SOMEHOW IT'S ONLY FITTING that Chris Carter, the 38-year-old creator and executive producer of Fox's The X-Files, should be, well, slightly X-centric. Emerging from the sci-fi show's Vancouver, B.C., office after another 18-hour day, the blond, 5'11" Carter looks dazed in his wrinkled cotton shirt and faded jeans. The seven-day-a-week production grind, he says, is "hellish and grueling...like being chased by wild coyotes."

Or perhaps by werewolves, vampires, pyro-kinetic arsonists and shape-shifting aliens—the usual suspects investigated each week by the series' protagonists, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). On this spring morning an exhausted Carter—trying to work his way through writer's block—takes a boat ride to a nearby island, where he wanders into a pottery shop.

"Do you mind if I sit at your wheel for a while?" he asks the shop's owner, handing him a $10 bill. Carter, who began working part-time as a potter at 19 while majoring in journalism at California State University at Long Beach, spends the next hour musing about plots while molding pots.

Finally he stops to admire his handiwork—before smashing it to bits. "It's a Zen thing," he later says cryptically.

The owner offers him a job anyway. Carter politely declines. "I used to do this for a living," he explains. "But I do something else now."

And very successfully too. At the end of its second season, X-Files, Fox's critically acclaimed series, has the same passionate following as cult hits like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Among the show's big-name admirers are Bruce Springsteen, Luke Perry and Whoopi Goldberg. X-Files is also a hot topic on the Internet, with viewers discoursing on subjects ranging from Scully's figure to philosophical implications of plot lines. At the first X-Files convention in San Diego on June 11, fans will be poring over key chains, T-shirts and reports of an X-Files movie being discussed for next year.

All this adulation bemuses Carter. "The main misperception of me is that I'm some kind of sci-fi maven," he says. "People would be surprised to learn that I'm really the guy next door, not a paranoid, kook or crank...I have no reason to believe in paranormal phenomena."

Before X-Files, Carter's life was an exercise in very normal phenomena. He and his younger brother, Craig, 34, grew up in Bellflower, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. Their father, William, is a construction worker; their mother, Catherine, now deceased, was a housewife. Carter says he was a typical kid, even pitching in Little League. He did have a dark side though. When the sci-fi classic Mysterious Island was rerun on a local TV station, 8-year-old Chris watched every showing—three times a day, for a full week. And one of his fondest childhood memories was of a haunted house that neighbors set up at Halloween. "People would jump out and tie you up and squirt you with stuff," he says.

In search of other amusements, Carter discovered surfing when he was 12. "He was really passionate about it," says Craig, now a research scientist at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. After graduating from college in 1979, Carter started writing for Surfing magazine. "It was a way to postpone entering the adult world," he says.

But the adult world caught up with him in 1983, when he began dating screenwriter Dori Pierson (Big Business), who encouraged him to finish his first movie script. It was his second that attracted Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dori's boss at Disney, who signed Carter to a three-picture deal. But after one screenplay, Carter decided to write for TV instead. Among the pilots he cranked out was Brand New Life, a Brady Bunch clone that ran for six episodes. "I was about as far from The X-Files as you could get," says Carter.

But when Fox hired him in 1992 to develop a new prime-time series, Carter immediately pitched a scary show inspired by an old favorite: Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which an investigative reporter (played by Darren McGavin) tracked down vampires and werewolves. Even Dori, his wife since 1987, was surprised. "I didn't know those stories existed in his head," she says.

Carter gave The X-Files' Mulder his mother's maiden name; Scully was named for Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. "I'm equal parts of both characters," says their creator. "I'm a skeptic like Scully, but I'm also ready to be enraptured, like Mulder."

On the set he is friendly with his stars. "He was very moved by the experience I went through of having a child," says Anderson, whose 9-month-old daughter, Piper, is Carter's godchild. Duchovny, who shares a "story by" credit with Carter on two X-Files plots, plays squash with him during breaks.

Back in the three-bedroom, Pacific Palisades, Calif., home he shares with Dori, Carter is ever on the prowl for story ideas. "I'm a scavenger of magazines, essays, movies," he says. "I don't use much unsolicited stuff from friends and fans." A National Public Radio piece about three unrelated military suicides in Haiti inspired an episode about a voodoo cult on a U.S. base. And then there's the news clip about an Arizona woman who swears bats invaded her house while a UFO hovered outside. "So now," says Carter, looking X-ceedingly pleased, "I have an interesting bat episode I'll be doing."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Pacific Palisades

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.