Season 6, Episode 6
Director: Chris Carter
Writer: Chris Carter
Originally airing on December 13, 1998, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” was The X-Files sixth season attempt at a Christmas episode as only they could do. Last year, my cohorts and I collected our favorite episodes of Christmas television, and, had I seen The X-Files at that point, this episode would have made it near the top of the list. Filled with spectacular haunted house tricks and treats as well as two stellar performances from beloved veteran actors, “Christmas” is a macabre holiday treat that people should visit year after year. I’m not kidding.
The episode begins in more of a Halloween mindset than a Christmas one. Mulder calls Scully to an abandoned home late on Christmas Eve. The home was reported the scene of a 1917 murder/suicide pact between “star-crossed lovers” who could not live without each other. Legend has it that the couple – Maurice (Ed Asner) and Lyda (Lily Tomlin) – traps lovers within their house and convinces them to follow through with the same plan, taking advantage of their holiday-tinged loneliness. Scully is extremely reluctant but agrees to follow Mulder into the house, especially since he has taken her car keys. In the house, many strange things begin to happen. They glimpse ghostly figures in corners of the room. They hear thuds above and below. They find corpses under the floorboard that are dressed identically to Mulder and Scully.
After finding themselves trapped in a loop in the house’s library, Mulder and Scully are eventually separated, each having an encounter with the ghosts of the house. Each ghost tries to convince Mulder and Scully they are lonely souls and that each could kill the other. The ghosts use illusions and tricks to convince Scully that Mulder has shot her and vice versa. In the end, Mulder and Scully, believing themselves to be bleeding to death, attempt to crawl out of the house, but they discover their wounds are imaginary – all tricks orchestrated by the ghoulishly determined ghosts of the house. They run from the house and drive away, leaving the ghosts to blissfully lament about they “almost had them.” In Mulder’s apartment, Scully and Mulder exchange Christmas gifts even though they had agreed not to.
“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” works on multiple levels for me. First, it’s a fantastic haunted house setup. The first 10 or 15 minutes are genuinely creepy and unsettling with effective sound and beautiful set design. There’s a really good scare early on with a female ghost standing with her back to the camera as the lightning flashes. Not what you’d imagine from a Christmas episode, but it bears some resemblance to darker takes on Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Second, the ghosts are beautifully played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. Asner’s perm-grimace so effectively used in Pixar’s Up is well employed here too. He growls at Mulder with a shaming air about him, effectively trying to dissect (and crush) Mulder’s spirit while maintaining a playful, twinkling light in his eye. Tomlin has that same playful demeanor too, and Carter uses her natural sarcasm and wit in the role, even if it is a little one-note and underwritten. Still, the performances are accomplished and tremendously fun.
Finally, the best X-Files focus on exploring the characters of Mulder and Scully, and this episode is able to do that – even if it’s through the twisted lens of two haunted ghosts. Much like Scrooge before them, their harrowing and puzzling experience leads them to spend a little personal time together, not romantically, mind you, but in a very close and personal manner. When they exchange gifts at the end of the episode, the thrills, blood, and mental anguish of the previous 40 or so minutes are wiped away by the beautiful Christmas scenery and spirit between Mulder and Scully. And, really, isn’t that what all great Christmas episodes of television do? Sure, it’s a little scary here and there, but it’s the end result that really matters. This Christmas, you can make mine macabre.