Unsolved Mysteries created scary TV without even meaning to
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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
Every generation raised by TV has one: an ostensibly sober-minded documentary series about the weird and strange of the universe that succeeds in terrifying the kids who stumble upon it. In the ’70s, it was the Leonard Nimoy-hosted, oddly scored In Search Of…, which took viewers stomping after Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the ancient aliens said to have built the pyramids. Kids of the present have a whole plethora of cable offerings devoted to exploring the unexplained and scaring the pants off of them. Indeed, the world of cable niche-casting means that there are whole shows devoted to chasing ghosts, Bigfoot, and aliens out there, even if the show’s protagonists can never catch up to their quarry by design. (Assuming Bigfoot exists and wants to be found, actually finding him would be the end of Finding Bigfoot.)
The ’80s, however, were a different time. The unexplained was still with us, but it didn’t pop up in mainstream locations all that much anymore. The decade, instead, saw the rise of the “true crime” genre, which had existed previously but really took off in an age when random violence seemed to be on the rise. At the same time, network TV was experimenting more and more with the news magazine. A form first popularized by 60 Minutes in the late ’60s, news magazines became more and more attractive to networks, which saw how good their ratings were, even though they cost little to make. This was the beginning of the age of the crusading primetime news show that was actually chasing down small prey, a movement that would lead to its logical end in Dateline NBC.
Into this mix stepped a series that didn’t intend to become the In Search Of… for a new generation, but was gamely up to the task when asked to be. Beginning as a series of specials in 1986, Unsolved Mysteries officially debuted on NBC in 1987, beginning a run that continued, fitfully, right up until 2010. Originally conceived as a handful of specials meant to help track down missing people, the show soon broadened its horizon to mysteries of all sorts. That meant unsolved murders and people trying to track down long-lost lovers and friends. It meant missing treasures and weird history. And, yes, it meant aliens and ghosts and monsters, and it meant terrifying depictions of same.
Honestly, just look at this.
To adult eyes, of course, that all looks very silly, the tricks used by the show’s filmmakers to up the spookiness of some pretty crappy effects all too evident. The series was fond of using sudden zooms and odd camera angles to enhance the creepiness of its unexplained ghouls, and it was rarely subtle about its attempts to scare. Somewhere along the line, it figured out that the best way to attract a family audience—a family audience that would propel it into becoming a top 20 hit for several seasons running—was to prey on the fears of both parents and kids. For the parents, there were tales of existential dread, of coming across someone in the middle of nowhere and realizing he or she meant to kill you. For the kids, there were the ghosts and goblins the show routinely rolled out around Halloween, all out there, lurking in the darkness and ready to pounce.
All of the above were given the necessary gravitas by the series’ host, Robert Stack. Late of The Untouchables, Stack had mostly turned to a series of film roles since that show went off the air, though he occasionally guest-starred on TV. It probably never occurred to Stack that he would come to be as strongly associated with his work on the show as he was with Eliot Ness, yet he would host Unsolved Mysteries for over a decade, playing the part of a trench-coated figure lurking in some mundane place and making it seem scarier by his presence. He was a sort of Rod Serling for a new age and a new type of show. Going back to him at the end of a segment always felt safe, but not really. There was no guarantee that he might not suddenly reveal himself to be a terrifying alien clone. (The urgently propulsive theme song didn’t help matters.)
Stack was actually the third choice for Mysteries host. He only hosted four of the seven specials that made up what functioned as the show’s pilot season, and the initial special was hosted by Raymond Burr. (Karl Malden filled in on a couple as well.) Yet Stack and Unsolved Mysteries fit so well together it was a wonder he hadn’t been approached first. For those old enough to remember The Untouchables, his crime-fighting bona fides from that earlier series gave this new enterprise a subconscious boost of relevancy. For those who had no knowledge of that earlier show, his willingness to treat even the craziest bullshit with intense gravitas created the uneasy thread that sewed together deadly serious segments meant to catch at-large murderers or kidnappers with segments about things that went bump in the night and could never be caught. Stack modulated his hosting just so, providing the slightest of lilts in his voice to let viewers know that, no, Resurrection Mary probably wasn’t real, but wasn’t this a fun ghost story anyway?
