Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" (December 13, 1998)

Written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is both a tale about the holiday season, and one about the unbreakable bond connecting Mulder and Scully.

In brief, this sixth season X-Files story concerns a fearsome haunted house.  Inside, two old ghosts -- bound together for eternity by their murder pact -- attempt to make Scully and Mulder re-enact their "love"…by killing each other. 

Edgar Rice Burroughs once suggested that “nearly one” are the emotions of “love and hate,” and this episode plays out as an examination of that observation.  Passion can be either a positive or negative force in relationships, and the passion that Mulder and Scully feel for each other (and for their own world-views) is the very thing the ghosts attempt to twist to their will.

What’s humorous and intriguing about “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” however is the fact that the ghosts attempt to psychoanalyze their guests first. They try to build “doubt” inside them by targeting feelings of inferiority, or low self-esteem.  Mulder is forced to see himself as a lonely, pitiful narcissist, and Scully must face the possibility that she stays in Mulder’s orbit simply to prove him wrong…and herself right.

Or to put it another way, the ghosts make Mulder and Scully question their very own natures.  

And then -- after cracking that foundation of belief/esteem -- the ghosts send each agent to kill their counterpart.  But Scully and Mulder rebound.  They find the strength, resourcefulness, and hope inside themselves -- and inside each other -- to escape the death trap.

“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is thus a story, in some way, about how having the right person in your life to give you strength.  The right partner (in the F.B.I. or in love…) can build you back up when society at large -- or other dark forces -- try to pull you down.  

You can respond to "Christmas melancholy" or other emotional strife by giving into it, or by resisting it. In this episode we see examples of both paradigms.  But only one way will assure happiness...

On Christmas Eve, Mulder (David Duchovny) asks a reluctant Scully (Gillian Anderson) to stake out a reputedly haunted house in Maryland.  There, in 1917, two lovers committed suicide, and their ghosts apparently still roam the hallways.

Once inside the imposing house, Mulder and Scully find that the stories possess some truth.  The doors lock behind them, and the agents find themselves trapped inside the labyrinth-like hallways.  And under the rickety floor board s of the library, Scully and Mulder make a terrible discovery: their own rotting corpses.

The agents attempt to escape the fate promised by that vision, but must first survive the manipulations of the two spirits, Maurice (Edward Asnwer) and Lydia (Lily Tomlin) who would like Mulder and Scully to join them in the house…for eternity.

“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is a remarkably intimate episode of The X-Files. Only four individuals are seen in the entire hour; two living and two dead.  The setting is also generally limited to Maurice and Lydia’s house, save for the brief coda at Mulder’s apartment. 

Accordingly -- with all the “noise” or “clutter” out of the way -- one begins to feel that the ghosts haunting Mulder and Scully are not just spectral ones, but psychological ones.  

The holidays can be a time, often, of depression, sadness, and loneliness.  These emotions play out as the backdrop to the struggle the protagonists face here.  Mulder, for example, goes to great lengths to describe to Scully the Christmas of 1917 -- Maurice and Lydia's time -- as a season of “dark, dark, despair” when tragedy was a visitor “on every doorstep.” 

Mulder talks specifically about big, earth-shattering events like World War I, and the flu epidemic, but on another level, he is certainly discussing his own existential angst; his own “dark, dark, despair” and fear -- especially at this time of year -- that he will always remain alone, unloved.  You don’t need a pandemic or a global conflict to be sad at Christmas time, after all.  

Scully faces her own fears too.  Has she traded the comfort of family and a “normal life” for the pleasure of proving Mulder wrong?  Is it her destiny to be forever conducting stake-outs on Christmas Eve? 

This “woeful Christmas melancholy” beats at the heart of “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” and the ghosts make the crisis worse.  Are Mulder and Scully together only because they are lonely, pathetic individuals with no one else to spend time with?  Their Christmas “adventure” seems to stress this idea; that no one would have them, save for each other.  This is the fear that Maurice and Lydia knowingly play upon.

But the antidote to “how lonely Christmas can be” -- and which the ghosts nastily term “intimacy through co-dependency” -- is actually a deep friendship and love that can stand any test, even the test of what appears to be a fatal bullet wound. 

There’s a strong contrast between the couples here, and that's a result of the episode's clever construction and structure.  Lydia and Maurice gave in to the darkness of their time.  They surrendered to it as inevitable, and now spend eternity attempting to validate their choice to die, forcing other pairs of lovers to re-enact their gruesome end. 

But oppositely, Mulder and Scully don’t give in to the despair.  They are able to find not just love, but hope in each other.  They choose to continue living.  That’s why, finally, they escape.  They each have the other one pushing them to live, to keep asking questions, to meet the next challenge.

Accordingly, Scully and Mulder don’t let the ghosts steal Christmas, or the Christmases yet to come. Instead, they escape their own foibles and fears, and spend the holiday where they belong: together

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All!!!

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