Jersey Devil Studies Vol. I: The X-Files

jd child

In which Chris Carter channels the Kallikaks

The X-Files: “The Jersey Devil”
Air Date: October 8, 1993
Written by Chris Carter; directed by Joe Napolitano

Based on the evidence of my Twitter feed, Episode Five, Season One of The X-Files(“The Jersey Devil”) is beloved by neither fans of the classic 90s TV series nor fans of the cryptid. X-Files fans see it as a letdown after the promising four episodes that started the series. Chris Carter, for all his conceptual talent, maybe wasn’t a great screenwriter. Likewise Jersey Devil fans — particularly those who think this smiling fellow is photo realism and not a newspaper editor’s joke — object to the Jersey Devil’s depiction as a kind of feral hominid, particularly in an infamous drawing of the creature that looks like it was done by a five-year old.

I was never a devoted X-Files watcher (or even a casual one) so I can’t speak to the relative merits of the episode, but as a devoted observer of all things Jersey-Devil-related I can say that — at least by the standards of that sad genre — this thing isn’t so bad. And there’s reason to think Mulder and Scully were into some interesting territory with their Jersey Devils as East Coast Cave People idea. Also Claire Stansfield plays the monster that sniffs Mulder. So, bonus.

My problems with The X-Files “Jersey Devil” had mostly to do with its setting in Atlantic City and the surrounding wilderness. Not because the Jersey Devil has nothing to do with Atlantic City. Absecon Island’s first permanent euro settler wasJeremiah Leeds (Mother Leeds anyone?) and the northwest tip of the island sits a mere seven miles across Reeds Bay from the very birthplace of the story in Leeds Point itself. No, my (admittedly idiosyncratic) problem is I that grew up in Atlantic City and its suburbs, so seeing those places represented onscreen by what is very obviously Vancouver and its surrounding wilderness struck me as jarringly Canadian. But I quibble.

The episode begins in flashback. A darkened highway. A family sedan drives through a majestic canyon of trees that looks like the Great North Woods but is supposed to be New Jersey in 1947. In fact our Pine Barrens while a national treasure, are notably smaller and scragglier in the tree department. A sign notifies viewers that we are three miles outside of Atlantic City, which in real life would put you in a salt marsh. Or maybe in Pleasantville.

A jarring blowout. The husband (“Paul! PAUL!”) stops to replace the tire and is dragged into the Canadian wilderness by mysterious hands. A search turns up his partially eaten remains the next day. Meaningful glances, exchanged among law enforcement personnel, hint at what’s to come.

A suspect is eventually tracked to a nearby cave where frightened state police, rather than attempt an arrest, fire their weapons blindly into the darkened cave mouth, killing who or whatever is inside. Which it turns out is a “large naked man” or “beast man” who’d eaten father Paul.

We cut to FBI headquarters in the present day where Special Agent Fox Mulder is reading a magazine, Hanky Panky, whose centerfold claims to have been abducted by aliens. Dana Scully interrupts the porn perusal (“anti-gravity’s right!”) to tell Mulder of new partially eaten bodies found outside Atlantic City. “Not an uncommon place to lose a body part.” Is Mulder always this arch? You’d know better than I would.

Scully first brings up the Jersey Devil (a kind of “East Coast Bigfoot”) as a possible perp, but it is Mulder who makes the 1947 connection, theorizing that someone or something out there is hungry. Presumably he means the grandchildren of the large naked man who ate Paul.

Stock footage of the A.C. skyline and the city’s marketing slogan on an expressway overpass. These slogans — constantly replenished from some deep and mediocre P.R. well — were a constant feature of my childhood. If you look closely you can see the Trump Plaza logo on a parking garage.

We are shown scenes of drunken and homeless people, and the interiors of the casinos. At one point a gambler checks the change-slot of a payphone for stray quarters. Of the A.C. scenes, that moment feels most like home to me.

