Sunday, January 29, 2006

Something in the Air

About 45 minutes ago, my wife tugged on the sleeve of my T-shirt and sniffed it.

"What?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, "there's a smell somewhere. It's not good."




"Uh -- no."

"Well, what's it like?"

"A combination of cigarettes, B.O., grease . . . "

We'd just been watching an old "X-Files" episode: one called "Grotesque," from the third season. (I find that it originally aired February 2, 1996, according to Red Wolf's superlative "X-Files" episode guide. That's almost exactly 10 years ago, by an utter coincidence.)

In this installment -- one of the more graphic and disturbing of the series, more akin to Se7en than "The Twilight Zone" -- Mulder is brought in to consult on a case by Agent Patterson, legendary FBI profiler of serial killers. Patterson has just captured his nemesis, a former mental patient responsible for several murders that involved dismemberment, facial mutilation, and ultimately the encasement of severed heads within clay gargoyle masks. The killer admits to committing the murders and acting alone, but insists he was inhabited by an evil force controlling his movements. And now, with the murderer in custody, a copycat is out carrying on his work. The evil spirit, it would seem, has moved on to a new host. Hence Mulder's involvement. He listens to the killer's wild claims, and studies up on the subject of gargoyles.

Patterson is disdainful of Mulder's openness to "alternative" theories of criminal motivation -- but Mulder senses that he and the dour profiler are closer in their thinking than the latter lets on. "Patterson had this saying about tracking a killer," Mulder explains to his partner, Scully. "If you want to know an artist, you have to look at his art. What he really meant was if you wanted to catch a monster you had to become one yourself."

For a while, it looks like Mulder is intent on doing just that. He becomes obsessed with finding and understanding the evil spirit that possessed the killer. Pretty soon he is hunkering down in the killer's lair, studying his dozens of gargoyle sketches, dreaming in his bed, discovering his grisly hidden menagerie of gargoyle heads and their mutilated contents. He wakes in the killer's bed and is attacked and nearly killed by a shadowy assailant, who escapes.

You see the end coming, but it's still disturbing. Patterson the profiler is the one now inhabited by the spirit, the gargoyle, the mutilator and defiler. He's the copycat killer. He's the assailant who attacked Mulder, then let him live -- perhaps precisely so that Mulder could find him out and put an end to the killing. He and Mulder chase and tangle. Patterson is wounded, but will recover. The last we see, he is straining against bars in the darkest dungeon of a D.C. penitentiary, a Medieval hole. He's insane. His eyes are wild, and his cries resound through the hollow corridors: "I didn't do it! Listen to me! It wasn't me! It wasn't me!!"

"We work in the dark," Mulder says in voice-over. "We do what we can to battle with the evil that would otherwise destroy us. But if a man's character is his fate, this fight is not a choice but a calling. Yet sometimes the weight of this burden causes us to falter, breaching the fragile fortress of our mind, allowing the monsters without to turn within and we are left alone, staring into the abyss . . . into the laughing face of madness."

So the episode was at least partly about the mystic surmise that madness is not a disease or chemical imbalance contained in one person, as much post-Enlightenment thought would have it, but a universal trace, something of the body but not limited to it. Like a thick fog that leaves its residue of moisture. Reach your hand into madness, like Patterson or Mulder, and something might very well be clinging there when you pull it out.

"Well, what's it like?" I asked my wife.

"A combination of cigarettes, B.O., grease . . . "

That couldn't be me: I reckoned myself acceptably clean. Besides, I quit smoking more than four years ago.

She sniffed my sleeve again. No, she decided, I wasn't the source.

"It's like mental patients," she said.


My wife is a mental-health professional. In the course of the last 15 years she has spent much time in hospitals and halfway houses and back wards, counseling and treating the mentally ill.

"A lot of mental patients smell like that. Cigarettes from smoking constantly, B.O. and grease because a lot of them don't bathe very often."

"Were those mainly schizophrenics?"

"Schizophrenics, manic depressives, some borderlines."

"But no psycho killers, as far as you knew."

"Well, there were a few taken away because they got violent. But no one claiming to be inhabited by a gargoyle." She still looked puzzled; her face remained scrunched at the unpleasant smell -- which I, meanwhile, wasn't sensing at all. But then I've been snarky and coldish all weekend long. (See, there's a rational explanation for everything.)

"It must be coming in through the window," she said. "Maybe someone's frying fish."

"Mm-hmm. Did you notice it before we watched the show?"


A waft of air came in from the street. I breathed it for some trace of grease, cigarettes, even B.O. Maybe it was there; maybe it wasn't.

My wife shrugged. I shut off the TV and the lights.

"Skeery," I said. That's one of my favorites words: skeery. My wife laughed.