All horror and sci-fi fans know that darkness means trouble. As soon as night falls, all of the monsters lurking in the shadows reveal themselves. All bets are off once there’s no longer any light. One show that knows this is X-Files.
That’s the general premise behind the 20th episode of The X-Files’ first season, “Darkness Falls.” A so-called Monster of the Week episode, X-Files’ “Darkness Falls” is largely disconnected from the overarching plot of the series.
Instead, it finds Mulder and Scully unraveling a mystery that is rife with eco-warfare, seemingly ancient insects, and typical Pacific Northwest weather (i.e., lots of fog).
It’s a fun adventure, and the episode has gone on to become one of the most fondly remembered of the season. Fans and critics alike applaud the thread of environmentalism that ties the action together, but the real stars of the show are the tiny villains that the two agents battle with.
But where did the idea of an X-Files episode concerned with a mysterious insect plague come from? What are the bugs based on? Let’s take a look.
In Darkness Falls X-Files Heads to the Forest
Like many other episodes of X-Files, “Darkness Falls” opens with a stand-alone scene that introduces the audience to the setting and establishes the general mood of the episode while hinting towards the plot.
We see a group of men in a forest debating over how to deal with some unknown force. They decide to flee, and we are then treated to a harrowing scene of them being swallowed up by tiny green bugs that resemble little more than dots. Not exactly the most terrifying, but hey, cut them some slack. The episode is almost 30 years old!
It then cuts to Mulder and Scully preparing to investigate the strange disappearance of those very same men. They’re pretty certain that it’s not Sasquatch, but they don’t have much to go on aside from that.
Dressed in charmingly retro outdoors gear, the duo arrive in Washington State to begin their investigation. They quickly meet up with a Forest Service ranger and a logging executive who tell them about the “eco-terrorists” that line the forest with traps in hopes of discouraging logging activity. Long story short, they think that the hippies are to blame for the disappearance of the loggers. Seems a likely story… at least in comparison to what’s to come.
The ragtag band of forest detectives eventually arrive at a cabin far off the beaten path, and the investigation begins. The hippie theory begins to lose credibility once Mulder, Scully, and the ranger discover a cocooned human corpse about fifty feet up in a tree. With no possible explanation available, they return to the cabin.
There, they discover a man named Doug Spinney. He reveals himself to be part of the radical treehugger brigade and tells them an alarming story. He says that he and his friends have learned that a swarm of bugs has been appearing at night and killing anyone who dares to venture into the darkness. The only way to be safe, he says, is to stay in the light.
Naturally, the interest of Mulder is piqued. Scully and the ranger are skeptical but concerned; the logging executive can only scoff.
From here, things escalate quickly. The team discovers an old-growth tree that has been wrongfully chopped down by the loggers, and one of the inner rings has – get this – a bunch of tiny bugs living in it. Uh oh. Looks like Doug might be telling the truth!
When they return, they have to deal with the encroaching darkness as their generator begins to fail. They notice the bugs all over them, and it’s clear they’ll need to get out of the forest soon.
Later, they try to make a break for it. Unfortunately, their car breaks down before they can make it out of the forest and away from the biohazard. Doug, however, comes to their rescue in a Jeep he went to go and retrieve earlier. However, they aren’t able to drive fast enough. When the next night comes, the bugs get into the car, covering them and threatening to suffocate them in cocoons. The screen fades to black.
No deus ex machina this time, believe it or not. Mulder and Scully end up grievously injured from the bugs, and they are found in a critical state the next day by rescue workers. As they are recovering in a quarantined field hospital, Mulder is assured that the government will deal with the threat of the bugs. “What if they fail?” he asks one of the doctors. “That is not an option,” he responds.
Inspiration: Chopping Trees and Thawing Ice
The themes of the episode are pretty obvious upon a first watch. Capitalism is causing us to destroy our environment, and in the process we may be dooming mankind in ways that we don’t even understand. The idea of a single tree causing some kind of biological outbreak is a microcosm for this idea, and the effects shown in the episode are certainly pretty startling.
But, interestingly enough, the writer of the episode claims that an environmentalist subtext wasn’t actually intended. Instead, he got the idea for the murderous wood mites from dendrochronology, the study of tree rings.
A lot can be discovered by just looking at the patterns of a tree’s cross-section. As the ranger in the episode notes, “they’re a recorded history of rainfall and climate.” What is rare, though, is actually finding living insects in rings that are hundreds of years old. And by rare, I mean that that isn’t actually a real thing that happens.
So, at the end of the day, the premise for the episode is fictional. Which is probably a good thing. With the amount of old-growth trees that are regularly chopped down in the real world, it would be pretty alarming to think that any of them might contain glowing, carnivorous wood mites waiting to suck the fluid out of our bodies. Yuck.
But still, Carter wasn’t totally off base. The episode perhaps would have been more believable if it was based on ice rather than trees, though. Multiple sources report the possibility of ancient microbes being awakened from melting permafrost due to climate change. In fact, 72 individuals were hospitalized in Siberia after high temperatures caused anthrax-infested reindeer to thaw out and release their germs into the world.
Is that the same thing as the insects from The X-Files? Not exactly, but it’s also not far off. Add this one to the “Things The X-Files Sorta Predicted” list.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on how this episode feels extra prescient in light of the current worldwide pandemic.
While most X-Files villains are at least somewhat humanoid, “Darkness Falls” isn’t the only episode of the show to feature killer bugs. Another season one episode even hits upon many of the same notes. You can read about a few others here.
The glow-in-the-dark wood mites of this episode are also not only the murderous insects to ever appear throughout the realms of sci-fi and horror. In fact, it’s a relatively common trope. Starship Troopers is one of the most obvious connections, although the fact that the bugs are also aliens in that film separates it from X-Files’ “Darkness Falls” somewhat.
In 1978’s The Swarm, a flick about killer bees running amok, one could see X-Files “Darkness Falls” as a direct precursor. In fact, a lot of horror between the 50s and the 70s were creature features focused on bugs: Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Spider, and The Deadly Mantis. Quality varies.
And then there are the movies that take the frightening aspects of insects and stretch them beyond reality: films like Cronenberg’s The Fly stand out.
All of this is to say that there’s quite the precedent for an X-Files episode about creepy crawlies. Even beyond flicks that focus solely on bugs as evil, there are also countless instances of bugs signaling bad things to come throughout various forms of media.
There’s a good reason for all of this six- and eight-legged horror. The fear of bugs likely stems from the fact that they can both poison us and carry disease. This makes them an interesting source material for fiction. While we aren’t technically “scared” of them like we would be of, say, a charging lion, we feel a mixture of fear and disgust towards them. That’s a unique feeling, and it’s one that horror and sci-fi writers have been playing with for literal decades.
So, yeah, “Darkness Falls” is just one in a long line of bug-related scary stories. Despite this, it still manages to feel quintessentially X-Files. The way the bugs are presented feels unique and somewhat alien, and the fact that Mulder and Scully basically lose against them is a fun twist. The CGI may have aged poorly, but the actual plot feels just as relevant as ever.
Last Updated on February 8, 2022.