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Very Important Binge: The 13 scariest episodes of The X-Files

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Oct 27, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

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Halloween plans are a little different this year, but just because you don’t have a party to attend it doesn’t mean there is a lack of scary entertainment. Revisiting The X-Files — or even watching for the first time — can feel like a huge undertaking with a lineup of 218 episodes and two standalone movies. The quality does vary from year to year, but at its peak, The X-Files was unleashing some of the most ambitious and terrifying stories on television audiences.

Producing over 20 episodes a season of high-quality material is impossible, and of course there are duds in the bunch. The two main types of episodes are serialized alien mythology and episodic monster-of-the-week — and some monsters do make a return. The latter was ideal for letting the show's writers (including Glen Morgan and James Wong) push the boundaries, and these episodes produced some truly scary images that are still just as haunting more than two decades later. It is a wonder that Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) can sleep without the lights on after all they have witnessed and endured.

The monsters at the heart of these stories vary from very human acts of horror to creatures that previously only existed in myth and legend. These are the installments that could give you nightmares, scare a room full of teenage girls at a sleepover, and make you reconsider venturing into the woods. And in true scary tale tradition, even though Mulder and Scully survive (though not always unscathed), there isn't always an explanation or a suspect in custody.

Here are 13 episodes of The X-Files to celebrate during this spooky season.

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The X-Files episode Squeeze - Scully and Tooms

"Squeeze" (Season 1, Episode 3)

A locked-room mystery, a suspect who Mulder thinks has been committing murders that date back to 1903, and liver eating are all ingredients in the third-ever episode. "Squeeze" set a high bar for scare levels with this inaugural monster-of-the-week killer (and would spawn a repeat visit by Eugene Tooms later that same season). Tooms is human but with a very specific and horrifying condition that utilizes the regenerative abilities of livers and allows him to hibernate for 30 years before he needs to ingest more. Touching bile is never pleasant — particularly when it is someone else’s — and Mulder injects some humor in the horror when he gets some of the DIY nest on his hand, "Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?" This early outing ticks both the terrifying and disgusting boxes.

The X-Files

"Ice" (Season 1, Episode 8)

A very The Thing-like premise, "Ice" sends Mulder and Scully up to Alaska to investigate a mass murder-suicide at a research base. The partners are going to need more than a faux-fur collar and a thermal henley for protection. Digging up something deadly that has long been dormant is a classic horror scenario and in this case, the prehistoric parasitic worm causes the host to act aggressively. Paranoia runs rife and at this early stage in Mulder and Scully's relationship, they get spun out by the intense and claustrophobic environment. This won't be the last time either of them pulls a gun on the other, and the episode as a whole plays on the fear of unleashing something buried deep — Season 2 also features a similar premise with a volcano and a killer fungus in "Firewalker," if you fancy a double bill.

The X-Files Eve

"Eve" (Season 1, Episode 11)

Horror has consistently portrayed twins as creepy (see The Shining and Home Movie), but "Eve" throws in human cloning and a simultaneous murder on opposite sides of the country to up the ante. Tapping into fears about genetic testing — this was the mid-'90s, after all — and the lengths the government went to during the Cold War to create super-soldiers, the Litchfield Project at the heart of this plot has all the necessary paranoia-meets-reality components. Despite their young age and angelic faces, telepathic abilities and inherent murderous urges make Teena and Cindy menacing foes. Teen girls with incredible powers is a theme that weaves its way through the series, playing into the puberty trope that horror so often favors.

The X-Files: The Host

"The Host" (Season 2, Episode 2)

While the parasitic worm in the aforementioned "Ice" dates back 250,000 years, the Flukeman of "The Host" is very much a modern mutation. The human-sized creature is a byproduct of Chernobyl that has made it to the sewers of New Jersey as an accidental stowaway on a decommissioned Russian freighter. Oops, someone didn't check the compartments properly. A sewage worker is attacked and infected with a parasitic larva that later kills him in an unpleasant shower scene. This is the Creature from the Black Lagoon but pumped full of radioactive material and desperate to get back to the ocean. This episode will make you double-check for what could be hiding in that Port-A-Potty before you go to the bathroom.

Irresistible X-Files

"Irresistible" (Season 2, Episode 13)

Donnie Pfaster is one of the scariest characters featured across the 11 seasons of The X-Files simply because, on the outside, he is just a regular guy. The question of what makes someone evil arises during the multi-decade run and while there is no concrete answer, Pfaster is up there as the definition of this word. "You think you can look into the face of pure evil. Then you find yourself paralyzed by it," Scully explains in one of the most disquieting moments of the series. Initially taking fingernails and hair from his murder victims, he turns his attention toward Scully when he spots her interrogating a suspect while he is in jail for an unsuccessful attack. The Season 7 follow-up to this episode is an unnecessary coda to the story that takes the suggestion that Pfaster is more than flesh-and-blood to the extreme.

