The X-Files gets creepy with disturbing clowns, scary children’s programming, hellhounds, and witchcraft
With only a few episodes left of season eleven of The X-Files, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the writers would sneak at least one classic horror episode into the mix. “Familiar” is exactly that. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) find themselves in Eastwood, Connecticut after a young boy goes missing from a local playground. The local police believe that the boy was taken and killed by a wolf. But Scully remains unconvinced since the boy’s father more closely fits the profile in cases like these. Mulder, on the other hand, is also unconvinced but for reasons that are different than Scully’s. Initially, he believes it might be a coywolf, a wolf/coyote hybrid.
After finding salt on the dead boy, discovering a grimoire, and seeing a black wolf-like animal in the woods that he thinks is a hellhound, Mulder believes that the gates of hell have been opened by a local witch. Mulder and Scully discover a ring of salt and a grave indicating that the town has a history of witchcraft, which reinforces Mulder’s belief. Scully remains unconvinced.
Additional people are led to their deaths by various familiars, beings that are said to obey a local witch. Mulder and Scully are led to a local woman in the woods surrounded by candles, a ring of salt, holding the grimoire, and is accompanied by Mulder’s hellhound. They attempt to stop her but she bursts into flames, the black wolf leaves, and grimoire remains untouched by the flames. As Mulder and Scully leave town, the merry-go-round at the playground where the first victim was taken begins to spin.
“Familiar” uses numerous horror tropes mixed with an investigative format found in classic episodes of The X-Files. Mulder even tastes something from the crime scene like the good old days. The witch’s familiar manifests in a variety of creepy forms. Initially, it appears as Mr. Chuckleteeth, a creepy clown from a children’s show. It later appears as one of the Bibbletiggles, Teletubby-like children’s characters. The episode makes frequent use of suspense, lighting, and characters/creatures that are made terrifying through context.
With so many creepy and downright terrifying elements on display, The X-Files gives us a lot to discuss. But let’s stop hiding behind the pillows and dig into what our guests think of “Familiar!”
Trycee (@believeinxfiles) – Hardcore X-Files fan for life.
Estefy (@GwenefyND) – X-Files / Gillian Anderson fan
Gigi (@trilliaventuras) – Mom to triplets. Passionate, my glass is either full or not there at all. Sci-fi nerd since before it was cool. Fangirl extraordinaire.
Vicky (@MrsWilliams1704) – Lifelong X-Files fan, who would sit and discuss the show constantly given half a chance.
Soledad (@Solecalvo1) – Physical therapist, sci-fi nerd, X-Files fan for 20 years, smart is sexy.
1. Out of all of the forms the “familiar” took on, which one did you find to be the creepiest and/or scariest? Was it actually a familiar? Or was it something else?
Trycee (@believeinxfiles): Mr. Chuckleteeth is the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t become afraid of clowns until I was an adult and this is way beyond clowns. Whoever wrote this did their job in making adults afraid.
Estefy (@GwenefyND): The scariest form was Mr. Chuckleteeth. He reminds me of that creepy clown from the movie Jigsaw. I think it was some kind of spirit or demon taking those forms to kill.
Gigi (@trilliaventuras): From all the possible definitions of familiar, I’m gonna go with the witch’s one. A familiar is supposedly a demon that attends and obeys a witch and usually takes the form of an animal. In that sense I do believe it was a familiar, only the witch had no power over it, probably because she didn’t really know what she was doing. For me, the creepiest one was Mr. Chuckleteeth, but then again, he was creepy all by himself!
Vicky (@MrsWilliams1704): Mr. Chuckleteeth is quite possibly the scariest thing I have ever seen. What kind of person even names a child’s TV character Mr. Chuckleteeth anyway? I hate things like this anyway, ventriloquist dummies, clowns, dummies in general, so when I found out that this creepy thing was on the show, my anxiety was up immediately. And it didn’t disappoint. It was truly terrifying. And it makes sense to me that the familiar took the form of the characters the kids loved to watch on TV. They wouldn’t have felt safe enough to go with them or follow them otherwise. I am not looking forward to rewatching this episode at all.
