The Atlantic

What The X-Files Understood About the Search for Truth

Twenty-five years ago, the sci-fi drama series began its sophisticated exploration of the messiness of human belief.
Source: Hulton Archive / Getty

P. T. Barnum once exhibited a mummified monkey head attached to the tail of a fish. He called the grotesque hybrid the Fiji mermaid and advertised it as a “genuine fake,” a PR move that only fueled the public’s curiosity. It didn’t matter how the creature came to be. A hoax that draws crowds is still a kind of truth. The legend of the Fiji mermaid reaches the FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in a salty circus town in Florida, an above-ground-pool kind of place where everything seems half unreal already. I grew up not far from there; I’ve felt it. The lies the place tells are part of its allure.

Beliefs create themselves on , which premiered 25 years ago, on September 10, 1993. Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), partners on a unit dedicated to investigating unexplained phenomena known as X-Files, became sci-fi archetypes: the believer and the skeptic paired up to probe spooky cases. It seemed like their job was to determine what was real, but more often they looked at what they was real, and why, and whether there was a difference. The show was less about absolute truth than about the truth as a concept, and how it bends

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