"Hell Money" is the nineteenth episode of the third season of The X-Files. It was written by Jeffrey Vlaming, directed by Tucker Gates, and first aired on the Fox network on March 29, 1996. The episode is a "Monster-of-the-week" story, separate from the series Mythology arc.
In Chinatown, Mulder and Scully discover an illegal lottery in which the "losers" are forced to donate their internal organs.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Amid a hectic Chinese street festival at night, a young Chinese man, Johnny Lo, warily flees through San Francisco's Chinatown. He hurries into a darkened alley and up a flight of back stairs to an apartment door, pausing to examine newly-painted white Chinese lettering on the door. Once inside, he is confronted by a man hidden in shadow who, in Cantonese, insists that he must pay. In desperation, Lo stabs the man, who bloodily falls to the floor. Lo then turns to see three masked figures standing before him.
BAYSIDE FUNERAL HOME
Later the same night, a night watchman in the Bayside Funeral Home is distracted from a handheld video game by a metallic bang in another area of the funeral home. He investigates the noise, momentarily catching sight of the masked figures. He also finds that the clatter is coming from an operating crematory oven that holds Johnny Lo, who writhes in agony as he is burned alive.
A Detective Neary shows Mulder and Scully the badly burned corpse of Johnny Lo. Mulder is critical of the detective's words, but both agree that there have recently been numerous similar cases of victims having been burned alive. Scully notices that the latest victim's body includes a glass eye. Looking inside the now-deactivated crematory oven while talking with Neary, Mulder discovers a Chinese character scrawled inside the oven. Neary introduces Mulder to Detective Glen Chao, who is of Asian descent and translates the writing as the Chinese word for "ghost". Mulder also finds a small scrap of paper, among the oven's ashes. Chao explains that the paper is "hell money", a symbolic offering to spirits during the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. Mulder suggests that it may help them identify the victim.
In daylight, the two FBI agents exit their car outside Lo's apartment building. Scully notifies Mulder of information she has learned about Johnny Lo, including his name and occupation. As they climb the same back stairs that Lo used, Scully thinks Lo was purposefully killed by a cult or gang but Mulder lengthily explains his theory that ghosts were to blame. The agents meet Detective Chao outside Lo's apartment. Chao tells the agents he is perplexed by the meaning of the white lettering on the apartment door. Inside, Mulder notes that the apartment's carpet has been newly installed but shabbily laid. Scully opens a drawer to find Chinese herbal medicine and a dried frog, both of which Chao identifies for her; he adds that frogs are occasionally used as charms, for good health, prosperity and protection. Mulder then announces that he has discovered blood stains beneath the carpet.
At night in another Chinatown apartment, an Asian man, Hsin, returns home from work and takes both tea and food to his daughter, Kim, as she lies in bed. Even though she twice asks him to stay with her, he hesitantly tells her that he needs to leave to do money-making business so that he can pay doctors to make her well. Kim recalls that the doctors have said the required operation costs too much money, but this statement only frustrates Hsin and he then leaves.
Hsin makes his way to an upper floor of an abandoned restaurant, where a room bustles with working-class Asian men. Three suited men enter the room and organize a strange game in which the lower-class men participate by drawing colored tiles from jade vases. A Wiry Man with one milky eye draws a tile that elicits great excitement from the crowd and a sense of relief from Hsin. The Wiry Man is then reluctantly escorted to a back room by one of the suited men.
Chao, Scully and Mulder browse through a Chinese apothecary, with whose herbal contents Scully is entirely unfamiliar. The investigators question Dr. Wu, an Asian lady who is the store's proprietor, and Chao acts as a translator. Dr. Wu identifies the herbal medicine found in Lo's apartment as skullcap root and Chinese angelica, which - Chao adds - are both used as painkillers. Upon viewing a hand-drawn rendering of the characters on the door of Lo's apartment, Dr. Wu adopts a fearful expression, mutters in Cantonese and hurries away; Chao explains that Dr. Wu had said the apartment had been branded a "haunted house", which relates (like the hell money found earlier) to the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts.
As Chao continues to tell the agents more about the festival, the Wiry Man is drugged, drinking a warm liquid as he sits on a chair under a bright light. He sees apparitions of ancient Chinese figures, one of whom seemingly removes the man's heart even as he watches. He closes his eyes and his visions disappear. The Hard-Faced Man approaches while wearing surgical garb and opens the Wiry Man's good eye, checking on his condition.
The agents ask Detective Chao about the festival as they walk down a street in Chinatown. The detective supposes that a connection between the recent murders and the festival would make sense, as the festival is almost over. He also implies that he does not feel strongly for or against his ancestors' belief in the festival.
HIGHLAND PARK CEMETERY
A night watchman encounters three masked figures near an open grave in Highland Park Cemetery. He quickly grabs a flashlight but the intruders are gone by the time he returns.
