How Charlie Chaplin Influenced the Most Disturbing Episode of The X-Files
BY Anna Green
October 15, 2015
In 1996, The X-Files released what would become one of its most notorious episodes. Inconspicuously titled “Home,” the episode follows paranormal detectives Dana Scully and Fox Mulder as they investigate the murder of an unidentified baby on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town. Their search quickly leads them to the Peacocks, a family of three deformed brothers, who appear to live alone on a farm, cut off from the rest of the world. Eventually, Mulder and Scully discover the brothers’ horrifying secret: their quadruple amputee mother, previously presumed dead, and responsible for giving birth to the murdered child.
Today, the episode is remembered as one of the most disturbing X-Files episodes of all time (Fox promised to never air it again after complaints of it being "tasteless")—though it's also a fan favorite. But what many viewers on either side of the argument might not know is that it was partially inspired by a truly surprising source: Charlie Chaplin's autobiography.
Chaplin, who grew up poor in London, got his first big break playing a small part in a British theatrical production of Sherlock Holmes. The teenagedChaplin toured the countryside with the theater troupe, and would seek out the cheapest lodging during his stay in each town. In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes a particularly strange stay at a miner’s house in a “dank, ugly” town called Ebbw Vale.
One night, after dinner, Chaplin’s host led him into the kitchen, announcing he had something to show the young actor. From a kitchen cupboard—where he was evidently sleeping—out crawled a man with no legs who, at the miner’s goading, began performing a series of strange tricks and dances. In the book, Chaplin recalls:
A half man with no legs, an oversized, blond, flat-shaped head, a sickening white face, a sunken nose, a large mouth and powerful muscular shoulders and arms, crawled from underneath the dresser … "Hey, Gilbert, jump!" said the father and the wretched man lowered himself slowly, then shot up by his arms almost to the height of my head.
"How do you think he’d fit in with a circus? The human frog!"
I was so horrified I could hardly answer. However, I suggested the names of several circuses that he might write to.
The incident shocked Chaplin—and its retelling apparently had a strong impact on The X-Files writer Glen Morgan as well. According to Morgan, who co-wrote the episode with James Wong, Chaplin's story came back to him while he was writing "Home." Though Morgan mis-remembered the anecdote slightly—he recalled the man being totally limbless, and that the family members "[stood] him up and start[ed] singing and dancing, and the kid kind of flop[ped] around"—the general image stuck with him for a long time. “I think I read that like 13 years ago, and ever since then I thought, 'God, I gotta do something like that!,’” Morgan later explained [PDF]. So he modeled the mother of the Peacock brothers on the legless man under the dresser. Hidden under a bed for most of the episode, Mama Peacock served as the final twist in one of The X-Files' most controversial episodes.
You can see co-writer Wong discussing the episode—and Chaplin's influence on it—in the video below.
While most of us hope death comes with dignity and being surrounded by loved ones, there’s really no telling what fate may have in store. If you manage to avoid some of the most common causes of expiration—heart disease and cancer are statistically the most likely causes to interrupt your existence—there’s an endless series of lesser-known maladies and tragedies that could conceivably cause you to miss the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones.
1. DEATH BY NASAL IRRIGATION POT
Neti pots, which are used to irrigate the sinuses of allergy sufferers, resemble teapots with a spout that allows water to be poured into one nostril and come out the other. Usually, the worst case scenario when using one is that you’ll make a huge mess and wind up with a sink full of snot-tinged water. But for two people in Louisiana in 2011, the pot facilitated the transmission of a brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. It’s believed the organism was transmitted by contaminated tap water contained in their residences, which they both used to fill their neti pots.
The amoeba, which is typically found in warm freshwater lakes, causes fatal brain swelling and carries a mortality rate of more than 97 percent—though infection is actually very rare. The fact that the deceased delivered it directly into their sinuses is what led to the fatal outcome. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” Dan Riskin, biologist and expert on the Animal Planet series Monsters Inside Me, told Mental Floss last year. That changes when water harboring N. fowleri is violently shoved up someone's nose. That’s why you should never use anything but sterile water in your neti pots.
