Seeing is Believing: Reality, Truth and Fiction in Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

A repost of my 2009 xf_is_love piece.

This essay is something I’ve wanted to write for a long time – since writing my 3rd year dissertation on reality and fiction, in fact, and referencing Jose Chung’s in that. Writing it was something I really enjoyed, though cutting the first draft down from 15000 odd words was pretty tough. I could have covered so much more on the subject, but I think it works as it is and I hope you all enjoy reading it. Huge thanks must go to truemyth for the incredibly insightful beta, the encouragement, the early morning emails getting excited over what else from the series fitted into the essay and the absolutely gorgeous cover.

I feel as though I should start this with a confession: I love Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. It’s one of my favourite episodes; the one that makes me laugh – and makes me think – whenever I see it. So it surprises me when I hear fans of the show dismiss Jose Chung’s as not being what The X Files is about, not being a real episode and certainly not being one of the best. I suppose when you look at it, to some extent, they have a point; The X Files as whole, to most people, is a show that looks seriously at aliens and government conspiracies. It talks about extreme possibilities, and feeds into the conspiracy theories that have been embraced by American culture. In contrast, and as with many of the scripts written by Darin Morgan, Jose Chung’s has a certain off kilter feel to it. It is more subversively funny than many X Files episodes, more keen to bend the reality of what we are seeing. But I still maintain that not only is Jose Chung’s a real episode, it is in many ways the epitome of what The X Files is about.

One of the show’s credos is ‘the truth is out there’, the tagline reminding us of this in almost every episode, and this search for the truth is the key element of the show. But the nature of the truth discovered on the X Files is never clear, and always open to interpretation.

From the beginning of Jose Chung’s we are encouraged to doubt what we see. The episode opens with a shot of the underside of a spaceship, moving slowly across the night sky, but seconds later the spaceship is revealed to be a crane; the camera panning giving it the appearance of movement. Likewise, the grey aliens we see appear to be the real thing, carrying out an abduction. That is until we hear their American accents and see their mouths moving under their masks. This opening sets the theme for the episode; that of truths buried beneath truths, of never knowing if what we’re seeing can actually be believed (“How the hell should I know?”).

Scully and Jose Chung, discussing the events of Klass County after the opening credits, give us a further indication as to the notions of truth we will see in the episode (emphasis mine):

    SCULLY: Well, just as long as you’re attempting to record the truth. JOSE CHUNG: Oh, God, no. How can I possibly do that? […] I spent three months in Klass County and everybody there has a different version of what truly happened. Truth is as subjective as reality.

Here, we see Chung expounding a traditional metaphysical claim that Kant also subscribed to; there is the way that the world really is and the way that the world appears to us. Everyone has a different version of the world, of the events that happened in Klass County, and everyone believes those versions to be true. Jose Chung’s cleverly makes the point that we can never get past the way that things appear to us, and our knowledge is only of the appearance of things (the reality that we see), not things as they really are (the truth).  But Jose Chung could also be referring to the nature of truth in the X Files; that the truth changes, depending on who’s telling us what happened.

Take Samantha’s disappearance, for example. From the beginning of the series we are told that she was abducted by aliens, that this was the driving force behind Mulder’s entry to the FBI and the discovery of the X Files.

    MULDER: I was twelve when it happened. My sister was eight. She just disappeared out of her bed one night. Just gone, vanished. No note, no phone calls, no evidence of anything.[…]I’ve been able to go into my own repressed memories to the night my sister disappeared. I can recall a bright light outside and a presence in the room. I was paralysed, unable to respond to my sister’s calls for help. Listen to me, Scully, this thing exists.

As the series progresses, however, we get told different truths about what actually happened to her up (which we may be able to pass off as continuity errors on the part of the writers, but are still presented to us on the show as true events). In Little Green Men we see that Samantha was taken from the living room while she and Mulder played Stratego (in earlier episodes such as Conduit we were told that she was taken from her bed); in The Blessing Way we are told that she isn’t dead – or at least not where Bill Mulder now is; in Paper Hearts the suggestion is that she was taken from her home by John Lee Roche and killed; in Closure we are told that she is dead, taken by the walk-ins and travelling through time in starlight.

