The Truth Is Nowhere

By Jordan S. Carroll

The X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an exercise in metafiction that reflects the 1990s withdrawal into private subjectivity. The episode is framed by the title character’s investigations into what appears at first to be an alien abduction. Novelist Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) interviews Dana Scully for his book—From Outer Space—which he touts as the first “nonfiction science fiction.” This genre appellation alludes to the nonfiction novel championed by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, a form that flouts the supposed objectivity of journalism by combining reportage with literary technique. Heir to this tradition, Chung maintains no pretensions about discovering the absolute facts about extraterrestrials. “Truth is as subjective as reality,” he tells Scully. 

Instead, Chung offers a series of partial and warped viewpoints on the alleged alien encounter. Each segment of the episode represents a different account of the events, and each calls attention to the fact that it is censored in the telling or reliant on distorted memories. Mulder lets out an improbable high-pitched yelp upon seeing a dead body, a salty detective says the word “bleep” instead of cursing, etc. One of the interviewees goes by the name of “Blaine Faulkner,” suggesting that we are watching an exercise in radical perspectivism not unlike The Sound and the Fury. Meanwhile, all of this is filtered through Chung’s own biases: he admits up front that the book’s “gimmick” is a shameless cash grab. Even more sinister, Chung may have been manipulated by his publisher to write the book as part of a disinformation campaign perpetrated by what Mulder calls the “the military-industrial-entertainment complex.” When Mulder confronts Chung with this possibility, the offended novelist writes Mulder into his book as a “timebomb of insanity” who masturbates to Bigfoot footage. Chung’s cynical refusal to accept anyone’s word as final ultimately results in his willingness to espouse whatever fabrications seem most convenient.

In this regard, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is much like other conspiracy humor from the late twentieth century. The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), the Church of the SubGenius, the Schwa Corporation, and other paranoid satires of this period suggested that the conspiracy theorist who discredits all external sources of evidence finds himself unable to reality-check his own delusions. These narratives collapse the distinction between excessive mistrust and excessive credulity. Mulder seems to embody these contradictions, living out the mottoes “Trust No One” and “I Want to Believe,” and during the show’s funnier moments we see the absurdity of his dilemma.

Image by Rodrigo Carvalho from Porto, Porto, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The unexplained incident depicted in the episode allows the series to further explore the antinomies of belief and disbelief. As we see in the cold open, a young couple out on their first date encounter a flying saucer and what look like two gray aliens. After the couple is rendered unconscious, their would-be abductors turn around shocked to see a giant, red cyclops that moves with the jerkiness of a Ray Harryhausen model. This is even more surprising because, as Bridget Brown notes, ufological lore casts aliens as the keepers of secrets (They Know Us Better than Ourselves: The History and Politics of Alien Abduction, New York UP, 2007, p. 6). Aliens possess the hidden facts about inner as well as outer space, revealing truths about the abductee’s buried traumas but also the news from the Zeta Reticuli star system. The episode, however, presents the E.T.s as baffled as the people they are probing. When one asks the other, “What is that thing?” his companion repeats the abductee’s line, “How the hell should I know?” Nobody possesses the truth.

Over the course of the episode, we never figure out the identity of the cyclops, but we gradually glean that the space aliens are actually military test pilots operating top-secret vehicles who use abduction as a cover for their activities. They dress up in rubber suits to throw off any civilians who stumble upon them. One of them shares the same surname as Jacques Vallée, the UFO researcher who claimed that extraterrestrial visitors were a hoax invented to manipulate the public consciousness. The notion that UFOs are a screen for clandestine government activities—a claim still circulating among paranormal researchers—underscores the sense of suspicion and unreality pervading conspiracy culture.

It turns out that the military used hypnosis to instill false abduction memories in the young couple, which becomes a powerful metaphor for how even what seems most real can be uncertain. As Brown argues, hypnosis holds an ambiguous place in ufology because it is described as a tool to both implant and recover memories (30). Grey aliens hypnotize abductees to make them forget while ufologists hypnotize them to remember, but often ufological accounts muddle these two figures into one. Thus “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” depicts the alien hypnotist, the military mind-controller, and the regression hypnotherapist as interchangeable. The process of recalling the past seems indistinguishable from distorting it. 

Even worse, we the audience are placed in the position of the hypnotic patient through POV shots of the various mesmerists. Our minds are being manipulated by the episode and, indeed, Chung suggests that all narrative is a form of hypnosis: “As a storyteller, I’m fascinated how a person’s sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words.” Mind control is an ongoing concern of Chung’s—we learn he wrote a book called The Caligarian Candidate—so it makes sense what we are watching would turn out to be a psychological operation.

As if to emphasize that it is designed to dupe the audience, the episode continually reminds us that we are watching a staged performance. The “Men in Black” turn out to be pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and game show host Alex Trebek, those avatars of television kayfabe. Later we see an alien autopsy modeled on the infamous hoax broadcasted by the FOX Network (Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction, 1995), which also aired The X-Files. Eager to reveal itself as complicit in hucksterism, the episode reminds us that even the series itself does not have a lock on the truth.  

Ultimately, though, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” seems less interested in how we are manipulated by others than in how we delude ourselves.

Ultimately, though, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” seems less interested in how we are manipulated by others than in how we delude ourselves. A UFO cultist gives everything away when he names the cold open’s cyclops “Lord Kinbote,” a reference to the eccentric protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962). In the novel, Charles Kinbote sees everything around him as a series of veiled allusions to the wish-fulfillment fantasy he has constructed about himself as the exiled monarch of a fictional European country. The episode suggests that everyone views abduction as a reflection of their own inescapable private obsessions. 

The episode’s characters seem lonely, trapped in their own worlds, unable to communicate with one another. Chung frames this as a personal tragedy: after the abduction ordeal, the young lovers split up. The man still pines for his date, but she has no time for love because she has moved on to political activism, which the episode represents as a personal fixation inspired by her hallucinated alien visitation. Although “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” critiques the characters’ separate retreats into their own little worlds, the episode does not point a way out of this extreme subjectivism. A shared reality that would enable mass politics seems impossible during this post-Watergate, post-Soviet period of distrust, fragmentation, and demobilization. As with other 1990s narratives such as Fight Club and The Matrix, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” expresses its disaffection through a solipsistic doubt that is equally isolating and paralyzing. 

However, this episode’s saving grace is that it reveals the ridiculousness of the lone conspiracy theorist’s predicament. Mulder and Scully largely avoid this problem: they may never agree on the truth, but they keep investigating together each episode. Unlike the atomized characters in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” Mulder and Scully are motivated not so much by a need to discover the truth but by a desire to share it with one another. Whereas this episode’s minor characters speak in monologues, the show’s protagonists remain forever in dialogue, a believer and a skeptic contradicting and correcting one another. In the end, Mulder and Scully’s dialectic proves to be a more productive way to grapple with the dilemmas of belief and disbelief than Chung’s alienated cynicism.