psyche. That way, he commands them to do his bidding while they sleep.
Doggett gets possessed by him. Both he, and us fans, are unsure about whether he finds himself in a dream-state or not. He has been experiencing dreadful nightmares, after all, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats. However, everyone around him reassures him that everything’s real. Yet things aren’t what they seem.
Eerie voices are whispering in his head, the setting around him becomes increasingly volatile, the music grows louder, and the voices turn more and more distorted. It reminds me, personally, of Valravn’s plane of existence in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017). I had to take a break while playing this part of the game because the erratic voices and flashes were too much for me to handle in one sitting.
It soon becomes clear that this is, in fact, a dream sequence. However, just like sleep paralysis, no matter how horrific those hallucinations seem to get, Doggett has no way of stopping it.
In his dream, he walks into Scully’s apartment, in a scene that is lit in the same way as Bongcheon Dong Ghost (warning: not for the faint of heart). He picks up a conveniently-placed ax and walks up to kill her.
Of course, in the end, all’s well that ends well (apart from Doggett apparently fantasizing about killing Scully), but it took a surprisingly large amount of psychological torture to get to the episode’s conclusion. The psychological aspect, combined with the lack of control, the voices, lightning, and confusion, make Via Negativa the scariest episode of The X Files.
Thank you all for reading! I am not sure whether the next entry will be another top ten, or a regular review. But in the meantime, stay healthy, stay indoors, practice social distancing, and happy Easter and/or Passover!