We also see different truths relating to Samantha’s growing up. In Colony we are told that she was returned and placed with an adoptive family (whom Samantha refers to as aliens) who raised her as their daughter; in Redux II we are told that Samantha was taken to Cancer Man, who was referred to as her father, and grew up to have children of her own; in Closure we are told that she lived with Cancer Man where tests were performed on her before she ran away. 

Morgan plays with the idea of truth in Jose Chung’s to make us question the notion of truth we are presented with in the series. The truth on The X Files, much like the truth in Jose Chung’s is revealed to us slowly – when it is revealed at all.

    MULDER: He’s never lied to me. I won’t break that confidence. I trust him. SCULLY: Mulder, you’re the only one I trust.

Only for it to be subverted later on:

    MULDER: You were right, Scully. It’s a fake. He tried to deceive us. Now we’re alone on this. There’s no one we can trust. They went to a lot of trouble to put us on the wrong track.

Mulder’s ability to believe the different truths shown to him about his sister’s disappearance, about the people he can trust, can be reflected on a smaller scale in the different truths shown to us about what happened in Klass County; Jose Chung’s, therefore, acting as a microcosm to the nine seasons of the show.

Much like Mulder comes to realise that the truths he was brought up with are, in fact, lies, both Harold and Chrissy change their stories to reflect newer ‘truths’, illustrating the shifting nature of the truth seen throughout the show. Initially, Chrissy’s story is that Harold raped her, which changes to a typical abduction experience.

    CHRISSY GIORGIO: I’m in a room… on a spaceship… surrounded by aliens. FINGERS: What do the aliens look like? CHRISSY GIORGIO: They’re small… but their heads and their eyes are big. They’re gray.

This later develops into a CIA cover up.

    CHRISSY GIORGIO: Some men are lifting me off the ground… men in Air Force uniforms. MULDER: Air Force? FINGERS: Where are you now, Chrissy? CHRISSY GIORGIO: I’m in a room. In an office. I’m surrounded by men. Some are in uniforms, some are in suits.

Mulder underwent hypnosis several times through the course of the series in order to discover what had happened to Samantha and indeed it is a recurring theme through the course of Jose Chung’s.  Our thoughts and memories, like those of Mulder in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati for example, may be the product of a force which implants false ideas and memories in our minds. A person’s mind is easily malleable, subject to suggestion and fiction. Ed Jerse in Never Again kills because of a talking tattoo – something we later discover is actually caused by ergot poisoning. Robert Modell, in Pusher, was able to convince people to do his bidding through the power of suggestion. Even Scully, in Wetwired, fell victim to subliminal messaging which led to her nearly shooting Mulder.

Under hypnosis, autosuggestion becomes a real possibility. The brain, as an instrument, is delicate and not foolproof; with the right equipment or knowledge, and perseverance, it is easy to fool it into believing something other than what has been experienced. The memory, just like any other piece of equipment, is subject to loss of data and, for want of a better phrase, file corruption. We even see this in Deep Throat, the second episode of the show, with the transformation the Air Force pilots go through.

    MULDER: I think they re-wired that man’s brain. Some kind of selective memory drain. SCULLY: The brain doesn’t work like that, Mulder. You can’t just go in and erase certain files.

Psychology has found this with allegations of False Memory Syndrome (FMS), a condition where false memories are implanted in a person undergoing therapy, who then believes that these memories are real. 

    JOSE CHUNG: What is your opinion of hypnosis? SCULLY: I know that it has its therapeutic value, but it has never been proven to enhance memory. In fact, it actually worsens it since, since, since people in that state or prone to confabulation. […] JOSE CHUNG: I was, uh… interested in how the C.I.A., when conducting their MK-Ultra mind control experiments back in the ’50s, had no idea how hypnosis went. SCULLY: Hmm. JOSE CHUNG: Or what it was. SCULLY: No one still knows. JOSE CHUNG: Still, as a storyteller, I’m fascinated how a person’s sense of consciousness can be… so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words. Mere words.  

