It's hard to imagine now but there was a time, back in the long-long-ago, when government conspiracies seemed kinda fun. Television shows like "The X-Files" assured us all that the government was up to something, but it was kinda cool stuff like extraterrestrial life forms, and something about bees? There were a bunch of bees at one point. It seemed like it made sense back in the 1990s.

Nowadays, quite a few episodes of "The X-Files" seem relatively quaint by modern standards of sci-fi/horror television, but there are also quite a few that still stand out. They weren't just smartly written, they weren't just creepily photographed, they were legitimately interesting, bizarre and — occasionally — even controversial.

But there's no episode of "The X-Files" that's nearly as disturbing, let alone violent, as the second episode of the show's fourth season. Entitled "Home," it was so visceral, so unsettling, that the episode came close to never being shown on television ever, ever again.

And to think, it all started with Charlie Chaplin.

There's No Episode Like 'Home'

"Home" aired on Fox on Friday October 11, 1996, right after an unremarkable episode of "Sliders." But this wasn't just another episode of "The X-Files." It was the only episode of "The X-Files" that was rated "TV-MA." It was preceded by an on-screen warning that prepared audiences for its graphic content. It was, by most standards, pretty gruesome stuff.

In the episode, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) travel to a rural community, where an infant has been murdered and buried in a field. They discover that the infant was the result of generations of inbreeding, and immediately suspect the reclusive Peacock family. They were very much right to do so.

The three Peacock brothers commit heinous acts of violence including bludgeoning people to death and filling their own house with shocking death traps. Eventually, it's up to Mulder and Scully to invade that house themselves, ostensibly to rescue a woman they think the Peacock family has kidnapped. What they discover is that there was no kidnapping victim, and the mother of the Peacock brothers' baby was their own mother, who had been mutilated in a car accident, and who now lives on a shelf underneath their bed. Unexpectedly, she's happy that way, and she's proud of her homicidal boys.

"Home" was a great episode of "The X-Files" but by contemporary standards, it was strikingly violent and bizarrely intense for prime time television. The network claimed the Peacocks would never appear on television again, but they broke that promise when "Home" was repurposed as an "X-Files" Halloween special in 1999.

Charlie's Anecdotes: Full Throttle

The teleplay for "Home" shares a lot of its DNA with classic horror movies like Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes," but according to the episode's co-writer James Wong — who went on to direct the first and third "Final Destination" movies — the idea for one of its most shocking moments came from Charlie Chaplin's own biography.

"There's a couple of interesting images that we always wanted to put into a show," Wong explained in a behind-the-scenes documentary about the show's fourth season. "There was a biography of Charlie Chaplin that we read and he was in a small town and he was staying with this family, and one night they said, 'You know Charlie, we like you a lot and we want to show you something that we never show anyone.'"

What Chaplin found in that room was unexpected, to say the least. "He went upstairs to this bare room, but there's only a cot in the room," Wong recounted. "And from under the cot, they pulled out this teenager who was only a torso and a head with no arms, no legs. They set him up, they started singing and clapping and this torso started dancing around. And Chaplin was horrified. But we found that story just horrifying and interesting and weird and we always wanted to put it in a show."

The Truth About Charlie

It turns out that James Wong's memory of the Charlie Chaplin anecdote wasn't entirely accurate. The story actually stems from the silent comedian's own autobiography, written in 1964 and appropriately titled "My Autobiography." It seems that Chaplin was spending several days in the Welsh town of Ebbw Vale, and on the second night his host introduced him to a man named Gilbert, who did have limbs, and who was living underneath a dresser, not a cot.

"A half a man with no legs, an over sized, blond, flat-shaped head, a sickening white face, a sunken nose, a large mouth and powerful muscular shoulders and arms, crawled from underneath the dresser," Chaplin wrote (via WalesOnline). "He wore flannel underwear with the legs of the garment cut off to the thighs, from which ten thick, stubby toes stuck out."

This was Gilbert, and Chaplin's landlord wanted the entertainer's advice about whether Gilbert could be in a circus. Chaplin said he was "horrified," and wasn't able to answer.

There's an obvious streak of ableism in both Chaplin's tale and the "X-Files" episode that came out of it, implying that the sheer image of someone whose body defies conventional norms is inherently terrifying. But the true horror isn't in the physical appearance of Gilbert or the Peacock family, it's in the situations that surrounded them. The fictional Peacock brothers are violent murderers — that was the scary part. And poor Gilbert was clearly being mistreated, forced to live out of sight under a dresser, and is now best remembered as the inspiration for a gory episode of television.

So everybody take a moment to pay your respects to Gilbert, and remember that at the heart of every scary story, there's at least some real humanity.

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