The X-Files was (or should I say “is,” since it’s coming back this January?) no stranger to comedy interspersed with its paranoiac themes, and the season six Christmas episode “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” capitalizes on its comedic guest stars and the spirit of the season. Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin pop up as a ghost couple in a decidedly cliched haunted house, complete with thunder and lightning, weird noises, and rooms that repeat endlessly. Chris Carter’s script emphasizes the feelings of the holiday season within his spin on the classic ghost story tale – chief among them being loneliness and familial warmth.
It’s Christmas Eve when Mulder decides to stake out an old haunted house with a story that stretches back to 1917. A couple decided to kill themselves on Christmas Eve to spend eternity together, and ever since, the place has been the setting for multiple murder-suicides on the same holly jolly day of the year. This year, Mulder wants Scully to accompany him inside the house, attempting to prove to her that there really are ghosts among us. While Mulder’s got no one at home, Scully has family to get to at 6 AM the next day, but when her keys go missing, she’s forced to help Mulder investigate. And then they get locked in.
Carter’s episode immediately operates on the generic haunting premise: Mulder and Scully are plagued by bumps and creaks in the house, doors closing with no one behind them, and the atmosphere of a particularly dreary Christmas Eve night. The opening, while intentionally cliched to elicit the usual psychological explanation from Scully, is still successfully creepy, and “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” employs an interesting technique by separating the two protagonists while the ghosts of Christmas past visit both of them one-on-one. It’s a good way to avoid the usual Dickensian method from A Christmas Carol, but it still allows both Asner and Tomlin to deliver key descriptions of Mulder’s and Scully’s personalities – Mulder being desperately lonely and narcissistic, Scully being increasingly resentful of Mulder’s obsessions and eager to prove him wrong – interspersed with their excellence at physical and dialogue-driven comedy.
That character dissection works well in “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” and more generally in a Christmas special; the holiday tends to be a time of reflection, especially as the year comes to a close, and Carter uses the ghostly couple as a means of redefining Mully and Sculder and forcing them into some introspection as well. Throughout much of The X-Files before season 6, the two retain the same nuances with which they begin the series. Scully is constantly, stoically disbelieving despite all that she’s seen, while Mulder is endlessly fascinated and willing to believe just about anything supernatural thrown his way. While “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” doesn’t change that, it does at least force them to redefine their relationship to one another.
It creates a couple of great scenarios. The first occurs when the ghosts shapeshift into Mulder and Scully, forcing the other to think their partner shot them. The other comes at the end of the episode, when Scully visits Mulder to provide some company on Christmas day. While the ghosts attempt to define Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple, Carter’s depiction is more than that. Their bond, often one that brings them close to death, is strong without requiring a romantic connection, and there’s a heartwarming conclusion to this Christmas episode.
The only place “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” suffers is in its attempts to define the ghosts’ motivations, which is often clouded by their joking commentary. The real reason that they attack and murder innocent lovers on Christmas Eve doesn’t really manifest; nor is there a proper conclusion to their story, which would seem disheartening to Mulder. Still, these are small qualms in an otherwise well-done episode of The X-Files, not just as part of that series but also as a Christmas special. Have yourself a spooky little Christmas and have a watch.