Imagine going through your whole life looking like him!
Depending on the context and inflection, that statement can mean two very different things. At its heart is a question: What is normal? In the X Files episode Humbug (S2:E20), Mulder and Scully find themselves on the other side of normal.
That’s right, we’re time jumping to 1995! Do you feel the nostalgia? Or maybe the heartburn? Humbug was the first X Files ep Darin Morgan wrote. He’s a comedy writer first and foremost, a trait that shines through in this ep and helps the story make important points without getting preachy.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show. Please step inside.
Humbug! It’s not just for Christmas:
Humbug is a Monster of the Week episode that gives us a breather from the show’s linear, overarching plot. This is the X Files, though, which means a breather equals an investigation of grisly murders instead of aliens and/or world-controlling secret societies. This time, the killings happen in a trailer park town of side show freaks. It’s in Gibsonton, Florida, cuz everything crazy and strange happens in FL…or California.
While we X File fans know to Trust No One and understand that things aren’t always as they seem when watching the show, the episode opener still surprises us. It starts with a shady guy, who really needs a dermatologist or maybe a burn unit, watching 2 boys playing in a swimming pool at night. No parental supervision is evident. Mr. Skin Condition slips into the pool – and bursts up to grab one of the boys. We’re all set for a shocking monster attack, only to find that…yes, he’s their dad. He sends them back into the house while he swims.
Now we have the Monster Perspective (low, shaky) on him. In the background we see a trailer with an alligator painted on it. The text “The Alligator Man! Is he a man, is he an animal, or is he a monster?” So he’s a carnival performer!
Monster cam #2 plops into the pool. Alligator Man goes down in blood as something hits his midsection.
Cue the traditional case briefing in Mulder’s basement office. Mulder is all excited and referencing similar killings where the victims died of mutilated midrifts. Status quo. He shows Scully a picture of the Alligator Man. She reacts with, “Can you imagine going through your whole life looking like him?”
They ship down to the swamp and crash his funeral. There they see the residents of sideshow town USA. Two of the main characters of the ep are real-life performers: Dr Blockhead (Jim Rose, who runs a famous real life freak show and has toured with Nine Inch Nails and Manson) and The Conundrum (The Enigma, who works with Jim Rose). The agents are as much an oddity to the residents as the residents are oddities to Mulder and Scully.
Then they visit the Gulf Breeze trailer court, a reference to the 1987 Gulf Breeze UFO incident mentioned in episode 1. There they meet park landlord Mr. Nutt. He’s Michael J. Anderson from Carnivale and Twin Peaks. They also meet Lanny (Vincent Schiavelli from Dorf).
Mr. Nutt is the voice of the episode’s theme when he says that people judge others based on appearance, forgetting that everyone is a unique person.
People think no farther than stereotypes. As an example of stereotyping, he types Mulder and Scully as FBI agents based on their drab clothes and lack of personality. Mulder deadpans that they are FBI agents. Mr. Nutt remains rather hostile to them for the duration of his life, which isn’t long.
Then they meet Lanny, who has a conjoined twin named Leonard. Leonard is the size of a 2 year old and basically a vestigial appendage. His head end is, um, jammed in Lanny’s abdomen.
While they’re getting settled in the park, the local fun house owner dies of an acute case of indigestion – or rather not having a stomach anymore with which to digest.
In their questioning of the residents, our daring agents talk with Dr. Blockhead, who can pound nails into his sinuses and escape straight jackets. He’s a self-made freak, meaning it’s not genetic mutation. He is a fan of the Other, the Odd, the Off. He sees the beauty in and value of abnormality.
His sidekick is the Conundrum, who eats anything, and I mean anything. His mouth is basically an entrance only, though, as he “never answers questions, only poses them” by his behavior. The agents ask if he eats human flesh. Who knows?
The agents get no leads. They end up suspecting the sheriff, who was the dog-faced boy before going bald, and exhuming a potato in his yard.
Things go from bad to crap as Mr. Nutt becomes the next to have his guts chewed out. Mulder thinks it may be an ape of some sort, maybe even some sort of Fiji Mermaid. If you don’t know your PT Barnum history, that’s a monkey’s upper half sewn onto a fish tail. It was actually billed as a fake, yet people still wanted to see it! Scully thinks it’s “humbug” – a hoax.