Later that night, Detective Neary shows the agents to the grave, telling them that the three figures - whose motives are still unexplained - were wearing the same masks as were spotted in the crematory. Neary also reveals that the open grave is newly-dug, in preparation for a burial on the following day. Acting on a hunch, Mulder digs in the dirt at the bottom of the grave, unearthing the dead face of the Wiry Man.
CORONER'S OFFICE, CENTRAL STATION
A curious Mulder approaches Scully while she is still autopsying the Wiry Man's corpse. She shows him that the man's body organs had been harvested. The agents exchange jestful banter and, when Mulder asks Scully how her discovery of organ harvesting relates to the other victims, she recalls Johnny Lo's glass eye. As Scully continues with the autopsy, a frog climbs out of the corpse, shocking the agents.
The strange game meanwhile continues, with Hsin again included among the crowd of participants. This time, he is the individual who is dragged towards the back room.
SAN FRANCISCO POLICE DEPARTMENT
At first interrupting Chao from a phone conversation that he duly concludes, Scully and Mulder confront the detective about their findings of both the frog - which Scully believes probably contradicts Chao having earlier claimed that frogs are used as good luck charms - and the fact that the organs of the latest corpse had been harvested. The agents suspect Chao is being protectively secretive about the goings-on within the Chinese community but Chao responds by explaining that he himself is an outsider from that community. He begins to lead the agents to the company that installed the carpet in Johnny Lo's apartment.
The investigators pay a visit to Hsin's home. He has a heavily bandaged eye, which he claims is a work-related injury. While Scully questions an unforthcoming Hsin about having laid the carpet in Johnny Lo's apartment, Mulder comes across one of the colored game tiles and Chao talks with Hsin's bedridden daughter, telling her what is happening. Mulder ends Scully's discussion with Hsin and the agents wait for Chao in the hall outside the apartment. The detective has a conversation with Hsin but, once he follows the agents out, he claims he was merely warning Hsin that a blocked-up back window in the apartment was a firetrap. Chao also says he does not recognize the game tile that Mulder found, although he does identify a character on it as meaning "wood", and the agents agree that they should subsequently follow Hsin's every movement. As the trio leave, Hsin spies on their departure from inside his apartment. His daughter approaches him and questions him about his eye. Despite initially trying to dismiss her concerns, he then revealingly implies more of the truth: that the injury is related to his desperate attempt to find money for her operation.
Meanwhile, Chao returns to his own home, an elaborate town house. He finds red Chinese signage painted on his front door and encounters, inside, a trio of individuals who wear the typical masks.
Tired and jumpy, Mulder is conducting an uneventful stakeout on Hsin's apartment when Scully arrives. She tells him that Chao has been attacked and hospitalized, so they leave. However, their departure is secretly observed by one of the game organizers, a Hard-Faced Man, who heads towards Hsin's apartment.
Moments later, Hsin lets the Hard-Faced Man inside, declaring that he wants to leave the game, although his visitor tries to convince him to do otherwise. They are unaware that Hsin's daughter is witnessing their meeting from her bedroom door. Even though the Hard-Faced Man threatens that the Chinese ghosts will claim Hsin if he breaks the game's rules by leaving, Hsin begs the Hard-Faced Man for permission to be excluded from the game. Leaving, the Hard-Faced Man denies responsibility for choosing whether Hsin is given such permission.
ST. FRANCIS GENERAL HOSPITAL
Mulder and Scully arrive in St. Francis General Hospital, only for Neary to inform them that Chao has already left without waiting to be dismissed. The agents talk while Neary fetches a medical chart on Detective Chao, for Mulder's perusal. The chart shows that the blood found on the carpet padding in Johnny Lo's apartment was actually that of Detective Chao. Mulder suspects that Chao was the person who asked for the carpet to be installed, suggesting a secretive connection between the detective and Mr. Hsin. Furthermore, Mulder concludes that their conversation was not actually about a firetrap.
When the agents return to Hsin's apartment, his daughter answers the door to them, as her father is away. She permits them entry and allows the agents to interview her, admitting what little she knows of her father's desperate effort to find money and that she has been diagnosed with leukemia. She also reveals that the symbol on the colored game tile not only means "wood" but also corresponds to the eye, information that Chao did not tell the agents. As Scully determines that Hsin was rejected as a bone marrow donor and more recently had both his liver and kidneys measured by the Organ Procurement Organization, Mulder suddenly realizes that Hsin and the victims have been participating in some sort of game.
Elsewhere, Hsin once again returns to the bustling restaurant room as the game gets underway.
ORGAN PROCUREMENT ORGANIZATION
DOWNTOWN SAN FRANCISCO
The agents visit the Organ Procurement Organization, where they are told by an OPO Staffer that numerous Asian men have been requesting typing and antigen work-ups, only to have subsequently disappeared.
