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The X-Files - Beyond the Scully Effect

Perhaps the younger among you cannot grasp the cultural phenomenon that the sci-fi show The X-Files was. But trust me, this was one of the most impactful series of all time, with a long-lasting effect on how we think of aliens. Let’s celebrate its premiere anniversary together!

This is the science of fiction.

***Iconic intro plays in the background.***

It’s understandable younger people might not know much about The X-Files. It premiered in 1993, thirty years ago. Let me repeat it: 30 YEARS AGO! Even I was too young to see the pilot. It lasted for 9 seasons, ending in 2002.

Admittedly, I started watching the show after it ended, but way before the revival in 2016. The series is a buddy-cop/sci-fi mystery with an episodic storyline and over-the-roof chemistry between the protagonists (although behind the scenes, the tension between them was reportedly not pleasant). That’s literally everything I search for in a show: investigation, aliens, incredible stories, unique characters, amazing theme song, amazing catchphrases... everything about it is awesome!

We follow a couple of FBI agents assigned to work on The X-Files, a series of strange unsolved cases and mysterious phenomena. Agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, is a brilliant profiler and a true believer. Mulder thinks his sister was abducted by aliens, and his pursuit to uncover this truth sets the tone for the show. Assigned as his partner is Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson: the skeptic counterpart to Mulder’s beliefs.

Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, The X-Files

Scully is a medical doctor trained in sciences—a collected, serious, career woman that represents the voice of reason, always providing a scientific perspective to the bizarre cases she and her partner face together. Dana was portrayed as highly intelligent and capable. A character that challenged gender stereotypes and became a positive role model. In fact, many women reported pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields after watching the show, citing Scully’s portrayal as inspirational.

This phenomenon became known as the Scully Effect: a perceived rise in women enrolling in scientific training with correlation to the increasing popularity of The X-Files series. Direct causation is often hard to track. But compared with other cases of entertainment media influences in culture (think about all the Edwards and Bellas born after Twilight), it is not a big of a stretch to assume that Scully’s representation was responsible for this statistical phenomenon.

I know that personal experience means squat in this case, but I was deeply influenced by Gillian Anderson’s character, and look where I am now. :D

But I want to draw your attention to another cultural impact this amazing show provided. This is not, however, based on a statistical study or any other type of analysis but on my perception and peripheral research. (For context, I’m working on an academic paper on the popularization of the concept of black holes, including by media such as science fiction, and it’s an overlapping area)

You can call it a fan theory, I guess.

I want to believe.

The X-Files was inspired by a cultural fever surrounding alien abductions. During the second half of the last century, one major conspirationist theory involved alien abduction, UFOs spotted in the skies, and government conspiracy covering it up. And it was huge! Maybe the younger generation heard of it: about Area 51 and History Channel’s Ancient Aliens—even if only the meme. But I think it can be harder to grasp how widespread it was. Especially because it sounds so silly…

I say that one of the reasons it sounds silly now is because of The X-Files.

Alien enthusiasts were the flat earthers of yore. Media exposure about abductions, videos about UFOs caught on tape, movies, and documentaries on alien encounters hyped the conspiracy. It became a phenomenon that often clashed with the scientific explanations. So much so that Carl Sagan's best-selling science book The Demon-Haunted World has a large chunk dedicated to addressing this issue and debunking many myths. And that’s why it sounds a bit outdated for today’s readers.

And scientific endeavors helped to fire up those accounts. It was amidst this alien fever that projects like SETI, the acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, appeared. It is one project Carl Sagan was personally involved with. He was in love with science. Moreover, he wrote a first-contact sci-fi book, and these are most likely the reason he felt the need to address the conspiracy in The Demon-Haunted World. In any case, the alien abduction talk has its roots in curiosity, fear, and fascination with the unknown.

Enters The X-Files. The show became an instant hit. Its primary theme was alien abductions, but the episodes involved investigations of other paranormal phenomena, unexplained mysteries, and many strange occurrences. These themes were paired with exchanges between the two protagonists over supernatural vs. scientific explanations, with many myths debunked and others not so much.

This success and great storytelling surrounding these topics were important to cement the idea that aliens and UFOs were on the same level as other urban legends that the show tackled. It helped the public to look at these phenomena's occurrences with a more skeptical eye.

As I mentioned before, this is a personal observation. The undeniable fact is that science fiction has a real impact on science and culture (see this post and this one too about it). And I see this example as one that had a major role in lessening the extraterrestrial fever in the new millennium.

The truth is out there.

So, what do you think? Does it make sense? Have you watched The X-Files?

Let me know in the comments.

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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