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The X-Files – Die Hand Die Verletzt (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Die Hand Die Verletzt is a fascinating piece of work, for a number of reasons. The most striking reason, however, is that it is essentially a comedy episode. While The X-Files has always had a wry sense of humour – Mulder’s viewing habits are a recurring joke, after all – this is the first time the series has tried to produce a full-length comedy episode. Die Hand Die Verletzt is still a horror story, and the comedy is pretty black, but it does seem to prove that the show can do an entire episode that is funny.

The implications of this are far-reaching. At its height, the beauty of The X-Files was its versatility. The show could tell just about any sort of story imaginable, flitting between prestige drama, out-and-out horror, pastiche, broad comedy, political thriller, satire or even romance. While you could always bet on at least a hint of the supernatural and a dash of horror, The X-Files could really be anything that Chris Carter and his writers wanted it to be. It was even a show that could collide with other shows, as in The Springfield Files or X-Cops.

She's the devil in disguise...

She’s the devil in disguise…

To be fair, the second season is already reaching towards that approach to The X-Files. Although he has yet to produce a script for the series, the show has hired Darin Morgan to work on the writing team; his sensibilities would be proven truly and brilliantly gonzo. Irresistible proved that you could produce an episode of The X-Files without an overt supernatural horror, focusing on a more grounded horror. Red Museum provided an “almost crossover” with another television series.

However, Die Hand Die Verletzt is the point at which the show does something that looks truly weird in the context of what has come before, yet feeling strangely comfortable in light of what has followed. The script may mark the departure of Glen Morgan and James Wong from the show – the duo leaving to produce Space: Above & Beyond – but it isn’t the end of an era so much as the start of a new one.

The writing's on the... er... chalkboard...

The writing’s on the… er… chalkboard…

Indeed, another noteworthy fact about Die Hand Die Verletzt is that it is the directorial début of Kim Manners. With fairly significant members of the crew leaving to work on Space: Above & Beyond, there was a need to fill the gaps left in the production staff. Die Hand Die Verletzt marks the last script from Morgan and Wong before their departure, hence the final message on the black board, as much to the staff on the show as to Mulder and Scully. A demonstration that The X-Files can do comedy is a nice parting gift.

Similarly, Irresistible had been the last episode directed by David Nutter before he left to work on Space: Above & Beyond. In hindsight, it seems a little strange that the show hadn’t decided to pair up Nutter with Morgan and Wong for one last go-round. After all, they had been the most successful director/writer pairings on the show, collaborating on classics like Beyond the Sea and Ice. (Also 3… but everybody has bad days.) As such, Nutter’s departure left an absence on the staff.

"Quiet, I'm workin' here..."

“Quiet, I’m workin’ here…”

Manners had worked with Morgan and Wong on 21 Jump Street, and was brought in on that basis. Manners has suggested that his arrival really cemented the show’s production team, representing the final building block:

Manners was soon hired to helm the Morgan and Wong-penned classic Die Hand Die Verletzt. “About two weeks after I finished directing it,” he says, “I was in Los Angeles and the phone rang and they made me a producer. I’ve been here ever since.”

The director sees himself as the final component integral to building the original creative team behind the series. “At the time I joined the show, it was just becoming a bona fide hit, and there wasn’t any proprietorship,” he notes. “It wasn’t like a family unit where outsiders weren’t welcome. The series was still in its growing stages. David Nutter was their producer/director in the first season, and then he moved on, and Robbie Bowman did two or three shows. I was the final guy they brought in, and they had their little team. We did a guest director here and a guest director there, but we had our core group of people, and I was the last guy to join that. And from there, the series kind of snowballed because we all felt so comfortable together.”

Manners would go on to become the most prolific director to work on The X-Files, directing fifty-two of the two-hundred-and-two episodes of the show. Considering the handicap of starting midway through the second season, that’s quite an accomplishment.

"Is this a dagger I see before me?"

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

Indeed, Manners’ only other credit for the second season would be Humbug. As such, it’s quite easy to see how Manners became a massively influential figure in the production of the show. If you could only direct two shows in the second season and wanted to leave a radical mark on the series, Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug are not bad choices. They are shows that very consciously extend the range of the show, undercutting expectations about what you can do on The X-Files.

