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Der Spiegel: Attention, conspirators!

Der Spiegel
Attention, conspirators!

Translated from German by Bettina Steiner

[Original article “Achtung, Verschwörer!” here]

Script writer Chris Carter has created one of the most successful TV series of all time: The X-Files. Now he is taking his FBI drama about extraterrestrials and conspiracy to the big screen – and proving once more how deeply he is looking into the mad world of America.

Conspiracy mania is catching. On the way to the interview with Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, the radio announces that CNN and “Time” have pulled back a disclosing story as false report. The TV channel and the US magazine had maintained that US troops had sprayed poison gas on their own comrades during the Vietnam War. That would have been a scandal. And now this: the whole poison gas number is supposedly not true; responsible journalists have been fired, the kowtow to the public has been performed. What sounds like a normal press disgrace makes you think we are under the influence of X-Files paranoia. Is it really a false report? Or isn’t it more likely that conspiring forces in high government or military circles have forced CNN and Time to pull back the truth? Do we sense a conspiracy here?

Chris Carter laughs. Yes, he too has heard the news on this hazy, cool summer day in L.A. Yes, he too promptly thought of a cover up of the truth. “When I hear something like that, I immediately think: sure thing.” Suspicion is a part of Carter’s job. With his series “The X-Files”, the 40-year old provides America – and by now the whole world – with fresh food for thought for the current hobby: thinking up conspiracy theories. The poison story will go into his files like hundreds of other newspaper articles, letters or internet rumors.

In 1993 Carter had the idea to put two FBI agents on the trail of the unexplainable. In spite of FOX’s heavy doubts he developed his project up to maturity and works as producer, script writer and sometimes as director. He has just recently signed a contract for two more years. His cultishly honored TV ghost story brought Carter on the Time list of the 25 most influential US citizens last year. About 20 million Americans – and up to 5 million Germans – turn on their TV sets every week when special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) chase after bizarre phenomena. Allegedly those files are stored in the poison cabinet as X-Files that leave the realm of rationality: aliens, UFOs, killer viruses, ghost healers, parapsychological transmissions, mutants, voices from beyond and “secret” messages that flicker over the TV screen.

At the end of its fifth season the claustrophobically sinister X-Files are more popular than ever. There are the hardcore fans, called the “X-Philes”, who meet at conventions to indulge in the bliss of paranoia; the internet is full of fan pages; dozens of handbooks provide summaries and reviews of all episodes, meticulously study the biographies of the actors, and put together encyclopedias of X-terminology. The two main actors, previously virtual unknowns, are enveloped in an almost extraterrestrial fuss. And in the meantime even the TV establishment has presented the black sheep X-Files with numerous awards – this year the series is nominated for 16 Emmys. It was only a question of time until the dark powers would find their way onto the big screen. X-Files: The Movie (directed by Rob Bowman) promises answers – rather mysterious to outsiders – to many of the questions that move X-fans, not the least of which is if the dream couple Scully and Mulder will finally kiss. Skillfully the 60-million dollar movie picks up the plot threads of the last television season.

Among much mysterious murmur, it’s about aliens who have waited for their great hour in caves for millennia and want to dominate the earth, now of all times, with the help of a killer virus. An international secret organization of distinguished older gentlemen (among them Armin Mueller-Stahl) helps them by raising bees in Texas and corn in North Africa. That sounds like high nonsense? It is. But would anyone ever have questioned the credibility of Star Trek? The tactics behind X-Files: the Movie are easily seen through: the film is supposed to help the fans who suffer from withdrawal symptoms to get over the summer (the last episode was shown mid-May) and at the same time to draw the normal action-hungry viewers who already survived Armageddon.

