Conflating Our Cryptids: The X-Files and the Jersey Devil

Most of my original cryptid knowledge started with The X-Files. The show was must-see TV long before the likes of MonsterQuest and Expedition X. So of course I’ve kept my eye on the series to see if they did anything with various cryptids. I hadn’t found anything about Bigfoot, but right there at the beginning, in the fifth episode of Season 1, there it was, the cryptid of the moment: “Jersey Devil.”

Season 1, which aired in 1993, is just an egg. It features a monster of the week, and introduces our protagonists, skeptical Scully and “I Want to Believe” Mulder. They are both so young and so fresh-faced and so… well, young. We haven’t run full-on into all the aliens and the conspiracies yet; we’re just figuring out what the X-Files are and how Mulder and Scully’s dynamic will work.

In episode 5, Scully arrives for work to find Mulder in his basement, poring over yet another file of the weird. She has a case for him. A body has been found in New Jersey near Atlantic City, with signs of having been partially eaten. A postmortem has found that the teeth that chowed down on the homeless man were human.

There’s plenty of story-business. Scully wants a life, which includes her godson’s birthday party and a date with one of the dads. Mulder doesn’t need a life, he already has one: obsessively tracking down the truth of the X-Files. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the local cops do not welcome the intrusion of the FBI into their jurisdiction, but a local park ranger is happy to help with the hunt.

What they’re hunting has been lurking in the Pine Barrens for a while. Not since the Revolutionary War, but at least since 1947, when a man on vacation with his family was dragged off while fixing a flat in the woods at night. He was found with his leg chewed off, but whatever killed him was never caught. Legend has it that he met the Jersey Devil.

This is not the hooved, winged biped that we’ve been seeing in other versions of the story. The show has another agenda.

And that’s where we find Bigfoot in the X-Files universe. The cryptid moved to New Jersey.

There’s no interest in Mother Leeds’ thirteenth child, or in the long history of the creature in the area. This is about the nature of the human species, and a possible explanation for the Bigfoot legend. The episode distills it into a conversation between Mulder and Dr. Diamond, one of Scully’s old professors at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Diamond studies the effect of humans on the natural world. It boils down quite simply to: We invade, we destroy. We’re aggressively territorial animals with a hereditary inability to get along with anyone or anything that isn’t part of our family unit. We’re the apex of apex predators, and, says Dr. Diamond, “barring the introduction of some alien life-form, we will live out our days as rulers of the world.” (This is foreshadowing, of course.)

But, Mulder counters, what if there’s a predator above us? What if there’s one out there that has “reverted to its most animal instincts, a kind of carnivorous Neanderthal”? I think he means “cannibalistic,” but he gets his point across.

The point is the one Dr. Diamond raises, which is the nearly universal cultural myth of the Wild Man. He cites the Yeti and the Sasquatch as examples of an atavistic human fear of our own dual nature: we create life and we destroy it. It’s symbolic, but he says, but he’s all-in on the hunt for an actual, living example of the myth.

It manifests in New Jersey as a lurker in the woods, a cannibalistic predator. A friendly park ranger has seen it. It’s a large, naked male, he recalls, that sniffed the air like a dog, and ran away with unnatural grace and speed. He once found a half-eaten rabbit with a human cuspid tooth embedded in it; he’s come across scat half-buried like a cat’s, but looking more human, and he’s seen deer bones sharpened into tools.

The creature appears to be native to the woods, but it’s also an intruder into the urban landscape. It’s been seen dumpster-diving in an alley in Atlantic City, where the murdered homeless man happened to be living. Mulder stakes out the alley and scores.

What he sees is a naked human form in very bad light. It sniffs like a dog, and it moves with unnatural grace and speed. He chases it, but it escapes.

Now the hunt is up. The local cops are coming after it in force. Mulder, Scully, the ranger, and the professor want to capture the creature alive.

By this time Mulder has reached the radical-for-1993 conclusion that the creature is female. His inspiration is an image that’s become much more familiar since, a line drawing of the iconic shot from the 1967 Patterson-Grimlin Bigfoot video. This version of the cryptid is visibly female—she has breasts.

There’s no mention of the image’s source, or the fact that the video was filmed in California. It’s an X-File, wherever it comes from. It opens Mulder’s mind to the truth: that the large male the ranger saw, whose body has just now turned up—six to eight months dead and missing the same tooth that was found in the rabbit’s carcass—must have had a mate, and she’s been scavenging for food on the outskirts of Atlantic City.

She escapes from the city and heads for the woods, but not before she nearly eviscerates Mulder. The ranger manages to dart her, but she eludes him and runs straight into the police cordon.

There’s a single gunshot. The hunters arrive too late to save her. Mulder bends over her body and reverently closes her eyes.

She’s fully human and model-beautiful, though dirty and with matted hair (but nicely manicured nails). A postmortem finds fragments of human bone in her digestive tract. Conclusion: She’s a Wild (Wo)Man, fully genetically human but completely reverted to a presumably atavistic state.

I don’t see how she reads as an uber-apex predator. She’s a scavenger on the edge of human spaces. She eats anything she can catch, which includes helpless or inattentive humans. She’s a predator, therefore dangerous, but not any more so than a mountain lion or a bear. They’ll eat humans, too, if they’re desperate.

The only connection with the actual Jersey Devil is the locale of the story, and the idea of a half-human, half-animal creature. It’s a “devil” in the sense of dangerous or evil and ultimately misunderstood. And like every other horror-story antagonist, killing it off doesn’t end it.

At the end, just before the credits roll, a dad and his son are trekking through the woods. Dad is telling the story of the Jersey Devil, X-Files version: “a creature… lived out in there the woods. It was half man, half animal.” And he adds, “I used to believe.”

And there in the shadows where they don’t see, directly under their feet, is a fresh young version of the dead woman. She had a child, the autopsy revealed. Here it is, lurking in the woods, just outside the limits of human perception.

That’s a cryptid, when you come down to it. It’s a creature of the shadows, unseen and half-known. Sometimes it kills humans. More often, humans kill it. We don’t ask how its kind continue to survive, or where they came from originally, or how they’ve made it from 1947 to 1993 and managed to mate and produce offspring. That’s outside the range of the story.

What’s left when it’s over is an X-File. Mulder lingers over it for a few moments. There are photos of the dead woman half-covered in leaves, with her pretty face and her nice nails. He tucks them away in the file. And so on to the next. icon-paragraph-end

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