Soledad (@Solecalvo1): I would say the Bibbletiggles were pretty disturbing because they reminded me of how creepy the real Teletubbies were to me back when my youngest sister used to watch them on TV. However, the scariest form for me was Mr. Chuckleteeth coming on screen in flames and sending Rick to hell. When I was a kid, I was really scared of dolls with glass eyes and one of my middle sisters happened to have a real life-size plastic one with moving eyes called Diana. The doll sat on a chair by my bed at night and I had to put a pillow over her face in order for me to fall asleep because it scared me to death.
2. “Familiar” felt like a classic case of the week episode, right down to the in-depth investigation. What did you think of the show’s return to that format? Did it translate well to the modern version of the show?
Trycee: Familiar had so many Easter eggs in it. So many of the elements were from previous shows yet blended seamlessly for people not familiar with the previous episodes. I think seeing them in their element worked solidly.
Estefy: I really loved this episode because of that. It was like the old times, the old cases like in the first few seasons. It translated so well to the modern version but retained the content and the picture like the old times.
Gigi: I love the return to the classic format, the dark woods, the scary theme, the gore, the investigation. It felt like a season 2 or 3 episode, a classic “Monster of the Week.” It was magnificent! I think it translated perfectly. Maybe because it was a small town, with a long history and a long memory, but it worked.
Vicky: I absolutely adored the return of the good old-fashioned casefile. Loved it in fact. It was completely reminiscent of the original run with the investigative work, clashing with the small town local police department, creepy locations and a creepy antagonist. I loved the supernatural elements and the opposing skeptic/believer viewpoints from Mulder and Scully. With all the high tech qualities in the previous episodes, it was nice to have an actual case to investigate. “Familiar” absolutely wouldn’t feel out of place if it was slotted in the middle of one of the original seasons and that’s why I loved it.
Soledad: It felt old school X-Files, much in the tone of seasons 2-3 horror episodes such as “Die Hand Die Verletzt” and “Our Town”, and maybe Stephen King’s “Chinga” from season 5, all mixed with a pinch of IT (yep, the yellow raincoat reference didn’t escape me). I think that classic format is timeless because it makes us relive our childhood fear of clowns and monsters looming in the dark. It felt genuine to the essence of the show while socially commenting on modern issues such as today’s sense of loss justice and massive hysteria (a modern witch hunt) verbalized through Mulder’s last comment “there is no getting out of the town these days.”
3. Parts of the Mr. Chuckleteeth costume were found in the sexual predator’s house during the investigation. How would you explain that? Was the outfit planted by Anna? Or was it simply one of the many costumes the man used and was merely a coincidence?
Trycee: He dressed as a clown so of course, he would have the costume of what’s popular. No. I don’t think she had control over what happened with that guy. It was merely a coincidence.
Estefy: At the beginning when they found the costume in his house I thought it was him, but then when the case was resolved and they found he wasn’t there when everything happened. I thought that costume was there just because the doll was from a TV show that the children liked a lot. So probably he used that costume for some kid’s party or something like that.
Gigi: Mr. Chuckleteeth was presented as a beloved children’s show character and as such it wasn’t a coincidence the predator would have one, especially since we learned from the pictures the police found that he used to get in costume to entertain kids at parties and events.
Vicky: In the world of The X-Files, there are no such things as coincidences. So, as far as I’m concerned, Anna set the guy up. She had found out about him somehow, possibly through the use of black magic and decided to use him as a scapegoat. She knew if she planted the evidence, such as the costume, etc., that attention would be diverted from her. The focus of the investigation would have turned on her eventually as Mulder had seen the books at her house. Mulder has always been good at taking leaps and would have figured it out eventually, so Anna had to do something to keep them from looking too closely at her.
Soledad: I think his job was to impersonate different TV characters for children’s birthday parties. So it makes sense he would include in his wardrobe a Mr. Chuckleteeth costume since it was most likely very much requested at parties. In the end, it was a really a tragic coincidence or maybe it was karma.
4. The Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch didn’t burn in the fire and appeared to be a genuine grimoire. Was that just a coincidence or do you think it was an actual spellbook?
Trycee: Oh, I think it was an actual spellbook. It reminds me of The X-Files episode, “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” where those that called up the Devil, weren’t able to control it, and died because they had summoned the Devil.
Estefy: I think it was an actual spellbook. That is why it didn’t burn. Because somehow it was protected by some spell.
Gigi: Grimoires are not only books that contain magical instructions for spells, charms, divinations and invocations, but are thought to be magical themselves. It is not impossible that it would have some sort of protection, either in the form of a spell cast by the witch who started it or by its own nature of magical book.
