Literary Allusions in The X-Files


Perhaps no show in TV history contains such a dazzling array of literary allusions as The Simpsons. Except for maybe Mystery Science Theater 3000. The references come so fast and furious in both these series that it is practically impossible to recognize them all. The X-Files also contained a healthy dose of literary references and usually they were introduced with such a subtle touch that you might not recognize it until your second or third viewing.

The X-Files was a show that dealt with otherworldly and often supernatural subjects, of course, so it should come as little surprise that one of the key names in the history of the study of the occult should have been slipped in at some point. The X-Files usually managed to find bizarre titles for individual episodes and one of the strangest was an episode titled “Die Hand Die Verletzt.” This episode revolves students and faculty at Crowley High, which is a nod to Aleister Crowley, who was the foremost occultist in the world at the time he lived. In fact, he was known as the Wickedest Man in the World.

The X-Files episode about zoo animals being in contact with aliens is titled “Fearful Symmetry.” Any fan of William Blake will recognize those two words from what is perhaps his most famous poem “The Tyger.” Most X-Files fans know that agent Dana Scully and her father have a special relationship in which they called each other Ahab and Starbuck. In case you only know Starbuck as place at which to get ripped off for the same amount of coffee you could have gotten for less than half the price at the 7-Eleven, both those characters are central to Moby-Dick. Continuing the Moby-Dick allusion, Scully also adopts a dog named Queequeg, which is also the name of a harpooner in the novel.

The wonderful black & white episode that is a homage to the classic Universal Studios Frankenstein movies is titled “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and initiates a series of literary allusions. That title is a nod to the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus. The mad doctor in the episode is named Dr. Polidori in honor of John Polidori. Polidori was one of the guests that fateful night when a wager was made between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelly and Lord Byron over who could write the most horrific story since the Year Without a Summer made enjoying their Geneva getaway so difficult. Out of that wager came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s Manfred and Dr. John Polidori’s less famous, but equally influential novel The Vampyre, which preceded Bram Stoker’s Dracula by almost 70 years. Another Frankenstein reference is the name of the episode’s Polidori’s wife, Elizabeth, which was also the name of Dr. Frankenstein’s wife.

In my favorite X-Files episode of all time “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” there is a bizarre little creature who comes not from outer space, but inner space. His name is Lord Kinbote and this is a reference to Charles Kinbote, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. Scully claims that Chung’s book The Caligarian Candidate is one of her favorite books of all time; the title is an interesting amalgam of the German Expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the novel based on John McCain The Manchurian Candidate. In “Arcadia” where Mulder and Scully go undercover as man and wife they assume the names Rob and Laura Petrie. This is, of course, a reference to The Dick Van Dyke Show. The name of the sheriff in the series’ most disturbing episode, “Home”, should be an obvious reference: Andy Taylor.