Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Alien Dreaming: I Want to Believe, Part 3

I Want to Believe got pummeled by the Dark Knight blitzkrieg, but I think it also fared poorly because it's too brutally unrelenting in its view of a cold, heartless, spiritually-dead America. It also presents us with heroes beaten down by that reality, which has certainly only become more stark since the film's release.

  Some critics also bashed the film for what they perceived as its use of the "gay villain" trope, not understanding the X-Files philosophy that villains are simply people with conflicting agendas, and are often simply trying to survive. But none of that was going to wash while the Dark Knight Working was unleashing its chthonic spell across the world.

All that being said, I think I Want to Believe is a flat-out masterpiece and is so densely packed with layers of meaning and subtext that I discover something new every time I watch it (and I've watched at least 40 times). 

Whether it's saying something people are ready to hear right now is another issue entirely. I will add that one of the reasons the film hit me so damn hard is that it's filled with truly startling personal synchronicities. But that, as they say, is a story for another day. 

Now, let's dive in...

Find the hidden mushroom!

As we saw in the previous installment in this series, the X-Files film I Want to Believe allegorizes the series' own Mythology, symbolically retelling the drama of aliens, abductions and genetic experimentation in a real-world context. 

And just as The X-Files has always done, ancient mythology seems to be part of the mix as well. in particular, the motif of the "descent to the underworld" that was an important theme in the Mystery religions.

Modern scholars like Gordon Wasson and Terence McKenna have shown that the "mystery" behind the Mysteries was the use of powerful hallucinogens like LSA and amanita muscaria, which led to rituals including everything from wild dancing to group sex. Wasson has argued that Dionysus cultists actually used an admixture of powerful hallucinogens and herbs as their "wine," not the usual mix of fermented grapes.

left: Isis-Aphrodite right: Isis Anderson

As we've seen in the "Alien Dreaming and the Widening Gyre" series, hallucinogens and alien contact seem to be connected in ways we don't yet understand. The liturgy of the Mithraic Mysteries- generally believed to be the most sober and conservative of the ancient sects - includes some pretty startling encounters with angels and snake-faced humanoids inside flying discs, which have doors and exhaust and artificial light fixtures and all of the rest of it. All of this follows the ingestion of a bitter mixture of herbs and other plant derivatives by the initiate.

As mentioned before, X-Files episodes that delve into ancient astronauts and alien identity were always preceded by unconnected stories about hallucination or hallucinogens. We don't have any explicit reference to either in I Want to Believe, but we do have a lot of parallels to several Mystery religions, the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone being the most obvious (as well as lots of interesting visual clues scattered throughout the film).

Let's take a look at the parallels:

Monica Bannan is our Persephone, abducted and brought down to Hell. Remember that Persephone is associated with Spring and was spotted by Hades while picking flowers, so here Monica defends herself with a gardening tool

Given the exoteric narrative of the film, it's probably not an accident that the agent who plays Monica showed up before in Chris Carter's previous Frankenstein riff, "The Post-Modern Prometheus." That just shows you how he thinks (Bannan is related to Baines - Downard fans take note).

Cheryl Cunningham is Persephone as well. Here we see her abducted amidst giant rolls of hay, tying back into the agricultural motif of the Mysteries. The constant backdrop of snow neatly parallels the barren earth of endless winter following Persephone's abduction.

Janke is our Hades (with a bit of Set thrown in for good measure). The iconic shot of him underwater parallels Hades' place in the Underworld, looking up and spying Cheryl/Persephone. 

Janke is played by Callum Keith Rennie, who first appeared in the Ten Thirteen Universe in "Lazarus," an episode that also deals with conscious being grafted onto another body (which also references Osiris). The symbolism goes even deeper with this character...

..such as his menacing Ford pickup that makes a nice stand-in for Hades' chariot, and plays a major part in the abductions. Cheryl drives a Subaru Outback, which opens a whole other can of worms.

Janke also has a two-headed dog, a gene-spliced modern version of Cerberus. Mulder encounters the beastie after hopping the fence to the Russian compound, a Hell-on-Earth if ever there was one.

Inside the compound, we see Cheryl submerged into a vat of ice water, again symbolizing the descent into the Underworld. She's about to take her place as the Queen of Hell, once her head is removed and replaced with that of Franz, that is.

Which brings us to our first curveball. Franz is our Agdistis, on loan from another Mystery cult alogether. Agdistis was the mad hermaphrodite whose male genitals were ripped away by the gods. 

Using the godlike technology of genetic engineering, the dark gods of IWTB pull away his entire male body and replace it with a female one. The old pun of altar boy/"altered boy" takes on new meaning here. Who then is his Attis?

Father Joe is our Attis, the self-castrated prodigal son, who bled to death beneath the evergreens. We see Joe bleed from his eyes beneath a fir tree, the eyes often being identified with testicles in mythology. 

Father Joe is psychically linked to Frank and is seeing the crimes through his eyes, which is why he can't see Cheryl's abduction. Scully rescues Father Joe during a seizure and has him taken from the halfway house he shares with other sexual predators- just as Cybele rescues Attis from Hell.

So what about our stars? Mulder repeats his role of Demeter seeking Persephone from the Samantha storyline, which Scully helpfully reminds us when she tells Mulder "this is about you trying to save your sister." 

We get some semiotic tips feminizing Mulder in the first half of the story, such as when enters "the woman's side" (another interesting parallel is Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Dionysus and Semele).

Mulder rises from his tomb, again

But Mulder is also our Osiris, dragged down to the Underworld. Monica Bannon becomes Osiris when her body is discarded, which is made explicit when she are Mulder are both meant to be dismembered and scattered by Janke. Again, Scully helpfully links the two when she tells Mulder that Bannon "could have been you," somewhat cryptically.