Indeed, as stated by Scully, people suffering from FMS can suffer physical reactions in relation to an event which never happened.  The brain seems to rely on details rather than generalities to form and distinguish between memories. It seems that the key to this is sensory perception. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus says “It is the sensory details that people use to distinguish their memories. If you imbue the story with them, you’ll disrupt this memory process. It’s almost a recipe to get people to remember things that aren’t true.” Something Deep Throat himself also seems to be aware of – a lie is best hidden between two truths after all.

Returning to Mulder’s memories of Samantha’s abduction we can see this as a case in point; by remembering details of her disappearance, sketchy as they were, he created a ‘garden variety abduction scenario’ that he comes to believe is true. As Jose Chung’s  posits, if memories can be altered this easily, how can we really be able to trust ourselves and our judgements about the external world?

    1ST MAN IN BLACK: No other object as been misidentified as a flying saucer more often than the planet Venus. ROKY CRIKENSON: Really? 1ST MAN IN BLACK: Even the former leader of your United States of America, James Earl Carter Jr., thought he saw a UFO once… But it’s been proven he only saw the planet Venus. […] Venus was at its peak brilliance last night. You probably thought you saw something up in the sky other than Venus, but I assure you, it was Venus. ROKY CRIKENSON: I know… What I saw. 1ST MAN IN BLACK: Your scientists have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into the three-dimensional phenomenon known as perception…yet somehow you brazenly declare that seeing is believing?

Can we really say that seeing is believing?

Peter Unger’s ‘mad scientist’ theory, and Hilary Putnam’s ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis, where Putnam substitutes the demon or god for a computer-system, suggest that the experiences we have when walking down the street, having dinner with Cancer Man or attending Diana Fowley’s funeral may not be as authentic as we believe them to be. Putnam proposes that we don’t know whether the experiences we have are ones that we actually go through, or whether they are generated by some form of electrical stimulus – that we are, in fact, brains in vats, imagining that we are people.

    MULDER: But what do you do with the abductees? JACK SCHAFFER: Take them back to base. Let the doctors work on them. Nothing physical, they just mess with their minds. MULDER: Hypnosis? JACK SCHAFFER: At the base, I’ve seen people go into an ordinary room with an ordinary bunch of doctors…and come out absolutely positive they were probed by aliens. […] Don’t you get it? I’m absolutely positive me, my co-pilot, and those two kids were abducted, but I can’t be absolutely sure it happened. I can’t be sure of anything anymore! MULDER: What do you mean? JACK SCHAFFER: I’m not sure we’re even having this conversation. I don’t know if these mashed potatoes are really here. I don’t know if you even exist. MULDER: I can only assure you that I do. JACK SCHAFFER: Well…thanks buddy. Unfortunately…I can’t give you the same assurance about me.

Assurances, in Jose Chung’s and The X Files as a whole, mean nothing. Nothing is certain – what we see, what we feel, what we touch; none of these, once we begin to question the fundamental nature of truth that we see on the show, can be declared definitively true.

The scene that takes place immediately after this exchange proves this point. It is told by Chung who says that the cook at the restaurant told a very different story. Mulder dines alone, asking one question for each piece of pie he writes. At no point does Schaffer, or any other Air Force personnel, enter the diner. Chung appears frustrated by the contradictory stories. Scully, on the other hand, unfazed. Should she really expect anything different after working on the X Files? Stories, truths, change in the telling – something we have discovered through the course of Jose Chung’s as well as the course of show.

So we’ve had the slowly revealed truths and the imprecise nature of hypnosis. What else does Jose Chung’s have that we can see in the show? Technology has always played an important part on The X Files. From the videotapes that aren’t Mulder’s (although they are kept in his drawers), to the ones that are – the alien autopsy video showing the Japanese scientists in 731; the still from a video in The Erlenmeyer Flask technology has been used as a means of showing the truth as well as hiding it.

    BLAINE FAULKNER: You can’t suppress the truth! The people have a right to know! Roswell… Roswell! MULDER: Hey! Does that video camera work? […] YAPPI: Is this actual footage of an alien autopsy? Or simply a well-made hoax? JOSE CHUNG: So this is footage of the actual autopsy you performed. SCULLY: This is so embarrassing. YAPPI: Who is that mysterious man who seems to be overseeing the proceedings? And what secret government agency does this autopsy doctor work for? SCULLY: But see? Whoever got ahold of this footage edited it in such a way as to delete all the significant findings.