Die Hand Die Verletzt is a rather beautiful piece of satire. It’s dark and twisted and oddly beautiful. Although there are quite a few elements of horror at work here – from pigs wriggling during dissection to hungry boa constrictors – most of Die Hand Die Verletzt plays as a delightfully odd comedy about a satanic coven that exists at the heart of a local community. The juxtaposition is absolutely beautiful. In the opening scene, they reject the idea of doing Jesus Christ: Superstar as the school musical. “I don’t think that play is appropriate for this high school,” one protests.

Going by the book...

Going by the book…

One of the overarching themes of The X-Files is the idea that we are witnessing the weirdness and the absurdities that exist within certain areas of America as they are exposed to the public view – a sense that the era of globalisation is pushing back the shadows so much that local quirks cannot remain local any longer. Secrets that nestle close to the heart of these rural communities are inevitably exposed as the outside world keeps pushing inwards. Sometimes it is a loss of innocence – even if that innocence never actually existed in the first place.

In a way, this makes the show feel like something of a more well-meaning and less malicious companion piece to The Jerry Springer Show, which also launched in the early nineties. The Jerry Springer Show turned these small and intimate quirks into a grotesque sideshow for the consumption of the viewing public. It’s quite easy to reimagine many of the more rural X-Files as episodes of The Jerry Springer Show, something that Chris Carter himself acknowledged in The Post-Modern Prometheus. Certainly the satanic PTA would qualify.

Satanism is really more of an umbrella term...

Satanism is really more of an umbrella term…

It’s a theme that the show returns to quite often, most obviously in shows like Red Museum or Our Town from this season. Indeed, Morgan and Wong touch on it quite frequently for their work the series, in episodes like Blood or Home. Much of Die Hand Die Verletzt is built around the sense that Milford is both a typically tight-knit small town community and also a very strange place. One does not exclude the other, after all.

The satanic coven at the heart of Die Hand Die Verletzt works on a number of different levels. Most obviously, it’s a beautiful intersection of the mundanely familiar with the beautifully exotic. The teaser might be one of the most effective sequences in the history of the show, if only for how skilfully and how elegantly it challenges the audience’s preconceptions. After all, years of pulp fiction and trashy horror have taught viewers to expect their devil-worshippers to be a bit more theatrical or flamboyant.

Picking out...

Pigging out…

Here, the four barely have time to say the prayer together. “Jim, the game’s on!” one protests as the leader of the coven insists on closing their meeting with a “prayer.” Vitaris – whose name is suspiciously similar to “Veritas” – responds, “We’ve been… letting it slip.” The idea of lapsed satanists is absolutely beautiful, and enough to establish Die Hand Die Verletzt as an odd duck even by the standards of The X-Files.

It’s worth noting that satanism was the source of a moral panic in the late eighties and into the nineties, and the controversy around “satanic ritual abuse” (a scare so ubiquitous that it even earned an acronym – “S.R.A.”) clearly plays into the background of Die Hand Die Verletzt. Indeed, Morgan and Wong would actually return to the scare when they took over the second season of Millennium, writing the episode Monster to covered similar ground.

Looks like these problems are reaching critical (black) mass...

Looks like these problems are reaching critical (black) mass…

What is quite interesting about the moral panic around “satanic ritual abuse” is that it’s anchored in the same cultural mentality as conspiracy theories or UFOs. Indeed, as Bill Thompson and Andy Williams note in The Myth of Moral Panics, even the techniques used to recover “memories” of such abuse were similar to those employed to prove more fringe theories:

Although the psychiatrists and psychologists associated with the ISSMPD generated their patients’ accounts of Satanism using the same methods as those uncovering ‘memories’ of past-lives and UFO abductions, their medical credentials gave them far greater legitimacy. As their patients said they were satanically abused, they were, and protection personnel saw it as their responsibility to convince the skeptical public, and what better way to do that than ‘prove it’ in court.

