October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best episode of The X-Files is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
During the 2021 rendition of 31 Days of Horror Lists, we ranked the 10 best horror TV shows. It is with great shame that I must admit that at the time of that ranking, I had not watched a single episode of The X-Files. My sincerest apologies to series creator Chris Carter. In the two years since, I’ve watched the entire series, including both movies and the two most recent seasons. If we were to re-rank horror TV shows, I would do everything in my power to move the show way up the list. I could make a strong case that not only is The X-Files the best horror show of all time, but it might flat-out just be the greatest television series to ever exist. It’s that good.
The thrilling adventures of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), two FBI agents who work cases with a paranormal twist, debuted on Fox just over thirty years ago on Friday, September 10, 1993. While the overarching mythology of the series focused on the possible alien abduction of Mulder’s sister and the government’s involvement — a storyline that was a bit hit-or-miss if we’re being honest — the show shined when it went with the monster-of-the-week approach. Each week the charming duo would get involved with supernatural shenanigans while desperately trying to fight the rising sexual tension between the both of them. When they weren’t trying to solve the mystery around some mythical creature, they had that damn Smoking Man (William B. Davis) to contend with, constantly pulling the strings behind the scenes. And don’t even get me started on Krycek (Nicholas Lea) and his stupid-ass haircut. Fortunately, FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) always had their back, even when it seemed like he didn’t.
The X-Files was spooky, exciting, funny, and horny. On its best days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better hour of entertainment, and on its worst days, you’d still watch it with a dumb smile plastered across your face. Whether it was Mulder’s desire to find the truth while still leaving time for pencils and porn, or Scully’s constant battle between her belief in science and her belief in her faith, The X-Files routinely pushed the envelope and went outside the box. With 217 episodes, narrowing it down to a top 10 was nearly an impossible task. But Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and myself are accustomed to doing the impossible. The truth is out there — these are the top 10 episodes of The X-Files.
10. The Post-Modern Prometheus (Season 5)
For my money, The X-Files was at its peak when they leaned into the monsters and the comedy. Perhaps no episode is a better representation of this than “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Shot in gorgeous black and white, the episode is a nod to classic horror and a riff on Frankenstein. Mulder and Scully head to a small town to investigate claims from a single mother about being impregnated by a strange and unknown presence. Once they arrive, they learn of The Great Mutato (Chris Owens), a mysterious creature that many of the locals claim to have seen. Hoping to learn more about Mutato, they speak to Dr. Pollidori (John O’Hurley). Mulder quickly suspects the doctor of playing Frankenstein and creating Mutato. A little Frankenstein, a little Mask, and a lot of Cher. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is surreal and funny with questionable morals. In short, it’s classic X-Files. (Chris Coffel)
9. Squeeze (Season 1)
You know what they say, a liver a day keeps the paranormal investigators away. Okay, they don’t say that. And actually, leaving a trail of missing offal is actually a good way to attract the attention of the X Files team. Easily one of the most memorable and skin-crawling monster-of-the-week episodes ever produced, “Squeeze” sees our dynamic duo hot on the trail of a serial killer seemingly able to kill without an entry point. That is, until Mulder finds a fingerprint — stretched, distended, and seemingly decades-old despite being fresh. But what’s it doing by a sealed air vent? And while we’re asking questions: what’s with that nest made out of bile-soaked rags? And why did that one witness mention nazi experiments? Personally speaking, I would have simply not put myself on the radar of a horrifyingly flexible, hibernating mass murderer. But Mulder and Scully are built different. And thanks to the power of their burgeoning friendship, by the end of the ordeal, their livers remain intact. (Meg Shields)
8. Ice (Season 1)
Mulder and Scully are sent to a remote outpost in Alaska to investigate the mass death of a group of geophysicists stationed there. They soon discover that an alien lifeform infected everyone at the outpost, causing them to turn on one another. This is John Carpenter’s The Thing condensed to 45 minutes and it’s riveting television. It’s also a bit of a landmark episode for the series because it’s the first time we get a true sense of the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully — a key component of the show. Worried that they might be infected by the parasite, Mulder and Scully must carefully inspect one another. When Mulder places his hand on the back of Scully’s neck, he knows exactly what he’s doing. They may be trapped in the frozen Arctic, but things quickly get hot and steamy. (Chris Coffel)
7. Beyond the Sea (Season 1)
I was a Scully kid. Most of The X–Files revolved around Fox’s paranoia and fantasies, but whenever the series took the time to explore Scully’s demons, I felt fed. “Beyond the Sea” is her Silence of the Lambs. Her Hannibal Lecter is Brad Dourif‘s Luther Lee Boggs, a serial killer who claims a supernatural connection to the dead. When he starts dragging Scully’s recently departed dad into the investigation, Scully’s stern grasp on reality begins to bend. Maybe Fox is not as kooky as her academy classmates would have her believe. “Beyond the Sea” is a sorrowful tale, but it pushes the two central characters closer to each other, even though they spend almost no time together on screen for this round. Dourif, as always, shines, and you wish the producers could have found more ways to bring him back into the series over the years. (Brad Gullickson)
6. The Host (Season 2)