Vicky: I think the fact that it didn’t burn proved that it was a real-life spellbook. Even Scully couldn’t give a reason as to why it didn’t burn when she watched Anna spontaneously combust right in front of her. I doubt she could explain it even if she wanted to. I like that she gave it to the apparently trustworthy and open-minded officer though for safekeeping. That book needed to be kept out of the hands of anyone who would use it for nefarious purposes like Anna did, and he seemed trustworthy enough.
Soledad: The town had a tradition for witches and witch hunts, so it seems to me the spellbook might have been real. The curse was unleashed not just upon the cheating husband (as it was intended) but it extended to all the family members and beyond, affecting the community as well. Nothing good comes from vengeance, and violence brings only more violence to those around the perpetrators, spreading like a wildfire. At the end, the witch suffers karma and gets burned to the stake to pay for her sins, while the community will remain cursed for its little town’s (un)justice, past (against the witches) and present (unfair judgment and social prejudice).
5. At the very end of the episode, the merry-go-round started spinning again. Was that just the wind or are there still darker forces at work in the town? Would people be able to escape those forces if they leave town?
Trycee: The hellhound backed off after the sheriff’s wife went up in flames but it didn’t disappear so I’m sure that evil is still present in that area. Some areas have cursed soil or cursed locations but there’s nothing that says by leaving that it couldn’t follow them.
Estefy: I think when the ‘gates of the hell’ were opened once it’s very hard. Those dark forces aren’t gone so easily. So probably the merry-go-round started spinning again because there is still some dark force. And also I think that force can follow or find the people wherever they go if they try to leave the town.
Gigi: That was super creepy! and in perfect sync with classic episodes, it can go either way, just the wind or something else. I like to think it was something else. Witches and strange forces have always inhabited that area and once summoned they are not to easy to get rid of.
Vicky: I do think the curse was still active. As Mulder said in “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” you can’t call up the devil and expect him to behave. Whatever was released when the gates of hell were opened by Anna was still there. Maybe whatever got released was tied to the book, so wherever the book goes, evil follows it? In that respect, if that is the case, I would imagine that leaving town should be enough to escape the clutches of evil. And besides, I’ve never seen wind that might be strong enough to make a merry go round move on its own!
Soledad: Mrs. Strong tried to curse his husband out of a feeling betrayal and, in the process, open up a portal for dark forces to act upon its town’s members. I think, even though she tried to fix it at the end, she wasn’t successful and after her death, it remained open. The evil is still there, feeding off of hate and waiting for its next victim. The curse is upon them and I think it would still be haunting them outside the town’s borders because they can’t erase the past sins of their community by escaping them.
6. Mulder’s theory about the gates of hell being opened seemed to have some merit by the end of the episode. Do you think he was right? What’s your theory about was going on this episode?
Trycee: I think the wife thought she was cursing the mistress but the problem is that once you summon up and open the gates of hell, you have unleashed things you can’t control. You opened the door and whatever comes in, comes in.
Estefy: I believe in black magic, it scares me, so yes. I think if you try to invoke some spirit or demon some ‘gate of the hell’ could open.
Gigi: Oh, yes, I believe Mulder’s theory. The way I see it, that whole area is close to one of the “gates of hell” and it’s very sensitive to magic, which is why there’s so much witchcraft history surrounding the town and also why a very amateur witch, without really knowing what she was doing, was able to open the gate and unleash a demon.
Vicky: The gates of hell were definitely opened. The hellhound wouldn’t have been able to visit the town if they weren’t. It’s the only way it could have appeared. My current working theory is that Anna was a practicing witch, but kept the extent of her interest in the supernatural to a minimum. At least to her family. She wanted revenge on her husband and his mistress so cast the curse, but once it was out there, she couldn’t control it. Did she really think she could control the devil? So, they took it upon themselves to go after anyone attached to the curse to take their souls, since payment in souls is generally the case when it comes to conjuring dark forces. Hopefully, though those gates were closed upon Anna’s death.
Soledad: I believe Mulder’s theory was correct, not only because he saw the black dog staring back at him in the forest, but also because the last image of the book while Mrs. Strong was burning was of the Hound Dog from Hell, who’s the keeper of the underworld. By conjuring the spell, Mrs. Strong opened the portal and unwillingly cursed the entire community, not just his husband. In a sense, her actions made it possible for the witches to finally get their revenge and used the opportunity to curse the town members because of their witch hunt tradition.
