You Can’t Go Home Again

Mulder’s office from “The X Files”. Image by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, U.S.A. Creative Commons License

By Yuly Restrepo Garcés

“Home,” the second episode of season four of The X-Files, and one of its most controversial, makes its intentions known from its first sequence: a disturbing home birth during a dark and stormy night is quickly followed by the burial of the baby, who is born with so many deformities that its survival will be impossible. The scene is shot in darkness only occasionally interrupted by flashes of lightning to show us, either in extreme closeup or from far away, the deformities of the three men in charge of the burial. They are filmed in profile and low angles in the middle of the rainstorm to convey their great monstrosity, with the sounds of water, thunder, and the baby’s agonizing cries as the only soundtrack. That is, until one of the men breaks into uncontrollable sobbing, and the title sequence begins.

Directed by Kim Manners, “Home,” a monster-of-the-week installment written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, is unlike any other episode of The X-Files and this distinctiveness has made it endure, even after it famously received the series’ first TV-MA rating and was banned from the airwaves for the next three years, only to come back as a special Halloween event. Upon first airing, the episode received mostly positive reviews, but some critics and many viewers considered it too disturbing, even for a show whose previous episodes contained a serial killer who removes his victims’ livers (“Squeeze”) and a murderous Satanic cult (“Die Hand Die Verletzt”).

One reason for this reaction that immediately comes to mind is the episode’s gruesomeness. The table where the woman gives birth in the first scene is ominously covered in blood, and we continue to see lots and lots of it in the following, pivotal scenes. The morning after the burial, a group of kids playing sandlot baseball inadvertently find the baby’s corpse, but what we first see of it isn’t the corpse itself: it’s deep red blood emerging from the ground. 

Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate by the sheriff of the town, which is called “Home.” Evoking Andy Griffith’s idyllic Mayberry, his name is Andy Taylor. “For real?” replies Mulder when the sheriff introduces himself. The lawman explains that the town has never seen such an event; that it is difficult for him to find a suspect because the population of Home is only a few hundred, and “everybody knows everybody.” Mulder quickly spots a large, derelict farm house on the property next to the sandlot and asks the sheriff about its inhabitants, who have been observing them from their porch. Taylor explains that the house belongs to the three Peacock men, descendants of a family that has owned the property since the Civil War, and whose parents are presumed to have died in a car accident years earlier. The sheriff isn’t sure whether the parents are truly dead because the Peacock boys took them back home before the authorities could provide any life-saving aid. He also makes a strong suggestion that the family practices inbreeding.

At the baby’s very informal autopsy, which is conducted on a bathroom sink (the town is so small it doesn’t have anything resembling a morgue), Scully discovers it was buried alive and died of suffocation from inhaling dirt, and not from the myriad genetic defects she can detect at first sight. The agents believe the Peacocks have kidnapped the mother of the baby and are keeping her in the rundown home, so they head there to investigate. The first sign that something isn’t right is a severed and bloody pig head on the porch. Then the agents discover the bloody table, the scissors used to cut the umbilical cord, and a bloody shovel, but there is no sign of a woman or the Peacock brothers. All we can see is the detritus of an insulated life lived in boarded-up darkness, and all we hear is the incessant buzzing of flies. Suddenly, in the darkness appears a wide-open pair of eyes, and we hear heavy, raspy breathing.

This terrifying shot makes full sense after one of the bloodiest sequences of the episode, in which the three brothers, under the cover of night, appear at Sheriff Taylor’s home, whose door he never locks. It turns out that the owner of that mysterious pair of eyes alerted the brothers to the investigation. Before the sheriff can retrieve his revolver, which he usually doesn’t carry and instead keeps in a safe box, the brothers burst through his bedroom door and bludgeon him to death with a baseball bat in front of his wife, who hides under the bed, terrified. She tries her best to stay quiet, but once the great pool of her husband’s blood reaches her fingers, she can no longer contain herself, and the brothers kill her in the same horrifying manner. Later, as Mulder and Scully investigate the scene in all its daylight horror, we see blood everywhere: on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling.

This series of gruesome events concludes when Mulder, Scully, and the sheriff’s deputy, Paster, go back to the Peacock house to arrest the brothers. They find it has been booby-trapped when deputy Paster is decapitated with an axe immediately after opening the door to enter. Taking care not to meet the same fate, Mulder and Scully distract the brothers and enter the house, at which point they discover Mrs. Peacock, who had been in the house all along. She appears as a wide-eyed, deformed, screaming figure, living as a quadruple amputee under the family bed, strapped to a wooden contraption with wheels. Mulder, Scully and the audience realize Mrs. Peacock somehow survived her car accident and is the mother of the dead baby. When the brothers finally see that Mulder and Scully are in the house, a confrontation follows in which it becomes clear that the brothers are more or less impervious to bullets, which also helps to explain their mother’s survival, and two of them die only by falling victim to their own booby traps. The eldest brother (and presumed father of the dead baby) manages to escape the home with his mother, and the last shot of the episode is of him putting her in the safety of their old Cadillac’s trunk and driving into the woods.

It’s easy to see why this was termed the first straight-up horror episode of The X-Files. It breaks with its usual mysterious paranormal elements in favor of unmitigated brutality and violence.

It’s easy to see why this was termed the first straight-up horror episode of The X-Files. It breaks with its usual mysterious paranormal elements in favor of unmitigated brutality and violence. The brothers are often referred to as “animals,” and the brutal murder of the sheriff is only more unbearable due to its soundtrack, a cover of the 1957 classic “Wonderful! Wonderful!” by singer Johnny Mathis, who considered the episode too disturbing for his own version to be used. It is also clear that the episode is indebted to horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the documentary Brother’s Keeper (1992).

Even without the viciousness of the episode’s violence, incest and inbreeding are their own kind of horror. When the brothers descend upon the just-decapitated deputy to tear apart his body, Mulder expresses our anxieties about these topics, outside of the obvious medical ones: “What we’re witnessing…is undiluted animal behavior—mankind absent of its own creation of civilization technology and information regressed to an almost prehistoric state, obeying only the savage laws of nature.” The horror of the three brothers keeping their mother strapped under a bed so they can have sex with her, and her defense of them as being “good boys” who are trying to keep the family untainted, is almost unspeakable. We almost want to keep them as they were, encased in the shadows of their boarded-up home, until their cursed lineage finally ends. For Scully, who, in this episode, for the first time expresses her desire to be a mother (which will become one of the most important themes of the series in future seasons), to witness what is arguably the most perverted version of motherhood imaginable plants the seeds of an anxiety that sprouts later on, when she discovers she has a daughter as a result of her abduction in season two.

It had been at least a decade since I last watched “Home” before I watched it again for this retro-review, and what strikes me this time isn’t the episode’s horror tropes, which are still quite shocking, but how much it seems to be a declaration against nostalgia. The Peacocks own an antique Cadillac and listen to wistful 1950s music, but they live in a house that’s falling apart. They have closed ranks and stuck to each other since “the War of Northern Aggression” because they understand each other best, but this has only resulted in their disturbing decline. Sheriff Taylor laments the end of his town’s innocence when the dead baby is discovered, but he doesn’t seem to understand that the unspeakable horror that led to it has been in his hometown all along. Even almost thirty years ago, when “Home” originally aired, no such place as Mayberry could really exist in America. When we romanticize a bygone America, as these characters did, we deny that, since the beginning, the American dream has been inextricably linked to brutality and violence.