According to David Punter, gothic works such as the episode of The X-Files entitled “Chimera” remain ambiguous in their attempt to make lucid comments on our culture and the society in which we live. “Chimera” exhibits attributes of paranoia, barbarism, and taboo that are typical of a work of gothic literature. These elements combine to highlight inconsistencies within social structure, and bring to light what is collectively feared by the human race. It is not the practice of Gothicism to leave much of anything satisfactorily resolved and neatly explained; Gothicism’s uneasiness thrives on the practice of forcing its audience to engage in the entertainment of complex and fearsome comparisons while leaving enough to ruminate over long afterwards. The show certainly leaves open ended many questions that arise within the course of the story; the elements of the supernatural, the subtle challenging of reality, and the uneasy representations of the characters all leave the viewer with more than enough to turn over and analyze. However, this practice does not necessarily mean “Chimera” is incapable of creating a lucid commentary on society to the comparison of the suburbs and the dark workings of the underworld.
Through the use of symbolism, the episode successfully compares both the underworld and the suburban community in order to allow the viewer to understand that although the cultures of the underworld and of the suburban utopia are different in appearance, what lies beneath both is ultimately human nature. Therefore, both are equally vulnerable to evil. The only difference between them is the type of evil, and the presentation. The most significant elements of symbolism through which the episode operates are that of the ravens, the mirrors, and the chimera creature; each is used to depict themes of barbarism, taboo, and paranoia through the scope of the paranormal. Nevertheless, despite the lucid commentary these symbols create, they reserve the final scene to once again promote ambiguity and maintain their complexity.
The complex symbol of the raven is left broadly open-ended, save for Mulder’s over-simplified summary of its connotations; he merely states their association with deception, evil, and companionship to evildoers. This, in turn, translates to Punter’s idea of paranoia. “Chimera” allows the viewer to share in “a situation of ambiguity . . . in which the attribution of persecution remains uncertain and the [viewer] is invited to share in the doubts and uncertainties which pervade the” characters (Punter 405). Paranoia is defined as “a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance”. It is often linked to personality disorders, such as the anomaly present in Ellen.
The ravens seem to act as Ellen’s companions, being present at any significant emotional state throughout her life. They also act as a symbol of her cognitive process in which her transformation into the chimera is triggered. They appear in connection with Martha, Jenny, the skeleton key, and finally the mental hospital. Each of these entities is a direct source of jealousy, persecution, and is an enemy to what is most important to Ellen. Directly after Ellen’s discovery of the skeleton key, the raven ushers in the chimera’s image behind Ellen’s human reflection in the mirror. The image of the chimera is only available to her through reflections, and previously had completely replaced her own image in Martha’s mirror and in the car window. By presenting the creature as a separate entity in the mirror and portraying Ellen as an object of the creature’s pursuit, this scene solidifies Ellen’s belief of her victimized state and serves as a visual manifestation of her paranoia.
This inward evil, created by Ellen’s growing paranoia, can be linked to a single source: the taboo nature of her society. It is the “presence of highly stereotypical characters” (Punter 1) that allow questions “of relations between sexes” to mingle with “taboos associated with man’s supposed place in the hierarchy of natural and divine life” to be so thoroughly explored throughout the episode (Punter 405). The second symbol to be explored is linked to this concept, as mirrors embody connotations of inward perception among other things. Mulder offers an even more sparse explanation for the phenomenon of the broken mirrors as he supplied for the significance of the ravens. However, he does not overlook their importance. He urges Phil to understand that “mirrors are considered items of enchantment; a broken one means something.” Phil goes to the mirror and stares deeply into his reflection right after his affair is revealed. It is as though he is confronting all of his sins merely by beholding the mirror’s reflection. There is a sense that a mirror sees private events that no one else is able to witness.
The mirrors in “Chimera” could have told the entire story without need for investigation, had they been granted the ability to talk. Mulder makes reference to the idea that mirrors are doorways used to summon evil, but the conclusion reveals that he is wrong; the mirrors act not as doors, but as windows to the taboos of suburbia. First of all, Phil’s affair with Martha and Jenny is what causes the turmoil from the beginning. Interestingly, the rooms in which the affair is conducted are decorated with mirrored ceilings. This lends to the function of sight that the mirrors fulfill. Secondly, “Chimera” upsets the notion that the man is the head of the household.
It appears as though the women exercise a significant amount of control over the suburban men in a manner that is degrading and eerie. However, they try to hide behind the appearance that their men are in control the entire time. Early on, Howard refuses to return home and to take part in the family structure at all. When Martha is taken out of the picture, it is obvious that her husband is no significant part of his household. He seems out of place among the decoration of the house, and he is at a complete loss as to how to care for his child in the absence of her mother. Ellen makes elaborate meals, noting that it is because sharing those meals is the only time she is allotted with her husband. Philip even claims coldly that his wife’s pregnancy deliberately “locked [him] up good”. Furthermore, when Phil tells Jenny that they can no longer see each other, Jenny thinks nothing of it. She effortlessly convinces him to continue the affair.
