Chupacabra as Metaphor:  The X-Files, “El Mundo Gira”


It seems that sooner or later, whenever there’s a mythical beast or a cryptid, someone is going to turn it into a metaphor. In the case of the chupacabra, I opted for sooner. The episode of The X-Files titled “El Mundo Gira” (Season 4, Episode 11), which premiered in 1997, was my very first encounter with this particular cryptid.

It’s interesting in a historical sense. The sightings in Puerto Rico were just about contemporary with the writing of the episode. It would be almost another decade before the encounters, with physical evidence, in Texas.

The creature that Mulder and Scully are somewhat tangentially tracking is the Latin American variant. Mulder describes it as a small grey creature with a big head, a small body, and black bulging eyes. This is not exactly what people in Latin America claim to have seen, but it’s relevant to Mulder’s interests both in the episode and in the series.

The script, credited to John Shiban, is an hommage to classic soap opera. The title is a Spanish translation of one of the greatest of them all, As the World Turns. The basic plot is summed up by both Scully and the older Hispanic woman who tells the tale of the chupacabra as “Two brothers, one woman. Trouble.”

The chupacabra here is more a metaphor than a living creature. The woman who frames the story says, “Some say it is a story, a fairy tale, but I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes.” What she saw is the question, and Mulder and Scully are there to find an answer.

The fairytale/folktale motif repeats through the episode. The chupacabra is a Mexican folktale, says Mulder. One of the two brothers refuses to believe in it: It’s a human tragedy, he insists, and he’s going to kill his brother for supposedly killing the lovely Maria.

The other brother not only believes in the chupacabra, but believes he’s been transformed into one. So do all the migrants with whom he comes into contact. As soon as they see him, they flee—not so much because he looks any different until late in the episode, or because he starts leaving a trail of weird fungi and grotesquely fungus-covered corpses, but because rumor travels lightning-fast through the community, and they all know who Eladio Buente is and what he’s presumed to have done.

The origin of the rumor is a small flock of escaped goats, Eladio and Maria taking off to catch them, and a sudden explosion and flash of light followed by a hot yellow rain. When the rain stops, Maria is found beside a dead goat, with her face eaten away, and Eladio is missing. It’s the goat that clinches it: People’s minds leap to the goat-sucker, the chupacabra.

Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate the unexplained death, with the usual debate between conventional science and the weird. The X-Files was never particularly interested in cryptids. Its mythology defaulted early and often to space aliens and secret government conspiracies.

The chupacabra here is a catch-all term for “inexplicable murderous monster.” There’s no reference to vampiric tendencies, and it kills humans as well as goats, which the original chupacabra does not do. In this case it’s also something a human can turn into, not semi-instantly like a werewolf or other shifter, but gradually.

This being The X-Files, it’s pretty much a given that the monster has alien origins. Mulder classifies the explosion and the hot rain as a Fortean event called a transient: in this case, a liquid fall. He eventually deduces that the cause was a piece of space debris that crashed down into a lake and splashed it into the atmosphere, hence the weird rain. The rain contained an enzyme that caused fungi to grow exponentially; it’s a fungal infection that killed Maria and the goat.

Eladio and his brother have a genetic resistance to the enzyme. Eladio spreads it wherever he goes, beginning with Maria (who may have been immunocompromised through exposure to chemicals in the soil, making her more susceptible to infection). Eventually it alters him physically, and does the same to his brother, but it doesn’t kill them. By the end, they have weird, misshapen heads and faces, but they’re alive and functional and leaving a trail of fungus-ridden corpses along the road to Mexico.

They consider themselves to be cursed, and the name of the curse is chupacabra. But the actual cryptid appears without commentary, where Mulder and Scully can’t see. Mulder called it: small-bodied, big-headed, with huge black eyes. They’re a creature familiar in the world of UFOs, the alien species called Greys.

It’s strictly a visual reference, first a scene in which a group of Greys toddles over the hill from the crash site, and at the end, graffiti on a wall: the head of a Grey, with its high domed skull, its huge oblique dark eyes, and its pointed chin. The chupacabra is from outer space, we’re meant to understand. The tragedy in the migrant camp is most likely inadvertent, a side effect of a spaceship landing or crash.

The rest of the metaphor has to do with the plight of the illegal immigrant. Their lives are small and full of desperation, says the agent from Immigration. They make up stories to feel alive. The chupacabra is one such story. It’s not real. It’s a fairy tale.

The irony of course is that it’s both very real and not quite accurate. It’s a literal alien invasion—space aliens rather than illegal aliens, bringing plague and death. Colonizing with disease, in much the same way Europeans colonized the Americas.

The theme is just as relevant now as it was in 1997. It plays on the whole gamut of human fears, from death to plague to the Other. At the end, the brothers go back to where they came from, taking their deadly contagion with them—and nobody bothers to follow them over the border.

They’re the most marginalized of people. Nobody cares what happens to them, or to anyone they meet, once they’re outside of the U.S. It’s a quietly devastating condemnation of the situation on the southern border, with its racist undertones and its blatant exploitation of illegal immigrants. icon-paragraph-end



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