This X Files episode is so scary it was banned from television

A kinky incest family. A deformed baby found dead and buried in a baseball pitch. A limbless woman who lives on a trolley beneath a bed.

If you’re an X Files fan, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. ‘Home’, first broadcast in 1994, is widely regarded as the scariest ever episode of the iconic sci-fi TV series, which concluded in 2002 but returned for its belated 10th series in 2016 and a further 11th season last night. FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), he a believer in paranormal activity and she the sceptic meant to keep him in check, are returning for another round of alien-busting and heady sexual tension.

Yet the new series will had to go some way to outdo ‘Home’, the second episode of series four, so controversial it was banned for years and only once repeated on Fox, the network that made the landmark show. It appeared later on lesser-known channel FX, but Fox’s feelings were made clear when their sole repeat, a special airing on Halloween 1999, was advertised in TV Guide magazine as “an episode so controversial it’s been banned from television for three years”. (Nostalgia alert: imagine a TV channel taking out an ad in a magazine to advertise a repeat. Ah, the ‘90s.)

Anyway – the plot. Mulder and Scully are drafted in to investigate when local children find the aforementioned baby in a hick town called Mayberry. They ask the local sheriff (Tucker Smallwood) about the family that lives in the dilapidated house nearby and he gravely intones: “[The Peacock family] grow their own food, they raise their own pigs, they breed their own cows, raise and breed their own stock, if you get my meaning”. Three brothers live there and the agents conclude that they must have abducted and raped a woman, then disposed of the resulting baby. The truth, of course, is a whole other matter.

It turns out – spoilers coming – that the Peacock family is a deeply inbred clan of violent murderers, with one brother having fathered the other two. With whom? His own mother, who has sex with all three siblings because, like, there isn’t much to do in Mayberry. The brothers are deformed but Ma Peacock is much more disfigured, her limbless body secreted in a cart beneath a bed like a dirty magazine.

‘Home’ was the first episode of The X Files to receive a viewer discretion warning and the only one to carry a TV-MA rating, which is like an 18 certificate for American television. It’s claimed that a producer said the episode had “gone too far”, while a crew member apparently described it as “awful, even for us”. ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, a song popularised by ‘50s crooner Johnny Mathis, is played throughout but Mathis was so disturbed by the tale that he refused the rights to his version. Instead a ‘sound-alike’ cover by another singer, Kenny James, was used. The episode opens with the baby being buried, a shot that director Kim Manners called “the most awful shot of my career”.

The writers of the episode, James Wong and Glen Morgan, later worked on X Files creator Chris Carter’s other (quite lame) ’90s sci-fi show Millennium and considered writing in the Peacock clan to try and boost the disappointing ratings. They reportedly received a call from Fox: “Those characters never appear on television again”.

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However, Wong and Morgan, who each wrote an episode for the 10th series (the latter named his ‘Home Again’ in a nod to his most famous X File, though it’s not a sequel), were surprised by the backlash. “We were trying to make a terrifying show,” Wong told The New York Times last year. “We didn’t think we were pushing the envelope of taste in the way people seem to ascribe to us — ‘Oh, there’s incest, there’s killing a baby’.” He added: “We were obligated to do four episodes that season, and we thought this was the most down-the-middle, straightforward X Files of all of them.”

Still, there’s a distinct sense among those behind the scenes that, together, they created monster. That monster was stitched together from two equally disturbing pieces of source material. First, the notion of kinky incest brothers was drawn from a 1992 film called Brother’s Keeper, which Morgan watched upon his wife’s recommendation.

The documentary explores the case of four illiterate brothers living in a rundown house in upstate New York, in which one was found dead. Initially one brother was suspected of mercy killing his sibling due to the latter’s declining health, but then semen was found on the victim’s clothing and investigators began to believe he died during an incestuous sexual misdemeanour. The case went to court but the suspected brother was acquitted due to lack of evidence.

Charlie Chaplin also provided an unlikely source of horror. In his 1964 autobiography, the 1920s comedian recalls staying in a small Welsh town called Ebbw Vale before he found fame. Locals invited him to meet a deformed man who lived in a kitchen cupboard, whom Chaplin described as “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”.

Called upon to do tricks, the man – dubbed “The Human Frog” by the locals – used those muscular arms to bounce up and down so buoyantly that he almost reached Chaplin’s head height. Morgan told The New York Times: “It just seemed like such a horrifying situation, and I’d been trying to use it. So we had been working out the story where there was another brother under the bed, and Jim Wong one day goes: ‘It’s the mother! The mother’s under the bed!'”

The resulting nightmare, ‘Home’, has gone down in legend among X Files fans, regularly topping lists of the scariest episodes. It exploits the universality of familial loyalty and our fear of closed communities, while, as Morgan pointed out, grotesquely twisting the notion of maternal love: “The mother is the monster under the bed, is mangled and has no arms and yet these boys have to feed her, profess their love to her. And… she loves them. That stuff just goes to your lizard brain.”