When I was 15, like so many teenagers, I had an urgent sense that there was something wrong with the universe. And, like so many teenagers in the late 1990s, I loved The X-Files.
I idolized Scully, with her skepticism and her incredibly sexy pantsuits. But what I loved most about Scully was her ability to soothe Mulder, the chronic worrier, who was both spooked and spooky at the same time. Mulder believed with all his heart that there was some connecting thread that would explain everything unfair, unjust, and disgusting about the world — much like I wanted to believe that all the eating disorders and hostile cliques and failed romances that plagued my peers and I were hanging by one thread, and if I pulled on that thread hard enough I could unravel the whole fabric of our little high school universe. My own secret conspiracy.
Of course, secret conspiracies are best played out online. In the late ‘90s, I found a tribe of women who felt like I did. This loosely connected crew of high-school girls called themselves Cabin X. Even though my circle of high school friends were nerds too, there were few people who knew just how devoted we were to Mulder and Scully – and fewer who would have seen our obsession as a normal way to spend every waking hour. So Cabin X, a listserv and website devoted to X-Files fandom and fanfiction, became our corner of the Internet where we could be ourselves. As I await the six-episode X-Files miniseries that premieres January 24, I’ve started to wonder if I can get back to that place.
Today, if I want to see a picture of Gillian Anderson smooching David Duchovny, it’s easy – they’re tweeting the pictures at me themselves. But in 1999, if I wanted to see that infamous Rolling Stone cover, I had to steal Rolling Stone from the school library. Today, if I want to tell people how excited I am about The X-Files, I do it on Facebook, where it’s kitschy and fun, and all my “likes” are spread out like tarot cards across my many social media profiles. In 1999, though, saying the wrong thing about the wrong show could have put my whole social standing in jeopardy with anyone outside of my own nerdy circle. So I turned to the Internet for confirmation that this thing that I loved was really, truly, worth loving.
Within the Cabin, almost everyone was under 19, and all of us identified as female. The only real divisions were between the shippers (fans of Mulder/Scully romance), the slashers (fans of non-canon, queer, usually Mulder/Krychek romance), and the no-romos (fans of everyone keeping it in their pants). But there were also discussions about difficult parents, the fear of going to college, the fear of not going to college, and everything else that ran through our heads. The teenagers on the site with me were from Maryland, where I had recently moved with my family, and New York and Chicago and Pennsylvania. They were all like me in their obsession and their need to connect. The whole thing felt more like home than my actual town, an Abercrombie-clad DC suburb, ever did.
The AOL-hosted Cabin X site is still available via the Wayback Machine, in all its late-millennium glory. Hand-coded HTML tables. Lovingly crafted Photoshop collages of Mulder and Scully (along with B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris of Star Trek: Voyager). A “dreambook.” Links to a chat room and a message board, and to the other sites in a “webring” of Cabin X members’ pages, all of which were hosted on AOL or Geocities or Angelfire. We wrote fanfiction together, sometimes in a round robin of storytelling. We had lighthearted “flame wars” with little flaming marshmallow emojis that we made using actual keystrokes, not an emoji keyboard. We wrote and wrote and wrote to each other online about Fox and Dana, Krycheck and Skinner.
After watching the teaser trailer for The X-Files’ new episodes in December, I visited the old site. It brought back a flood of memories: the smell of the plastic of my old beige desktop; writing fanfiction full of inside jokes and hoping that I sent it to the right email address; updating the quotes for my AOL profile to match the latest Mulder/Sculy romantic scene. So I decided to track down the people who were a part of my little corner of the fandom universe – and see if I could recapture some of that teenage feeling.
It was easy enough to find Laura, one of the original founders of Cabin X and the site’s original webmaster – she still uses the same handle, Laura47. In fact, she and I now live in the same city. We hadn’t met in person before, but it wasn’t hard for me to spot her when she walked through the door of the Middle Eastern restaurant where we agreed to reunite. She’s tall, really tall, with a wide smile and blue-tinted hair. In contrast to the way she describes her high-school self (shy and sort of lonely), she is a big presence, full of energy and prone to telling rambling stories. She credits fandom for pulling her out of her shell.
While we sip apple tea, Laura tells me about her small, all-girls high school in New York. Laura says she was “awkward” and “asexual,” though many of her friends were just starting to have closeted lesbian relationships. A close friend who was involved in a lot of high-school drama confided all the school’s social secrets to Laura.
“I was like her release valve, but it was a weight on me,” Laura said. “I needed people to talk to.”
Laura had already started poking around fan sites. Before she had Internet access in her room, she would take a 3.5-inch floppy disk down to the one computer in her house that was connected to the web, copy fanfiction into a text file, and then read it in her room. She loved Babylon 5 and Star Trek, two mainstays of mid-‘90s science fiction TV. Eventually, she landed on an AOL forum called the P/T Collective, which stood for Paris/Torres, a popular fanfiction pairing of Star Trek: Voyager characters.
