Post #22: The Complexity of Nostalgia in "Home" (‘The X-Files’ 4.2)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday May 31 2015
“They'll be coming now. We knew this day was going to happen. That they'd try to change the way things are. All we can do about changing things is be ready for it. Be ready for them. Let them know, this is our home and this is the way it's going to stay.” --Mrs. Peacock
In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011), author Simon Reynolds complains that popular music has stagnated. According to Reynolds, after 2000 popular culture became obsessed with its past, a problem because it results in the fossilization of art forms. Nothing new is happening; culture is dying. In this era of “superhero sequels...remakes and reboots and rehashes” (A. O. Scott), Reynolds’ sentiment is widely held, but I’m very skeptical of the claim that all re-uses of older material are inherently nostalgic or that all nostalgia is bad. “Home”, a 1996 episode of the TV series The X-Files (1993-2002), demonstrates that nostalgia comes in many forms, not all of which are bad. Although it certainly has its (very) ugly side, it can also be a positive force in the world.
The first post-credits scene opens on a children’s baseball game in Home, a small town in rural Pennsylvania. As one of the players prepares to take a swing, his shoes become covered in blood welling up from the ground. To their horror, the children discover an infant’s hand sticking out of the mud. [see figure 1] The idyllic image of a carefree childhood spent playing in sunny field is punctured immediately, and so the audience is put on notice that this episode won’t be taking the usual trip down memory lane.
FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are called by the local sheriff to investigate the baby burial, which leads them to an adjacent property owned by the reclusive Peacock family. The Peacocks came to Home around the time of the American civil war, and the house the family built then is still inhabited by the four remaining members of the clan: the mother and her three sons. Their now-decrepit house is the same one built in the 1860s with no modern upgrades like electricity or running water (header image).
Mrs. Peacock lives exclusively in a dark upstairs room of this house under the bed, coming out only when she’s giving birth to a child sired by one of her sons--the darkest, most extreme form of nostalgia. The family photos tacked onto the walls of her living quarters mirror this twisted obsession with the past (figure 2). The Peacocks’ car is considerably newer than their house, but it too recalls the past. It’s a ’59 Cadillac convertible that blares the 1957 song “Wonderful! Wonderful!” from the radio (see figure 3). Although Johnny Mathis, the singer of the original, refused to allow the producers to use his rendition, they were able to get a cover that sounds remarkably like the Mathis version. An ode to a beloved, the lyrics are typical of the squeaky-clean ‘50s with lines like, “You turn to me with a kiss in your eyes, and my heart feels a thrill beyond compare!” Playing this oldie over the Peacocks’ murder of the sheriff and his wife as well as Edmund Peacock’s escape with his mother in the Cadillac’s trunk is delightfully creepy (cf. David Lynch’s use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”), in part because it juxtaposes an upbeat song with bloody deeds and in doing so indicts the Peacocks’ infatuation with their own history.
The Peacocks’ infanticide, brutal murders of the sheriff and his wife, and their booby-trapped, decaying house is supposed to make the audience think that they’re the antagonists. Their nostalgia is the “wrong” kind because it’s been taken too far. At one point, Mulder even suggests that their intense desire for their own past has literally de-humanized them.
MULDER: What we're witnessing, Scully, is undiluted animal behavior. Mankind, absent its own creation of civilization, technology, and information, regressed to an almost prehistoric state, obeying only the often-savage laws of nature.
“Home” also depicts the other side to nostalgia: a gentle, elegiac sense of loss. Earlier in the episode, Andy Taylor (whose first name is ironically the same as the local sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show [1960-8]), expresses his regret that Home is changing.
SHERIFF TAYLOR: Look, this town is my home. I love it. It's quiet, peaceful. I don't even wear a gun. I've seen and heard some of the sick and horrible things that go on outside my home. At the same time, I knew we couldn't stay hidden forever, that one day the modern world would find us and my hometown would change forever.
Commentators have remarked on this aspect of “Home”--how small towns are mercilessly swallowed by up the forces of the big city--but I think such analyses miss a crucial aspect of the nostalgia theme. The fact that Sheriff Taylor’s love for Home is paralleled by Mrs. Peacock’s words, quoted at the beginning of this post, show that in the end it’s not the modern world that destroys Home’s bucolic paradise, but the twisted nostalgia that comes from within Home’s own community. In short, “Home” is a conflict between two different kinds of nostalgia.
Mulder is similarly entranced with the promise of small-town life, to a time when “you never had to lock your door. No modems, no faxes, no cell phones.” While he and Scullyinvestigate the field where the baby was buried, he’s reminded of his own childhood sandlot games. He’s so obsessed with these memories that he’s oblivious to the investigation, prompting Scully to remark sarcastically, “Meanwhile, I’ve quit the FBI and become a spokesperson for the Ab Roller.” [see figure 4] But unlike the Peacocks, who are fixated on their past too completely, Mulder’s baseball contemplation is linked to his recollections of childhood days spent with his long-lost sister, whose kidnapping by aliens is what motivates his work on The X-Files. Thus “Home” subtly parallels Mulder’s nostalgic pursuit of his sister (and the paranormal) with the freakish nostalgia of the Peacocks. Nostalgia, when it’s taken too far, can motivate evil acts, but it can also be a positive force by motivating us to seek an ideal world.
The complex nature of nostalgia in “Home” proves the critics of modern culture’s fascination with the past wrong. Of course, the ultimate test of The X-Files’ exploration of nostalgia will come with the series’ revival in January of next year.
Header image credit: screen capture (20th Century Fox Studios).