On the TV show’s 30th anniversary, we reflect on the enduring legacy of the cult series – and why its themes of government conspiracies and the supernatural are more relevant than ever
“The Truth Is Out There,” goes the catchphrase of The X-Files, Chris Carter’s cult hit about two FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating unsolved paranormal cases across America. First landing on screens in 1993, the TV series emerged in the window between the Cold War and 9/11, with its supernatural accounts of alien colonists, ghosts and government conspiracies reflecting the horrors, psychological anxieties and political conspiracies of its time.
30 years on, The X-Files is arguably more resonant than ever – and in many ways predicted the times we live in now. (There’s even an AI Adam Curtis documentary about the series.) With the original seasons taking inspiration from the collective fears of the era – the oil wars were unfolding, while domestic terrorism such as the Unabomber and the Columbine High School massacre raised alarm bells about very real threats on US shores – we, too, are entering a new, uncharted era characterised by increasing unreality, surveillance and paranoia.
Nowadays, the US government is investigating alien sightings and deepfakes are swinging elections across the world, while AI is being used to resurrect ancient languages and billionaires are buying Michelin meals in space. “We are living in times of uncertainty, where truth may be unknowable,” wrote Carter in a 2021 piece for the New York Times – and if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that truth isn’t something we can all agree on, and it hasn’t been for a while now.
In contrast, when the series first aired in the 90s, consensus reality – our conception of what is real and what isn’t – was still vaguely intact. The internet, though still in its infancy, was broadening Americans’ media intake, as society embraced networked communication and globalism, bringing with it a host of misinformation conspiracies. The notorious Heaven’s Gate cult was recruiting members via wild public-access videos online – arguably the first to do so – and reality TV turned average people into public entertainment, while wars were being broadcast on an international scale. When combined, this solidified the sense of encroaching threats, both human and extraterrestrial: “Walls were falling down, not just between east and west, but between news and entertainment,” writes Nora Khan and Steven Warwick in their 2017 essay Fear Indexing The X-Files.
Decades before social media blurred the line between digital and the IRL, the personal computer was seen as a utopian gateway into a vast online world for some, but a parasite encroaching on your personal world for others. The arrival of chat rooms birthed their own urban legends and conspiracies – The X-Files was a prime example of this, where fans would log on to dedicated forums to swap plot theories and real-world parallels. The desire to uncover hidden realities could be felt across culture, from the anarchistic cypherpunk raids to UFO groups across America – former US air intelligence officer Richard Doty was known to leak disinformation about alien sightings that were then picked up by these groups, which Carter himself attended regularly.
In our own post-truth era, feelings of paranoia and online distrust are widespread, as we become more collectively aware of the propaganda and subversion that we are all exposed to every day. Is the government lying to us? Yes. Is disinformation weaponised to sway public opinion? Definitely. Is it because said government is hiding classified information about aliens? It looks unlikely. As we grow increasingly suspicious of the methods of control we are subjected to on a daily basis, we find ourselves suspended in a perpetual state of psyop realism – the conditions that dictate modern living (AKA capitalism) are inherently paranoid. This only intensifies society’s desire to unravel the so-called truth, whether that’s an 8-chan troll, 9/11 truthers or an OceanGate conspiracist.
There’s a renewed sense of spirituality post-pandemic, too, with the current discourse reflecting the show protagonists Mulder and Scully’s own believer-sceptic dynamic. After atheism’s hot turn in the 00s, there’s a sense that people are waiting for a sign – they want to believe in something. At the same time, the framework that grounds Western capitalism is showing its cracks – you need only consider the past few years of climate crisis to glean that governments don’t have our best interests at heart. Since the show ended in 2002, culture has been taken over by grim realities, reflected in shows such as Black Mirror. But, like Agent Mulder, we have to piece together the narratives available to us: the truth might be out there, but it’s probably not what we think.