“Tell me you’re not afraid.” — Fox Mulder
“All right. I’m afraid… but it’s an irrational fear.” — Dana Scully
Mulder and Scully visit a haunted house on Christmas Eve and run into a pair of not-so-friendly ghosts.
Radhika: And so season six continues on its somewhat experimental path, giving us what may be one of the most obvious ideas that hadn’t really been used on The X-Files before: A haunted house story. Though the episode features some neat special effects, it’s really rather simple for The X-Files. For one, we’re only on the set of the haunted house for the bulk of the episode. On top of that, the cast simply consists of four characters: Mulder and Scully, alongside the ghosts played by Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner.
In the episode, Mulder manages to drag Scully to a reputed haunted house on Christmas Eve. He tells her that during Christmas of 1917, a young couple agreed to a lover’s pact — a murder-suicide. And now, their ghosts want to make those who enter their mansion experience the same fate. The two agents enter the house, and experience enough odd coincidences and creepy noises to get sufficiently spooked. And then they find two corpses wearing the same clothes they’re wearing, while also exhibiting gunshot wounds. So they split up, trying to determine a way out.
Of course, while separated, they run into the ghosts — Maurice and Lyda who no longer look young. The ghosts psychologically and supernaturally manipulate the agents, convincing Mulder that he’s been shot by Scully and vice versa. But after some time, Mulder comes to realize it’s an illusion, and the agents simply walk out the door.
As I said — it’s a simple episode. But the elements that work here are the usual Mulder and Scully banter (as well as the ghosts’ banter), alongside the haunted house atmosphere, helped along by a toy instrument-esque score by Mark Snow. The episode is equal parts spooky and funny, making it an enjoyable and slightly offbeat holiday episode — and also fairly suitable for The X-Files. The ghosts here make some apt observations about our agents: “You’ve probably convinced yourself you’ve seen aliens,” Maurice tells Mulder. And as Lyda tells Scully, “You must have an awful small life. Spending your Christmas Eve with him… Running around chasing things you don’t even believe in.” Yes, it’s all part of a manipulative game, but remarks like those really hit home — and so we’re able to get a little psychological study as well.
But what I like about this episode, and perhaps what I like about season six as a whole, is that we don’t just see these agents in this sad light. As much as I love the earlier seasons, there was a point around season four where I felt sad that the agents could rarely have a moment of genuine joy before it was ruined. Yet at the end of this episode, when Mulder and Scully realize that they’ve been tricked and actually are very much okay to walk out of the haunted house, we see them exchange Christmas presents in a rare bashful and giddy moment. They actually get to have fun — not just in the form of the verbal sparring the audience has come to expect. It’s such a warm, joyful scene that it pretty much makes the episode for me.
Max: I don’t have fond memories of “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.” In fact, when talking about it with Radhika, I let out a sigh of exasperation when its number came up. Which is why I was surprised when after I rewatched the episode over the weekend I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. The X-Files isn’t the kind of program to do holiday episodes, so this one is the closest we ever get on this front, but we get a real sense of the kind of melancholy and loneliness that can take a hold of you during what should be times of jubilant celebration, which Maurice and Lyda take advantage of masterfully.
I think my reappraisal of the episode is a function of my age and maturity. The last time I recall seeing this episode in its entirety was when my roommate Kenji and I were watching the series in college, and I found myself bored by the parlor games. Now, I find the examination of our heroes souls massively compelling. It helps that the the ghosts are portrayed by the likes of Asner and Tomlin, legendary actors with sterling careers whose years of experience go a long way in establishing the lovers as a credible threat. It is their ability to play up both the humor and pathos (sometimes within the same breath) that works to play off of Duchovny and Anderson, planting seeds of doubt and despair in the heads of the FBI’s most unwanted.
If there is anything I have a problem with is how rushed the final act is. There is a deliberate pacing of the first half of the episode that is completely thrown out the window. Mulder’s sudden ramped-up psychosis, intense enough to want to shoot Scully, doesn’t feel like it is earned based upon the manipulations the ghosts beset on him earlier. I feel like there are about 10-15 minutes we are missing here (and no, we aren’t talking about the kind of lost time when encountering alien technology), and this does the climax a great detriment.
This may be a lesser complaint when it comes to a script as thematically and emotionally rich as the one we get here. There is something particularly comforting about the usual banter between Mulder and Scully, and with more than five seasons and a movie behind us, we relish all the ticks and idiosyncrasies that come with it. Maurice and Lyda are then not only useful foils to our heroes but amplifiers of their psyches as well.
Experimentation is indeed the watchword of this season, and “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” is no exception. It is a sterling example of the haunted house genre, and its gothic thrills (including special effects straight out of Death Becomes Her) have hints of everything from Clue to Casper. A bottle episode crafted to save money in the budget, the episode makes the most of essentially a single room set, loading the frame with eerie quirks.
Like Radhika, what makes the episode for me is the unrestrained ebullience of the gift exchange. It is one of the few genuinely happy moments in a series that seems to get off on placing its protagonists in peril. It is a scene without catch or consequence. We as viewers and X-Philes have great affection for Mulder and Scully, and it is thrilling to see them act like kids on Christmas morning. For an episode I didn’t have much hopes in revisiting, its stellar writing and acting sure changed my mind.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Ed Asner – Appearing here as the ghost Maurice, Asner is a veteran actor probably best known for his role as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Lou Grant. He was also in the miniseries Roots, did voice acting on numerous animated series, including Spider-Man and Batman: The Animated Series. He was also the voice of Carl in the Pixar film Up.
Lily Tomlin – Seen here as Lyda, Tomlin is a longtime actress and comedian, who has appeared in a range of films from 9 to 5 to I Heart Huckabees. She has also had roles on Murphy Brown and The West Wing.