This was vital because the primary reason for Unsolved Mysteries’ existence—beyond grabbing ratings—was to put criminals behind bars. Getting an unsolved case on the show was essentially a way for law-enforcement officials to widen their net to include all of the United States, and throughout its run, the series maintained a hotline that viewers could call if they had tips to bring some escaped criminal to justice. (In fact, to this day, the series maintains a web presence, meant to allow those who see an old rerun and perhaps recognize a face or name to submit that information to the proper authorities.) The notion of catching criminals via television took a while to catch on, but by the height of the series’ popularity in the early ’90s, it was rare to watch a repeat and not have an old segment about an unsolved crime followed by the standard “UPDATE” segment, which would at least fill in a few more pieces of the puzzle, thanks to viewers at home.
Though essentially a news magazine, Unsolved Mysteries was always forced to label itself as “not a news broadcast” because it was not produced by NBC’s news division. Though this could have initially been a hindrance to a program with hopes to be perceived as serious, it ended up giving the show more latitude to operate than it otherwise might have had, with Stack there to make sure the whole thing made some sort of sense, in terms of continuity. Indeed, Unsolved Mysteries was one of the earliest examples of a genre that would become hugely popular in the ’90s: infotainment. The series presented the gloss of learning something vital, but it was, essentially, all designed to slide by as easily and painlessly as possible. Yes, the program provided a hopefully vital service when chasing down criminals who had gotten away with something awful, but it also had an hour to fill every week. And that meant that the hour was filled out with mysteries that weren’t really mysteries (most often about people who had disappeared under not especially mysterious circumstances), weird legends and myths, and paranormal stories. The best Unsolved Mysteries episodes contained two or three actual mysteries the audience at home might be useful in solving, then one other segment meant to give the audience some interesting factoid to think about, like this segment about a supposedly mysterious staircase in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (In reality, the physics behind the staircase is easily explained.)
What’s most striking about returning to Unsolved Mysteries as an adult are the ways the show’s filmmakers eventually learned to make the crime segments as visceral and horrifying as the paranormal segments were to child viewers. The series didn’t have much budget to work with, so it had to cut corners at every opportunity. The actors featured in the reenactments are often poor (though Matthew McConaughey and Cheryl Hines, among others, would pop up), and the filming is rarely all that imaginative. But when the series gets into the groove of a truly terrifying story, like the rest-stop murder depicted below, it’s second to none in its ability to depict the awful randomness of violence and crime, the way that a life can cleave in two, just like that, thanks to some random madman.
Stack died a little over a year after Unsolved Mysteries left active production. The series had switched networks by that point, bouncing over to CBS, but only for six-episode summer seasons. A variety of female sidekicks—including Virginia Madsen—would be brought in to make the show a bit sexier, but the series had been supplanted in terms of scares by programs like The X-Files and Sightings, and the news magazines of the era were drifting more and more into the infotainment space. Whatever niche Unsolved Mysteries had occupied was now taken up by dozens of programs that took it apart and used the spare parts to build new things.
Yet the show ran in cable reruns into the 2010s, and it still pops up occasionally on the Spike network. An attempt was made to revive it in 2008, with Dennis Farina as host, but that program almost exclusively used the old segments and tried to make it seem as if they were new. It was a resounding flop, and the series returned to rerunning the old Robert Stack programs, when it was rerun at all. Yet even today, there’s something about stumbling on an Unsolved Mysteries rerun in the middle of the night, hearing that eerie theme song, and seeing Stack’s poker face as he leads viewers deeper into the dark. The series conveyed unease so easily, particularly given its budgetary constraints, that it became a model of its type. Even if it was never particularly good, it was always effective, and that effectiveness travels through time, in the form of segments about horrifying crimes that happened in the ’80s, segments a viewer watches, hoping for an update on the murderer being caught, an update that never comes.
Next time: 30 Rock