The practice of the previous post fits into a larger project of mine I lovingly call “Indians and Aliens”, and by “project” I mean obsession. You may remember from my review of The Swing Voter of Staten Island that there is a noted trend in the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres of incorporating subtexts that deal with America’s anxiety over their genocidal history. I am interested in studying how this anxiety plays out specifically in story lines that revolve around the association between the landscape of the West and U.F.O’s. Whether it be Roswell, Area 51 in Nevada, or Cowboys and Aliens, the connection between the lands of the frontier and visitors of the last frontier is one of the oldest in the alien genre. The genre also deals with people’s mistrust of their government and their sneaking suspicion there are secrets in this country as vast as the desert lands. (Hint: one of those secrets is that America killed a whole bunch of populations in order to become America.)
The X-Files episode we just looked at, however, deals with a different kind of unknowable landscape and a different kind of “alien” being. In “Detour” it is the swampy forests of southern Florida that are the setting for an age old battle typically associated with the frontier: the taming of wilderness in the pursuit of progress. The alien beings populating this strange, vast landscape are not outright identified as Indians but are rather primitive looking men with glowing red eyes.
You might recall however that there was some ambiguity over the identity of the creatures. The invisible men of the forest, indistinguishable from the trees and soil of their home, were definitely primitive but what first seemed like a metaphor for indigenous defenders was explained in the final scenes as Spanish conquistadors who had discovered the fountain of youth. It is a very interesting conclusion considering that the traditional narrative of the Spanish conquistadors may include their cruelty towards Native peoples, but rarely ever portrays them as small primitive men—they are after all Europeans. Perhaps then what Mulder is implying when he asks at the end of the episode “After four-hundred years in the forest, don’t you think they would have adopted perfectly to their environment?” is that the Spanish acquired a type of indigeniety due to their time in the forest. This process of becoming indigenous means adopting all the typically racist markers of being Indian: animal-like, dirty, uncivilized, violent.
In that way “Detour” is a bit like The Heart of Darkness plot and other colonial tales of the frontier where savage lands turn civilized men savage as well. It also seems like a strange validation of the American form of occupation, as if somehow the loss of instinct and the distance from nature allows them to remain rational and human. This narrative assuages fears Americans may have about the subconscious realization that they are the aliens in this land.
The X-Files as a show, and as the division of the F.B.I. within the show, operates to reveal that our fears, anxieties and suspicions are all in fact based on reality. Mulder, as the rebel who cannot be contained, unmasks repressed paranoia to be warranted fears, and the ridicule he experiences is really just a further attempt to repress this truth. For example, many Americans suspect that modern development on fragile ecosystems is a violent act, and “Detour” displays the violence, but also projects it onto the invisible primitive men monsters. This allows viewers to face their anxieties about destroying “indigenous species”, but also to feel vindicated in this destruction because of the inherent primitive violence of these species, which must be subdued in order for the life of ordinary citizens to continue. This is one of the most common narratives of the frontier and of settler colonial societies in general: while the demise of the wilderness and the beings collapsed with it (Indians, buffalo, Palestinians, olive trees, etc) may be sad, it is necessary for the safety and prosperity of a vulnerable new nation project. I won’t go into the reasons such a logic is flawed except to note the paradox of being both an invader and a victim.
If you have any further suggestions of cultural texts awaiting “Indians and Aliens” analysis, please let me know and I can do a special post per your suggestion.