Mulder and Scully, from being the characters who search for, and wish to uncover, the truth, are portrayed as part of the very government conspiracy that means to keep the truth hidden. In Jose Chung’s they are working for, not against, the truth though the video autopsy suggests otherwise. A pretty neat twist.

It has been said that Jose Chung’s is the first post-modern episodes of the show, though the series as an entirety can now be considered a post-modern text, and from an existential point of view argues that humanity is always alone and the truth is essentially unknowable. But I’d argue that, while those points are valid, Jose Chung’s is about more than that. Jose Chung’s, at its core, is about love. While it can be argued that it takes somewhat of a back seat compared to Chung’s quest to know the intellectual truth of the events in Klass County, it is there nonetheless: the episode begins with Harold declaring his love for Chrissy and ends with his declaration that he still loves her; Roky discovers that the way to enlightenment is through love (or lust at least); Chrissy discovers a more selfless kind of love in devoting herself to improving the world.

    JOSE CHUNG: Then there are those who care not about extraterrestrials, searching for meaning in other human beings. Rare or lucky are those who find it. For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways on this planet, we are all… alone.

Chung’s analysis of love – that we are all ultimately alone – is perhaps the one way in which the episode diverts from the ideas found in the show as a whole. Chung takes the existentialist view that we are all alone; we perceive the world through a veil of experience, opinion and belief that no one else shares. Jose Chung’s illustrates that perfectly, as we’ve seen: the events in Klass County differ according to each teller because they each experienced different things. If we expand that idea to include all aspects of human experience, then it’s a logical step to say that yes, we are all essentially alone. We can’t really know what the truth is, and while we may love other people we can never make an ultimate connection with them.

But The X Files, ultimately, doesn’t enforce Chung’s opinion. Folie a Deux, for example (often cited as the episode that illustrates Mulder and Scully’s love) can be regarded as illustrating love as a shared perception. It deals with similar themes to Jose Chung’s; there are people who see zombies and monsters, and people who can’t. The people who can’t don’t believe the people who can. Until the end of the episode Scully can’t see the monster that Mulder is faced with. At one point she even hopes that he’ll be able to see past the delusion.

    MULDER: You have to be willing to see. SCULLY: I wish it were that simple. MULDER: Scully, you have to believe me. Nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will. You’re my one in … five billion.

But when she trusts what he says and looks at the world in the same way as him she sees what he sees.

    SCULLY: The truth … as well as I under stand it. MULDER: Which is? SCULLY: Folie A Deux. A madness shared by two.

Of course Mulder and Scully have, by The Truth, have found love with each other (something it could be argued the fans knew about much earlier than the characters did), and Frank Spotnitz, in a Science Fiction Weekly interview, argues that this is perhaps the ultimate truth:

    The final scene addresses this head on. You can’t get the truth. You can’t. There’s a larger truth, though: that you can’t harness the forces of the cosmos, but you may find somebody else. You may find another human being. That may be kind of corny and all of that, but that’s really it: Love is the only truth we can hope to know, as human beings. That’s what Mulder and Scully found after nine years. And that’s a lot.

Think for a moment about how The Truth ends. Mulder and Scully have found the truth that they’ve spent the last nine years searching for: they know that the date is set for colonisation, they know the conspiracy is real. Everything that Mulder has believed has become true, and Scully has been convinced of that truth along the way as well.

But the end of The Truth is, ultimately, about more than that. More than the truth, Mulder and Scully have discovered love. 

    MULDER: I believe that I sat in a motel room like this with you when we first met and I tried to convince you of the truth. And in that respect, I succeeded, but … in every other way … I’ve failed. […] SCULLY: You’ve always said that you want to believe. But believe in what Mulder? If this is the truth that you’ve been looking for then what is left to believe in? MULDER: I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us as part of something greater than us – greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves. SCULLY: Then we believe the same thing.

