The X-Files goes after incest and genetic mutation, way before it was cool

The X-Files goes after incest and genetic mutation, way before it was cool

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: “scary episodes.”

“Home” (The X-Files (1993); season four, episode two; originally aired 10/11/1996)

In which the mothers are the monsters, and we’re still terrified

(Available on Netflix)

Sonia Saraiya: Well, I was scared. Admittedly, I have never seen The X-Files before, so I had no idea what to expect, but despite the hokey ’90s monster makeup and the totally unconvincing gore, I was legitimately very afraid during “Home.” Maybe not for our heroes Mulder and Scully, but certainly for the town sheriff and his wife, even though they had “redshirt” written all over them.

“Home” takes us to an idyllic small town with the proverbial terrible secret: a clan that is so far removed from the rest of the world that not only do they grow their own food and raise their own pigs—they also have sex with each other to produce horribly mutated, but presumably genetically “pure,” offspring. In the twist at the end of “Home,” we discover that the three brothers have been keeping their mother alive under the bed, and presumably with her consent are trying to impregnate her so their line can continue. But the baby doesn’t live (or they kill it?), and when local kids find a dead infant in a field (under the home plate of their baseball game, natch) Mulder and Scully are sent to rural Pennsylvania to investigate.

The main problem and the main success of “Home” are essentially identical: Suspense and fear work best when a lot is hidden. This works particularly well in the cold open, which might be the scariest scene in the episode (or at least, second place), in which three or four dimly lit, misshapen individuals are in the pouring rain, working around a birthing table slick with blood that might as well be the platform on which Frankenstein’s monster was raised. The worst is their noises—moaning and crying, but in an uncanny valley that doesn’t quite sound human—mingled with the baby’s crying, your first clue into what is going on. And then the umbilical cord—a particularly nasty, thick, sausage-like umbilical cord—cut with a pair of rusty scissors! I don’t watch a lot of horror, precisely because moments like this get under my skin and absolutely terrify me. (Also more than anything, what really got to me was the unsanitary scissors. Go figure.)

But even with all the cloak-and-dagger lighting and editing, the story doesn’t quite hold together. Why did the brothers kill the baby, exactly, if all they want is a child? Why do they all want to live like that? Maybe monsters are supposed to be incomprehensible, but I would have been a lot more afraid if there had been real evil underneath the Peacock family’s motives. As it was, it felt a little more like they were an exceptionally dangerous wolf pack. The real horror is in the reality of their lives, three lonely brothers having sex with their mother because they don’t know what else to do. (That scene where they’re taking their shirts off, to reveal blood- and sweat-streaked torsos that are kind of sexualized, while they’re repeating a litany about doing what they want to do? Is like the creepiest thing that happens in the entire episode.)

But they are brutal and monstrous, and in the scene where they kill the sheriff and his wife, I felt true fear—mostly because that scene was built in such a classic horror-movie way, with the woman under the bed who you hope might survive, but who is totally not going to survive at all.

I’m also interested in the idea of “home” as a concept being the truly scary thing in the episode. Mulder’s interest in the safety and peace of home and the small-town life is turned totally on its head, to reveal itself instead a haven for something terrible and destructive. There’s a flip side to everything we put on a pedestal. Motherhood is the other thing that gets touched on (and I know this gets explored in later episodes of The X-Files)—Scully keeps worrying about the mother of the dead baby, but Mother Peacock is the most horrible of all.

Brandon Nowalk: “Home” is the first episode of The X-Files I’ve ever seen, too. I knew the gist—David Duchovny’s Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Scully are FBI agents, he a believer in paranormal activity, she a skeptic—but I didn’t really know what to expect beyond a scary episode. What I got was something with a lot of tonal variety. There’s that creepy cold open in a ramshackle house in the middle of a storm, naturally, as a woman gives birth with the aide of a group of grotesques who promptly zombie-walk her baby out in the field and bury it live. Then comes an Are You Afraid Of The Dark? setup with a sandlot game interrupted by a ball getting lost in the creepy Peacock yard and then blood oozing up around home plate.

When they arrive to investigate the buried fetus and stumble upon the inbreeding Peacock brothers, Mulder and Scully bring some comedy (The Andy Griffith Show bit) and procedural jargon, respectively, to town. There’s also a note of a long-term relationship when discussing maternity helps Mulder see Scully in a different light, the ending is pure action with the fight in the Peacock house, and there are swings—literal baseball bat swings—at trenchancy throughout.