7. What did you think of “Familiar” overall? Was its attempt at being creepy and/or scary effective? Did you have a favorite part of the episode? A least favorite part?
Trycee: I am a wimp. I’m proud to admit, I am a wimp. I don’t do ghosts, horror movies. Nothing like that. So, this was pretty scary for me. Three hours after and I was still scared. I even rewatched it in the daytime and it was still really scary to me. Thank God for Nyquil or I wouldn’t have slept after watching it but it was still scary during the day. And yes, the creepiness was very effective. The goal was to scare the living daylights out of someone and it worked. My favorites are always Mulder and Scully together and also Mulder backing Scully up. I wouldn’t call anything my least favorite. I would have to say, the scariest part was the flames and Mr. Chuckleteeth and that song.
Estefy: Yes, it was so effective at being creepy because it reminded us so much of episodes of the early seasons. This episode has those elements that made me fall in love with this series. I can’t choose just one scene because I loved the entire episode from the very beginning to the very end. All of the episode was so good. One of my favorites of this season for sure.
Gigi: I thought it was a great episode! A return to the classic monster of the week we all love and cherish. It had that horror movie feeling (think Stephen King’s It, with the creepy clown and the children) we learned to expect. I loved Mulder touching and tasting evidence, he hadn’t yet in this season and I enjoyed seeing him back to his old self. Scully and Mulder’s back and forth banter and the bouncing of ideas off of each other was delightful and fun. The least favorite part was the Mr. Chuckleteeth song, which has been playing on a loop, in my head since last night.
Vicky: I really enjoyed “Familiar,” despite it being the creepiest and scariest episode of any TV show that I’ve seen in a long time. Only one other episode of The X-Files has made me feel like this and that was The Calusari. The characters used were creepy and I can’t believe the parents actually allowed their children to watch them! What kind of parents were they? I loved how the small town mob mentality made an appearance as did the old school visit to the woods. There’s nothing about this episode that I didn’t like…well, besides the scary as hell Mr. Chuckleteeth. From start to finish it had my attention but there were some definite hide behind the cushion moments. Once again, the writers and director did an amazing job and delivered an excellent episode. It was just superb.
Soledad: I think the episode felt genuine to its tradition as a horror MOTW episode and effectively scared its audience with some really creepy scenes while reminding us of the real-life monsters that are lurking out there. It had a good pace with building suspense, and the aesthetics were beautiful with an eerie foggy atmosphere and disturbing children’s characters taken from a child’s worst nightmare. The references from past episodes were wonderful as well from classic horror movies, such as IT and The Witches of Eastwick (which sounds a lot like the town’s name). It’s hard for me to decide which scene is my favorite because the cinematography was stunning, but I think it would be a tie between the opening sequence with the kid in the yellow raincoat and the witch spontaneously combusting (what a nice reference that is, by the way) inside the magic circle.
Final Verdict: “Familiar” is scary, creepy, and a great example of how to adapt classic horror episodes to the modern version of The X-Files
The X-Files jumped into what can be best described as the first true classic horror episode since the original run of the show with relative ease. Holly Dale, the director of “Familiar,” does an excellent job of building the right atmosphere throughout the episode. There’s always just enough fog or darkness (or darkness and fog with flashlights) to help increase the intensity and suspense as the episode progresses.
The use of clowns and other characters from children’s shows is reminiscent of classic Stephen King horror novels such as It. Mr. Chuckleteeth and the Bibbletiggles, while creepy enough on their own, are downright terrifying when turned into child-snatching murderers. It’s also great to see Mulder and Scully solving a case that feels like it fits in the early seasons of The X-Files. Fans of the series will likely pick up on a lot of fun Easter eggs that reference earlier episodes as well.
While “Familiar” has a ton of atmosphere, that same scare factor might be too much for some fans. The episode makes frequent use of suspense and disturbing imagery. In particular, “Familiar” shows a man being shot in the head without much of a warning and it indirectly shows corpses of two dead children. All of this is handled as tastefully as can be expected but it definitely might be too much for some viewers.
“Familiar” is a great standalone episode of The X-Files that brings back the classic horror vibe of episodes found in the original run of the series. It’s a ton of fun. Now if only we could get the image of Mr. Chuckleteeth out of our heads…