#StartYourStory: The X-Files, Myths and Archetypes


Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny of The X-Files
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con International, for “The X-Files” 20th Anniversary panel. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

#StartYourStory is an ongoing series that explores storytelling lessons from popular media and how we can apply them to branding our organizations and businesses.

By Scott Swanson

As a child of the ’90s, I’ve really been enjoying the reboot of The X-Files – a show that reached its cultural apex when Bill Clinton was president and I was dressing like a member of Pearl Jam. Our household doesn’t have a ton of time for TV these days, but it’s one of the few shows we try to catch regularly.

The author in his Pearl Jam phase.

I’d wager the vast majority of older Millennials like myself, and Gen Xers and Boomers too, know the broad strokes of the show. For Gen Z readers or those who unplugged before it was cool to unplug, The X-Files follows two FBI agents who investigate paranormal cases, often involving aliens. One, Fox Mulder, is a true believer; Dana Scully, his partner, is more analytical and skeptical.

The show’s tagline is “The truth is out there,” and indeed, the heart of The X-Files is Mulder and Scully’s journey into the unknown and their search for hidden knowledge. If you’re a fan of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, you probably recognize this as a close cousin of the hero’s journey myth. Jung believed in something he called the collective unconscious – the concept that all humans share certain ideas and instincts that form the basis of our most timeless stories, archetypes and myths. Campbell built on Jung’s ideas in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” the most famous work on the hero’s journey concept.

The search for knowledge is one of these archetypes. The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment falls under this category. Odin, the greatest of the Norse gods, gave up his eye to attain knowledge. How about Harry Potter’s drive to understand the parents he never knew? Wildly different cultures, similar themes and motivations.

So, what the hell does this have to do with storytelling and marketing communications for your business or organization?

Let’s use AirBnB as a practical example. AirBnB has a beautiful section of its website dedicated to multimedia travel stories submitted by users. Spend a few minutes exploring – I guarantee you that your wanderlust will start to manifest.

AirBnB acutely understands that it’s not just selling you a room in some rando’s house – it’s selling experiences, a journey into unfamiliar territory. A good trip can teach us about ourselves; it can help us grow as individuals and attain knowledge. What better way to communicate that message than through the stories of travelers? They’ve tapped into something deep and emotionally arresting.

Of course, we don’t need to travel to attain knowledge and learn about ourselves. Check out how SoulCycle, the indoor cycling phenomenon, describes the experience of a class: “In that dark room, our riders share a Soul experience. We laugh, we cry, we grow — and we do it together, as a community.” It’s a bit heavy-handed for me, personally, but it certainly speaks to the power of the seeker archetype, and how the acquisition of knowledge and understanding can help us transcend everyday experience.

From The X-Files to Jung to AirBnB to SoulCycle – that’s quite a journey, but if you look closely, you can see the threads that connect these stories across time and culture. Like Mulder says, the truth is out there. As marketers, branders and advertisers, it’s up to us to find it, apply it, and tell it.