(EDITOR'S NOTE: This post was originally written and intended for posting during Halloween week. However, due to Hurricane Sandy-related power outage, we weren't able to get it posted until now. Tried to update it to reflect the fact that we are now in November, but it was written with an October state of mind. Hope everyone had a safe and happy Halloween).
Autumn is probably the scariest season. It starts to get dark early, all the plant life shrivels and dies, and on the 31st of October we have the scariest night of the year in Halloween. It is against this backdrop that we bring you this entry on perhaps the scariest Golden Age television show: Unsolved Mysteries.
First airing in 1987 and running throughout the 1990s, Unsolved Mysteries used actors to recreate stories of real-life unexplained events. Each episode would feature 3-4 segments telling different stories, each ending with lingering questions. Topics covered included everything from missing persons and murders with peculiar circumstances to UFOs and supernatural phenomena. Unsolved Mysteries had a dark, eerie feel to it—kind of like a toned down scary movie, only all the stories portrayed were based on real events. The show’s producers were masters at drawing you into a plot only to leave you scratching your head, and when applicable, feeling sorry for the victims and their families. Viewers were prompted to call in to the “Unsolved Mysteries Call Center” if they had any information on any of the cases profiled, and occasionally UM would provide updates that gave closure to mysteries shown in prior episodes. But the updates were few and far between, and most times UM left its viewers captivated and bewildered.
Unsolved Mysteries’ famously ominous vibe was set at the beginning of each episode by the show’s theme music.
With a sound that may remind listeners a bit of the theme to “The Exorcist”, Unsolved Mysteries’ theme became synonymous with paranormal activity in the Golden Age.
Often forgotten but perhaps even more chilling than the intro theme was Unsolved Mysteries’ closing theme:
And not to be outdone, the “UPDATE” music was pretty scary in its own right. Unfortunately a cut of this track in its original form does not seem to have made it to YouTube, but this "8 bit Remix" gives you a taste:
Unsolved Mysteries had a couple different hosts in its early years, but the show really took off when Robert Stack took over in 1987.
A television and movie actor dating back to the 1950s, Stack’s stoic demeanor and cold delivery were a perfect fit with UM’s storytelling style. He was often shown wearing a trench coat, slowly walking along a foggy and dimly lit street or in some other isolated and eerie film location. Affectionately known to the show’s diehard fans as simply “The Stack”, Robert Stack’s presence on Unsolved Mysteries was an important part of the show’s mystique.
First, it is important to note that a number of officially licensed Unsolved Mysteries DVDs have been released. They’re available onAmazon for a pretty reasonable price—everything from “The Ultimate Collection” to a number of “Best of” compilations featuring segments on similar topics. There are also a number of segments available on YouTube, which should be viewed solely to get a feel for the show, and NOT to substitute for purchasing the DVDs. GA4K has no relationship with the makers of the DVDs or with the uploaders of the YouTube content.
Unsolved Mysteries told so many compelling stories through the years that it’s virtually impossible to narrow it down to any kind of “Top 10” list or anything like that. Still, I’ll offer a few of my favorite segments to give a taste to any newcomers or remind the old-timers of just how enthralling this show could be. Personally, I never took much interest in the episodes about aliens, ghosts or the supernatural, so I won’t highlight anything in those areas. For me the most compelling stories were generally the unexplained deaths and the missing persons stories, which felt much more authentic.
A young girl is abducted from her home late one night, but signs persist that she is still alive.
Friends 'til the End (The Boys on the Tracks)
Two teenage boys in Arkansas go out hunting one night and are found dead the next day. The circumstances around their death are shrouded in mystery, leading some to believe that a major conspiracy may be at hand. This one in particular is worth watching, as it will apparently be the basis of a full motion picture in the next few years.
Hyun Jong (Cindy) Song
A Korean-American Penn State student spends Halloween night partying with friends. A friend drops her off at her apartment, and she is never seen or heard from again.
A college student is found dead in his home, and it is ruled a suicide. However, evidence mounts that a homicide and cover-up may be the real cause of death.
A teenage boy goes to a party on a Friday evening. He then goes missing, but is seen around town by an eyewitness. Three days later his dead body is discovered in a local ravine, but it is determined that he had been dead for only a short time, and an autopsy cannot determine a cause of death.
Blind River Rest Stop
Maybe one of the scariest re-enactments in the show’s history, this case tells the story of two cold-blooded murders at a secluded Canadian rest stop late one night in 1991.
Growing up in the late 80’s and ‘90s, my parents used to let me watch this show, but I’m honestly not sure why. It was—and is—one of the scariest television programs I can ever remember. It may not have had the shocking moments of a horror movie (ie. killers or monsters jumping out from behind stuff), but knowing that these REAL murderers and kidnappers were still out there was enough to give any youngster nightmares.
|Matthew McConaughey in a UM re-enactment, sporting a '90s denim vest|
One thing I really enjoy when going back to watch the show now is the distinctly ‘80s/’90s vibe that’s evident in so many episodes. The real people telling their stories and the re-enactors both have a distinctly Golden Age fashion, and there are many times when a prop or something else in the storyline will make you say “Oh yea, I remember that…” It’s a fun side-plot to the otherwise dark and mysterious re-enactments of often horrible events.