The clues point to Lanny, whom the sheriff locks in the drunk tank. Lanny is at this point pretty much dying of alcohol-induced liver failure. He starts screaming as Mulder and Scully wander in.
Surprise, surprise, Leonard can detach himself from Lanny and go for a stroll. Or a crawl. Leo is looking for a new…brother/home. Sadly, even freaks can’t tolerate something chewing through their stomachs. Bet you didn’t think the belly bump was the real villain! Now that’s what I call a good antagonist. You suspect everyone else in the park because you judge them on face value. It’s the same reason you don’t suspect Leonard.
The gig is up, though, when Leonard attacks the Conundrum. We find the Eater of Everything lying in the ground rubbing his stomach. Two guesses what happened.
The residents are pretty freaked out (ha!) at this point and many start to pack up. Blockhead and Enigma are among the deserters. Blockhead and Scully talk. He bemoans the advent of genetic engineering, which he feels will soon make mutations a thing of the past. He says, “Nature abhors normality. You can’t go very long without creating a mutant.”
What will happen when there are no more mutations? He doesn’t know. But he’s not thrilled about everyone looking like “that guy,” meaning Mulder, who’s posing Captain-Morgan style 30 yards off. Blockhead echoes Scully’s line from the ep’s beginning: “Imagine, going through your whole life looking like him.”
What do side shows show?
It’s said that people fear what they don’t understand. It’s been my experience that people mock and dislike what they don’t understand. We also love staring at what we don’t understand. Why do you think The Learning Channel (aka the Voyeurism Channel) is still around? Side shows give us a chance to satisfy our visual hunger for the bizarre.
Why is the abnormal so fascinating? In the words of Dr. Blockhead, “Who knows?” I can guess, though. First, we like to feel good about ourselves. As any 3rd grade bully knows, one of the easiest, if the most base, way to do this is to bring somebody else down so we look better. We’re quick to say, “At least I’m not like that person.” Or, “At least I don’t [insert objectionable activity here].” No need to change ourselves to increase our confidence and self image! Instant self esteem: Just add scorn! Even if you’re the bottom of the barrel, you can still feel superior to some unfortunate Legless Wonder or Bearded Lady.
Second, normal is boring. Anything that happens a lot becomes, if not boring, then routine after awhile. We crave the new, the novel, the notorious (what? I needed a third N). What makes anything normal is its prevalence. That means if a trait or activity is common in society, it’s viewed as normal. In fact, many behaviors are only considered “crazy” or symptoms of a mental disorder if they occur more or less frequently than they do in an individual’s society. In the freak trailer park, abnormality was the norm because every resident was an aberration of some sort.
Third, there’s a chance for us to expand our imaginations by living for a seconds vicariously through the abnormal. We wonder what it would be like to look like an alligator or to have flippers. Then when we’re done imagining life like that, we can sigh in relief that it’s not our fate. See the bit on superiority through putting others down.
Wow, freak shows really bring out the best in humanity, eh? That’s another benefit: seeing how base we really are despite being “civilized” and “normal.” I don’t know how many people are self aware enough to realize it, though. It’s usually only apparent when we see other people gawking like yokels in front of a snake-oil salesman.
But it’s also encouraging that despite our technology and knowledge, we still line up to see a nutria that the carny bills as a giant rat. It proves that curiosity is still strong in us, even if our imaginations and work ethics have slipped as we couch and channel and internet surf. Curiosity is what drives innovation – in all fields. The drive to answer What If? is capable of powering us through setbacks and challenges in research. Curiosity drives us to explore new worlds. In a more every-day use, it encourages us to try new things and meet new people.
Another up side to side shows is it provides income for people who otherwise have challenges there. Many freaks were put out of work with no way to earn their usual income back when freak shows died (mostly) out.
The biggest point of the episode is as Mr. Nutt said, judging people by their exterior denies that everyone is a unique human with their own special value. How many people do we write off as being nothings without considering more than their appearance? I agree that I’m always beating the drum of “dress how you want to be treated,” but I also stress that we should try to find value in everyone. You never know what a person can do if you assign them a value without doing your research. People who are different are often quite interesting, and not just to stare at.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.
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