Scully is our Demeter when she and Skinner rescue Cheryl/Demeter from Hell, and Isis in her search for Mulder/Monica. Both Isis and Demeter were "Our Ladies" thousands of years before the Virgin Mary. In fact, Demeter was known as mater dolorosa in Eleusis, which means - you guessed it - "Our Lady of Sorrow."

As both Cheryl and Mulder begin their descents into the Underworld, we see Scully yelling at a disinterested FBI agent and yet another visual cue- a young girl (rumored by fans to be Anderson's daughter Piper) descending a staircase.

UPDATE: Does Father Joe have a dual identity as well? Michael of Gosporn fame brings up the story of Prosymnus, a lusty fisherman who aided Dionysus when the wine god descended to the underworld to rescue his mother, which is exactly the role the priest ( a "fisher of men") plays in Mulder's search for Monica Bannan and later Cheryl Cunningham. The bottomless pool resonates with that vat of ice water that Cheryl/Semele is placed into. 

From Crystalinks:
(Dionysus) made the descent from a reputedly bottomless pool on the coast of the Argolid near the prehistoric site of Lerna. He was guided by Prosymnus who requested, as his reward, to be Dionysus' lover. Prosymnus died before Dionysus could honor his pledge, so...the god fashioned a phallus from an olive branch and sat on it at Prosymnus' tomb. 
This tradition was widely known but treated as a secret not to be divulged to those not privy to the god's mysteries. It was the source of the custom of parading wooden phalloi at the god's festivities.
Note that the Dionysian Mysteries in Classical Greece were almost exclusively female. The mind reels. Which brings us to our next player in the drama...

Skinner is Thoth/Hermes, assisting the goddess/mother in her search. Thoth healed Osiris by wrapping his dismembered limbs in gauze and here Skinner wraps Mulder in his jacket after Mulder's stand-in Monica has been dismembered. 

Note that tender shot there- a lot of X-Philes will have my hide for this, but I will go to my grave believing that the "Skin-Man" is gay and suffered an unrequited love for Mulder. In the puritanical context of The X-Files, that scene there is flat-out slashporn.

Now what about Christian? In this scene the hospital staff decides to stop treating Christian and ship him off to a hospice (Father Ibarra claims it is God's will). Scully objects, saying his condition can be treated with stem cell therapy. Another doctor objects. Is "putting the boy through hell" another clue?

Both Isis and Demeter worked as nursemaids during their searches and both treated sickly young boys by burning away their mortality (Dictys and Demophoon, respectively). In both cases their treatments ("putting them through hell," essentially) were opposed. And it goes with out saying that Isis is associated with Sirius.

Here are the only characters Chris Carter acknowledges as symbols- he identifies the nuns as the Three Graces. The Graces are often confused with the Horae, who assisted Demeter in her search for Persephone. It's worth noting that these scene takes place as the snow is melting outside after Cheryl and Mulder have been rescued.


Dogs are everywhere in I Want to Believe, in all contexts, good, bad and indifferent. They are part of all of the major plot points in the story. Chris Carter even makes a Hitchcockian appearance clutching onto an urn of his dog's ashes (the pet had died during production). 

But I really haven't figured out what Carter is trying to say about them, only that that they are too ubiquitous to be an afterthought.

There's also this strange scene where a dog and Scully are visually conjoined as she demands that a creepy priest leave Christian alone. I don't know bout you, but I don't know of any hospitals that let dogs go trotting around in children's wards.

The dogs are the biggest puzzle in the film. We've been looking at the growing emergence of Sirius symbolism in the media and politics, with both political parties using the Sirius hieroglyph in the campaign logos and Obama milking the meme for all its worth (as we also see with the so-called 'Blue Dogs'). Perhaps to understand it (which I admit I don't yet) we need to look again at what The X-Files is telling us about the world in its Mythology.

If there is a third X-Files film, Carter and Spotnitz have both said they want it to deal with the 2012 Colonization storyline of the Mythology. If we are seeing a metaphorical retelling of the Mythology, are we to believe that the Colonists - or perhaps the creator alien gods of 'Biogenesis' - are from the Sirius star system?

That certainly ties into a lot of the occult and UFOlogy lore that The X-Files plundered for storylines. The concept of 'walk-ins' - alien spirits inhabiting human bodies- gives us a crude parallel to the experiments we see in I Want to Believe. In UFO lore, the walk-ins are from Sirius.

Discounting the usual chitchat about monomyths and hero's journeys, the use of ancient mythology in The Mythology offers two possiblities. 

First, that Carter and Spotnitz roughly believe what Mike Clelland (of Hidden Experience) and I discussed on his podcast- that UFOlogy is our modern mythos. All of these stories about aliens and flying saucers and abductions are our simply folklore for a technocentric age. That ties into the whole Keel/Vallee theory, which is fashionable among those who want to delve into the subject without being seen as lunatics at fancy dinner parties.

The other possbility has to do with what we hear all of the major characters proclaim throughout The X-Files' Mythology- that the alien creators gave us our religions, science and myths when they genetically engineered the human race. So in fact all of these stories about ancient gods are actually just garbled accounts of the ancient astronauts, perhaps with some folklore and random bits of history thrown in.

This idea becomes quite tantalizing in the context of IWTB when you read news stories stating that some scientists believe that life on earth was seeded from the asteroid Ceres, which is the Roman name for Demeter. Panspermia was the concept that kicked off the whole alien cretor storyline in "Biogenesis."

All of this ties into themes that have been taking up more and more of my time, such as the possibility that these mythic narratives are hardwired into our brains for a reason, namely that they are allegories of realities that ancient people couldn't begin to grasp. 

And the hallucinogen/alien link is still an enigma, but one I'm convinced has the potential to completely change our current reality paradigm if we solve it.