Laura found people to talk to, not just about when and how Paris and Torres should get together, but about high school and family problems. She started Cabin X because the moderators of P/T Collective suggested they might be talking about The X-Files a little too much for a Star Trek forum. So she and a few Internet friends made their own “cabin” to talk about The X-Files, the universe, and everything.
At first, Laura’s parents didn’t want her to meet these new friends in real life. “But after I met two of them, and they were always awkward teenage girls like me,” she recalls, “they were like, ‘OK, she’s not talking to predators.'”
Laura built lifelong friendships with the women she met online. She still chats with friends from Cabin X on Facebook – she tipped her phone to show me baby pictures from one of the site’s original members.
Kate*, another girl who joined the Cabin at age 15, remembers that it was kind of thrilling to meet someone in real life who you had first gotten to know on the Internet. Now, working in film, she frequently meets colleagues she’s connected with through Twitter. But back then, “It was such a new concept. . . to blur that line between real life and online.”
The women I spoke to for this story all described their meetings with Cabin X girls as terrific bonding experiences. Everyone was, more or less, who they said they were. In retrospect, this is remarkable. It’s not just that there weren’t any creepers or trolls lurking on the site — it’s that no one was pretending to be someone better, grander, bigger. These days, I barely recognize myself online. So much of my time on the Internet is spent pretending to be happy and successful. If you only knew me on Facebook, you might think that I’m constantly globe trotting and attending picture-perfect weddings. I can’t imagine making myself vulnerable to strangers online. In high school, under the pseudonym Tenthmuse3 or Midsummer, I confessed everywhere. I confessed that I felt lonely. I confessed my fears that my friends would betray me. I confessed that I had crushes on girls, before I could tell anyone in real life. It’s amazing to think that there was a time when I turned to the social Internet to be a more raw, more real version of myself.
But I’d like to be vulnerable again. I’d like the feeling of being free to speak my mind to a community of women who feel how I feel, who get me. There’s nothing quite as affirming as strangers in far-flung cities confirming to you that, yes, your feelings are valid.
If you were to read nothing but the mainstream press, you’d think that fandom – that is, the vast constellation of nerds obsessed with the inner workings of pop culture – was dominated exclusively by white men with vendettas against women. The vitriol spewed by self-identified geeks involved in Gamergate in 2015, and the so-called men’s rights activists who slammed Mad Max: Fury Road make for big splashy headlines, as does the not-infrequent harassment of women at science fiction conventions.
But Cabin X was all women even though Laura says there was never any rule stating as much. She knew women fans, who knew other women fans, and so on. And the site reflected fact that the bulk of the creative work that takes place in fan communities is performed by women, for overwhelmingly female audiences. Scratch the surface in almost any fandom, and you’ll find women running the show.
The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit that supports the creators of fanfiction, fan videos, and fan art, conducted a self-reported census of fan creators in 2013. Eighty percent self-identified as female, 4% as male, and 6% as genderqueer (the rest of the surveyed members identified as transgender, androgynous, or other non-binary genders).
As ideal as the community was for young, female fans, though, the Cabin couldn’t last forever. It grew apart for a very simple reason: college. Laura was one of the older girls in the group, and she drifted away as soon as her feet hit the campus at MIT. She was busy, and surrounded by other busy nerds.
I drifted in college, too. And The X-Files itself became dull in its last two seasons; slogging along without David Duchovny as Fox Mulder was almost intolerable. Laura says she isn’t even sure she’s seen those two seasons all the way through.
Fandom itself has changed in the years since we abandoned the Cabin. Listservs went out of vogue. Livejournal became the primary means of communication for fans of shows like Battlestar Galactica in the mid-aughts. More recently, fans have moved to Tumblr and Twitter, and to the massive, multi-show fanfiction archive AO3, which is hosted by the OTW. The weird, handmade aesthetic of the 1990s Internet is gone.
Before catching up with my friends from Cabin X, I figured that they, like me, would have left fandom behind. Who has time for fanfiction at age 31? I made the foolish assumption that fandom was a phase – but some of the Cabin X girls are still active in online fandom, even though the communities they participate in these days look very different. For Laura and Gabi*, another former Cabin X-er, it continues to provide a hobby, a community, and a creative outlet.
“I think when I was a teenager I had the sense that it was the kind of thing that people grew out of,” Gabi told me. “And now I’m a grown-up who does this. It’s stopped being something fanciful and started being something that’s really, really valuable in terms of my friendships and my creative expression. . . It’s part of how I interact with the world. And it’s fine.”
Gabi has a wider set of fandoms now than ever before, but frequently follows shows with much smaller, more niche audiences, like Madam Secretary and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Laura rarely writes fanfiction, but she participates in and helps run fanvidding conventions.