2. CHOKING IN A COCKROACH EATING CONTEST
Endurance and eating contests bring their share of peril. There was the case of the woman who died from dangerously low sodium levels after drinking too much water and holding in her urine for a 2007 radio promotion. Gastronomic athletes have died in an attempt to break hot dog eating records. But nothing compares to choking to death on cockroaches. According to CNN, 32-year-old Edward Archbold entered a bug-eating competition in 2012 that was sponsored by a Florida reptile shop. Archbold wolfed down a series of cockroaches and worms, only to find his airway blocked by the influx of their masticated body parts. The medical examiner ruled he asphyxiated on the bugs.
3. GRAPPLING WITH A VENDING MACHINE
Weighing anywhere from 500 to nearly 900 pounds when empty, and even more when fully stocked, vending machines are the closest thing we have to the falling anvils of the cartoon world. When a machine eats bills or fails to dispense Doritos, some people can become agitated enough to think that rocking the unit is a good idea. It isn’t. An estimated 1700 injuries occur each year as a result of tussling with these monuments to snack storage, with roughly four deaths attributable to the duels.
4. POOPING TOO HARD
A fiber-rich diet and sensible cheese consumption should keep most people from enduring a most ignoble end. Straining to pass hard stool can result in something called defecation syncope, or poop-fainting. By holding your breath while bearing down to expel waste, the body’s blood flow is reduced. If you already have compromised arterial blood flow, the low blood pressure can trigger fainting or a heart attack. The University of Miami described two such cases in a 2017 paper. In postoperative hospital care, two patients experienced fatal cardiac events following excessive toilet straining.
5. DEATH BY LAUGHTER
Some of us truly can suffer consequences during Home Improvement marathons, though not in the way you’d expect. A 2013 paper published in the British Medical Journal offered a litany of possible consequences from laughing, from the minor (fainting) to cardiac events as a result of preexisting conditions. Infamously, a bricklayer named Alex Mitchell died in 1975 after getting the giggles while watching a BBC sketch show titled The Goodies. Mitchell had Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can be worsened by the exertion of laughing. He went into cardiac arrest and died. His wife, Nessie, wrote the show's producers, thanking them for making her husband’s final moments happy ones.
6. KILLED BY A ROBOT
As technology improves, it seems inevitable that a robot will eventually stand trial for murder just as Isaac Asimov predicted. When that day comes, we may look upon late Kawasaki factory worker Kenji Urada as an early casualty. In 1981, Urada attempted to repair a robot at one of the company’s plants in Akashi, Japan. Urada failed to heed protocol, jumping over a fence rather than opening it—which would have triggered the machine to shut down. Instead, one of its massive arms pinned Urada to a nearby machine that cut up engine gears. Workers tried to intervene, but Urada was killed. A similar incident occurred in 2015, when a robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany grabbed an employee instead of a vehicle part and crushed him to death.
7. FELLED BY AN ATOMIC WEDGIE
For anyone who has never attended public school, a “wedgie” is committed when an assailant takes a fistful of a victim’s underwear and yanks, causing the garment to become lodged in the buttocks. While uncomfortable, it rarely proves fatal. An exception came in 2013, when a McLoud, Oklahoma man named Brad Lee Davis had a physical confrontation with his stepfather, Denver Lee St. Clair. After a struggle, Davis took St. Clair’s underwear and pulled it up and over his head, causing the elastic waistband to stretch tightly around his neck. The constriction caused his airway to become blocked, and he expired. Davis accepted a plea deal in 2015. “I did a horrible thing when I gave him that wedgie,” he lamented to authorities. Davis received a 30-year sentence.
The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copycameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”
Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.
When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.
A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.
It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.
In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album,Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.
The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.
Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.
Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.
The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.
With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”
The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.
“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.
“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.