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, the guys behind Space: Above And Beyond and the beginnings of the Final Destination franchise, “Home” has its bludgeoning elements, like the bloody use of America’s favorite pastime. But what strikes me more than the idea of three Luddites beating the similarly old-fashioned but more moderate sheriff to death with baseball bats to protect their isolationism is the look—the creepy, unmarked-VHS genius (or is that nostalgia?). “Home” is directed by Kim Manners, who directed more episodes of the series than anyone else and was a producer that season as well. In an interview with DGA Magazine, Manners talks about how, in episodes like “Home” specifically, the images just jump into your brain, and it shows. This is chock full of indelible sights: the dramatic Dutch angle of the backlit monsters digging a shallow grave with the dead tree lit so that it scrawls across the sky; the pointed close-up on home plate, complete with the episode title, resting on a pile of fresh dirt; a pool of the sheriff’s blood slowly oozing toward his wife’s fingers as she hides under the bed. (Manners also answers your question, Sonia, about why the Peacocks buried the baby: Apparently, ”They didn’t want this terrible genealogy to continue.” I didn’t get it, either.)

But is it scary? Well, it’s scarier than “Hush,” at any rate. As Mulder and Scully tramp through the Peacock house, suddenly the field of vision gets too dark to make out what’s going on, and this something, this specifically lit something gets bigger and bigger as the camera gets closer and closer. The moment I realized it was a pair of eyes turned sideways I jolted a bit. Better still is the shot when Mulder finally looks under the bed, under which, the audience knows, lies the very bossy quadruple amputee Ma Peacock. On the opposite side of the bed the camera faces Mulder, focused on his face, but right as he peeks under, a blurry lump in the foreground turns toward the camera and screams. Needless to say it’s a pretty effective jump scare. But “Home” has many different kinds of scares its arsenal, from disgusting imagery to that campfire ending: The surviving Peacocks are still out there somewhere. How well do you know your neighbors?

Most of “Home” is more wicked than anything else, deliciously dark, but not exactly frightening: The mom screams during childbirth and the tool the “doctor” reaches for is a fork; the Peacock brothers go about their midnight spree while a Johnny Mathis soundalike croons, “It’s wonderful, wonderful;” and the big gross-out revelations aren’t far off from a turn-of-the-century sideshow. So my adrenaline didn’t go crazy, but maybe that’s on purpose. Violent isolationists like these aren’t anything to be scared of. They’re just revolting.  

Pilot Viruet: Am I the only diehard X-Files fan in this group? The X-Files is one of the first television shows that I was ever hopelessly obsessed with. I didn’t watch “Home” live (I was 8 and probably asleep by the time it was on), but I do remember watching it for the first time in syndication just a few short years later. I was one of those kids who bragged about never being scared by horror flicks (something that you have to do if you’re the youngest and hope to get invited anywhere around Halloween), but man, “Home” definitely scared me upon first viewing. I didn’t fully understand most of what was happening with the family, but I didn’t have to understand anything to realize how chilling the cold open is. There’s a lot of stock horror tropes—the dark and stormy night, the mostly-faceless clan, the creepy screams and lightning flashes—but once they start burying a living, deformed baby, you know that all bets are off. It’s as gruesome as The X-Files gets—a quick scan of the Wikipedia entry informs me that it was the first to get a viewer discretion warning—and sets up how disturbing and horrifying the rest of the episode is going to be.

“Home” is one of the few X-Files episodes that I’d only watched twice; I’ve watched nearly every other episode of the series at least seven or eight times each. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of it—I would, without hesitation, put this is my top five. Instead it’s because I found it so totally unsettling. That’s what I was expecting this time around: I wouldn’t still be spooked, but I’d be uncomfortable. That said, I can confidently say that even now, as an adult, I find this episode scary as hell. As mentioned, the scene with the sheriff and his wife has all the markings of great horror: The wife under the bed, the footsteps nearing the door, the eerie quietness just before the scuffle starts, and even that slow pan out as they make their way back to the car. It’s all in the how-to guide for big horror movies, but feels right at home in this episode of television. The momentum only drops when the actual aftermath is shown.

Overt scenes like the ending are really my only problems with “Home.” The episode is fantastically terrifying when the lights are dimmed, the action is offscreen, and the volume is high. As Sonia mentioned, the noises are the worst, not just during the cold open, but also throughout the entire hour. The brothers’ heavy breathing and Mrs. Peacock’s panicked screams are tough to get out of your head. Even (or especially) the cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” paired with these disturbing images is enough to make your skin crawl for days. But when it starts to remind me too much of modern horror—employing the “Show! Show! Show!” method that’s so grossly misused now—I tend to look away, not from fright but from slight annoyance. I would have preferred to have not seen the Peacock brothers until closer to the end, or to not linger too long on Mrs. Peacock under the bed. Fortunately, these scenes are few and far between.