The Jersey Devil episode is kind of infamous among X-Files fans as the one where Scully goes on a date with a man named Rob (“Scott’s dad”) who she meets at her godson’s birthday party. My read of the literature is that fans, while they appreciated the attempt to give Scully a life outside work, are glad the producers didn’t get too carried away with this stuff.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of the investigation into the homeless killings. But suffice it to say that local law enforcement, in the figure of the comically corrupt Detective Thompson, resents the FBI’s presence and appears to be hiding something.

After being stonewalled by the ACPD, Mulder visits the Pine Barrens crime scene in the company of a cooperative park ranger, who admits he shares Mulder’s suspicions that a tribe of feral beastmen — naked humans with accentuated olfactory organs — have been feeding on the homeless, but the man declines to say more, citing concern for his pension, which would be taken away, presumably, if word got back to the bosses that he was an enemy of tourism. No doubt the Trump administration had a direct line to the state treasurer.

Back in A.C. and flying solo now, Mulder meets a homeless man who shows him a sketch (“stuck in a pocket of a jacket I found”) of the thing that’s been eating the homeless people. This is the infamous drawing that has engendered so much backlash among monster enthusiasts, and in fact it is kind of an amazing artifact to behold, a kind of lazily drawn sketch of a hominid, Jackson Browne hair, addressing the viewer in an attitude that is somewhere between Patterson-Gimlin and Walk Like an Egyptian.

I realize it’s supposed to be a naïve representation, but in hindsight maybe the prop people would have done this differently.

Mulder spends the night in the homeless man’s lean-to and is sniffed by one of the Jersey Devils who comes to rifle the dumpsters. She flees, and when he whistles at her, as if for a taxi, she pauses to consider his overture, and there’s a definite feeling that love is in the air. But this is abruptly shattered when the ACPD show up and arrest Mulder for vagrancy.

A classic jurisdictional dong-waggling scene ensues, with the corrupt Detective Thompson accusing Mulder of obstruction, and Mulder counter-accusing Thompson of withholding evidence. “You know it’s out there,” Mulder says. Meaning the Jersey Devil.

“Whether it’s Hannibal the Cannibal or Elmer Fudd, I’ve got a job to protect people.”

“Who’s going to be responsible when you lose your first tourist?”

Now, my dad was a cop in the Atlantic City Police Department for 25 years and no one has a bleaker view of the malice and ineptitude of that institution than he does, but this feels like a stretch.

Meanwhile Scully goes on her infamous date with Rob. He’s a financial adviser. She’s wearing a doily with shoulder pads. Plainly not that into Rob, when Mulder interrupts with a phone call, she takes the opportunity to hear about the latest twist in the case — a twist considered sexist by some viewers.

At some point Sculder and Mully pause in their travels to pop in at the University of Maryland and talk some anthropological gobbledygook with a professor there (Gregory Sierra). Here Mulder floats his theory that the Jersey Devils are Piney Neanderthals or whatever. It’s highly unlikely, they admit, but, on the other hand, “…it would be an amazing discovery!” And thus a thousand monster hunters are born.

The trio return to A.C. where the anthropologist can’t understand the hostility of the local police to the scientific mission. But Mulder gets him up to speed on the realities of the cop mind (it’s about protecting tourism). Eventually Mulder and Scully manage to get themselves raided by the S.W.A.T. team. During a chase through a warehouse, Mulder is cross-checked by the Jersey Devil — played the 6’1 Stansfield — who crouches astride and sniffs him.

“She was beautiful!” the smitten Mulder says as Scully saves his jam.

“Yeah well she just about ripped your lungs out.”

“A real live Neanderthal on the loose!”

Although she escapes for a time back into the Pine Barrens of British Columbia (cops reporting a man down and a naked woman on the run), the ACPD eventually puts an end to the string of homeless killings. Not to mention 250-plus years of Jersey Devil sightings and any chance of a Nobel Prize for the University of Maryland. Though maybe not so fast. Perhaps there was an entire family of Jersey Devils. She appears to have been a mother.