All of this is suppressed for the sake of appearance, and this suppression is made manifest in the chimera creature. The creature is a product of the community’s suppressed taboo. She is well aware of the affair, keeping it repressed into her subconscious, and tells Mulder that she even immerses herself into perfecting her home because the housework gives her the illusion of being in control. Ellen does not wish to see the truth; therefore the mirrors break upon revealing it. It isn’t until she looks into a mirror that cannot break (the water into which she submerges the FBI agent) that she is able to experience and come to terms with the chimera and to control her suppressed fears and desires.
The juxtaposition between Ellen and her chimera is an excellent metaphor for Punter’s idea of barbarism. Centered on the theme of barbarism is the “fear of aristocracy, which provides the basis for “monsters with aristocratic qualities (Punter 405). Gothic literature employs these monsters in order to compare and contrast “good” and “evil”. Gothicism brings its audience to the fine line between the civilized and the barbaric to “demonstrate . . . the relative nature of ethical and behavioral codes” and brings it to a place “in which these codes do not operate, or operate only in distorted forms” (Punter 405). The innocent Ellen provides the monster with the aristocratic connotations found in most gothic literature. The blending also allows for the comparison and subversion of elements regarding the upper class and the “underworld” of society. Agents Mulder and Scully act as patrons of each.
Scully complains constantly about her degraded condition while Mulder visits the seemingly perfect town in the suburbs. However, Mulder soon begins to understand that something even ranker that what Scully is experiencing is going on within this small community. Despite Martha’s “perfect” home, the beautiful Easter celebration, and the close friendship between Martha and Ellen, the chimera proves to turn suburbia into something more terrible than the underworld can muster for Scully. Mulder even assures his partner that the view in suburbia is not any different than the one she sees through her telescope; it’s just dressed up a little nicer. Even the beautiful Easter egg hunt is tainted with the presence of evil, and a member of the underworld wrecks Ellen’s home. Furthermore, it is not a member of the underworld who taints Martha’s home, though Phil certainly acts identically to one. Jenny reminds Ellen that they all have more in common than they realize.
Although Martha vehemently attempts to separate herself from Jenny, it cannot be denied that their sins are transparently identical. Ellen, too, is not blameless in the murders she has committed in reaction to those sins. The chimera goes as far as to plant Martha’s body in her own rose garden, further mingling the horrid sins of the underworld with the placidity of utopia by stating literally “you’ve made your bed; now lie in it”. This blurs the lines between the two worlds and emphasizes the evil in Ellen’s. When the murderer’s identity is realized, Ellen is revealed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The transformation of suburbia into the underworld is complete, and the evil residing there cannot be hidden any longer. Ironically, at the same time as Mulder uncovers the truth about utopia, Scully realizes the opposite in her own case. Rather than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she discovers that her case is that of a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”.
This complete reversal of underworld to utopia gives the impression that it was the underworld all along that was good and suburbia that was evil. However, when further analyzed, the implications of good are still present in the suburban environment while the implications of evil remain as well within the world of Scully’s stakeout. Mulder had been warmly received and cared for by Ellen, while Scully experienced sights that would forever leave an unpleasant scar on her memory. There still existed a genuine love between Martha and Ellen before the affairs, and there was still a need for Scully’s suspect to use deception in order to bestow kindness upon the prostitutes to whom he was ministering. Therefore, the show implies neither that the two worlds are exactly the same, nor that they are two opposing ends of a pole. However, it does imply that the two worlds exist atop the same underlying plane of human nature.
Just as most of the literature of the genre, “Chimera” only resolves what is necessary in order for the audience to have sufficient material to consider possible implications derived from the ambiguity of the text. Having paved the way for lucid commentary up to a certain point, the raven is reintroduced into the final scene for a fresh dose of gothic ambiguity. As the now-enlightened Ellen looks upon her dark companion with acceptance in her eyes and the absence of fear, no explanation of this scene is provided. Ellen’s strange final encounter with the raven and her own paranoia seem to symbolize something far deeper than the previously lucid implications of the show. It deals with the definition of evil, and poses questions as to how that evil is somehow connected to human nature in a way that it becomes almost synonymous with a society built around humanity. The cage out of which Ellen gazes seems to both trap and free her simultaneously, and the raven remains out of her reach yet perfectly accessible. It seems as though all of the symbolism has converged into this final scene, and that now only two remaining symbols are the raven and the cage. The raven now seems to embody evil, and the cage society. However, the implications are unnerving and unclear.
Though the show is far more complex than can be wrapped up and completely explained after this final encounter, lucid commentary is present throughout and can be clearly seen through its symbolism. Punter may have been correct about the three areas of taboo, barbarism, and paranoia, but he was not entirely correct about Gothicism’s inability to make lucid commentary about objects of fear. As demonstrated by “Chimera”, Gothicism possesses a wonderful ability to both clarify and subvert. Punter was correct in his assertion that Gothicism thrives on the ambiguous, but he underestimated the genre’s ability to also provide equally lucid material. Although “Chimera” leaves with the viewer a final scene pregnant with ambiguous meaning, the symbolism throughout the show does well to clearly define lucid commentary that reveals much about society and collective fear.
“Chimera.” The X-Files. 02 2000. Television. <Netflix.com>.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. New York: Longman, 1980. Print.