The reason why I brought up my childhood love of The X-Files is because I was curious to see how my fears relating to this episode have changed. As a kid, the horrors are all found within the creepy face makeup, bloody floors, and the irrational fear of finding a dead baby while playing a game of baseball. Now “Home” speaks much more to my aversion of small towns, the theme of motherhood that pops up throughout the series, and the terrifying knowledge that we won’t ever truly understand how or why the Peacock family ended up this way.

David Sims: Fear not, Pilot, you are not alone (pun intended). Get your beer ready, though, because I’m about to talk about my childhood growing up in England. The X-Files was the first primetime drama I watched that I found all by myself—my parents certainly had no interest, but 11-year-old David would rent the show on video and watch in mortal terror and rapt fascination. I don’t think I got to watch “Home,” though, until way later. That’s a good thing, because I was an easily frightened kid, and if I had watched this at age 10 I would have slept with the light on for a month.

Everything you guys have said about the fear content in this episode is spot-on. The sound design is perfectly realized. Every scene of Mulder and Scully in the house had me panicking. The sight of the mother under the bed, at least for me, is a monster reveal that does work. Limited by its budget, sometimes the big reveal of the X-Files’villain of the week would underwhelm, but even though the Peacock matriarch is at her creepiest lurking under the bed, the last act doesn’t sputter out in the slightest.

The thing that always freaked me out the most about The X-Files was Mulder and Scully’s patter, which stays light even in the darkest of episodes. My favorite moment in “Home” is when Mulder picks up the newspaper proclaiming the death of Elvis and makes a frowny face at Scully. While they’re in the creepy backwoods death shack! It might seem weird to harp on this, but Mulder and Scully’s chemistry is what keeps these kinds of X-Files episodes from feeling like cheap, clichéd mini-horror movies. The more real their relationship (which was always human and believable, even as the show spun out of control) the more you feel the danger they’re in every episode.

There have been plenty of attempts at horror on TV, and they almost all fall flat, for one of two reasons. They can either come across as “spooky” or “creepy” (I love Buffy’“Hush,” but not because it scares me), or they can succeed in terrifying but feel a little hollow (I always felt that way about horror anthology shows like Tales From The Crypt or Are You Afraid Of The Dark?). The X-Files is also helped by having a foot in the recognizable at all times. Mulder and Scully are in suits, they work in dark, boring offices, and they bring no superpowers or Bourne Identitysecret-agent skills to the table—just their FBI training and a handgun.

God, the episode ends on such a frightening note, too. I’m glad the show never revisited the Peacock family, because it’s all the creepier to wonder where Edmund and his mother are going to and what fate awaits them. The use of “Wonderful! Wonderful!” (sung by a Johnny Mathis soundalike because the singer was freaked out by the episode’s content) is a little corny, but after the grueling experience of watching “Home,” you’re almost relieved by a little corniness. It doesn’t undercut that final image of Edmund and mother in the car, which is as sad as it is foreboding. 

SS: Did anyone else notice that with the exception of Scully, all of the women in this episode spend their crucial plot moments under a bed? That’s an obvious tell toward “rape,” I thought. Given how many rape plots and kidnapped women we’ve been subjected to over the course of the last 20 years, it’s interesting to see “Home” take a sharp turn away from the idea that the brothers are rapists or kidnappers, and instead toward something more morally gray: consensual incest. Scully’s insistence that there needed to be a woman involved is a similar red herring, leading us away from the truth that the three brothers were spawning offspring together, somehow (Mulder’s observation that the genes are in triplicate fed into that). Even the creepy eyes looking up from the floorboards didn’t quite convince me that there was someone else there. And then the discovery that a woman is not only part of it, but in on it—that really shocked me. If we had to isolate the most horrifying element of this episode, it is that Mother Peacock chooses to have (unviable?) babies with her own sons. 

We have two X-Files experts here, so I’m curious: How does the construction of the mother as nurturing, but destructive play into The X-Files’ later stories about motherhood? From what I see, Scully’s sympathy for a mother that she imagines to be persecuted is turned violently on its head, to reveal a monster whose priorities are not quite so straightforward. And yet, Mother Peacock is looking out for her children, in a selfish and destructive way. David, you pointed out that Mulder and Scully keep their cool even in the midst of this waking nightmare, but clearly, as they converse, they’re affected by what they’re seeing. Brandon, I’m interested in your idea of the Peacocks being more disgusting than terrifying. Surely they overlap, right? So what’s the difference?