Does this episode feature the single greatest monster design in series history? Inarguably? Maybe. Personally? Absolutely. Even though The X-Files technically gave us our first real monster in the season one episode “Squeeze”, it wouldn’t be until “The Host” that we finally got our first full-blown man-in-a-rubber-suit monster, the horrifying Flukeman. And my god did good ‘ol Flukey set a high bar for future monsters on the series that, arguably, The X-Files was never able to reach again. The Flukeman—played by Darin Morgan, brother to the show’s executive producer Glen Morgan — is a terrifyingly designed creation that remains one of the lasting images of the show’s long-running history. (Jacob Trussell)
5. Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (Season 3)
Author Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) is researching his latest book on alien abductions and UFO phenomena. He sits down with Scully who recounts a case she and Mulder worked on about a young teenage couple that claim to have been abducted by aliens. The story starts to get complicated with each of the involved parties having slightly different accounts. The teens were abducted by aliens, and then those aliens were abducted by a different race of aliens. But the first aliens were actually airforce pilots in disguise as part of the government’s attempt to stage an alien abduction. Once the real abduction happens, the government must cover it up because the government wants you to think fake abductions are real and real abductions never happen. “Jose Chung’s ‘From Out Space'” is complicated, messy, and fun. It’s the perfect representation of what The X-Files is all about. (Chris Coffel)
4. X-Cops (Season 7)
After unsuccessfully pitching a crossover between The X-Files and Cops for years, series creator Chris Carter finally gave Vince Gilligan the okay with the show in its seventh season and the belief that it was nearing its end. The result was “X-Cops,” and it’s easily my favorite episode of the series. Mulder and Scully are chasing a monster through the streets of Los Angeles when they cross paths with an LA County Sheriff’s deputy getting a call for the same monster while filming an episode of Cops. The episode perfectly captures the look and feel of Cops. It’s shot on video, features cast and crew from Cops, and has the same ad breaks that every episode of Cops has. You know the one, where the camera fades to black, the Cops logo fills the screen, and we hear audio from over the police scanner. It succeeds perfectly in making the audience feel like they are watching a reality TV episode of The X-Files. It’s funny, a great monster story, and has a unique style that sets it apart. Great television. (Chris Coffel)
3. Bad Blood (Season 5)
Mulder and Scully are preparing to report to Assistant Director Skinner on the events in Texas that led to Mulder driving a stake through the heart of a teenager (Patrick Renna) that he believes to be a vampire. Before doing so, they decide to make sure they each agree on what happened that night. As they both recount to each other what happened, it becomes very clear that they each have entirely different perspectives on the event. “Bad Blood” is a funny monster-of-the-week story about vampires, but it also provides great insight into the relationship between Mulder and Scully. In Scully’s version of the events, Mulder is an overeager jerk who is dismissive towards Scully’s feelings. She also views the local Texas sheriff (Luke Wilson) as incredibly charming and easy on the eyes. In Mulder’s story, he is kind and caring towards Scully, while she blows him off and only has eyes for the sheriff, whom Mulder remembers as a bit of a doofus with giant buckteeth. While the partners argue over the case, they’re eventually sent back to Texas after the boy Mulder allegedly killed, wakes up and runs off, suggesting that maybe Mulder was right after all. “Bad Blood” is a great vampire story and Luke Wilson steals the show as he alternates between stud and dud, depending on whose story we are focusing on. (Chris Coffel)
2. Home (Season 4)
I won’t name names, but some of us are old enough to remember the public “outrage” after this episode aired twenty-seven years ago, and while today’s television makes it look like an episode of Ms. Rachel, it’s easy to understand why. It opens with the birth of a deformed baby that’s buried alive by a trio of deformed adults before being accidentally found by some normal-looking kids, and it only gets more foul, disturbing, and grotesque from there with a gnarly home invasion, heavily implied inbreeding between a mother and her sons, and that same mother strapped to a cart and missing all four limbs. A cover of Johnny Mathis‘ “Wonderful, Wonderful” plays over the opening adding to the tone, and it’s worth noting that Mathis refused to allow his own version to play as he was severely put off by the episode’s script (by X-Files veterans Glen Morgan & James Wong). There are other horror-themed episodes of the show, many of them great and some of them on this list, but none can compete with the unsettling and creepy vibes that this classic gives off from beginning to end. (Rob)
1. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Season 3)
This may feel like a bit of an obvious choice to occupy the top spot, but it does so with good reason. Mulder and Scully are called in to work on a case in which a killer is targeting psychics. The local police also enlist the assistance of television psychic Stupendous Yappi (Jaap Broeker), but neither Mulder nor Scully is impressed. Meanwhile, insurance salesman Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle) finds the body of one of the victims while taking out the trash. While speaking with him, Mulder and Scully discover that Bruckman has the unique ability to see how people will die. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Response” is a dark, kind of depressing episode of The X-Files that brilliantly uses humor to lighten the mood. Boyle gives a stellar, Emmy-winning performance in what may very well be the best guest spot in the show’s 217-episode run. Boyle’s chemistry with Anderson is the heart of the episode, resulting in a sweet and sad ending. Achieving perfection is nearly impossible, but this episode gets damn close. (Chris Coffel)
When you’re done solving supernatural mysteries and fawning over your work partner, check out more 31 Days of Horror Lists!