The moral panic generated by the allegations of “satanic ritual abuse”, repeated and replayed in the media of the time, was a perfect example of sensationalism and paranoia. Part of the beauty of Die Hand Die Verletzt is the way that it so cleverly avoids all those clichés by portraying middle-class members of the community who just happen to adhere to satanism.

This doesn't compute...

This doesn’t compute…

This element of sensationism plays into the plot of Die Hand Die Verletzt. When the local sheriff suggests the possibility of satanic forces at work, he insists, “I know he and his friends listened to devil music!” Mulder deadpans, “‘The Night Chicago Died’?” Undeterred by Mulder’s wry sarcasm, the sheriff continues to build his case. “You know what I mean. Heavy Metal bands that influence kids…”

Somewhat ironically, the members of the satanic coven try to deflect attention away from themselves – or simply to “pass” as “normal” concerned town folk – also play into this. They insist that there must be outside occult forces at work here. “They’ve reached into our area from outside,” Vitaris insists, as Mulder points out the use of the mysterious pronoun “they.” Ausbury argues, “Those three kids are obviously under occult influence.” Deborah presses the point, “They reach into our children. In music, television, books…” 

A crushing disappointment?

A crushing disappointment?

“They prey on children’s innocence,” another member of the group tells Mulder and Scully. Of course, this is just a way of deflecting from their own more failures of parents. (“The blood of the young is considered very powerful,” Ausbury confesses to Mulder. “We’d include them in the ceremonies… against their will.”) The children in Die Hand Die Verletzt don’t die as part of some sinister international conspiracy. They die as a direct result of their parents’ decisions and actions. The real threat is provoked by local families rather than external forces reaching in uninvited.

It’s worth noting Mulder and Scully are both immediately dismissive of these allegations of sinister conspiracies of international satanists. As Scully rationally explains, “Look, if the number of murders attributed to occult conspiracies were true, it would mean thousands of people killing tens of thousands of people a year, without evidence, without being exposed… it would be the greatest criminal conspiracy in the history of civilisation.”

The scary door...

The scary door…

Mulder and Scully both immediately recognise these attempts to blame imaginary satanists as a way of turning fear into hatred and channeling it at an outside group. “The Jew is known to remove organs and sacrifice teens in their religious ceremonies,” Scully quotes from “Volkischer Beobacter”, a Nazi newspaper from 1934. “The rumours are the same, but the blanks have been filled in with whoever must be feared or persecuted at the time. In this case, it’s occultists.”

In some respects, Die Hand Die Verletzt could be seen as a companion piece to Blood. After all, Blood was a cautionary tale about the dangers of paranoia and mistrust, one that served as to acknowledge the dangers of the show’s “trust no one” philosophy. The same is arguably true of Die Hand Die Verletzt, which acknowledges the damage that can be done if these sorts of conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies are embraced by the mainstream without any skepticism or interrogation.

Devillishly evil...

Devillishly evil…

As Kirby Farrell notes in Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties, the theories about satanic ritual abuse are cut from much of the same clothe as Mulder’s own beliefs:

The belief in satanic abuse echoes disturbances well documented elsewhere in Western European history, most famously in the outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria throughout the early-modern period. In this context, it is less surprising to find University of Utah Medical School professor Cory Hammond claiming that satanic cults are part of a global conspiracy masterminded by a renegade Jewish doctor named ‘Green’, who had cooperated with Nazi scientists and now uses the CIA for his diabolical schemes. Hammond’s theory reads like a digest of this century’s pulp fiction, with themes from the prophetic works of H.G. Wells and Fritz Lang’s film Spies and kinship to the doctrines underpinning the right-wing Christian militia movement. Given Professor Hammond’s belief that the satanic cult leaders seek to rule the world, his theory can be understood as a post-traumatic reaction to the industrial-scale, totalitarian horrors of the century.

Much like Blood, there’s just a hint of self-criticism about this – confirming that The X-Files is not as cynical as it often claims to be.

You eyeballin' me?

You eyeballin’ me?

