The X-Files “Does” Frankenstein
The science fiction/crime procedural The X-Files (1993-2002) established itself as not only a popular culture phenomenon but as a staple of “quality television” – series that are fundamentally “high” culture and intelligent. The show boasts three Primetime Emmy Awards out of 21 total nominations, as well as thirteen Creative Emmy Awards out of 40 total nominations. The show spawned a franchise consisting of two films, The X-Files (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), in addition to the spin-off series Millennium (1996-1999) and The Lone Gunmen (2001). In January of 2016 the show will be revived for six new episodes with the original cast; people still want more X-Files, even after twenty-two years. Overall, the show follows FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they hunt down paranormal cases. The overarching narrative of the series involves Mulder’s need to uncover a government-alien conspiracy as Scully consistently tries to provide a rational, scientific-based explanation for the various paranormal phenomena the agents encounter. Like many other “quality” horror television shows, such as Supernatural (2005-present) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), The X-Files consists of a so-called “flexi-narrative,” meaning these shows “integrate the monster-of-the-week narrative within broader narrative arcs which can extend across one season or across an entire show’s run” (Jowett and Abbott 34). In other words, there are “mythology” episodes in which we find the agents piecing together alien conspiracies as well as “monster-of-the-week” episodes which can be seen as outliers or stand-alone episodes. In one particular “monster-of-the-week” episode of The X-Files audiences are presented with an adaptation of Frankenstein; in other words, The X-Files “does” Frankenstein.
Adaptations of Frankenstein have varied through all kinds of media, the most familiar usually being via film and television. Arguably the most infamous “Frankenstein monster” was created in James Whale’s (1931) film adaptation Frankenstein. When you think of Frankenstein, you think of the monster – most people do not necessarily make the distinction between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Frankenstein has become a cultural icon, growing far beyond Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel. As Jowett and Abbott remind us, “[p]opular versions of Frankenstein’s monster and its creator Dr Frankenstein, the archetypal mad scientist, are not very accurate as the novel is concerned: the math of Frankenstein has overtaken the ‘original’ novel” (62). The various adaptations of the Frankenstein story have contributed to a mishmash of popular culture references into what it is know to be now. Adaptations play off one another, creating and contributing to the interpretation of whatever one might deem to be the “original” – if there is such a thing. Ultimately, all of these Frankenstein stories “revolve around a single protean figure [i.e., the monster], culturally stereotyped yet retreated in ideological terms for adaptation to different times and places,” meaning that the monster reflects its time and is not free from the political and cultural climate in which it is presented (Hutcheon qtd. in Jowett and Abbott 62). Each time Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is brought forth into popular culture does not mean it signifies the same meanings and implications as previous adaptations; the monster changes with the times.
One example of the monster changing with its political climate is inherent within The X-Files season five episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” This episode borrows the aesthetic style of James Whale’s 1931 film version, presenting the entire television episode in black and white as well as its use of lightning and film angles/shots. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” brings the agents to a small town in which a woman, Mrs. Berkowitz, claims she had been impregnated by a monster and had gotten Agent Mulder’s phone number off of an episode of Jerry Springer (who does appear as himself in the episode) about a “wolf baby.” At one point early on in the episode, Scully points out Mrs. Berkowitz’s son’s comic, “The Great Mutato,” which is similar to the “monster” she claims attacked her. The appearance of a comic book within the episode points out, in a postmodern self-referential style, the adapted, “unoriginal” nature of The X-Files “The Post-Modern Prometheus” episode. Over the course of the episode, Mulder and Scully consult with Dr. Polidori, the “mad scientist” doing “unnatural” scientific experiments with fly gene sequences, causing appalling mutations. While we see Scully and Mulder watching Dr. Polidori leaving his lab, Mulder even comments, “Good night, Dr. Frankenstein.” In sum, the agents discover that the claimed “monster” within the town, known to some townsfolk as “The Great Mutato,” is a very real and alive person that has lived in hiding in a farmhouse, under his “father’s” (Dr. Polidori’s father’s) protection. The “monster” had been impregnating women within the town, using a fumigation tent and chemicals as cover to hang out in people’s homes for a few days while listening to a lot of Cher, causing no one to realize the person was necessarily missing. In the end, the audience is meant to sympathize with the monster, ending the episode with Mulder and Scully driving Mutato to a Cher concert.
The references to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel and James Whale’s film abound within the episode. Central to Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein crosses the boundaries of science in his quest to conquer life – to create his own beings, or to master procreative possibilities reserved to women. At one point in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” Mulder asks Scully, “But, given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?” to which Scully replies, “We already have that ability, Mulder. It’s called ‘procreation’.” Here we see the female FBI Agent and Medical Doctor Scully illustrate that science and “the natural order” have already provided this ability; there is no reason to go out looking for this power. In his inability to procreate, Mulder does not automatically understand the connection between the hubris of Victor Frankenstein and reflections of gender ideology. In addition to this dynamic, various small bits of information from Shelley’s novel are intersected within the narrative. For instance, Dr. Polidori says he must leave to go give a presentation at the “University of Ingolstadt” where Victor Frankenstein was education (Milner 109). Likewise, we learn that Dr. Polidori’s wife is named Elizabeth, as is Victor Frankenstein’s in the novel (Milner 109). Most obviously, the title of the episode itself is a play on Shelley’s subtitle: “the Modern Prometheus.”
