31 Days of Hell: Four of the Spookiest Episodes of The X-Files

Like many people, I enjoy using October as an excuse to revisit some of my favorite horror movies, as well as some of the scarier episodes of a variety of TV shows. I will go on record to say that The X-Files is my favorite show of all time, as well as one that I know the most useless trivia about, so when I say that selecting several creepy, eerie, and in some instances under-seen episodes of the show is a real treat, you know I mean it. 

Each season of the show has its fair share of popular episodes; the ones people gravitate to the most. If, for instance, I ask people to choose a favorite monster episode from season two, most of the time their answer is “The Host,” or even “Humbug.” While I love both, my first pick for a spooky X-Files episode comes at season two’s midpoint: 

“Die Hand Die Verletzt” (Season Two, Episode Fourteen) 

Written by fan-favorite writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, the episode finds Mulder and Scully investigating the apparent occult murder of a student in Milford Falls, New Hampshire. The episode is notable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its overall atmosphere and tone, helmed perfectly by then first-time X-Files director Kim Manners. Manners became one of the show’s most prolific directors (alongside Rob Bowman) and “Die Hand Die Verletzt”is an excellent example of just how great Mannersis behind the camera. In fact, one of the trckiest elements in translating the script to the screen for this particular episode is that it starts out as almost more of a comedy. 

After investigating the first crime scene – photographed with haunting beauty in the rainy wilderness of Vancouver – Mulder and Scully are suddenly hit with dozens of toads falling from the sky. After being struck in the head, Mulder sarcastically brushes it off, turning to Scully to simply say, “So, lunch?” Things get very dark very quickly for the rest of the hour, as the agents uncover the truth about a group of devil-worshipers believed to be responsible for several murders. I won’t spoil the episode’s big reveal for those who haven’t seen it, but believe me it delivers. 

Part of the fun in an episode this dark comes from Morgan and Wong, who wrote the episode as a farewell to The X-Files itself, leaving the show to work on Space: Above and Beyond. There’s a certain level of insanity and disturbing imagery to the episode, from witnessing a young Dan Butler being strangled and eaten by a snake, to a pig moving as if it’s alive when a student is trying to dissect it, to the organs of a murdered student being hidden in an unexpected place. It’s also what we don’t see that adds an element of suspense. 

When one of the students (Heather McComb) breaks down during science class, she later tells Mulder and Scully a painful story about being raped by her stepfather (Butler), being impregated three times by the aforementioned devil-worshipers and losing each child to sacrfice, later losing her eight-year old sister for the same reason. It’s a powerful scene in a very dark episode, and the validity of her story remains beside the point even at the episode’s conclusion. It’s an episode about the dark underbelly of a seemingly normal town (something The X-Files speciailized in, but is particularly spot-on here) and the ongoing ramifications of messing with forces that are not completely understood. (The title translates as “The hand that wounds.”) 

Everything about “Die Hand Die Verletzt” works perfectly, from the disturbing imagery, to the near-perfect dialogue, and the direction from Manners. If you’re looking for a good introduction to not only the scary episodes of The X-Files, but the series as a whole, this one certainly fits the bill. 

On to Season Four… 

The other episode that I hear pretty much everyone claim is the scariest episode in The X-Files history is “Home,” which was so beyond violent and “mature” that it wasn’t shown in re-runs for many years. “Home” is a great episode and I have nothing against the folks who would put it in their top ten. My choice, however, aired just two weeks after “Home” and is one of writer Vince Gilligan’s most unnerving episodes: 

“Unruhe” (Season Four, Episode Four) 

Translated from German, the title means unrest, or as Mulder at one point says, “trouble, strife.” Every time I watch this episode I’m left with a certain degree of unrest. It’s terrifying because of how real it is. In fact, one of the elements that makes this episode stand out for me is how non-supernatural it is. It’s more of a severly messed up serial killer of the week story, very much in the same vein as X-Files creator Chris Carter’s other series, Millennium.

What makes the episode an X-File in the first place is the use of “thoughtography,” first shown in the episode’s teaser when a woman who has her passport photo taken at a drug store is abucted by an unseen assailant in the parking lot. The clerk opens the developed photo to see the woman screaming as she’s surrounded by shadowy figures that we later come to know as “howlers.” We later find out that the abductor, Gerry Schnauz (played wonderfully by Pruitt Taylor Vince) has been performing lobotomies on his victims as a means of removing the howlers, thereby taking away their unrest.  

“Unruhe” doesn’t really warrant spoiler territory, as even knowing the basic plot doesn’t take away from one’s enjoyment – if we’re comfortable with that word – of this episode. The fact that this story seems very plausible, especially in the modern world, makes it even more twisted. While Gilligan’s writing on The X-Files could sometimes venture into the very dark, I don’t think there’s another episode he did that was as dark as this one. 