Horrible, but completely captivating.
Once I start watching Unsolved Mysteries segments on YouTube, I find it very difficult to stop. One advantage that we have over those who viewed the original UM telecasts is that we have the internet at our disposal. If you watched an original episode on NBC in the early ‘90s, a segment would grab your attention, you’d hope for resolution, and then the episode would end and that was it. You were entirely dependent on Unsolved Mysteries to provide you any updates on the cases profiled. Today, you can just throw the person’s name into a search engine and find all sorts of articles and updates. A number of fan websites have popped up as well, most notably the Sitcoms Online Message Boards where you can interact with other diehard fans of the show, get updates on any new leads in any of the cases or exchange theories with others who have put a lot of thought into them. In short, the show never stops—for better and for worse. It’s great that now you can see a case and be able to get a heck of a lot more information than just what the Unsolved Mysteries producers provide. But getting so involved can make it even more frustrating when you run into dead ends.
Probably the most frustrating types of cases on UM are the ones where everybody knows who did it, however there is no body and/or not enough evidence to press charges, and so the killer gets away with it. Probably the most egregious example of this is the case of Wendy Camp. It seems pretty clear to me that she, her daughter and her sister-in-law were the victims of foul play by her ex-husband and/or his family. Unfortunately—despite seeming like a total buffoon in the segment—her husband Chad apparently was smart enough to dispose of the body well, and without a body or any other evidence it’s impossible to file charges against him even though everyone knows he did it. The case of Jeremy Bright is another tragic example, where everybody in town seems to know who did it, but without a body, justice cannot be served.
Another frustrating aspect of Unsolved Mysteries are the situations where law enforcement is clearly negligent in its duties—either due to incompetence, or deliberately because they have some agenda. That’s a more common theme than you might expect, found in a number of segments, particularly when you research them online and hear from local people who had first-hand knowledge of the situations. It’s a valuable lesson for all of us—in the event that something terrible does happen to a loved one, don’t trust that law enforcement will do everything they can. Monitor everything yourself and don’t trust anyone to have your best interest at heart.
Watching Unsolved Mysteries really makes you appreciate some of the changes for the better in modern culture. I can’t tell you how many segments I’ve watched and thought, “Wow, this death could have been so easily prevented if the victim just had a cell phone…” Mobile phone technology is universally applauded for making our lives more convenient, but it’s also hugely valuable for enabling people to contact someone if they’re in a dangerous or vulnerable situation. Another important advancement is the development of ubiquitous surveillance technology—security cameras everywhere. In the case of Deborah Poe, it may seem crazy to a modern viewer that a convenience store that was open overnight and that was staffed only by a woman in her 20s did not have any security cameras, but that’s how things were in the ‘80s. Today, situations like that are extremely rare. DNA testing is another technology that is omni-present today that may have been extremely useful in many of the cases on UM, but that didn’t gain widespread popularity until recent years.
Also, there have been some societal changes in behavior that are for the better. In “The Orange Sock Murders”, we see the violent rape and killing of two women in their 20s who tried to hitchhike home from work. To the modern viewer it seems like these two women must have had a death wish to hitchhike at night with a strange man, however in many parts of the country in the 1980s that was just what people did. As society has become a little wiser to the habits of predators and sociopaths over the last few decades, we’ve realized that things like hitchhiking with strangers are dangerous activities and we avoid those situations.
If you’re looking to watch something legitimately scary with a Golden Age flavor, look no further than Unsolved Mysteries. The true fans watch it late at night, all alone in a dark house. Bonus points if you live in a rural or isolated area, in a house far from a population center.
Unsolved Mysteries was a long-running program that held the attention of viewers for over a decade. In the process, it was responsible for the capture of several murderers, child abductors and other criminals. In some cases it helped reunite children with their families. In other cases it helped families to find some closure on a lost child or loved one. For these valuable services, the show should be applauded.
But sadly, a majority of the cases profiled on Unsolved Mysteries through the years remain unresolved to this very day. People who went missing 20, 25, 30 years ago still remain missing today. In many cases the family members profiled on Unsolved Mysteries, desperately seeking answers about their loved ones, have moved on or passed away themselves. In some cases the search for the truth persists, now with social media and the internet as allies. But if secrets have been kept this long, chances are they may never come to light barring a deathbed confession or some miraculous recovery of a corpse. For the sake of the poor victims’ families, I hope that one day they find that type of closure and that justice is served. Until then, we can all continue watching the videos, surfing the blogs and message boards and checking Google News for updates. There’s always that glimmer of hope that one day there will be a breakthrough.
Until next time.