“Maybe it was the gates of Hell”: The X-Files, ‘Familiar’
Those who gave up on The X-Files after 2016’s admittedly erratic string of episodes are missing out on what has turned out to be one of the most solid seasons in the show’s history. In “Familiar,” Mulder and Scully must examine the past in order to understand the present while slyly referencing recent horror sensations like the film adaptation of IT and Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
A child murder in Eastwood, CT catches the FBI’s attention, and when Mulder and Scully arrive to investigate, they posit alternate theories of the crime. Scully suggests the killer could be a resident of the town, but Mulder isn’t so sure things are that simple. He cites the history of witchcraft in the area but she scoffs. He insists that “just because there were bogus witch hunts doesn’t mean that there were no practicing witches” and seems convinced there is someone in the town practicing the “black arts.”
The Salem Witch Trials are certainly the most famous examples of mass hysteria resulting in executions, but as Mulder observes, Connecticut had its own share of shame. In the mid-17th century, Satanic Panic had a stranglehold on various towns in Connecticut, including Hartford, Fairfield, Windsor, Wethersfield, and later, Stamford. By 1692, there were already at least nine (and possibly 11) people who had been executed for witchcraft in the state, beginning with Alice Young. According to the Damned Connecticut website, she was likely the first woman put to death in the New World for consorting with the Devil.
In the course of their investigation, Mulder talks with Emily, the young child who witnesses the first victim’s disappearance, and who also happens to be the daughter of the Chief of Police. At Chief Strong’s house, he notices a bookshelf filled with tomes about the practice of witchcraft. Several of these books, such as The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, Covencraft, and The Ritual Chaos Magic Workbook, are actual publications. The one that he’s most interested in, however, is The Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch (not a real book but one which must have delighted the props department). Strong’s wife Anna seems to brush off this mini-library by saying her spouse is a history buff.
Yet Mulder continues to find clues which point in the direction of an evil spirit unleashed. He discovers a salt circle and a Puritan graveyard at the spot where both bodies were found, saying that “this is ground where spirits and demons have been unleashed.” He also sees a black dog staring at him malevolently and assumes it must be a familiar, a supernatural entity that assists the witch in practicing magic. This familiar also assumes the form of characters from children’s shows. The first is Mr. Chuckle Teeth (who comes across like an unholy combination of Howdy Doody, Pee-wee Herman, The Babadook, and Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and the second is a purple “Bibbletickle,” a particularly disturbing take on the Teletubbies that looks more like a Grey than anything else.
Always skeptical about the supernatural, Scully thinks that a convicted sexual predator and Eastwood resident named Melvin Peter might be the culprit, especially after Emily is killed. Mulder worries about a “rush to judgment,” and is quick to point out the “fervor that we see too often in this American experience of ours.”
His fears come to fruition when Eggers hunts down Peter and enacts his own form of retribution by beating him. A crowd of onlookers joins in and is temporarily thwarted by Eggers’ fellow cop Officer Wentworth, and then Mulder and Scully. Though he seems willing to cease the violence, Eggers fools everyone by pulling out his gun and shooting Peter in the head in front of the crowd. Wentworth, who appears to be the sole African-American in a town full of WASPs, is the only sensible police officer around. He ends up providing the deceased Mr. Peter with an alibi after the fact.
As it turns out, evil forces have been conjured by Strong’s wife Anna, who wanted to curse Diane Eggers for the affair she was having with Chief Strong. Unfortunately, Anna has tapped into something she couldn’t control. When she tries to undo the spell, she is consumed by flames. Meanwhile, the black dog familiar attacks and kills her husband. Mysteriously, the grimoire itself does not burn.
“Familiar” cleverly toes the line between Satanic Panic and the effects of actual Satanic practices. In addition to its savvy pop culture references, this episode demonstrates a clear parallel towards the kinds of mass hysteria and mob justice we see today. Scully is all too ready to get out of the town by the end, but Mulder reminds her that “There is no getting out of this town, not these days.”