If I were compiling my top ten list of X-Files episodes, the second season installment “F. Emasculata” would definitely make the cut. Not coincidentally, it would also take the number one slot for “most disgusting episode” of the long-lived sci-fi/horror series.
In this episode, Mulder and Scully battle a deadly, incredibly contagious disease, and most not only stop its transmission, but make some tough choices about how much information the public has a right to know in times of an emergency.
What makes this episode by Chris Carter and Howard Gordon such a visceral, throat-tightening entry is the grotesque appearance and nature of the disease. Those infected develop a high-fever and almost instantly develop throbbing, mushy pustules on their skin.
After a time, roughly thirty-six hours, these pulsating sacs actually explode -- like overripe zits -- ejaculating the disease into the air. In one of the most disgusting scenes I’ve ever witnessed on network television, a suburban wife and mom is seen here tending to a sick man when a pustule ruptures, and splatters the toxic materials in her open mouth, and all over her face.
On a personal note, my wife still hasn’t recovered from the scene in which an infected convict holds a little boy hostage on a bus, and his pustule-deformed face edges perilously close to the child’s angelic visage. This moment captures the horror of contagion perfectly, and expresses the fear that we’re all vulnerable to disease.
Of course, gore is one (wonderful) thing, but the creeping terror of “F. Emasculata” is more than special effects. Rather, the disease scenario played out here is frighteningly plausible and, in fact, based on a real incident from the 1980s.
After a scientist named Torrance is killed by a virulent disease in South America, a package is sent by a mysterious mailer to an inmate in jail, in Dinwiddie, Virginia. Inside is a diseased animal leg which soon causes the spread of the deadly disease inside the facility.
When two murder suspects escape from prison carrying the fatal contamination and therefore the possibility of mass infection, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) must track down the fugitives and prevent further spread of the terminal contagion.
Soon, Scully uncovers evidence that the government and a large pharmaceutical company engineered this “test” as part of some secret operation, but Mulder’s first order of business is to catch the last surviving fugitive before he contaminates a busload of innocent people…
In the mid-1990s, the virus or contagion was the new pop-culture boogeyman, one even displacing serial killers for a span.
Films such as Outbreak (1995) tracked the progress of Ebola through a heavily-populated American town, and by 1997, UPN aired a (ridiculous) “disease” or “virus”-of-the-week series titled The Burning Zone for a season.
Hazmat suits were suddenly in vogue, and the de rigueur attire of the 1990s horror genre.
All of this disease-oriented material likely originated with a best-selling book: The Hot Zone (1994),by Richard Preston. A “terrifying true story,” this book explored in nauseating but meticulous detail the outbreak of a deadly Ebola virus in a monkey storage facility, Hazelton Laboratories, in 1989. The facility, much like the prison in The X-Files, was located in Virginia, but in Reston rather than Dinwiddie.
In real life, the CDC investigated the outbreak, and the book also details the author’s exploration of the lab building where it occurred, later demolished in 1995. Now…it’s a KinderCare.
The details of the Ebola Virus as recounted in The Hot Zone (on page 24) are enough to make anyone sick or simply scared to death. Preston writes of victims vomiting blood, the sound of a “bed sheet being torn in half” (the noise of bowels opening and “venting blood from the anus”), and other body horrors that make vampires, werewolves, and other every day monsters seem innocuous by comparison.
What’s rather amazing about “F. Emasculata” is not only that it follows in broad-strokes the details of The Hot Zone (in terms of location), but that it is actually far gorier and disturbing than Outbreak, which was released theatrically. This episode is extremely graphic and forthright about its depiction of disease in a way the movie simply isn’t. Because it pulls no punches, “F. Emasculata” has long been a favorite of mine. It brilliantly explores the notion of a genie loosed from the bottle; of a danger that, once uncorked, is difficult to catch-up with and contain.
Also, I like the no-bullshit resolution of “F. Emasculata.” In movies such as Outbreak and TV series such as The Burning Zone, a miraculous cure is always found in the nick of time, and major characters are spared agonizing and disgusting death. Life rarely turns out so neatly. In “F. Emasculata” no cure is developed…the outbreak simply is contained while the disease burns itself out. I much prefer that dramatic resolution to any nonsense about discovering some cure to a deadly disease on the spot. I’m glad this episode doesn’t go there. The X-Files is a brilliant series precisely because it always keeps one foot grounded in reality.
Although the government is a crucial player in this particular conspiracy, “F. Emasculata” reserves its greatest contempt for Pinck Pharmaceuticals, the big company which has orchestrated the outbreak to determine how the toxin affects human beings. Why? So the company can circumvent years of FDA testing.
In other words, the company couldn’t wait to make money…and so people had to die. Not surprisingly, this big business chose the population with the least power and freedom to use as guinea pigs: prison convicts.
So in this case, unregulated, irresponsible Big Business is the enemy, though certainly the government’s role is a crucible for debate.
Is it right for the government to hide the truth of the disease from the American public, knowing that the truth could cause a panic and costs lives? Or should the government reveal all in the name of disclosure and public safety? “Controlling the information,” as the episode points out, is about who possess power, and who doesn’t.
This debate relates to Mulder’s journey. He wants the public to know the truth, and for the guilty to be held to account.
But, of course, there is no evidence to support his story, and so he risks becoming the story, himself.
The question becomes: how much does the public deserve to know, and when does it deserve to know it?
I’m of the mind that the truth in situations like this must come out, but if reporting it as “breaking news” causes a panic -- and costs lives – it’s best to tread carefully, and get all the facts first. That’s not a paradigm our current mainstream press is very good at.
In simple horror terms, “F. Emasculata” is an exploration of subversion by micro-organism; of the way that tiny invaders can reshape our bodies and threaten our very lives. A disease is not a monster that can be fought with guns or knives, but one that multiplies and spreads, and enacts its monstrous work without conscience or even consciousness. It’s difficult to fight an enemy like that, one that can pop up, like a multi-headed Hydra, and can transform the most healthy person in the world into a disease producer.
I find this idea absolutely terrifying, which is no doubt why “F. Emasculata” remains such a visceral viewing experience. Even today, this episode plays more like science fact than science fiction.
In two weeks: “Our Town.”