Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today, we look back at the classic X-Files episode, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”.
A Brief History
In case you’re somehow not familiar with The X-Files, the television series developed by Chris Carter ran from 1993 to 2002 and was later resurrected in 2016. The show was a huge hit for the Fox network, and its characters and slogans became popular culture touchstones. In the show, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is teamed up with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and together they investigate unexplained phenomena and unsolved cases their Bureau name the X-Files.
In addition to the series-spanning story arc, “monster of the week” episodes made up roughly two-thirds of the series. In such stand-alone episodes, Mulder and Scully investigate strange crimes that often had no long-term effect on the storyline. This is one of them.
What’s it About?
In “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” Mulder talks Scully into investigating a haunted house on Christmas Eve where several couples have met their fate on that very night:
Mulder: Driven by a tragic fear of separation they forged a lovers’ pact so that they might spend eternity together and not spend one precious Christmas apart.
Scully: They killed themselves?
Mulder: And their ghosts haunt this house every Christmas Eve.
Inside the haunted house, Mulder and Scully encounter endless tricks and traps set by a ghostly couple who originally made a lovers’ suicide pact in the house. “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” plays on loneliness, and traps Mulder and Scully in a loop of depression and distrust as the ghosts try to convince them to turn on one another.
“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is one of the best Christmas episodes of any series— an extremely creative, arguably bitter Holiday treat, perfect for this time of year with its blend of horror, comedy, and hints of romance.
Chris Carter has often mentioned that the series never really pulled off a great scary ghost story, and admittedly there’s never a sense that the show’s leads are ever in danger, but “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” allows Carter to spin a somewhat hysterical, gutsy ghost story, into an extremely warped psychological study of Mulder and Scully – specifically their loneliness. After all, the holiday season can be the loneliest time of the year for many, and Mulder and Scully are no different. In fact, there is a subconscious implication that the two agents agree to meet on Christmas Eve because they have nowhere else to be, and no one else to be with.
In many episodes of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully run in circles and sometimes into walls – figuratively speaking – but in “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” we’re treated to watching them do it literally. The deceased former occupants, Maurice and Lyda (played magnificently by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) have more tricks up their sleeve than Harry Houdini. The ghosts prey on their loneliness and the ambiguity of their relationship, urging them all the while to follow their example and kill one another on Christmas Eve. Carter makes the house itself the central character, a beautifully designed and highly atmospheric entity teeming with trap doors, dead bodies under the floorboards, windows that automatically open and shut and a room that one cannot escape. Doors and walls appear and disappear within the spooky old home, and based on the clock on the wall, time itself seems to be shifting around, making the location not only mysterious but genuinely creepy.
The rapid-fire banter throughout the episode which is rich and clever is also worth noting. Early on, in what might be the highlight of the entire 60 minutes, Scully makes a passionate speech about the psychology of believing in spiritual hauntings:
“These are tricks that the mind plays. They are ingrained clichés from a thousand different horror films. When we hear a sound, we get a chill. We-we see a shadow and we allow ourselves to imagine something that an otherwise rational person would discount out of hand.“
“The whole idea of a benevolent entity fits perfectly with what I’m saying. That a spirit would materialize or return for no other purpose than to show itself is silly and ridiculous. I mean, what it really shows is how silly and ridiculous we have become in believing such things. I mean, that… That we can ignore all natural laws about the corporeal body – that-that we witness these spirits clad in-in their own shabby outfits with the same old haircuts and hairstyles never aging, never… Never in search of more comfortable surroundings– it actually ends up saying more about the living than it does about the dead.“
“I mean, Mulder, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to understand the… the unconscious yearnings that these imaginings satisfy. You know, the-the longing for immortality the hope that there is something beyond this mortal coil – that-that we might never be long without our loved ones. I mean, these are powerful, powerful desires. I mean, they’re the very essence of what make us human. The very essence of Christmas, actually.“
As with most episodes of The X-Files, the production values are great. Mark Snow does a beautiful job in scoring the episode, lending to the dark brooding atmosphere (listen to a sample of his score here). The cinematography is stellar, and Carter’s striking compositions put every square inch of the manor to good use while serving to isolate and displace Mulder and Scully until they can succumb to the ghost’s desires.
The episode is overwhelmed by any consideration of character or dramatic logic, so one must be willing to suspend their disbelief – even in a series that usually focuses on alien abduction. But strip away all of its supernatural trappings, and the episode remains a sophisticated, complex, and tremendously subtle character study. The disturbing psychological insights and a handful of suddenly executed surprises make this classic as fresh and vital as the day it originally aired on television.
By the end of the episode, Mulder and Scully realize they can lessen each other’s loneliness if they could only learn to break free from their respective obsessive-compulsive behaviour. “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” is a wonderful breath of fresh air from the usual conspiracies, covert meetings and constant cover-ups the two agents usually investigate, but what makes the episode so special is its whimsical and utterly hysterical tone.
How Christmassy is it?
Given the nasty, bitter, violent attitude about Christmas exhibited by our ghosts and at times, the F.B.I. agents – not to mention the unsubtle parallels with Scrooge, I’d say 100 % – in the sense that it will speak to both those who love or loathe the holiday.
Who’s it for
Anyone really. The episode isn’t scary enough to ward off small children, and as a stand-alone entry into the series, one does not need to be familiar with the series-spanning story arcs.
The film Mulder watches at the end of the episode is 1951’s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim.
The song heard at the start and end of the episode is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, performed by Bing Crosby.