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A Different Kind of 90s Nostalgia: "Blood"

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So, I’m about up to Season 2 in the X-Files rewatch. So far I’ve posted mainly about my nostalgia for 1990s technology. It’s funny, of course, to see those old cell phones—Mulder’s Season 2 cell phone has an antenna. Remember antennas?—and the gigantic computer monitors and all the rest of it. Nowhere is antique tech more prominent than in the season 2 episode “Blood,” in which the use of devices with electronic readouts to send people subliminal messages is a major plot element.

It’s interesting to go back and look at an episode about this that dates from a time when we were still capable of noticing how fast electronic devices were proliferating and how many different kinds of instructions we were taking from how many different kinds of screens. In “Blood,” messages urging ordinary mild-mannered individuals to kill total strangers appear in everything from ATM screens to computer terminals to digital marquees to hand-held calculators to car dashboards to the diagnostic readout the mechanic hooks your car up to. The subliminal message part of the plot is based on logic that is purely psychological. There never is any explanation for how the messages get into the machines or why they are only ever visible to the individuals who act on them. Many of the electronic devices on which these messages appear don’t even have the capacity to transmit messages—Ed’s calculator, for instance. The only common denominator is that they’re all screens that light up and display text. Evidently that was uncanny enough, at the time. 

It struck me that “Blood” takes an anxiety that has been around, really, since the invention of advertising—the fear of being controlled by the messages with which we are inundated—and turned it into what was, for the 1990s, a futuristic nightmare which actually predicts something that we now accept as normal: tech that talks to us. The characters who are manipulated through their electronic devices in “Blood” are all terrified when the screens that are supposed to be displaying the same automated boilerplate they show to everyone start showing messages that appear to be crafted especially for them and responding to their innermost thoughts. Nowadays we accept the fact that Siri answers our questions and Google knows what we want and shows us ads for it as soon as we open the window. We don’t notice it; and since we don’t notice it, we don’t think about whether we’re frightened of it—or whether we should be frightened of it. In “Blood,” before finally obeying the messages, the individuals receiving them are so upset by their individualized messages that they smash the screens that are displaying them. If the buzz for “Her” is any indication, the 2014 reaction to tech that apparently knows your mind, heart, and soul well enough to manipulate your emotions is to fall in love with it.

There is, however, another kind of 90s tech in this episode that struck me even more forcefully: guns.

Briefly, “Blood” is about a small town in Pennsylvania which is suddenly and for no apparent reason experiencing an outbreak of spree killings. Mulder, Mr. Behavior Profile, is called in to try to figure out WTH is going on. (During Season 2, Gillian Anderson was pregnant, so at the end of Season 1 the Smoking Man gets the X-Files project canceled and Season 2 begins with Mulder and Scully on separate and soul-crushingly boring assignments. Scully is usually helping Mulder out from a remote location and we typically only see her from the shoulders up.) Mulder eventually comes to the conclusion that the culprit is an unapproved pesticide that contains a hallucinogenic chemical which increases people’s level of fear. Phobic individuals who are exposed to this chemical will, when provoked by subliminal messages triggering their phobias, go nuts and start killing everyone around them. Mulder manages to get the spraying stopped and to stop one spree killing in progress. He never finds out who was behind it. His hypothesis is that it’s a secret government experiment.

The image above is of Ed, a Navy vet and laid-off postal worker and the only one of the spree killers to a) be stopped and b) survive. Ed is the first to be targeted by the subliminal messages, which appear in the readout of the machine he’s typing zip codes into (basically he’s doing a job that we now use scanners to do). Ed, however, resists the conditioning more successfully and for longer; even when he’s up in the bell tower actually loading and firing he’s very distressed about what he’s doing, and when Mulder shows up and tells him to put the gun down, he says “they” won’t let him.

Two things I want to say about Ed.

1) Check out Ed’s 90s tech. He’s got a shotgun which evidently has to be reloaded by hand after each firing. This is the only reason that Ed does not in fact kill a couple dozen people in the time it takes Mulder to run up the bazillion flights of stairs to the top of the clock tower. That sequence shows him loading and firing, loading and firing, over and over, while the cartridges pile up. Each time he loads he gets more distressed. Nowadays, of course, spree killers have much easier access to assault rifles which spare them all that pesky reloading. 

2) Ed’s part of “Blood” shows you how much our cultural attitude toward mass shootings has changed. One of Mulder’s voice-overs expresses bewilderment at the fact that these spree killers are mostly middle-aged, reasonably well-off, with no prior histories of violence—the kind of people, he says, more likely to become the victims of violent crime than its perpetrators. Though he doesn’t remark upon this, the visuals show that most of these spree killers are white men. For Mulder, this is so baffling that for the first time in his career he just cannot come up with a profile. We can, though; the killers of “Blood” mostly fit what we now recognize as the profile for a mass shooter—especially Ed, a middle-aged white man who has lost his family and his job and is, no kidding, a postal worker. For us, a middle-aged white man who’s in a financially precarious and emotionally volatile place taking out a dozen total strangers no longer requires much explanation. That makes it all the more fascinating to see how hard “Blood” works to come up with something that can explain this insane phenomenon. Like the various attempts I’ve made to explain this inexplicable thing that seems to be becoming just another aspect of this American life, “Blood’s” explanation is convoluted and combines several different nightmares about several different kinds of pervasive and sinister influence. The spraying thing brings in the Big Corporation’s psychotic indifference to environmental health and human welfare (the Lone Gunman, while helping Mulder come up with this theory, show him footage of DDT being sprayed in big ol’ white clouds directly into crowds of people). The subliminal messages combine the insidious power of advertising with the shadowy power of the government and the rise of electronic technology. All of this has to come together—in a really unlikely and actually materially inexplicable way—to produce this many stranger killings. 

That, my friends, is a 1990s attitude. Here in 2014, we know that you don’t need a highly implausible government conspiracy to kill 25 people in a small town. The kind of killing that Ed is so desperately struggling not to do has, in the past 20 years, been downgraded from “This Is Some Spooky Shit, Scully” to “Shit Happens.”