Have you ever seen what is widely considered the most disturbing episode of the cult classic series “The X-Files?” It was the first episode to ever feature a viewer discretion warning for graphic content and the only one to ever feature a TV-MA rating. Season 4, Episode 2: “Home” is described as such:
Mulder and Scully investigate the death of an infant with severe birth defects. Traveling to the small isolated town of Home, Pennsylvania, the pair meet the Peacocks, a family of deformed farmers who have not left their house in a decade. Initially, Mulder suspects that the brothers kidnapped and raped a woman to father the child, but the investigation uncovers a long history of incest involving the Peacocks’ own mother.
Pretty fucked up, even for “The X-Files,” right? Well, prepare to learn something that you can never un-learn: this particularly dark episode was inspired by a very real experience from none other than the Little Tramp himself, film star Charlie Chaplin.
Taken straight from his autobiography, Chaplin tells the truly unnerving tale of his stay at a tenement house in London:
The second night, while I was having my supper, her husband came in, a man about the same age as his wife. He had been to the theatre that evening and had enjoyed the play. He stood a while conversing, holding a lighted candle, ready for bed. He came to a pause and seemed to think of what he wanted to say. “Listen, I’ve got something that might fit your kind of business. Ever seen a human frog? Here, hold the candle and I’ll take the lamp.”
He led the way into the kitchen and rested the lamp on the dresser, which had a curtain strung across the bottom of it in place of cupboard doors. “Hey, Gilbert, come on out of there!” he said, parting the curtains.
A half a man with no legs, an oversized, 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. He wore flannel underwear with the legs of the garment cut off to the thighs, from which ten thick, stubby toes stuck out. The grisly creature could have been twenty or forty. He looked up and grinned, showing a set of yellow, widely spaced teeth.
“Hey, Gilbert, jump!” said the father and the wretched man lowered himself slowly, then shot up by his arms almost to the height of my head.
“How do you think he’d fit in with a circus? The human frog!”
I was so horrified I could hardly answer. However, I suggested the names of several circuses that he might write to.
He insisted on the wretched creature going through further tricks, hopping, climbing and standing on his hands on the arms of a rocking chair. When at last he had finished I pretended to be most enthusiastic and complimented him on his tricks.
“Good night, Gilbert,” I said before leaving, and in a hollow voice, and tongue-tied, the poor fellow answered: “Good night.”
Several times during the night I woke up and tried my locked door. The next morning the landlady seemed pleasant and communicative. “I understand you saw Gilbert last night,” she said. “Of course, he only sleeps under the dresser when we take in people from the theatre.”
Then the awful thought came to me that I had been sleeping in Gilbert’s bed. “Yes,” I answered, and talked with measured enthusiasm of the possibilities of his joining a circus.
She nodded. “We have often thought of it.”
My enthusiasm — or whatever it was — seemed to please the landlady, and before leaving I went into the kitchen to say goodbye to Gilbert. With an effort to be casual I shook his large calloused hand, and he gently shook mine.
What is there to add to that macabre story? Nothing? I didn’t think so. Just let that horrible image hover in your head for the rest of forever just like it will in mine. I’m not sure what’s worse — the inhumane treatment of a clearly disabled person, the lack of care on the part of Gilbert’s parents, or Chaplin’s ability to walk away from that tenement house without reporting them to the authorities.