It’s also worth mentioning that reviews of “Unruhe” critcize the tired “Scully being kidnapped” element of the story. Point taken, but I would argue that this is the rare episode where I truly feel that Scully is in danger no matter how many times I see it. This is largely due to Gillian Anderson’s performance, who shows Scully becoming increasingly disturbed and affected by the case, in particular the victims themselves. It’s not the first time it happened in the series, nor would it be the last, but it’s a high point in the series nonetheless.  
Other fun tidbits about the episode include its setting – Traverse City, Michigan; perhaps the only time Michigan is ever a location in the entire series – and Rob Bowman’s stellar direction. There’s a great shot in the teaser of Schnauz seen in silhouette behind the first victim’s umbrella as she walks toward the frame. His shadow gets bigger and bigger, much like the howlers in the photographs. It’s a great piece of visual storytelling that enhances the experience of the episode. 

The season that changed everything: Season Eight 

I mentioned that this list is also meant to attract fans, new and old, to episodes that might be underseen or even under-appreciated. Generally speaking, season eight of The X-Files doesn’t get enough credit for being as good, and fun, as it is. In fact, a fellow critic and X-Phile, Keith Uhlich said in an episode of the Vulture TV Podcast that seasons two and eight of the show have the most narrative drive. Season two because of Scully’s abduction (due to Anderson’s real-life pregnancy), and season eight because of Mulder’s (the result of David Duchovny’s fear of being type-cast). Season eight had the next to impossible task of re-inventing the show without its lead, and bringing in a new partner for Scully: John Doggett (played with so much humanity by Robert Patrick). It also took the “season two approach,” favoring scarier standalone episodes to offset Mulder’s absence. The result is two of the best “monster of the week” episodes in the show’s history, the first of which is: 

“Roadrunners” (Season Eight, Episode Four) 

Another Gilligan-penned episode, “Roadrunners” finds Scully ditching Doggett for a missing persons case in Utah, only to discover a group of cultists who worship a slug-like creature that attaches itself to a host through the spine, with the hope of reaching the brain and taking over the body entirely. Yes, you read that right. This is one of the grossest episodes in the show’s original run, but has Gilligan’s signature tone of batshit crazy mixed with literal gag moments. 

If gore is what you look for in film and in television, look no further than “Roadrunners.” The episode also does a great job of bringing Scully and Doggett together as partners. The season begins with Scully basically hating Doggett, to then being partnered with him, and after this episode learning that he literally has her back. It’s another hour that allows Anderson to shine, as Scully is working on her own without any hope of backup in the middle of nowhere, Utah, while also mourning the loss of Mulder and later trying to protect her unborn child from a parasitic slug. It’s a lot, to say the least. 

The X-Files was called “X-Files light” beginning with season six because of the production move from Vancouver to Los Angeles. While that criticism is mostly valid, season eight, and this episode in particular, showed that The X-Files still had some nifty tricks up its sleave. 

Just a few episodes later, Frank Spotnitz wrote his first standalone episode in some time, deciding to focus on the nature of dreams and the power that nightmares have on even the sanest, most skeptical people: 

“Via Negativa” (Season Eight, Episode Seven) 

Taking almost the reverse approach of “Roadrunners,” “Via Negativa” puts the focus on Doggett as Scully is mostly absent due to concerns over her pregnancy. As a result, Skinner (everyone’s favorite Assistant Director at the F.B.I. played flawlessly by Mitch Pileggi, the unsung hero of the show) works with Doggett on a case involving a group of cult followers (there seems to be a theme here) who are murdered, seemingly in their sleep, by the cult leader. 

The episode is great in so many ways, not the least of which is Patrick’s performance. At one point he tells Skinner that just because he’s assigned to The X-Files, it doesn’t mean he thinks like Mulder and Scully. He needs facts, evidence, proof. As he learns more about the cult leader and his methods, Doggett’s reality begins to merge with his dreams, and he realizes he simply cannot trust if what is happening is actually real. Truly the stuff of nightmares. Patrick plays it as a man who, up to this point, has been so sure of himself that a situation like this can only mean one thing: he’s losing his mind. His performance is precisely what makes “Via Negativa” terrifying: it feels real because it’s real to him. 

Another highlight of the episode is the appearance of The Lone Gunmen, who at Scully’s request provide Doggett with some much needed background on the cult leader’s methods. It’s another turning point in the series, as their appearance marks an acceptance of Doggett’s tenure on The X-Files. Skinner’s appearance is also worth noting, as his and Doggett’s friendship would be a large part of the series going forward. The fact that Skinner later sees Doggett struggling with his own reality only adds to the tension in the episode. Truly the things that frighten us the most may already exist in our own mind. 

Final thoughts… 

The X-Files originally ran for nine seasons, two-hundred and two episodes in total. There are many, many episodes that one could claim as “spooky.” These are simply a few of my favorites, and ones I feel deserve your attention if you’re looking for a different approach to watching scary stuff this Halloween. 

When it comes to twisted storytelling, The X-Files (at its best) certainly represents the cream of the crop. These episodes standout for me as being what the show always did well: bringing viewers different, creepy, otherworldly, and yes, fun television each week. Why do you think I love the show so much? 

-Matt Giles