The truth is out there. In Burbank.
That's where enthusiastic fans of "The X-Files" will descend this weekend for a convention, or a confab, or--as series creator Chris Carter likes to call it--a party. By any name, it's the place where the most devoted viewers, who call themselves X-Philes, search out T-shirts, autographs and most importantly, answers.
Two years ago, "The X-Files" was barely a blip on the ratings radar. It had a Friday night slot on the still-emerging Fox network and no household-name stars. Not surprisingly, it finished its first season ranked 102 out of 118 series on the air.
But people were getting hooked on the series, which follows FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they solve the cases that involve the paranormal. By the end of the second season, the show's cult following had pushed it up to 64 out of 141. Then, "The X-Files" transformed itself into a hit of the high-ratings kind: Last fall local A.C. Nielsen ratings put it in the top 10.
Broad popularity, though, hasn't diminished the passion of the X-Philes; it just means there are more of them. Some 7,500 are members of the official "X-Files" fan club, run by Glendale-based Creative Entertainment. Thousands more have made pilgrimages to the 20 conventions they have hosted in the last eight months.
For Paula Mackey, 26, this will be convention No. 5. But she's sort of obligated to go. After all, she's the president of a fan club for Mitch Pileggi, who plays FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner. "I'm going to start asking Creative (Entertainment) if they have a season pass," she said.
She may have made some friends at the conventions, she said, but it is on the Internet that she has met people from all over the country. She logs on once a day to check her e-mail and the "X-Files" bulletin boards.
She is not alone. The official World Wide Web page (www.TheX-Files.com) for the show has had 8 million hits since the start of the TV season. It particularly heats up on Friday nights--150,000 hits on average--as the final credits are running. And dozens of people have private home pages, e-mail groups and bulletin boards dedicated to the show.
What do they talk about? You name it. Why is Mulder always dropping his gun? Who is Cancer Man (a.k.a. Cigarette Smoking Man) and what is his connection to the government? Is Mulder's apartment No. 42 an allusion to Douglas Adams' sci-fi novel "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," where the answer to the universe is in that number? Questions, always questions.
While each episode is written to stand alone, true X-Philes know the show's background and look for clues to the "truth" that the opening credits assert is "out there."
The writers and crew on "The X-Files" make efforts to reward their core audience. No number, name or address goes into the show without forethought, said Carter, who writes about eight of the episodes each season. Fans' names have shown up on passenger lists. Digital clocks frequently flash 10:13, Carter's birthday, or 11:21, his wife's.
To some, this in-depth analysis might seem a waste of time. But it is the heart of the give-and-take relationship that the fans have with the show. An assistant in the production office has the task of culling the more relevant bits off the Internet and passing them on to the show's creators.
Carter said he also stays in touch with the audience by going to the "X-files" conventions: Burbank will be his fourth appearance. When he took the stage at the first convention, in San Diego last June, he wasn't prepared for the "firing line of flashbulbs." It's odd, he said, to talk so publicly about producing a show, something that is done in relative isolation. But it didn't take him long to get in touch with his inner ham.
As creator, Carter is "The X-Files" god, the one with the answers. Yes, they may make a movie. No, Scully is not a lesbian. But as for the "truth," he keeps them hanging.
The X-Philes are frequently compared to the enthusiastic fans of the "Star Trek" TV series and movies. Trekkies--and more reserved Trekkers--have been known to appear at conventions in USS Enterprise uniforms, don Spock ears, and over-use the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty!"
Two British sociologists from the University of Northumbria recently reported that 10% of "Star Trek" fans interviewed at conventions were maladjusted and suffered from obsessive addiction to the program.
Understandably, X-Philes guard their own image carefully.
"We don't want to get stuck with that stereotype," Mackey says, taking the offensive on the subject. Trekkers got branded as freaks before they had time to defend themselves, she said.
"The X-Files" is more than just a show to her, but it isn't an obsession. It's a hobby, just like her reading, horseback riding and and hiking.
"I'm a normal person," she says. "Honest."
The desire to be regarded as "normal" is hampered some by their attachment to a show that features aliens, liver-eating mutants and forms of witchcraft as plot staples. But only about half of the fans she has met, said Mackey, believe in the paranormal--not inconsistent with Gallup polls during the last 20 years, which consistently have found that half of Americans believe UFOs are real.
The fans Carter has met are intelligent professionals. "People are always sure that I'm having to deal with the weirdos who have crawled out of the woodwork," he said. "That just is not the case."
Viewers don't like "The X-Files" because it validates specific beliefs; They like it because it validates their intelligence. "It's one of the few shows out there that doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator," said Guy Jackson, 39, an aerospace software engineer. "They try to stay on a higher level, [and say] 'Let's make you think a little about this.' "
Fans like Jackson, who has been to four conventions already, are more likely to discuss the show's stylish editing than the attractiveness of its stars.
That doesn't, however, mean there won't be some swooning going on when Gillian Anderson makes her X-Files convention debut. The GATB--Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade--undoubtedly will be out in full force.
Anderson, naturally, is a little nervous. In the last two years she went from unknown off-Broadway actress to TV star. She senses that more people recognize her in public; the number of people who approach her has tripled. She gets loads of fan mail from all over the world.
But none of that has prepared her for the X-Philes en masse.
"I'm not one for crowds," she said on the phone from Vancouver where the show is filmed. "It looks like it's going to be a huge event and I've got nothing to say. . . . Apparently I'm supposed to get up on stage and talk for a few minutes." She mocks herself: "Hi. Thanks for liking the show. I'm glad to be here."
All she really needs to say is: Any questions?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* WHAT: "The X-Files" Convention.
* WHERE: Burbank Hilton, 2500 Hollywood Way, Burbank.
* WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
* HOW MUCH: $17-$50.
* CALL: Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232. For information, (818) 409-0960.