This week's episode of The X-Files, "Familiar," felt very much in line with a horror film: witchcraft, child murders, and the scariest children's entertainers since John Wayne Gacy. Almost as scary is the realization that there are only two new episodes of The X-Files left -- possibly forever.
We spoke with Benjamin Van Allen, who wrote "Familiar," but is also a staff writer on this season. He told us about the terrifying origins of Mr. Chuckleteeth and Bibble-Tiggles, and how William fits into this episode. He also gave us a preview of what we can expect from the last two episodes.
There is a lot going on in this episode: witches, a pedophile, hellhounds, terrifying kids characters... where did the idea for all of this come from?
Benjamin Van Allen: I've always been creeped out by children's television show characters, like Teletubbies. There is another show I saw that kind of inspired the Bibble-Tiggles, as we call them in the show, called Boohbahs. A lot of kid's shows like that, when you watch them, you're like, "Holy s***. How am I letting my kid watch this? It's so weird." Kid's TV shows have always really creeped me out. I really just wanted to make a classic X-Files episode. It's a monster-of-the-week episode, but not all MOTW episodes actually have a monster. I really wanted to have some recognizable monster for the episode. That's where the Mr. Chuckleteeth guy came in. Like the classic X-Files feel, I definitely wanted to set it in a small town. I wanted to start the episode in the town with Mulder and Scully, and end the episode in the town with Mulder and Scully. As much as I love all the X-Files lore, I didn't want to see the X-Files office, I didn't want to put Skinner in this episode. I just wanted it to be a very classic, standalone monster-of-the-week episode.
Mr. Chuckleteeth and the Bibble-Tiggles were crazy-terrifying.
Awesome! I'm so happy to hear it! That's all I want!
I'm watching it and I don't understand how these parents aren't being arrested for letting their kids watch this stuff.
If you go watch kids TV shows that are on right now, you will notice they are a little weird.
Oh, I do notice this!
Yo Gabba Gabba is another one I was watching the other day. That one's just as creepy.
Yeah, but I have a soft spot for Yo Gabba Gabba because it was created by the Aquabats.
Mr. Chuckleteeth was actually inspired by an old British kids TV show called Jigsaw. There's a character in Jigsaw called Mr. Noseybonk. He kind of looks like Mr. Chuckleteeth a little bit, so that was the inspiration for me when I was writing the character. It was the starting point for the design, but we really made it our own thing. My inkling is that it might also have been the inspiration behind Jigsaw, the character in the Saw films.
Why did you decide to have the episode be set against a witchcraft story, rather than just focus on the kid's show aspect?
When I was thinking of this episode, I thought of the teaser first, then I had to figure out a way to make the teaser make sense. I was trying to figure out a way to make the lore behind these characters, how to make them real, and how to make them dangerous. I'm really big into research and history. I started going into a lot of research into spirits. I'm from Massachussetts, so I kind of wanted to set it in the New England area. When I was researching spirits, I started reading about familiars and it all just clicked together. That, and I love witchcraft and magic-type stuff.
It feels like, in this episode, the specter of William hangs heavy over Mulder and Scully, because they are dealing with the deaths of two children. William is never really specifically addressed in this episode. Was that the intention?
I think it was more of a happy accident. When we went into this season, we knew William was going to play a big part, because they kind of set it up at the end of last season. You see so much on TV nowadays that the killing of adults and, to some extent, the killing of teenagers... it's not as emotional as the death of a child. I really wanted to do something hard-hitting with this episode, so I wanted to make the victims children. But you are absolutely correct. I don't know that I went into it necessarily thinking about William, but it definitely plays on the season, for sure. You are absolutely right about that.
Mulder says a couple of times in this episode that this is a witch hunt. Is that specifically referring to the literal hunt for witches, or is it a veiled reference to current events?
Probably both. I think what I was playing on with that -- and everyone can read into it what they want -- is there is kind of a mob-mentality on the internet now, with every single topic that ever comes up. I'm just as guilty as anyone. You read articles on Twitter, and it's like headline culture. You'll retweet stuff without even reading the article. You'll jump onto what anybody else is saying and attack other people without ever looking into fact. Like I said, I'm guilty of it as well, but it's a dangerous direction our culture is headed. I don't know what can be done about it, because social media has brought so many people together, and given so many people their own voice. It runs the gamut from small personal attacks on people to entire cultures of people being targeted.
I was reading this book where someone was talking about the four or five big witch hunts in history. There was the original witch hunts; then there was McCarthyism; the satanic cult craze in the 1990s [ed note: the "Satanic Panic" was at its most fervent in the 1980s]; then Islamophobia today. But I think with the way social media has gone, everything turns into a witch hunt. Regardless if people are right about who they are hunting, I just think it's a dangerous culture we are in, with social media and all. Margaret Atwood wrote a good article about throwing out due process. It's a hard topic to talk about these days, but it's something I think everyone should look at.
You also touched upon that with the mob mentality that goes into killing the sex offender.
Oh yeah, for sure. And he wasn't a good guy, but he didn't do the killings!
You are on the writing staff. Can you talk about the evolution of what is ostensibly the final season of The X-Files?
It's not a traditional show with a traditional writer's room. In a traditional writer's room, everyone would come in and talk as a group about where the show is going, then everyone would break each episode together, in a room. The X-Files has never really worked like that. We did that a little bit on this show. We decided who would be writing which episodes, and how many episodes. All the writers individually pitched their ideas and got feedback. But unlike a traditional writer's room, we all went off on our own and broke the stories by ourself. Once we had the entire story outlined, then we would come back and meet.
When my outline was done, I would come back and pitch it to all the writers, and they would give me feedback to restructure my episode. Then we got to a place where everyone was happy with it, and I would go off and write it by myself. Chris [Carter, series creator], especially in these last few seasons, has taken the mythology episodes. We talked with him and he told us the ideas he was thinking of, and where he wanted the mythology to go. We gave him our notes and our comments on what we thought. Chris pretty much takes it from there.
Can you give us a preview of what we can expect from the last two episodes?
I think you're really going to enjoy the penultimate episode. I'm not going to say much, but it's very dark and it's a feast for the eyes, that's for sure. The very last episode, I just got a chance to watch in the mix, and I think it's amazing. I think it's thrilling and, I have to be honest, I read the script and I've been with the show the whole season, and I still got a little choked up at the end. So I think you are in for a mix of emotions.
You think the X-Philes will be happy?
[Laughs] They run the gamut! You can't please everyone. Chris said to me, years ago, when I first started working with them, "When you create something that becomes as big as The X-Files has become, you don't really own it anymore. The fans own it." And there are millions and millions of fans, so everyone is going to have their own opinions. I think the episode is awesome.