The X-Files and the Steel City
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully made their first foray into the region during the season two episode “Blood,” in which the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, in Venango County was experiencing a rash of mass murders. Although not Pittsburgh proper, Steeler pennants and Penguin posters can be seen dotting the break room of a local post office facility during the installment nonetheless. “Since colonial times, there’s only been three murders in this area,” the local sheriff explains to Mulder. “In the last six months, seven people have killed twenty-two.” Mulder and Scully are eventually able to deduce that an illegal toxin is being secretly used as an insecticide, and that the substance has an LSD-like effect that heightens the fears and phobias of those exposed to it.
While Mulder and Scully were only in the vicinity of Pittsburgh during “Blood,” they made a full excursion into the Steel City during the season four episode “Leonard Betts.” The title character was an Emergency Medical Technician for the Monongahela Medical Center who was decapitated during a traffic accident involving his ambulance. His “body” later escaped from the morgue, and Mulder believes that Betts walked out on his own accord. Scully, naturally, disagrees. “I think it’s obvious that this is some sort of bizarre attempt at a cover-up,” she says. “My guess would be body-snatching for profit. There’s a shortage of teaching cadavers at medical schools. An unscrupulous medical supplier might pay top dollar, no questions asked.”
Betts’ head is later found and discovered to be riddled with cancer. Leonard Betts himself, meanwhile, turns up as the new EMT at Allegheny Catholic Hospital and kills his former partner in order to keep his identity hidden. These two events cause Fox Mulder to connect the dots and reach a more substantive conclusion than his previous speculation. “What if there was a case were the cancer was not caused by damaged DNA, where the cancer was not a destructive or aggressive factor but was the normal state of being?” he rhetorically asks Dana Scully. “What if this man’s life force, his chi, whatever you want to call it, somehow retained a blueprint of the actual man himself? Guiding rapid growth not as cancer but as regeneration?”
It also turns out that Leonard Betts needs to consume cancer in order to survive. With the supply of tumors that he had been stealing from hospitals now cut off, he is forced to “eat” the cancer from living humans, killing them in the process. Dana Scully’s own diagnosis of cancer was a major component of the overall X-Files mythology in later years, and the episode “Leonard Betts” is the first to hint at that cancer when Betts targets her as his latest—and ultimately last—victim. The case of Leonard Betts is solved by the end of the installment, but its ramifications continued to haunt both Mulder and Scully during the seasons that followed.
FBI Agent Fox Mulder was only a recurring character on The X-Files during season eight of the series, having been abducted himself by aliens and thought to be dead, resulting in Dana Scully being assigned a new partner in the form of John Doggett. While Mulder was previously the “believer” and Scully the “skeptic,” it is now Scully who sees the supernatural elements of the cases they investigate and Doggett who cannot comprehend the unimaginable. Doggett soon develops a deep respect for Scully, however, as well as an open mind, two traits which serve him well when he is forced to investigate a mass murder in Pittsburgh without the aid of his partner. The victims of the massacre were members of a cult—as well as two FBI agents keeping surveillance on them—that were apparently bludgeoned to death with an axe to their heads while they were sleeping.
“Anthony Tipet served twelve years for the bludgeoning death of his wife,” Assistant Director Walter Skinner explains of the cult leader and prime suspect. “After his release, he became a minister, preaching a hybrid of evangelical and eastern religions. He claimed a higher plain of being could be reached by the ‘Via Negativa’—the path of darkness, a plain closer to God. Once reached, it would let the spirit travel unhindered. Tipet believed hallucinogens would lead him to this plain, specifically compounds of the bark of an African tree.” Skinner then goes on to suggest that Tipet took the drug and was able to kill his victims subconsciously while his body was somewhere else.
Doggett obviously does not believe that explanation, calling it a “science fiction story,” but is willing to follow the evidence wherever it might lead nonetheless. This includes a drug dealer who is afraid of falling asleep and assistance from the Lone Gunmen, the trio of conspiracy advocates who have unofficially assisted on various X-Files at the request of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the past. “What if Tipet could invade his victims’ consciousness in their sleep?” Doggett suggests to the Lone Gunmen. “That’s why you’d be afraid to fall asleep, right? If you thought your nightmares might come true?” When then asked if he actually believes that assessment, Doggett replies, “No. But if Tipet does, he’ll need more drugs to keep killing.” Once Doggett has left, the Lone Gunmen look at each other and say, “Not bad for a beginner.”
While John Doggett is indeed able to track down Anthony Tipet, he briefly experiences the “invasion” of his own consciousness before the murder suspect dies from self-inflicted wounds. Doggett may be a skeptic and mere “beginner,” but the events of the “Via Negativa” episode of The X-Files and his journey to Pittsburgh firmly places him on the path of Mulder-and-Scully-like enlightenment.
There were never any confirmed UFO sightings or evidence of an alien invasion in Western Pennsylvania during the course of The X-Files, but the FOX series was always more about the supernatural in general than its overarching storyline involving government conspiracies. Paranormal events were investigated by Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and John Doggett throughout the United States, and Pittsburgh was no different. From the regenerative abilities of the cancer-infected Leonard Betts to the “higher plain” capabilities of Anthony Tipet, the Steel City was as much a part of The X-Files narrative as anywhere else—a fact that is equally satisfying as well as unsettling, depending on one’s point of view.