How a '70s Monster Hunter Inspired One of the Greatest Sci-Fi Shows Ever Made
Before The X-Files, there was Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
As The X-Files ushered in the fall TV season for Fox in 1993, Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) had a clear and recent analogue in Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. However, to really unpack Scully’s partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), and another vital source of creator Chris Carter’s original X-Files inspiration, you’d have to go back further in time to 1972. That’s when The Night Stalker, first broadcast as ABC’s Movie of the Week, introduced viewers to the Las Vegas vampire hunter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin).
Kolchak: The Night Stalker was the canceled one-season series that developed out of the movie (and its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler), turning the vampire hunter into a monster hunter who would get caught up in crimes involving both the supernatural and sci-fi. When The X-Files premiered 30 years ago today, it took the monster-of-the-week format of Kolchak and applied a heavier dose of science to it, along with some mythology-driven serialization. Science, in this case, looked like a redhead in a power suit, and she was partnered with a basement-dwelling believer in all things paranormal.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in print circa 1997 (“The Virtue of Paranoia,” issue 794), Carter acknowledged The Silence of the Lambs as an influence on his series, along with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. However, he reserved his choicest words for Kolchak, calling it “the show that inspired The X-Files.” He further noted that “in the 20 years between Kolchak and The X-Files, a lot happened in science and technology.”
Pseudo-realism, then, was to be the bedrock of Carter’s show, which uses its pilot to prime the essential dynamic of Mulder and Scully as the believer and skeptic, at loggerheads in the realm of the unexplained. (Later, we find out that she’s, conversely, Catholic, while he’s only skeptical when it comes to religion.) It’s a dynamic that X-Files executive producer Frank Spotniz even sought to replicate with his short-lived 2005 series remake of The Night Stalker, starring Stuart Townsend and Gabrielle Union.
To Scully, Mulder — who believes his own sister was abducted by aliens — is himself something of an alien. He’s an artifact of a less rational age, unbeholden in discipline to the laws of physics, and instead guided more by the sentiment of his office UFO poster: “I want to believe.” In the pilot, she tempers his schoolboy excitement over the discovery of inhuman remains with the sober pathologist’s assessment that they likely belong to a chimpanzee or orangutan, not an extraterrestrial. With a later werewolf case, she suggests more plausibly that they’re dealing with a delusional man who suffers from clinical lycanthropy.
The original Kolchak lacked this skeptical counterpoint, a co-lead to give balance to McGavin’s character. McGavin himself says as much, through the mouth of an X-Files character, when he guest-stars as Arthur Dales in the episodes “Travelers” and “Aqua Mala.” Dales is a retired FBI agent whose flashback story pivots toward a proto-X-File in the 1950s, when the Red Scare’s witch hunts were going as strong as any monster hunt. After he meets Scully in “Agua Mala,” Dales tells Mulder, “If I had had someone as savvy as her by my side all those years ago in the X-Files, I might not have retired.”
While it might seem like a cult favorite now, The Night Stalker was, at the time, the highest-rated TV movie that had ever aired in the U.S. Kolchak didn’t hit the ground running as a cross-wielding vampire hunter, but as an investigative reporter who got drawn into a serial killer case that happened to involve victims drained of blood. The X-Files series pilot winks at this by giving the alien abductees that Mulder and Scully investigate two round puncture marks on their lower backs that almost resemble misplaced vampire bites. The references to Kolchak and its movies would continue through the years — the first X-Files monster of the week drew inspiration from The Night Strangler’s serial murderer, while early episodes would draw from monsters like voodoo zombies and the aforementioned werewolf — but the show’s greatest contribution to X-Files was in how it shaped Mulder’s believer.
When Scully meets Mulder in The X-Files series pilot, girl meets boy, Clarice meets Kolchak counterpart, and sparks fly. The tension is there from the beginning as she strips down by candlelight to have him inspect her back. Yet the series was never as good as it was when Scully and Mulder, the skeptic and wanna-believer, kept their relationship professional, wry, and unconsummated by the suggestion of any son. As for Mulder, he’s obviously Kolchak’s son, but at least he had a level-headed partner to keep him down to earth.