Millennial madness makes paranoia palatable

'X-Files'

Only two kinds of people watch “The X-Files.” This is not arbitrary; we have irrefutable statistics. You could look it up.

The first sort of viewer watches the show faithfully, is scared or edified or made querulous by the series, thanks the invisible gods of TV for at least one show that doesn’t put you to sleep or turn your brains to puree of bat guano, and returns to a normal life beset by the realities of taxes, conglomerate takeovers, cholesterol and lousy drivers.

The other phylum of “X-Files” believes to his/her soul’s deepest depths, some or all of the following:

John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a secret cabal made up of Mafiosi, CIA renegades, Beltway insiders, high-wire psychopaths, demented Texas right-wing power brokers and cheap thugs who were once corrupt cops or aldermen: a cadre numbering in the hundreds if not thousands. Not a yenta among them.

Aliens, who appear to be either light blue, pukey green or battleship gray, whose sole purpose is to drive straight here from wherever, mostly to perform rectal examinations on semi-literate soybean farmers and defrocked auto parts salesmen, despite the certain knowledge that one, or at least three, such colonoscopies ought to tell even the most retarded third-year med student what the human plumbing system looks like.

The woods are full of sasquatches, Loch Ness pterosaurs, elves, gnomes, faeries, sprites, dryads, unicorns and unnamed terrors that lie in wait for anyone who identifies with the characters in Freddy Krueger movies or wears a red jersey like those Enterprise extras who are always first to get an arrow through the forehead.

James Dean ain’t really dead. He’s actually living out his days, hideously disfigured from the car crash, in a mental institution in rural Indiana. Elvis not only rules, but he walks. Marilyn was poisoned by the CIA and Bobby Kennedy, who was later snuffed to keep it quiet. I could go on for days.

We live in a world where far too many people cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy, between shadow and image, between primetime and “The 700 Club.” As I sit down to write this, late in October of one of the last years before the millennium, I call to mind something I heard three hours ago on CBS radio: A government oversight study on the state of American education concluded today that less than 12% of all graduating students have a grasp of simple science. We’re talking here of the basic laws of physics and the way the universe functions, not arcane and abstruse issues; just simple concepts like inertia, gravity and the trajectory of a bullet through somebody’s brain.

There are two kinds of people who watch Chris Carter’s brilliant series. The first recognize that this is the product of a single intelligence, melding with other talented people to formalize a secret dream. They perceive that it has ever been so with television. This first kind of viewer is intrigued by surmise, by the what-if game, by the pleasures of the tolerable terror.

The other kind of viewer believes in that crap called “sci-fi,” a very different-horned creature than the respectable literary genre called science fiction, or even speculative fiction.

Sci-fi is believing giant ants can be produced by hitting them with gamma rays, because you’re too ignorant to have heard of the inverse-cube law. Sci-fi is a studio head or network exec or production honcho insisting there is a big bang sound whenever there’s an explosion in space, despite the fact that an airless void cannot carry sound.

Sci-fi is dumbing down every good idea that speculative fiction produced in something over 70 years. It is drooling idiocy like “Independence Day” and Roger Corman ripoffs starring Pauly Shore.

“The X-Files” walks a narrow ledge over a great abyss. On the one hand, it is in the great and grand tradition of all speculative fantasy constructs. It suggests, it hints, it asks what-if, it plays the dicey game of forcing the viewer to suspend disbelief … at least for the time it takes to watch an episode. But on the other hand (which is green and has only three tentacles on it), it fosters and enforces and encourages the illogical and obscurantist urban fantasies of the mass of people who actually believe a TV hero can take a bullet in the hip and not pass out instantly with the shock.

Carter said in a recent interview, “Paranoia results in a hyper-intense way of looking at the world. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Well, um, er, maybe so, Chris, but even as I agree that no artist should be held responsible for the demented beliefs of an audience that looks on the Shroud of Turin as anything but a 16th-century scam, that thinks what they see in TV advertising in any way veers near accuracy, that actually voted for Bush or Clinton or the little guy with the weird ears … so I agree that giving the yahoos a visual fix every week that reinforces their gullibility by telling them Atlantis exists and plants can talk and flying saucers use us as frequently as a Motel 6 is a dangerous game to play as we stroke through these muddy waters toward the year 2001.

History shows us that millennial lunacy recurs. We’re a weird, mostly dopey species that would rather believe that the Red Sea parted than that maybe it was low tide and the story got all bunged up over the centuries. Whether it’s the dancing madness or the tulip frenzy or the proliferation of astrologers and spiritualists, we’re ready to believe it, no matter what nutsiness it may be.

I watch “The X-Files” regularly. Wouldn’t miss it. If I’m out engaging in my life, I tape it. But I gotta confess, it’s more than the unresolved plotlines desperately struggling for interior logic that give me the whim-whams. It’s wondering how many of these video zombies actually believe Carter and Mulder and Scully are reporting the Real World.

Harlan Ellison is the author of 70 books. His latest is entitled “Slippage.” He is the winner of more awards for fantastic literature than any other living writer. He is also the only screenwriter to win the Writers Guild Award for outstanding teleplay four times for solo work.

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