The game continues and the agents arrive outside the restaurant building where it is held, having been led there by a clue from the OPO Staffer. They see Detective Chao enter the building just after their arrival. Despite trying to escape, Hsin is again dragged to the back room, this time watched by Chao.
The agents enter the restaurant, finding the ground floor to be darkened and deserted but containing frozen human organs in the restaurant's kitchen. Chao meanwhile asks that the game be stopped but, when his request is strongly denied by a game organizer who reminds Chao that he has been paid well for protecting the game from foreigners, Chao angrily smashes one of the jade vases, revealing that it contained tiles of all the same color. As this proves that the game has been fixed, the crowd of participants storm the gaming room, noisily alerting the agents to their presence. In a room that contains a jarred frog, another operation is about to be conducted on Hsin when he sees a vision of his daughter, of whom he begs forgiveness. Detective Chao interrupts the procedure and shoots the Hard-Faced Man, but both the detective and the Hard-Faced Man are then taken into custody by Mulder and Scully.
The Hard-Faced Man later speaks to Scully in a questioning room. Smoking a cigarette, he tries to justify the game. Scully argues against him, however, and retorts by notifying the man that he will be sent to prison for a very long time. Scully is called out of the room by Mulder, who informs her that Hsin is still in intensive care at St. Francis Hospital but that Hsin's daughter has fortunately been added to the recipient list of the Organ Procurement Organization. The agents then meet up with Lieutenant Neary. Both he and Mulder let Scully know that they can't convict the Hard-Faced Man without testimony from Chao, who has since gone missing.
Unbeknown to the agents and Neary, Chao is lying inside a crematory oven wherein he awakens and sees a blue-lit pilot light. He watches as the oven is turned further on and flames rise. A wall of the oven itself bears the Chinese character for the word "ghost".
Story & Script
- Although this episode was credited as having been written by Jeffrey Vlaming, it was show-runner Chris Carter who came up with the idea of doing an episode about a pyramid scheme for body parts, a notion that became the basis for this episode.
- Even though the game in this episode was entirely fictitious, many people thought the game was real, a fact that story editor Frank Spotnitz found interesting.
- Kim Hsin's name and that of Dr. Wu, as well as her title of doctor, are not established in the fictional events of this episode but are provided in the episode's end credits. Furthermore, Kim Hsin's surname may be assumed due to the nature of her relationship to Mr. Hsin.
- This episode's screenplay was later adapted by writer Ellen Steiber and was released as Hungry Ghosts, the ninth book in The X-Files' Young Adult series.
- Vancouver's Chinatown was used to represent its more celebrated counterpart in San Francisco and had stood in for Hong Kong earlier, for the production of the previous Season 3 episode "Piper Maru".
- The scenes of this episode that are set inside the crematorium were actually filmed within a soundstage.
- The game in this episode was created from scratch by The X-Files' props department.
- The scene in which a frog emerges from a corpse's chest was relatively simple, in comparison to the series' usual technical standards. Toby Lindala's makeup effects team used stock molds to rig a fake human torso that was placed over the actor as he lay on a table. To film several close-ups of the frog's emergence, the fake torso alone was then placed on a table that had a hole in the midsection, so that the series' animal wrangler could gently push the frog through the opening from underneath the table.
- During postproduction, the lines of dialogue spoken by both the Japanese actor Michael Yama, who played Hsin, and Lucy Alexis Liu, who portrayed Hsin's daughter and spoke Chinese with a Mandarin accent, were re-recorded, with assistance from a vocal coach, after it was realized that the two performers were meant to be speaking in a Cantonese dialect. These rerecorded lines were then dubbed over the episode's original soundtrack. The decision to rerecord the dialogue was influenced by several factors, including sensitivity to the Chinese community.
Hell bank notes are also featured in The X-Files Game, as are the Chinese tiles, which were used as a game in the episode as a lottery.
The term 'hell money' comes from the Chinese tradition of offering representations of money or goods to the dead.
David Duchovny and Lucy Liu were dating while this episode was filmed.
B.D. Wong now has a recurring role as police psychologist George Huang, a specialist in aberrant sexual behavior on "Law & Order: SVU".
Who you gonna call? This is Mulder's response to the first mention of the "Festival of the Hungry Ghosts". It is, of course, one of the taglines from the 1984 comedy film Ghostbusters.
Cast and Characters
- Doug Abrahams (Detective Neary) previously played Patrolman #1 in The X-Files episode "Pilot", Agent #2 in "Gender Bender" and Paul Vitaris in "Die Hand Die Verletzt".
- B.D. Wong as Detective Glen Chao
- Lucy Alexis Liu as Kim Hsin
- James Hong as Hard-Faced Man
- Michael Yama as Mr. Hsin
- Derek Lowe as Johnny Lo
- Donald Fong as Vase Man
- Diana Ha as Dr. Wu
- Stephen M.D. Chang as Large Man
- Paul Wong as Wiry Man