Even if you accept the idea in Jose Chung’s that we are all ultimately alone, The Truth shows us that love is still real, and possibly the only way we can get close to knowing an ultimate truth. Mulder and Scully, at the end of the series, believe the same thing. The worlds of perception, the veils of experience, opinion and belief, that have kept them apart for nine years, have joined. They believe the same; feel the same; see the same. In a world where the truth – where love – is essentially unknowable, that’s the biggest declaration of love there is.

So while Jose Chung may have not realised that love is the only truth we can hope to find, Harold did. That’s the beauty of Jose Chung’s; Chung himself doesn’t know this final truth, much like Mulder and Scully don’t get to know the whole truth about the conspiracy, but one of the minor characters does, just like the fans did.

Of course, there are other episodes which deal with the nature of truth and reality, Bad Blood being a prime example. From Mulder’s description of Scully mooning over Sheriff Hartwell to Scully’s account of Mulder’s rather exuberant morning greeting, the episode makes us question whose version of events is true. In the end, unlike Jose Chung’s, both are – Sheriff Hartwell doesn’t have buck teeth but Ronnie Strickland is a vampire. Bad Blood consistently finds itself at the top of fans’ episode lists, but for me Jose Chung’s will always be there first.

Mulder’s closing plea to Chung perhaps best sums up the episode– the conflicting versions of truth that we see – as well as the nature of the show itself.

    MULDER: Don’t write this book. You’ll perform a disservice through a field of inquiry that has always struggled for respectability. You’re a gifted writer, but no amount of talent could describe the events that occurred in any realistic vein because they deal with alternative realities that we’ve yet to comprehend. And when presented in the wrong way, in the wrong context, the incidents and the people involved in them can appear foolish, if not downright psychotic.

Even though there may be an underlying reality to the way the world is, it is covered by layers of fictions, fictions we see in Jose Chung’s and in The X Files; a point interestingly made in Milagro:

    MULDER: Which is the truth? PHILLIP PADGETT: By their nature words are imprecise and layered with meaning. The signs of things, not the things themselves. It’s difficult to say who’s in charge.

Jose Chung, as a writer, is perhaps in the best position to realise this.

I could go on, I really could. There’s so much to talk about in relation to Jose Chung’s – post-modernism, metaphysics, existentialism, the constraints of language – that I scarcely knew where to being. I’d like to think I’ve covered aspects of some of these in this essay, while not straying too far from my reasons for loving this episode. I’d like to think there’s enough in here for the fans who don’t like it to dig out their DVDs, watch the episode again and think ‘maybe there is something to it’. I’d like to think there’s enough in here for the fans who do like it to dig out their DVDs, watch the episode again and think ‘yeah, we knew that’. But even if I haven’t been able to do either of those things, I’ve at least been able to write my own love letter to Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.

Jose Chung’s was the forerunner to Bad Blood, the episode that manages to poke fun at the show while becoming a mirror to what The X Files is really about. As David Duchovny says about Mulder:

    When he matures he’ll realise that the truth is not something to be had. Mulder is very young because he really thinks there’s an answer.

Darin Morgan, in writing Jose Chung’s, shows us that there is, indeed, no answer. He cleverly plays with our ideas of truth, subverting what we know of reality and making us question all that we see.

    SCULLY: You want my version of the truth. JOSE CHUNG: Exactly.

As we discover in the series, there is no definitive truth that can be agreed upon by each party. But there are other truths. It’s why Darin Morgan goes back to love: we may not be able to agree on whether the aliens were real or not; on whether Chrissy was raped; on whether Mulder and Scully were men in black, but we can agree on love. Love is the closest we can come to knowing that ultimate truth; that even if we can’t agree on what happened, we can agree that we love each other. We can sense a deeper reality by developing that closeness with other people and we can share their perceptions and see the world maybe a little more clearly. It’s what Mulder and Scully spent nine years doing, after all.


Richard M. Gale (ed):    The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics
René Descartes:    Discourse On The Method And The Meditations
Anthony Harrison-Barbet:    Mastering Philosophy
Plato:    The Republic
V.S Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee:        Phantoms in the Brain
Bertrand Russell:     History of Western Philosophy
Oliver Sacks:    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Dean A. Kowalski (ed):    The Philosophy of The X Files



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