The X-Files

"Die Hand Die Verletz" (Season 2, Episode 14)

Teens getting messed up in occult rituals is prime mid-'90s material that includes alleged sacrificial sightings and toads raining down on Mulder and Scully's signature umbrellas. But the big narrative deviation is the twist that the teachers at this New Hampshire school who are meant to be protecting the students are actually the ones doing the dodgy black magic business. Claims of abuse, the Satanic Panic, and eyeballs being stored in a desk are all on the lesson plan for this Halloween-ready episode. This is also the late Kim Manners' first time behind the X-Files camera — he helmed four outings on this list including “Grotesque,” “Home,” and "Chinga."

The X-Files F Emasculata

"F. Emasculata" (Season 2, Episode 22)

When inmates die of a mysterious illness and the prison is quarantined by the CDC, Mulder and Scully are sent to help track down a recently escaped inmate who might spread it further. This mix of pharmaceutical corporate power and the horrifying notion that the incarcerated are considered disposable is scarily relevant, and the deadly contagion storyline might be too close to home for some viewers. Sure, this virus is more outwardly disgusting (to up the dramatic stakes) but 25 years later it is an indictment on the cavalier actions of those in charge. It is a nerve-inducing episode that underscores how good this show is at upping the stakes when time is not on Mulder and Scully's side.

The X-Files

"Grotesque" (Season 3, Episode 13)

Taking familiar scary objects and concepts like demons is an X-Files specialty, which includes the gargoyle-but-make-it-real at the heart of "Grotesque." Mulder is mocked by the FBI legend Bill Paterson — based on the profiler John E. Douglas — for his particular area of interest. Obsession and sanity are two areas in focus amid the mutilated faces and men who have been encased in gargoyle-shaped clay. The line between reality and supernatural is always blurred on this show, but this episode cranks up the tension and uses frightful imagery to do so.

The X-Files

"Home" (Season 4, Episode 2)

This is the first and only episode to get a TV-MA rating (and the first to use a viewer discretion warning for graphic violence), but that's what you get when films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are a source of inspiration. The discovery of a dead baby during a sandlot baseball game is a grisly moment that is quickly followed by some of the most brutal deaths ever depicted in this series. Hearing “Wonderful! Wonderful!” by Johnny Mathis is still terror-inducing. The Peacock family (with the ideal moniker for a wholesome sitcom) has lived in the same house since the Civil War without any running water, gas, or electricity, clinging to a nation that no longer exists — this is family values gone very, very bad.

The X-Files

"Unruhe" (Season 4, Episode 4)

Photographs capturing supernatural events have occurred for as long as this technology has existed. While plenty of those images managed trickery long before Photoshop existed, there are still spooky theories including the notion of "thoughtography." This is when a person can influence a photograph via a projection from their mind. The bad news is the individual capable of this feat is also performing lobotomies on his victims. The word "unruhe" is German for unrest, which Scully uses to tell her captor "Ich habe keine Unruhe" ("I have no unrest") in a bid to reason with him. Yes, sadly this is another episode in which Scully is kidnapped. Another scary thing about this show is how often it relied on this particular trope.

The X-Files Detour

"Detour" (Season 5, Episode 4)

Man versus nature and city versus rural living is a big horror theme that sees those who live in the countryside fighting back against potential interlopers with violent methods. Forests are a tried and tested creepy setting in the X-Files oeuvre, whether monsters or aliens are the storyline, and "Detour" is one of the creepiest. A seemingly invisible assailant attacks two men surveying the land in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest, followed by a young boy and his father discovering the abandoned equipment and a bloody jacket while hunting. A missing person search party begins in earnest, which soon grabs the attention of our favorite paranormal investigators. Mulder and Scully's involvement isn't official business, but they become involved while taking part in another chilling event: a "team-building" seminar with other FBI agents.

The X-Files

"Chinga" (Season 5, Episode 10)

Creepy children are a Stephen King specialty, so it isn't surprising the episode he co-wrote includes a kid with a very disturbing doll. "Let's have fun" and "I want to play" are Chinga's catchphrases that cause those nearby to mutilate their own faces with extremely bloody (and sometimes deadly) results. Dolls are inherently creepy, as many horror movies and ghost stories have successfully proven, which The X-Files leans on. While on a weekend vacation, Scully stumbles upon the store carnage and can't help but become caught up in the drama. Mulder suggests it could be sorcery or witchcraft, while his partner has other thoughts about this mass case of involuntary violence. Either way, this is a classic creepy scenario from a horror master.

The X-Files episode 1108, "Familiar." Mr. Chuckleteeth

"Familiar" (Season 11, Episode 8) 

One of the scariest things about the reboot is the twist that revealed the paternity identity of Scully's baby. While the two newest seasons got bogged down in mythology, there were a few episodes that captured what made this show great. This includes the unnerving monster-of-the-week children's TV concept at the heart of "Familiar" that included warped Teletubby-looking figures and a man-sized ventriloquist going by the name of Mr. Chuckleteeth. The mention of Mulder's old school go-to supernatural explanation (hello, witches) adds to the former glory feeling, even if this episode doesn't quite hit those heights. The eerie atmosphere is emphasized by the yellow coat-wearing child — an ingrained reminder of Georgie from It. Children's TV characters are definitely ripe for nightmares, particularly when their theme song beckons the viewer to come to play — and just like the Grady twins in The Shining, it is best to turn this offer down.