The movie had a considerable first weekend of over 30 million dollars at the box office because it was compulsory for the X-Philes. Carter is already planning at least one sequel. The puppeteer of the X-Files is a camouflage man. He adjusts to his interviewer in every posture: if he crosses the arms in front of his chest, Carter does the same. If he puts his hand thoughtfully to his chin, Carter follows suit within seconds. That way, it is taught by communication trainers, you pretend consent between the debating parties. But for the other Carter’s pantomime is a bit spooky. Carter places his words carefully, makes long pauses in the middle of a sentence until he thinks he has found the right word. He doesn’t want to give anything away, to make any remark he might regret – a control freak. Carter is clever, ambitious, and so crazy about details as auto-didacts with an eternal inferiority complex can be. Above all he is proud that the scientific facts in the X-Files are being researched at great expense and that the series has a large following among scientists. Suddenly he tells me that his brother teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American elite school for natural sciences and is “much more educated” than he. And the sound of his voice makes me suspect that it still troubles him up to this day. Born in 1957 in Bellflower, a suburb of Los Angeles, the son of a construction worker had a modest education in journalism at California State University. After that he started writing articles for the magazine “Surfing.” For years he followed the big waves, worked his way up to editor of the magazine, and then fell in love with a script writer.

She made him write scripts himself and send them to producers. In 1985 Jeffrey Katzenberg, at the time head of the Disney studios, gave him a chance and Carter spent the next years working at unimportant TV shows most of which saw the light of day only briefly. But he had learned his trade. He realized that nobody was giving the American viewers the creeps. Nobody dared to go near the shocker genre that grew ever more successful on the big screen – the cannibal drama “The Silence of the Lambs” had just started at the time. And nobody took up the raging UFO hype.

So the idea for the X-Files was born. Carter remembers movies and tv shows that had impressed him in his youth, above all the almost forgotten horror series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” but also TV classics like “The Twilight Zone” (1959-65), dedicated to parapsychological phenomena, the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men” (1976) and the conspiracy thriller “The Parallax View” (1973).

And now today Carter exploits relevant UFO and paranoia literature as well as the post-war B-movie shockers, and his stories often walk the fine line between science and futuristic nightmares. The eclectic’s main talent, however, consists of taking contemporary history, changing it and transporting it into the realm of mania. He starts his stories on a factual basis and from there lifts them into delirium. The real fascist idea of world domination appears in Carter’s stories dressed up as the theory of an extraterrestrial occupational power trying to dominate the earth. It appeals to him to make such connections that always also throw back a light on the mania of reality. Therefore the better episodes of the X-Files can be seen as intellectual exercises – and Carter knows this very well. If he is not careful he talks with an ostentatious seriousness of the “mythology of the X-Files” as if he had created Homer’s Odyssey. Nevertheless he tries with all tricks of the television world to pull even the less pretentious horror fan in front of the TV. The X-Files are full of allusions and Carter has developed his technique of weaving plot threads over months or years into a black art.

In the interview he hides behind cliché: “I want to scare people and I want to entertain them.” And you should believe that this is the reason for his extraordinary success. But that America should fall under the spell of his secretive art of horror just now cannot be explained by a higher tolerance for violence among the viewers and the widespread belief in slimy little E.T.s. What really differentiates the X-Files from its imitators is its basic intellectual premise: the government deceives and betrays its subjects wherever it can. Although sceptical Scully and parapsychologically open-minded Mulder fight relentlessly for the truth, behind each conspiracy they unveil there is a bigger one. Their opponent is the State and it is omnipresent and omnipotent. The X-Files profit by the fact that each conspiracy theory is built up like a classical drama: heroic admonishers and prophets of doom revolt against inscrutable villains and the war where everything is at stake – the conception of the world and the fundamentals of religion – always rages. Any fanatic worthy of the name sees themselves at the edge of the apocalypse: the time left for the heroes to stop the end of the world is always way too short. Such a countdown brings suspense – like the bombs that tick at the end of each James Bond movie. Many episodes of the X-Files work according to this apocalyptic pattern. One of the central slogans of the series is “Trust no one”. With this insecurity strategy, the series hits its mark right in the middle of an uneasiness and scepticism of authority that has developed more and more in America in recent years. A movie like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991), that wanted to prove a plot in the highest circles behind the Kennedy assassination, is typical for the pathological mind of the time. For Carter, Stone is a great filmmaker. In the X-Files, he thinks “we give people’s frustrations a forum”.