When we leave the our protagonists, Mulder has an appointment to see an ethno-biologist at the Smithsonian. “I can’t wait to tell him about this.” (I wonder if the Maryland guy feels jilted.)

“Keep it up Mulder — I’ll hurt you like that beast woman.”

“Eight million years out of Africa, guess who’s holding the door?”

*

In its review of the episode, The Onion’s A.V. Club noted that the producers “took plenty of liberties” with the “legend of the New Jersey Devil [sic]” and gave the episode a C overall, calling it the series’ “first semi-dud.” Similar criticisms came from less distinguished quarters. See for instance this guywho told Chris Carter, in a kind of People Online conference call, that “The Jersey Devil is a completely different entity (feel free to e-mail me and I can send you its complete legend).” (I wonder if he ever did.)

But whether fans knew it or not, the idea of the Jersey Devil as a kind of “beast man” has established antecedents in both the folklore and the history of Southern New Jersey. One version of the story I remember growing up involved a child that had been locked away by its parents in the basement. When the parents grew old and died, the child escaped into the woods of South Jersey, where it became known as the Jersey Devil. Stories collected by Herbert Halpert and Henry Charlton Beck in the 1930s and 40s (sincere folklore instead of the media echo chamber) involve similar situations. And if you were to wander around South Jersey today and ask random people in the streets — or in Wawa convenience stores, as I did — about the Jersey Devil, you’d be at least as likely to hear stories of sick or mistreated children as you would to hear about a fire-breathing kangaroo bat. So Kudos to Chris Carter, I say, for highlighting a version of the Jersey Devil story that’s too often deemphasized in pop culture.

Carter’s beastmen-and-women also have antecedents in a certain set of stereotypes that have collected around the inhabitants of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I refer of course to the infamous “Pineys” of South Jersey myth and legend.

Pineys and the Jersey Devil go together like cheese and toast and have done so at least since the 1850s when the legend of the Leeds Devil first appeared in a magazine article about the “Pine Rats”, scourge of the blueberry and cranberry industries.

In some sense the Jersey Devil is the ur-Piney, born on the fringes of the Pine Barrens, to probable Piney parents, and currently living in the woods. And in the stereotype, the Piney was a kind of failed human, wild man or agricultural pest. In 1912, stereotypes about Pineys were given the veneer of science when a psychologist (or pseudo-psychologist) H.H. Goddard argued that the Pine Barrens had been a catch basin for feebleminded morons (a term he is credited with introducing into English) who were over-represented among the population of the woods, where they effectively represented a different species, “a vigorous animal organism of low intellect but strong physique — the wild man of today.” (Goddard, 1914).

Piney stereotypes were still strong enough in the 1960s that John McPhee was led to observe that there lingered, even among the “gentlest” of people, an idea that the woods contained “a weird and sometimes dangerous people who live in caves, marry their sisters, and eat snakes.”

Do I think Carter was consciously referencing the Goddard/Piney myth? I guess I’d be surprised. But it takes no great anthropological wit to see the parallels between the Piney creation myth and the Jersey Devil story: the poverty, the sprawling families, the sexual incontinence of the mother (Mrs. Leeds), and presto: a failed human, a vigorous animal organism, the wild man of today. And maybe Carter is drawing our attention to this in his focus on the homeless, who form their own neglected underclass in Atlantic City.

From this perspective, 22 years later, the idea that feels most dated about The X-Files’ Jersey Devil story is the conspiracy angle. Not because Jersey Devil conspiracies have gone out of fashion, but because they come now in at least two complimentary flavors: those that suppose a suppression of Jersey Devil evidence toprotect tourism, and those that see a motive to invent a Jersey Devil to promote it in the form of monster hunters. Admittedly, these latter type probably spend less at the casinos.

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About jerseydevilbook

Author of The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil, a nonfiction book about the origins and development of the Jersey Devil folk story. I'm distantly related to the monster!
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