Die Hand Die Verletzt rejects many of the mainstream myths about satanism and the occult. “Modern witches, known as Wicca, are a religion,” Mulder helpfully explains. “They have a great reverence for all life in nature, they do not cast harmful spells, they don’t worship Satan. Even the Church of Satan has renounced murder and torture. Their influence here wouldn’t account for the frogs, or the water draining backwards, or most importantly, the murder.”

Similarly, the episode contains many inside nods – naming the school after satanist Aleister Crowley or having Ausbury articulate his beliefs in terms quite similar to those espoused by Crowley. “Man’s natural tendency was to do as thou wilst, not do unto others,” Ausbury explains. This appears to be a nod to Crowley’s famous proclamation, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Pencil-pusher?

Pencil-pusher?

And, yet, it can’t help but feel like Die Hand Die Verletzt is approaching satanism from the perspective of traditional Catholic teaching. The episode glosses over the fact that satanism has developed beyond a simple inversion of Christianity, if it was ever that to begin with. As Jesper Aagaard Petersen notes in Contemporary Religious Satanism, while Satanism may have developed in contrast to Christian beliefs and worldviews, it is no longer solely defined by them:

Finally, contemporary religious Satanism is satanic in the sense that all groups and individuals relate to the figure Satan … as a force, model, symbol or expression of self. In this sense and that alone modern Satanism could be called a “cult of opposition” that “… cannot be understood apart from the Christian culture that provided the context for their foundation…”. As James R. Lewis remarks, Satan has “become an ambivalent symbol” in the West as he has come to “embody some very attractive attributes” through a re-reading of the Christian tradition: He is associated with sex, pride, non-conformity, rebellion and individualism. But it is a very large misunderstanding to stop here, with the anti-Christian, inversionist sentiments of the substream. … Certain historical processes of reinterpretation have freed the concept of Satan from a theological and Christian context, driven by a complex wave of romantic and modernist interests. Modern Satanism is better understood as post-Christian and as part of the Left-Hand Path traditions … .

So, despite its fascinating portrayal of satanism, the idea at the heart of Die Hand Die Verletzt – Satan essentially punishing a bunch of Satanists in a variety of sinister ways for not keeping the faith – feels just a little reactionary.

Keepin' the faith?

Keepin’ the faith?

“Did you really think you could call up the Devil and ask him to behave?” Mulder asks Ausbury, a question that presupposes that Satan adheres to the traditional characterisation espoused by Christianity, as opposed to any potentially revisionist narrative. There’s a sense that the occultists are being punished by a stereotypical version of Satan, for holding a set of stereotypical satanic beliefs.

Similarly, Ausbury manages to find redemption by rejecting a rather stock and stereotypical depiction of satanism, offering a critique of a somewhat reactionary portrayal of the religion. “And at that moment, I knew… I am better than an animal!” he tells Mulder after the loss of his daughter. “That my previous beliefs were responsible… for her no longer being with us.” It’s not too hard to read that as a complete rejection of Ausbury’s religious beliefs. Which – given that he just admitted they involve the abuse of children – is perfectly reasonable and legitimate.

Mulder survives by the skin of his teeth...

Mulder survives by the skin of his teeth…

However, it also feels like a more blanket condemnation of an entire subculture. The moral seems to be that it’s impossible to have a version of satanism that doesn’t have a very Christian conception of Satan at its core, which is a very narrow-minded perspective. You can’t strip out Satan’s inherent evil, the plot seems to suggest – which rejects the idea that you could dispute the traditional Christian narrative.

To be fair, Die Hand Die Verletzt does make it clear that Ausbury and his group are not members of the Church of Satan and that they don’t adhere to the common practices associated with modern occultists, but it still feels just a little uncomfortable – as if the show is framing satanism in the context of Christianity rather than as its own unique set of religious beliefs and arguing that this is the only way it is ever correct to explore the occult.

"I am the lord of hellfire, and I bring you..."

“I am the lord of hellfire, and I bring you…”

It’s a problem with Die Hand Die Verletzt, but it is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the episode isn’t just about satanism. Indeed, the episode is just as much (if not more) about Christianity in America, an exploration of the attitude taken towards religion in contemporary Western culture. The satanist coven have a rich religious heritage, but have drifted away from their roots to the point where they’ve all but fallen out of touch with their core beliefs.