The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a former professor of mathematics, who attacked the system with parcel bombs and sent confused treatises to the press, and ex-soldier Timothy McVeigh who blew up the government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people are only the best known examples of an aggressive minority that hates the state and wants to fight it. Conspiracy fanatics exist since the United States declared its independence. In the last century the Catholics, Mormons and Free Masons were under suspicion; around the middle of this century, at the time of the cold war and the McCarthy witch hunts, rightwing zealots detected a communist plot that allegedly wanted to destroy freedom and democracy. But it was always outside forces or minorities that were to be smoked out by patriots.

Today on the other hand, the danger is suspected on the inside. “The collective American psyche is turning more and more against its own government and against any authority, and nobody can dictate an American citizen what to believe” lectures an unauthorized handbook on the X-Files. “The American public is totally estranged from its state, shocked that the treason has not ended since Watergate: the Iran-Contra affair, Whitewater and many other disclosures show that the power is in the hands of people who are just as mortal and fallible as those whom they govern.

Surely Carter, molded by the Watergate era, would have little to say against these sentences. Of course he finds an assassin like McVeigh “disgusting”. “His deed only shows the banality of evil.” And really, nobody can accuse the X-Files of calling to violent rebellion. The script protects itself from too much closeness to fanatics not least by the sharp humor with which Scully and Mulder keep uneasiness at arm’s length.

“The series is neither about paramilitary groups nor does it propose revolutionary tactics” Carter says. “It only suggests to the audience to question authority and not to trust any institution.”

Trust No One. This slogan may sound sinister but it is really “an outcry,” Carter says, because “everybody wants to trust someone after all.” And he himself? “I am a very suspicious person. Just look at the world we are living in: you always have to be on your guard, you never know who is filming you, who is taping telephone calls, who is investigating you. I cannot imagine anything that hurts more than to be betrayed like that. We are all living in a world where you have practically no private sphere anymore, where we are not in charge of our own lives anymore.”

Recently Carter read an article about prisoners who have gotten information about their guards over the computer – to blackmail them. “Just imagine that! The system is designed in a way to take all security away from you.” Carter is getting worked up. He slows down, breathes deeply and laughs. “Now I sound paranoid.” Right. Does he believe in a conspiracy too? “No. I firmly believe that not even a group of three people can keep a secret.” But sometimes secret services approach him. “Then they tell me ‘You don’t know how close you are to the truth.’ That is a really scary thought for me.” Has he ever received death threats – no matter if from the FBI or the paramilitary? “God, no, and I don’t want any either.”

And what about the extraterrestrials? Carter shakes his head. He does not believe in aliens, even if he says that he would like to. “I am a sceptic. But when my parents died six years ago I wanted to see their spirits very badly. I tried to conjure up a ghost at the foot end of my bed.” It did not work. But he thinks that everyone share this longing for the beyond. “We all want to drive through the desert at night and see something that our school-learning cannot explain. A UFO maybe. We all want to make that experience, that there is something out there that is bigger than us. For that reason the Greeks and Romans invented their gods. We want to know that we are not alone in the universe. Wouldn’t you like to cross the border to something unimaginable? I would. Anytime.”

What if extraterrestrial life really existed? Carters answer is unusually fast. Apparently he has thought about it at great length – and the intellectual game fascinates him. “Then there would be anarchy. We would have to throw everything away, the Bible, the foundations of our history, everything. We would have to start totally new. Extraterrestrial life would put everything in question.” What would he do if an alien army would contact him tomorrow? Chris Carter smiles and gives the only answer that you can give in Los Angeles. “I would try to get them to sign a movie contract.”

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3 Responses to “Der Spiegel: Attention, conspirators!”

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