On the other hand, in terms of film aesthetics, the creators crucially chose to present the episode in black and white, harking
back to the original “Universal” classic monsters, of which one is the Frankenstein monster. Additionally, the use of lightning to emphasize the Gothic feel of Whale’s film is used throughout “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” especially when Dr. Polidori is speaking about his experiments. The famous line from Whale’s 1931 film “It’s alive!” is not in the novel whatsoever, but the film has made it the infamous part of the Frankenstein narrative. When Mulder sees the family pictures of Mutato, he softly claims to Scully, “It’s alive,” continuing this association. Finally, the town mob chasing after the so-called “monster” is certainly a borrowing from Whale’s incarnation of the narrative, yet The X-Files significantly reverses the ending of the traditional Frankenstein story from this point on. Rather than having the villagers burn down the building containing the monster, as they do in the 1931 film, the monster is given a chance to speak for itself. In turn, this causes the audience, and the people within the narrative, to sympathize with this individual; Izzy Berkowitz speaks for us all when he points out, “Hey, he’s no monster.”
Pointing yet again to its adaptation of the narrative, Mulder discusses with Scully the implications of their not arresting the monster for attacking others (he did impregnate two women, who both are happily fulfilled with the result of a child). Mulder points out to Scully, and to us, that “This is all wrong… This is not how the story is supposed to end.” He invokes the sequel to the 1931 film, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein in saying that “the monster’s supposed to escape to go search for his bride,” to which Scully replies, “There’s not gonna be any bride, Mulder. Not in this story.” The truly postmodern style of this recognition of artificiality and self-referential statements is emblazoned in Mulder’s reply: “Well, where’s the writer? I want to speak to the writer.” The brilliance of this episode is not only in adding to the Frankenstein mythos that exists within popular culture, but in how the show itself pronounces that it is doing so – that in adapting the narrative, The X-Files constructs the highly malleable narrative within the realm of other texts (meaning films, books, novels, etc.).
The episode ends with Mulder and Scully attending a Cher concert with “The Great Mutato,” dancing until their image freezes and morphs into comic book-style aesthetics (again calling out their adaptation and intertextuality with other incarnations of Frankenstein). Yet what could perhaps be the politically signifiant metaphor that the monster of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” demonstrates to audiences? As Scully herself points out early on in the episode, “Psychologists often speak of the denial of an unthinkable evil or a misplacement of shared fears. Anxiety taking the form of a hideous monster for whom the most horrific human attributes can be ascribed.” Scully demonstrates an understanding of monsters’ ability to be reflective of contemporary culturally-based anxieties upon which we displace our fears. This concept has been argued numerous times with relation to horror film in general, and certainly applies here. I would argue that Mutato’s want to be loved and belong, his obsession with Cher, and how he tells the townspeople his story, this monster could signify the growing acceptance and “politically correct” trend increasing during this time period of a more accepting/acknowledging of the LGBT community and queer individuals, an idea somewhat connected to what Milner argues in his reading of this episode. The monster signifying the homosexual has been argued as a trend in classic horror cinema by Harry M. Benshoff’s landmark work Monsters in the Closet, and is still highly relevant to any examination of popular culture. Furthermore, the fact that Mulder feels the need to make the story’s ending “right” leads him and Scully to take Mutato to a Cher (a popular queer icon, speaking out against being labelled different in her music played in the episode) concert illustrates this connection.
Overall, the adaptations of classic horror monsters is an extremely popular trend within not only television horror, but within media as diverse as video games, film, plays, comic books, and more. The idea of a famous Gothic monster, like that of Frankenstein or of Dracula, is an ever-changing and mutating idea; society adjusts the configuration of the monster to its contemporaneous cultural concerns. As such, studying monsters and monstrosity is a highly politically significant and important undertaking, becoming an artifact of culture that sufficiently illustrates society at the time of its incarnation/creation.
Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.
Jowett, Lorna, and Stacey Abbott. TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the small Screen. London: I. B. Tauris, 203. Print.
Milner, Andrew. “Postmodern Gothic: Buffy, the X-Files and the Clinton Presidency.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 19.1 (2005): 103-116. Print.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus.” The X-Files. Perf. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Fox. 30 Nov. 1997. Television.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Pearson Education, 2007. Print.
Whale, James, dir. Frankenstein. Perf. Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures, 1931. Film
Whale, James, dir. The Bride of Frankenstein. Perf. Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures, 1935. Film.