Their religious homage has become nothing more than lip service to a belief system they take for granted. “We’d skip over the ancient rituals that we didn’t want to do,” Ausbury recalls to Mulder. Mulder responds, “Like drinking grape juice instead of wine at Communion?” Although nominally about satanism, Die Hand Die Verletzt is positioned as a satire of that casual approach towards religious belief. It is the story of religion in America.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Ausbury recalls his own heritage and tradition. “My religion, my family, Agent Mulder, goes back in this town seven generations,” he tells Mulder. “They fled persecution from people being persecuted, all in the name of religion.” He hits on one of the ironies of the American religious experience – as much as the traditional narrative about the foundation of America assures us that the Puritans came to the New World fleeing persecution, they also sought a land where they could persecute others freely.

Those Puritans were quick to persecute those different from themselves. As Ausbury implies, those perceived to subscribe to other more unorthodox faiths were among those persecuted – witch hunts were a common enough feature of Puritan life, with anything different quickly denounced as heretical and dangerous. The myth of the Puritans as pilgrims seeking liberty is repeated frequently and uncritically, to the point where it has woven itself into American folklore.

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

As Reverand Canon Lance Beizer has observed, many of the major religions would do well to assess and acknowledge their own troubled pasts:

As my Political Science professor made clear to us, the only religious liberty the Puritans who came here were really after was their own freedom to persecute dissenters. Lest you think that our own religious forebears, the Church of England folks who landed in Jamestown, were much more benign, let me point to a couple of their rules. A first offense of failing to attend church services twice daily resulted in the loss of food for a day, the second a whipping and the third six months in jail. Missing church on Sunday the third time was a capital offence.

Faith is something that needs to be engaged with, and explored. However, it often becomes something that is allowed to become casual, maintained primarily for appearances and out of habit.

Sacrifices have to be made...

Sacrifices have to be made…

Ausbury’s experience with his religion may be unique in the way that it features demonic substitutes and directed boa constrictors, but his own personal struggles with that faith feel a bit more universal. During his confession scene, he admits to Mulder, “And though I believed our faith kept us powerful in the community, wealthy, good health, I came to see hypocrisy in the others… in me.” His religious beliefs helped secure his social status, but he allowed himself to become disconnected from his faith.

As Ausbury points out, there’s a lot of aspects of the bible that Christians tend to gloss over, acknowledging that certain aspects of canon are overlooked or ignored rather than confronted and worked through. When Mulder remarks that Ausbury’s willingness to kill anybody who would harm his daughter “is not a very Christian tenet”, Ausbury is quite able to respond. “Thou — God of Vengeance — shine forth.” Mulder retorts, “Even the devil can quote scripture to fit his needs.”

Stairway to... well, not heaven...

Stairway to… well, not heaven…

At the same time, Die Hand Die Verletzt suggests that the alternative to this lapsed half-hearted belief is not to jump in with both feet. The other members of Ausbury’s satanic assembly are quick to suggest a return to more traditional values: an old-fashioned human sacrifice. “It’s been years since we’ve done that,” Vitaris responds. “Exactly,” Calcagni explains. “Exactly. We haven’t kept our faith.” Naturally, this doesn’t end well for them either – it turns out that fundamentalism is no better an alternative.

It is very possible for faith to serve as a positive force in somebody’s life – The X-Files suggests that Scully’s faith is something from which she draws a great deal of strength. However, it’s often something that is pushed to the extremes – it’s either something that people only pay lip service towards, or something which people embrace fanatically. The response, perhaps, is to actively engage with one’s beliefs – to follow one’s faith neither lazily nor overzealously. Find a balance, give it some thought.

Heart of darkness...

Heart of darkness…

One of the stronger recurring themes of The X-Files is the idea of faith in the nineties, and what that means in a culture that is increasingly diverse and (hopefully) open-minded. Mulder and Scully both have their own belief systems, even if Mulder would be reluctant to acknowledge his pursuit of “the truth” as a spiritual or religious quest. Die Hand Die Verletzt is a deliciously wry glimpse at a certain attitude towards faith that existed in that decade.

