This second season episode of The X-Files (1993 – 2002) is one of the sharpest, most stunning social critiques in the entire catalog.
In “Die Hand die Verletzt,” Mulder and Scully deal -- in storied New England -- with the Satanist equivalent of “Cafeteria Catholics,” religious practitioners who pick and choose which edicts and dogma they want to believe in, and ignore the rest.
But when you’re dealing with the Devil himself, it’s dangerous to break faith, as the episode suggests in no uncertain terms.
“Die Hand die Verletzt’s” brilliance arises from the inventive notion of “lapsed” Satanists: one-time believers who are now doing so well that they no longer find it necessary to obey the edicts of their (dark) Lord.
They are punished (egregiously…) for their trespasses, of course, and so the episode begs the question: why do humans insist on pledging fealty and devotion to divine beings, and then promptly impose their own judgment about that deity’s wants and desires over its clearly stated ones?
In other words, if you believe in the Bible -- Satanic or otherwise -- how much personal “interpretation” is really allowed?
This X-Files episode could have very easily -- and very controversially -- been a story directly about Christianity, and that’s sort of the point. The episode critiques “the faithful” as people who claim to be of a certain “tribe,” but who don’t actually want to conform to their tribe’s belief system. This fact alone might be read to suggest that there is no God.
Because, after all, if you really believed in a deity, why would you wish to incur his or her wrath?
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate the unexpected and unusual death of a high school student in Haven, New Hampshire, and Mulder believes the murder may be occult-related
Although Scully and Mulder don’t know it, the school board and PTA in this sleepy town consists entirely of lapsed Satanists who have watered down their faith. As a result, an evil substitute teacher/demon Ms. Phyllis Paddock (Susan Blommaert) arrives (presumably from below…) at the local high school to wreak havoc and remind the wayward souls who really calls the shots.
Before long, a local teenage girl, Shannon (Heather McComb) claims to have unwillingly participated in black masses in her cellar, and to have performed as a “breeder” for her Satanist parents. Soon, she apparently commits suicide.
Mulder and Scully find no evidence to substantiate Shannon’s report of devil worship in Haven, but even the duo from the F.B.I. soon feel the controlling hand of the devil at work through the extremeley frightening Ms. Paddock.
Once more, we can’t sufficiently discuss an X-Files episode without noting how cleverly it plays on real-life, current events of its time period.
In particular, the year 1992 saw the release of the F.B.I. report by Agent Kenneth V. Lanning (of the Behavioral Science Unit) on “Satanic Ritual Abuse.”
That report -- which is name-checked directly by Scully in the episode itself -- notes that there is no “corroborative evidence” for all the reports of Satanic abuse in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The author writes: “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized Satan cults.”
The reason for this mass delusion, or insanity, Lanning suggests, is that Satanism -- the old “Devil made me do it” excuse -- offers “the simple and clear cut explanation for a complex problem,” meaning child sexual abuse. Lanning also relates the Satanism “cult” fear directly to the “Stranger Danger” idea of the 1950s, which also created a mass scare in American suburbia, but didn’t account for all that many cases of abuse, globally-speaking.
“Die Hand die Verletzt” turns such findings on their head, and makes a funny claim. There are Satanists everywhere in small-town America, the episode states, but -- humorously -- they are no more devout or zealous (and therefore dangerous…) than most American Christians.
Apparently, faith of any kind is really hard to come by these days, to paraphrase John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
By turns funny and ominous, “Die Hand dieVerletzt” is a sharp critique of human nature, and its apparent desire to believe in a Deity… but then second-guess that all-powerful deity for sake of personal convenience.
I had a Catholic college professor (and film instructor) who introduced me, back in the late 1980s, to the derogatory term “Cafeteria Catholic.”
He explained that these people looked across the smorgasbord of Church doctrine and belief, and picked and chose what edicts they wanted to obey, as if choosing toppings from a salad bar.
