I recently went back and started rereading the Goosebumps series. It starts with Welcome to Dead House, which derives most of its horror from the fact that a young girl, Amanda, isn't believed when she says there's a ghost in the house. Fast forward to today, when I just read "The House That Jessica Built" by Nadia Bulkin (look for it to come out in the November The Dark Magazine). It is also the story about a young girl, Rue, who isn't believed when she says there's a ghost in her house. And these two stories made me look a bit closer at horror tropes in particular but, wider than that, at a lot of the media that I've taken in growing up and to this day. Because I started to look at just how much this idea of not being believed feeds into the stories we tell. Especially the speculative stories that we tell.
The X-Files. I never really thought of it before but the catchphrase of the show is "I want to believe." This is used in a lot of ways in the show but I've been thinking of how this idea unfolds around the central relationship of the show, that of Mulder and Scully. Now, this is Mulder's line. Throughout most of the show it's him who embodies the desire to believe. It's also him who somehow is so secure in his job at the FBI that he can basically do whatever the fuck he wants on the X-Files. I mean, here's a man whose case notes are…completely off the charts and he keeps his job. Is encouraged, even, and seen as brave. Essentially, even when he's not believed, he's still believed. Because his desire to believe in the supernatural ends up being more important than Scully's work as a scientist, more important even than Scully's eventual belief in the supernatural because she can actually believe what she sees whereas Mulder can only want to.
And Scully. She's there to be Mulder's foil. To keep him honest. But, really, she's there to be disbelieved. Background in medicine and science and it's Scully who has to admit that she is wrong, time and time again. And it's Scully who is vulnerable for the work done on the X-Files. More than Mulder ever is, it's Scully who is intimidated and told that she didn't see what she saw. From Mulder she is told that her science can't explain what she sees and from the rest of the world she is told that she didn't see anything anyway. It's part of where the horror of the show comes from, that Scully is always in a sort of danger that Mulder just…isn't in. We're not taught to fear for Mulder when he goes and does whatever stupid thing he does. We're taught to fear for Scully, because she's always at a greater risk, in part because of our society and in part because that's how it's written. Looking back, it doesn't surprise me as much that the new X-Files was so horrible. Looking back, Scully is still awesome, but always more awesome in my head and in my heart than she was ever allowed to be on the show.
And I love that this is a trope that people play with deliberately and intelligently (like the Bulkin story), but I'm also dismayed that so many things I've read and watched simply used it like it's an objective truth. Unfortunate, perhaps, but a sort of horror that men can drop into to feel uncomfortable before being comforted by the return to normalcy and their own enforced superiority. I mean, it's no surprise that if a story focuses on a man not being believed, there has to be a "reason" for him not being believed. He's a habitual liar or trickster or some such. He has to have a mental disorder that makes him "untrustworthy." He has to be poor, or a person or color, or queer. Looking at The Boy Who Cried Wolf, one can't help but imagine if it was The Girl Who Cried Wolf she wouldn't have been believed from the start. There would be no tangible difference between the reaction she got while lying and the one she got telling the truth, because in both scenarios she would have been brushed off, called a liar, maybe punished. And that's the crux of gaslighting, the crux of misogyny, that we live in different worlds, and the world we've labeled as female is one that isn't allowed to exist without constant male monitoring and policing.
The world is full of ghosts. And it is not enough to want to believe in them. What is interesting about The X-Files is not really that Mulder was always the wild-man chasing after UFOs. It's that Scully was always the believer. Not in Mulder and his theories, but in what she could see and touch and feel. She trusted not Mulder, but herself, and built up her beliefs from that. Mulder, for all he wanted to believe, never really did. Not for sure. Not without proof. In the end he became the voice of the establishment. Give me proof and I'll believe, he says, knowing that there is no proof great enough, not given everything he's seen. And because he's still the one believed more, trusted more, he can go right on doing it. But change will not happen as long as those with power say only "I want to believe." Change will happen, justice will happen, only when we turn off the gaslight and treat people like people. When we start trusting people when they say there's a wolf among us, that there's a ghost and it wants to hurt us. Otherwise all we live is a horror that many of us don't believe because we don't have to live it. And that...well, that's pretty fucking awful. Thanks for reading.
All the best,