BN: It’s about the effect. Traditionally, terror is about the fear of what’s to come, and horror is about the fear of what’s just happened—basically the difference between suspense and horror. But, to give an extreme example, torture porn isn’t exactly scary, is it? Certainly it can contain elements of mounting terror and immediate horror, but the primary effect is simple, shocking revulsion. It’s so much easier to show something physically gross than something existentially unshakable (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

The “Wonderful! Wonderful!” scene, for instance, is this intricately built suspense piece. The lights are out. The gun’s in the other room. The music is awry. The editing keeps cutting back and forth between Sheriff Taylor at the door and his wife under the bed, closer and closer each time. And then the Peacock brothers burst through the door and easily disarm the sheriff and sniff out his wife. It’s incredibly intense as we wait to see what happens, and it’s incredibly frightening in the moment of the attack, too. No wonder the episode needed that viewer discretion warning.

By contrast, the giant, severed pig’s head taking up the frame as Mulder and Scully ascend the stairs to the ancestral Peacock home is just a gross-out tactic, and the same is basically true of the brothers’ appearance. Admittedly, these guys are more Elephant Man than Freaks (although they look even more like The Twilight Zone creatures who have let themselves go), but they’re just mutations. When we finally get a good look at Ma’s face, the camera points up her face the way a campfire flashlight distorts an expression, her eyes bulging, her neck a pile of wrinkles, and many of her teeth missing. But how lasting is that? What scares is the surprise, and the scream, but “Home” keeps returning to the idea that these people are scary even to look at.

What does genuinely chill me is the semblance of an unstoppable force—the way the Peacocks are so effortlessly able to take out the sheriff that they announce their arrival to the whole neighborhood and still can’t be overcome. The ending is similar. Even after all that, Mulder and Scully solved the mystery and fought for their lives, and still two Peacocks get away. I’m curious: Is that kind of ending common for The X-Files? And how does “Home” reflect the show’s themes? 

PV: I’m glad you brought up the women’s roles in this episode, Sonia, because that’s something that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot lately—mainly the way Mother Peacock subverted all of my expectations. Upon first viewing, it’s natural to assume that rape definitely played a role, that she was being held hostage and was forced to deliver these deformed babies against her will. It’s chilling enough that she agrees to be a part of this disturbing spectacle. But then “Home” takes it one step further by having Mother Peacock fully believe that this is motherhood and this is their idea of a normal home. Or rather, that her home isn’t inside that broken-down house but it’s wherever her sons are. It’s the most fucked-up interpretation of the “home is where the heart is” embroidery hanging on a living room wall that I’ve ever seen.

I hate the way Peacock explains it to Scully—the way she immediately knows Scully doesn’t have a son—because in a weird, sick way, her logic does make sense. Of course, all of her actions are inexcusable, but isn’t it common to always jump to the “You’re not a member of this group so you wouldn’t understand” defense?  

As for the series’ running theme about motherhood, I’m a little hesitant to go too into detail. Not just because I’m wary of ruining the later seasons, but because I’ve never been quite sure if “Home” was a clear setup for Scully’s later storyline. Basically—and this is a major spoiler—Scully’s mysterious pregnancy and the ways she has to protect her miraculous son echoes, very slightly, this idea of unique motherhood and protection by any means necessary. But it’s definitely not destructive (and thankfully not as disturbing). That being said, I also think that the motherhood theme in this episode may have just been a happy coincidence. “Home” is a standalone monster-of-the-week type episode, and as much as I love The X-Files, I wouldn’t give it that much credit for foreshadowing.

DS: I agree, Pilot—I don’t think “Home” was specifically designed around Scully’s motherhood, just because it came so much later in the show (and this is not a show that was particularly good at planning ahead). But for X-Files nerds, it’s definitely interesting how many parallels can be drawn there. Chris Carter was always pretty good at giving his female characters agency, especially for a ’90s showrunner on Fox, and the Peacock mother is a very warped, upsetting version of that.

As to Brandon’s question of whether X-Files episodes often end like this: kind of! Since so much of The X-Files sees our heroes coming close to crucial information and having it slip through their fingers, it was not a show that was afraid to be open-ended. Sometimes particularly popular monsters would return for a second go-round, sometimes they’d be destroyed or imprisoned, but this isn’t a Law & Order style show where the villain is put behind bars, pretty much uniformly, every week. Mulder and Scully work in a dusty corner of the FBI where they are either ignored or persecuted by higher-ups, and they work on cases the government has otherwise seen fit to ignore. The reclusive, unspeakable Peacock family is the most extreme version of such a case, but they do fit a mold.

Next week: The first of the readers’ choice winners sends group one headed off to Twin Peaks for the episode “Lonely Souls” (available on all major streaming services).

And after that: Group two embarks on Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.

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