Still, every one of the women I talked to said that nothing quite compared to those years when we were all in Cabin X. No show made us feel the way we did when we were 15.
“It’s not that I’m not a nerd anymore,” Kate insisted, “and I don’t think it’s immature to be in a fan community, but for whatever reason, there hasn’t been another show or any other fandom that I’ve become attached to where I’ve felt the need to be on a mailing list or read and make fanfic, or make fan art. It was my life in high school. It’s what I did at night or on the weekends, instead of going to parties or whatever people do.” She sighed loudly. “I really don’t know why I don’t have that enthusiasm any more.”
And I sighed, too.
It should be obvious, right? I can’t put myself back into my 15-year-old body – which was basically just a package of hormone-filled fruit gushers. I can’t rewind the tape to having never been kissed, staring at the screen while two people played out the romance of their lives. In high school, following and obsessing over the romantic tension between Mulder and Scully was always a slant way of getting at my own feelings about love and sex.
Along with the sci-fi storylines,The X-Files delivered a lot of messages about love, and I listened. It didn’t hurt that Scully was my very first female crush.
In the episode “The Rain King,” Scully says, “It seems to me that the best relationships – the ones that last – are frequently the ones that are rooted in friendship. You know, one day you look at the person and you see something more than you did the night before. Like a switch has been flicked somewhere. And the person who was just a friend is… suddenly the only person you can ever imagine yourself with.”
I took Scully’s advice my senior year – and ended up dating my best friend.
Now, as an adult, I know that there are many different routes to finding love – and that pining for someone for eight or nine seasons is romantic, but it isn’t a terrific game plan at age 25 or 30. I have other TV avatars now, but I keep a critical distance. Orphan Black’s Cosima is great, but I don’t want to be her, the way I wanted to be Mulder or Scully, just so I could feel something as profound as they felt.
It’s not just my relationship to the characters I love that has changed. Easy access has made lazy fans of us all. Laura described to me the early fanvid creators who had two tape decks, painstakingly recording a show clip from one VHS to another. In high school, I would read dozens of fanfiction descriptions on the fanfiction archive Gossamer before finding one story that I wanted to read. Today, the inbound marketing people reach into their bag of tricks and give me the exact content I want to see. And I can re-watch my old X-Files episodes any time I want on Netflix, without hoping and praying the VCR will start working in time for the marathon on FX. In 1999, I would have seen this as a miracle. Now, I miss the chase.
Fandom has become more fragmented, too. In the mid-1990s, there was so much less television about imaginary worlds: Star Trek, Buffy, Babylon 5, Sliders. All of us fans had to live in the same universes together, suffer their bad episodes together, make up the next chapter together when they were canceled before their time. There are so many shows now that feel entirely tailored to my needs that I’m not sure I would have ever bothered to watch something as scary and weird as The X-Files if it had premiered in this decade. Not when there’s Jessica Jones and Agents of Shield and The 100 and Black Mirror and Man in the High Castle and hordes and hordes of zombie shows. And if I’d had the variety of shows back then that I have now, I might not have needed to keep telling the story through fandom. I might not have needed Cabin X.
It’s not that I’m not a fan now. I am. I’ll talk to anyone who will listen about Mozart in the Jungle and Orange Is the New Black. But my fandom is limited. It’s detached. I cried when I finished Season 2 of Transparent, but then I went back to making dinner, doing the laundry, being busy and adult.
Kate remembers spending whole days at school thinking about The X-Files episode from the weekend before. “I didn’t have a smart phone, I couldn’t communicate until I got home to my PC. I remember writing out these long emails and being like, ‘Oh my god, I have so many feels, so many feels about this thing.’ I’d be thinking about it all night and all day. . . I’d be so, so invested. I’ll still have emotional reactions to characters and stories now. But it’s way, way less intense.”
“I miss it,” Laura says. “I’ve never had the same fandom experience again.”
Maybe the problem is not my age or the advent of social media or the glut of new TV, though. Maybe it’s the show itself. The X-Files never feels complete. I need nothing more from the Pfeffermans at the conclusion of Transparent‘s second season, but I’ll forever be waiting to learn what was really going on with the black oil, what Mulder felt in his heart for Scully, or what Clyde Bruckman meant when he told Scully she would not die.
So when I sit in the dark on January 24, waiting for The X-Files to begin again, I won’t be in my parents’ living room, but I will be transported back to a place that feels like home.
During our Skype call, I asked Kate how she felt about the new X-Files series run. She said she was worried it might not be any good.
Then I told her I had seen a picture of the apple box that Gillian Anderson had to stand on to be the same height as David Duchovny for one of their scenes.
She let out a high-pitched gasp. “Can you send that to me?”
* Some names in this story have been changed at the subjects’ request.