The first and most superficial meaning of the show’s title refers to the cases that Special Agents Mulder and Scully work during the series. Within this diegetic framework (that is, within the fictional world of the show), the X-Files are a collection of FBI “cold cases” that have not been closed because they contain one or more elements that lack plausible, rational explanations. As such, the X-Files are quite literally the mysteries being investigated.
Nicknamed “Spooky” by his fellow FBI agents and given a windowless basement office to signify his marginalized status, Agent Mulder is the keeper of these X-Files. His role in the series is to serve as the voice of credulity. He’s the one who gives the series its first catchphrase, “I want to believe.”
The series is launched in the pilot by Agent Scully’s new assignment as Mulder’s partner. The pairing makes sense because Scully’s training as a medical doctor gives her the enlightened rationality that Mulder seems to lack. If Mulder is too gullible, Scully is a skeptic. Also, even though Scully is putatively the junior partner with less experience in the Bureau, her FBI supervisors make clear to her that her job is not only to work with Mulder to close X-Files by finding rational explanations for them, but also to keep an eye on Mulder personally and to report back to the supervisors about his questionable activities.
So, the agents’ job is to research and to close these X-Files, but of course the logic of the series quickly reveals itself. Mulder and Scully are confronted with some answers but not all, and most episodes end by maintaining the insolvability of the mystery in question. The X-Files can never be fully closed because the “truth” of each case never allows itself to be read.
Another way to read the title of the series is to see the X as representing “ex-“ the Latin prefix for “out of” or “from.” As a prefix, ex- can also mean former. As a preposition, the word ex often means “without” or “excluding.” Tying this back to the internal logic of the show, these then are files that are outside or not included in the main body of files. They are outliers, both literally and figuratively. This descriptive way of looking at the X-Files then also makes a clear allusion to the show’s obvious antecedents in American television. Both “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” presented similar types of episodes that explored the supernatural, the creepy, and the weird. Not surprisingly all three of the shows have titles that refer to their status as being somehow outside normal experience or existing in a some sort of a liminal space. The “twilight zone,” for example is neither day nor night but always in between. Again, I haven’t been researching the show, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, cites these other shows as influences on his own series. In fact, I’d be surprised if he didn’t.
Continuing this idea of the X-Files belonging to a liminal space, the X in the title is also the Greek letter chi that is often representative of a crossing over or a transition. We see this in everyday usage on road signs that say “Xing” rather than spelling out the word “crossing.” In that sense, the title of the series suggests that it offers place of transition or crossing over for its characters and its audience.
Finally, as a label for the series, this title possesses a final key virtue: it is at once familiar and unfamiliar (which, by the way, is precisely Freud’s recipe for the uncanny). For now, we can just observe that we know what files are. They’re boring, mundane collections of information. Whether on the computer or in manila folders in a big metal cabinet, most of us probably have to deal with files at work all the time. But we don’t initially know what the X stands for, so this adds a dimension of mystery to the title and makes it all the more memorable.
Further, our experience of the show corresponds directly with this initial hit from the title. The X-Files follows the basic pattern of a police procedural with federal agents, the structure of each episode is familiar. A crime or other mysterious event happens, Mulder and Scully go to investigate, they find clues, begin to structure plausible solutions, etc. Yet the discoveries these detective figures make are often unexpected and sometimes defy explain within the normal limits of modern rationalism.
That this standard-issue, late 20th-century rationalism itself has an ideological agenda is where the show begins to venture into conspiracy theory. We tend to imagine that at least as far as science and technology go, we live in a post-ideological world, but The X-Files clearly wants to challenge this notion. Still, I’ll leave that can of worms on the shelf until some future post.