Few people knew about the Jersey Devil legend before it appeared on The X-Files.
That’s the case with quite a few of the monsters that appeared in the seminal sci-fi show. Although not technically a horror show, The X-Files was known for its frightening storylines featuring creepy villains.
Extraterrestrials were the main focus of the series, but multiple creatures from our very own Earth also had episodes dedicated to them. The show often took a break from the loose, overarching narrative to feature critters and cryptids in features dubbed “the monster of the week.”
Some of the villains of these episodes were completely original. More typical, though, were the monsters that took inspiration from documented urban legends. Some creatures were hardly even modified for the show, instead lifting directly from actual rumors and folk stories.
The show is rife with examples of this. One of the most iconic is from episode five of the very first season. Aptly titled “The Jersey Devil,” this installment followed Mulder and Scully (well, mostly Mulder) into the depths of the New Jersey wilderness as they chased after a mysterious figure.
This episode established an important precedent of basing villains in reality – or at least the shadows of reality – that would continue for the rest of the show’s duration. Let’s take a look at how the Jersey Devil legend was portrayed in the show before taking a wider look at the myth as a whole.
Finding the Missing Link
“The Jersey Devil” opens up with typical X-Files horror. The viewer is dropped into an unknown location to witness some type of terrifying crime. In this case, it’s a man being attacked in New Jersey… and seemingly being cannibalized.
Scary stuff. Mulder, however, is giddy with excitement over the case. He immediately pegs it as potentially being the work of a storied creature called the Jersey Devil. Scully knows of the Jersey Devil legend and refers to it as the “East Coast Bigfoot.” With that context established, the two rush off to Jersey to see what they can figure out.
Unfortunately, they run into some problems. Local law enforcement is annoyingly (and suspiciously) unwilling to work with them. Bureaucratic politics… go figure. Mulder is undeterred and begins to investigate on his own, picking up stories of the Jersey Devil from a local Parks Service worker and the nearby homeless population.
Both sources seem to confirm his suspicions: there’s some type of strangeness afoot. The stories about the Jersey Devil, though, suggest more of a neanderthal-type figure than an ancient ape like Bigfoot. A humorously low-quality drawing accompanies these stories and shows that the “creature” that Mulder is looking for may very well be a human… or some type of human ancestor.
Things start to get exciting when a corpse is found that is believed to be both the Jersey Devil and the culprit of the crime seen in the beginning of the episode. This is followed up by reports of another Jersey Devil spotted in the city. A big chase takes place, and it all culminates in the second Devil being shot and killed.
Mulder is horrified, and vows to try to figure out who – or what – the Devil really was. As always, local police are unimpressed by the inarguably extraordinary events of the day.
The feature ends in a state of inconclusivity. Was the subject of the episode just a person who decided to live off the grid? Were they a missing link in the human genome? Or was it a non-human creature?
As is noted in the episode, it’s a mystery that is “as old as the hills.” That mystery remains unresolved in the end.
The “Real” Legend of the Jersey Devil
More than just being an interesting monster in the episode, the Jersey Devil has a long history surrounding it. Some sources peg the Devil as being in Jersey folklore for more than 250 years.
The true origin of the creature is disputed, though. Most versions of the myth feature a woman giving birth to a baby that, for whatever reason, turned out to be a deformed devil. Some believe that the mother herself wished for her baby to be born as a devil. Others say that she was cursed.
Regardless of the murky circumstances of how the story started, there’s a pretty standard set of descriptors for the monster. It is not generally considered to be close to a human like Sasquatch is. Instead, it’s a flying demon with the head of a horse or a goat… or a dragon. It has short arms, walks on two hooves, and has big wings coming out of its back.
Its behavior, however, is less clear. Like many cryptids, the Jersey Devil has been blamed for a variety of abhorrent acts ranging from bothersome to horrifying. It’s been known to fly onto farms to murder innocent livetsock. Stories also seem to indicate that the beast typically signals danger or tragedy. Although, if we’re being fair, it’s hard to imagine a flying devil horse being a good omen.
The large majority of historical depictions and stories about the Jersey Devil more or less follow this blueprint, albeit with some small deviations. Interestingly enough, though, The X-Files departed from the more traditional version of the myth in favor of a “Wild Man”-type character.
Devil or Wild Man?
As is noted in the episode, “just about every culture has […a] wild man myth.” It’s one of the most enduring scary stories we have as humans. Whether it’s Bigfoot, Yeti, Orang Pendek, or even a child raised by wolves, humanity can’t stop gossipping about creatures that blur the line between man and animal.
The psychology behind this feels pretty obvious. Some thinkers attribute it to our natural “desire for and fascination with an “other”.” But one could also argue that the ego plays a large role in the existence and proliferation of these stories. Our developed egos want us to think of ourselves as separate from and above the animal kingdom. This leaves a space between humans and animals where our imaginations can run wild.
But still, that doesn’t answer why The X-Files transformed the Jersey Devil from a nightmare bat-dog-goat thingy into a common “wild man.” There are aspects of the show’s depiction of the Devil that feel accurate: its environment and its tendency to disrupt society, for instance. But the caveman-like person that eats rabbits and buries its scat like a cat is a far cry from the true Jersey Devil. You know… as much as we can use the word “true” in this context.
If we’d like to, we can rationalize The X-Files’ decision by taking a deeper look at what the Jersey Devil really represents. According to the one and only Atlantic County in New Jersey, “The Devil’s form has been suggested to be the blending of human and devil.” This is reflected in the unsettling fact that the creature can walk upright on two feet.
It definitely isn’t human. But the stories and drawings of the creature make it seem just human enough to be extra creepy. It’s a bit like the Uncanny Valley: the Jersey Devil looks enough like us that it just feels wrong. It brings up the same uncomfortable feelings that the wild man – in all its forms – does.
So, despite definitely deviating from the accepted form of the Jersey Devil, The X-Files still pretty much got the correct point across. Whether it’s a shaggy human ancestor or a demon, it’s making us question our own place in society and the world at large.
Last Updated on January 9, 2022.