Whiel its handling of satanism still feels just a little reactionary, it’s a nice reminder of just why the show will miss James Wong and Glen Morgan while they are gone. It also hints at how essential Kim Manners will become, and just how easily the show lends itself to experimentation and episodes that work outside the box.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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4 Responses

  1. Hi Darren,

    Great read, as usual. I’ve been watching the X-files from scratch. They were a big part of my youth growing up but one does not get the most from a script when they’r 5 or 6 years old digesting these things.

    I’ve really enjoyed your reviews. You’re one of the few reviewers I’ve found on the internet to explore the underlying themes of the episode and match them with the larger themes of the series, rather than the usual bland synopsis most posit as a review these days.

    I watched Die Hand Die Verletzt late last night, and apparently I missed the part of it being a comedy. I found it genuinely exciting and creepy, especially when Ausbury’s daughter confesses her repressed memories to Scully. For some reason I found that scene powerful and difficult to watch (in a good sense).

    The one thing I’m surprised you didn’t comment much on was the Satanic substitute teacher. I found it interesting that in this episode it’s the ‘evil, bad’ character who ends up rescuing Mulder and Scully from sure sacrifice and death. She was a horrifying character, one almost impossible to stop. Of course she conveniently left on her own, and even left a cute message on the blackboard. Slightly disappointing it had such a cop-out ending, but I found the atmosphere, mood and juxtaposition inherent enough to make it an enjoyable episode.

    Thanks again for the great review, Darren

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sean. I hope you enjoy! Having rewatched them all, the second, third, fourth and fifth seasons hold up phenomenally. I’m half-way through the sixth season, and it’s really weird how ambitious and weird the first half is with hindsight, when you come out of the movie into it, but when you know that the show is not going to get stuck in this weird new mode.

      Actually, funny you should mention the comedy thing. It’s something I’ve noticed on line. There are people who do tend to think of Die Hand Die Verletzt as something of a prelude to scripts like Humbug or Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. I take some solace in the fact that I’m not alone in this opinion – Kumail Nanjiani seems to see Die Hand Die Verletzt as a very dark comedy.

      However, there are some people who find it weird to describe DHDV as a comedy. I can understand that. After all, there is that powerful scene where Ausbury’s daughter talks about the abuse she experienced, not to mention the fact that Ausbury is eaten by a snake. DHDV has some pretty grim stuff in it, and I can see why eyebrows raise when people like me talk about it being a “funny” episode.

      But, in my defense, I think that DHDV is the most playful the show has been to this point. The idea of a Satanic PTA that has been letting their religious obligations slip? I find that a beautiful piece of satire.

      Couple that with scenes like the frogs falling from the sky, the fact that (what appears to be) the devil itself arrives to punish the unfaithful in the guise of a middle-aged school teacher, along with little details like the message on the blackboard or the credits that seem to have been lifted from the Simpsons Halloween episode?

      Even – as you point out – the beautifully bewildering ending where Mulder and Scully seem to have no idea what happened and why they are still alive? The contrast between the mundane bureaucracy of a boring PTA meeting where Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease are deemed too risqué, but which ends with that beautifully eerie pull back as the PTA starts demonic chanting – and the light seems to pulse?

      It’s not as laugh-out loud hilarious as Darin Morgan’s scripts, but I can’t rewatch the episode without grinning for most of it – even as I get freaked out by the dissection scene or uncomfortable with the confession scene. I think Morgan and Wong tend to be quite “knowing” in how they approach horror, in that they aren’t quite as sombre or serious as – say – Howard Gordon or Chris Carter.

      (I should also add that I think Home is in a similar vein to DHDV. The episode is pitch black and brutal, but it has almost as many laughs for me as Small Potatoes, the season’s comedy episode. But I think Home is harder to describe as a comedy because the teaser is so incredibly horrific, whereas the teaser to DHDV is delightfully and almost cheekily odd.)

      But I’ll freely admit that I may just be really weird. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope you continue to enjoy the reviews!

  2. Minor correction: “One Breath” was directed by R.W. Goodwin, not David Nutter.

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