This way, they could use birth control and not worry about their immortal souls.
Or they could be pro-life, but then instruct their pregnant teenage daughter to get an abortion if the need arose.
I’m not trying to pick on Catholicism per se, or even Christians in general here. I suspect the same “Cafeteria” approach is present in virtually all forms of faith, and perhaps even sci-fi fandom, as a reader suggested to me recently.
People claim they are true believers, but what they really mean is that they have selected a belief system that mirrors or reflects their already-entrenched belief system. In other words, they shop for a religion that mimics a pre-existing state of mind, and tend to ignore facets of that religion that simply don’t line up with what they already like.
Mulder expressly comments on this very notion in the episode by remarking to a lapsed Satanist that indeed there is a difference “drinking grape juice instead of wine at communion.
“Die Hand die Verletzt” charts this universal phenomenon, humorously using Satanists as the “faithful” satirized. The Satanists are depicted as typical American suburbanites, worried that the musical Grease has the “F”-word in it, for instance, and looking to climb the ladder of American success.
As long as these “good folks” believed that Satanism could make them upwardly mobile or successful, well, they were Satanists. But when they achieved their goals, it turns out they didn’t need their “God” to help them anymore. He was cast-off, neglected.
What this episode of The X-Files describes, then, is a kind of selfishness about religious faith. These men and women aren’t in it for a God of any kind. They are in it for themselves. They get to claim faith (and therefore righteousness), at the same time that they reserve the right for themselves not to do something that they don’t like, or find unsavory (like sacrifice babies on an altar to Ba’al, for instance…)
What remains impressive about “Die Hand die Verletzt” is that the manner in which the narrative and tone travel from pointed satire of organized religion in America to stark, demonic terror, scene-to-scene.
The tipping point in that transition is a sustained, brilliantly-directed sequence in which young Shannon (McComb) reveals her personal history in a coven. The camera intently circles the young witness as she goes on and on, describing a litany of inhuman horrors. From this point on, the episode moves away from examining religious hypocrisy and delves full-bore into terror.
Rather surprisingly, “Die Hand die Verletzt” makes no bones about the Devil’s existence as a “real” force on Earth. The kids in the woods raise a demon, Mrs. Paddock, and she is a terrifying embodiment of the Serpent.
In fact, once she begins prosecuting the lapsed Satanists, the overall suggestion is that Mulder and Scully couldn’t stop her, even if they had all the facts at their disposal. The episode thus casts a malevolent spell as it broaches its denouement, and our heroes are forced to reckon with the point of view that -- from a certain perspective, they were “in league with the Devil” on this particular investigation.
“It was nice working with you,” Mrs. Paddock writes on a chalkboard in the local high school to confirm this idea. The message is chilling for what it suggests; for the idea that agendas aligned for a time, and Mulder and Scully were part of a plan beyond their own wishes, desire, or control.
The overall episode becomes funnier (and even tongue-in-cheek), however, when one starts to consider it in light of all the conspiracies about public schools acting as breeding grounds for the “evils” of secularism.
Then there’s the belief that Satanists have infiltrated the Federal government and are persecuting Christians, and so Mulder and Scully’s unwitting “alliance” with the Devil here suggests that imaginary conspiracy as well. Were the episode done today, it wouldn’t be about the bugaboo of Satanism, but probably Sharia Law infiltrating schools and government. The monsters change, but the (loony) fears remain the same.
I often write that The X-Files is the Star Trek of the 1990s, the pop-culture phenomenon that defined a generation. Episodes like “Die Hand die Verletzt” prove the point well. The episode works as social commentary, as tongue-in-cheek comedy, and in the end, as absolute horror show. Even better, the episode never feels off-message, or possesses the wrong tone. “Die Hand die Verletzt" holds a mirror up to the audience and asks us to consider the things we believe, and even, ultimately, the way that we put those beliefs to practice.
Next week, the epic double feature: “Colony/End Game”