Over 20 Years Later, The X-Files Intro Is Still The Creepiest Thing On TV
The intro is out there.
The X-Files, a science fiction/horror television show that ran from 1993 to 2002, was a pop culture hit that focused on all things paranormal and conspiratorial. A strong focus was given to wide-spanning government conspiracies and aliens, though its strength came from the episodes featuring various monsters, legends, and creatures. The series spawned two full-length films, spin-offs, comic books, toys, and countless parodies. Just this year, a six-episode tenth season was released (don’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it yet). This announcement piqued my interest in the series and, probably like a lot of people, inspired me to watch the series from the beginning.
It’s interesting going back to watch something that initially scared me as a child. As an adult, I can now appreciate the drama and suspense of the show’s fine pacing, the subtle humor, the strong elements of horror, and the great music in each episode. I like to call this switch from childhood fear to mature enjoyment the “Freddy Krueger Effect”. When you’re young, monsters seem very real. They can hide in your closet, under your bed, down in the basement, anywhere that is unknown. For a kid, Freddy Krueger is terrifying. He’s scary-looking, has sharp knives on his fingers, and can get you where you parents can’t protect you. When you hit a certain age, though, he’s no longer scary and can actually be morbidly funny. The Freddy Krueger Effect works for Tales From The Crypt and can certainly be applied to The X-Files. An individual episode may give you the “willies”, but time and age seems to have muted the unsettling nature of the show. Except for the theme song.
As far as theme songs go, The X-Files theme may be one of the most iconic of the modern television era. So popular was the theme that it actually reached #2 on the UK singles chart. It’s worth noting that The X-Files debuted the same year as The Nanny, Blossom, and Class of ’96. Shows still had lyrics tailored specifically for the show. The X-Files theme was different. Composed by Mark Snow, who also created music for shows like Smallville, Millennium, and La Femme Nikita, the theme is an instrumental that borders on the ethereal. The alien whistling, a combination of a sample from a synth called “Whistling Joe” and Snow’s wife Glynn, effect conveys a sense of otherworldly uneasiness in the viewer while the echoing keyboard serves to focus and prolong feelings of dread. Its sparseness allows the whistling and echoes to breathe, boring deep within the listener’s mind. On its own, the X-Files theme may not seem so powerful. When the music is combined with the original footage from the show’s intro, though, it does.
The X-Files introduction was so effective because it always had a great set-up. Rather than starting the show with the intro, the episode itself would begin with a 1-2 minute setup. The set-up would almost always end with a traumatic experience, usually an unexplained occurrence or violence. Before the show is even technically introduced, the audience is thrust into the violent unknown world of the X-Files. We are not just told, but shown that monsters do exist and they are dangerous.
After the title screen, we are introduced to a photograph of a human pointing at a saucer-like object in the sky. Though partially obscured, we see that the photo is from the FBI and is dated. Nowadays, photo manipulation can be done convincingly in any home around the world. In the early 90’s it was less common. The photo does look real, accentuated by the person in the left corner pointing at the flying saucer. It’s a candid shot that lends the show a sense of credibility.
The next few shots focus in on the unidentified flying object. The viewer is drawn in to the unknown ship as it gets closer and closer until it practically takes up the entire screen. This makes the “unknown” unavoidable, forcing the viewer to directly confront their fears.
Following the space ship careening into the living room, we see an arm pointing towards some sort of graph or notes. The arm is cloaked in darkness, belonging to a shadowy figure that we will never know. What the arm is pointing at is not clear. Is it a scientific formula? The notes of a madman? Is it even of this planet or this dimension? It is too much for the average mind to grasp, but someone out there knows, and that may be the scariest thing of all.
Now we have a floating orb with electric beams rotating in all directions. Admittedly, this looks like something you’d get at Spencer’s Gifts in the mall. 2 out of 10 Satans at best.
After seeing the strobe light from your friend’s basement, the audience is then subjected to the image of a face twisting and distorting in agony. We don’t know who this is or why they are being subjected to such obvious pain. It can be a physical or metaphysical pain. That’s left up to the viewer which, once again, allows the mind to fill-in the blanks with all types of horrible ideas. This quick scene is a brief glimpse into the effect that the X-Files world has on humans. The show’s opening scene is usually one of great violence or drama and now we have this helpless, contorting face. All of this before we even see the credits for the two main actors.
The next few seconds, though, are possibly the most interesting and disturbing moments of the show’s introduction. We see what can only be described as two mirroring alien eggs. Something emerges from both at the same time as the words “Paranormal Activity” flashes across the screen. While the previous scenes let the viewer’s mind do the work of instilling confusing and uneasiness, these shots are legitimately confusing. What unspeakable horrors are being born? Where is it from and where is it going? What does it want? Can we stop it?
For years, I had no idea what was going on with this shot and only recently discovered that it was a mirrored seed germinating. It’s interesting that something so simple and normal that occurs all over the world every day can seem so unnatural.
Next we have a ghost-like figure shambling down a hallway. Is it a ghost or perhaps someone trapped between dimensions, appearing only as a shadow of a human being? It’s a little unnerving on its own, but when the words “GOVERNMENT DENIES KNOWLEDGE” appear on screen, a new world of paranoia is opened to the viewer. “They” know what this is and “they” will not tell us. What us do “they” know? It’s a collision of conspiracy and supernatural and we have no good answers to assuage our fear.
We then see the show’s protagonists, Agents Mulder and Scully (both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson receive credit earlier in the intro) burst into a room with their weapons drawn. Before the scene fades away, we see looks of shock and horror on their faces. What could possibly be in that room to two hardened veterans of the paranormal and the unexplained to react in such a way? Do we, the audience, even want to know?
One of the final scene’s from the X-Files intro is also the one open to the most interpretation. We have a small, featureless all-white being falling toward an enormous blue hand with one small red section on its finger. Is the figure human or is the hand? Are neither? Should this be seen as more of a psychological despair than a physical concern? Why red, white, and blue? Is this a commentary on the show’s conspiratorial views of the government? Is it to show man slipping through the fingers of God and falling into some unknown abyss? This is all pretty deep for a television show.
After a shot of a giant eye and credit to show creator Chris Carter, we have the iconic shot of a quickly moving storm over mountains with the slogan “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE”. The tagline did occasionally change throughout the show’s run for particular episodes saying things such as “TRUST NO ONE” AND “DENY EVERYTHING”. It is this final image that leaves the most impact. The truth is out there, implying that we do not currently know the truth. We have been and continue to be deceived. The only way to find the truth is to go into the unknown and find it ourselves. The onus is on us (and Mulder and Scully, the avatars for the audience) to find the truth.
The images and messages occur in less than a minute, but they last long after the show itself is over. There have been other show intros with scary music or disturbing imagery that stick with the viewer. Unsolved Mysteries and The Outer Limits come to mind. Modern horror shows may be gorier and have better special effects, but they don’t have the same staying power of the X-Files introduction for the simple fact that they do not use the most powerful fear creator in the world: the mind. A zombie eats someone on a show and that’s it. A ghost is torturing a poor family and that’s it. There is little else to work with beyond the initial jump scare or shock of seeing something violent. The X-files intro allowed things to by implied and inferred, leaving the viewer to try and fill in the blanks. All while an unearthly song plays in the background.