When you’re a kid, it usually doesn’t take much to scare you a bit. Dark rooms, the threat of bedroom-dwelling monsters, strangers bearing candy and/or a ride to the candy store…all things a young mind will often label as Things You Need To Stay Away From At All Costs Or You’ll Probably Die. For me, it was bees, but that’s another story.
Unfortunately, the seminal television program Unsolved Mysteries has contained all the topics mentioned above, and an abundance of other, decidedly more peculiar elements. Seen by many as a more spine-chilling version of America’s Most Wanted, the version of Unsolved Mysteries we all know and fear officially debuted in 1987 with former Untouchables star Robert Stack as the infamous original host many still see as the true helmsman to this day. What set the show apart from a program like Wanted was a unique combination of elements that made for an unforgettable television experience and a night where you would most likely not sleep at all.
The primary focus of Mysteries is/was self-explanatory: real-life traumatic events that, up to that point, hadn’t yet reached a conclusion. The majority of stories ran the usual gamut of murders, kidnappings and other serious topics, all of which were presented through the use of professionally shot re-enactments and interviews with the actual people involved. The show was also quite clear in its plea to viewers to assist in solving these dilemmas, and each story would end with a final recap of the key individuals involved and a phone number to call if anyone could shed further information on the matter at hand. Furthermore, Mysteries wasn’t afraid to give viewers updates on old stories that had finally been resolved, especially if the viewing audience played a role.
Though the show may sound like you’re average run-of-the-mill reality crime drama, believe me when I say that the surface has merely been scratched. The presentation of the stories, the narration, the music and Mr. Stack himself all helped to take the show into full-fledged X-Files territory nearly every time Unsolved Mysteries graced your living room TV set.
The late Robert Stack was fortunate to have a long, illustrious acting career by the time he shuffled off this mortal coil in 2003, one that includes acclaimed performances in films like The High and the Mighty, Written on the Wind (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod) and his memorable take on Eliot Ness on the hit series The Untouchables. However, as host of Unsolved Mysteries, he arguably created one of his most interesting characters, utilizing his distinctive baritone vocal delivery and ghost-like presence that served to both narrate the re-enacted segments and the wraparound bookends before and after said segments. Depending on the story, Stack’s setting would usually match the premise (if the story was about a murder in a library, for example, he’d not surprisingly be situated amongst shelves of books), but more often than not the show would initially open and close with Stack, almost always clad in a trench coat, trotting down a dimly-lit hallway or alley accompanied by a wealth of atmospheric smoke. It didn’t matter if Stack was about to shed light on a decades-old hit-and-run or a family searching for an ancient tax document (I’m certain they did this one once), these segments always helped to set a highly ominous tone, almost unnecessarily so, to each and every scene of each and every episode.
To make matters slightly worse, Stack’s naturally husky voice helped to elevate the quality from moody to creepy-it literally seemed impossible for him to say anything without sounding like a mix between Kathleen Turner and The Angel of Death. Granted, this made for some great Hollywood-quality suspense during many of the re-enactments, but even when talking about something less dramatic or giving a heartwarming update to a story about a brother and sister re-united after 50 years, Stack still somehow managed to make them sound frightening as hell.
The music of Unsolved Mysteries was a character all its own. The brainchild of virtuosos Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin, Mysteries’ main theme, played during the intro to each episode as it’s accompanied by a montage of scenes and unnecessarily intense shots of the show’s logo flying directly into the camera, utilized synthesized drum beats and heavy use of the keyboard to bring together normal instrumental sounds (strings, piano, bass) and run them through the Terror Blender with the setting on high. As a whole, Mysteries’ musical cornucopia went far beyond some of the most beloved horror movie scores, eclipsing such classics heard in such films as Halloween and Friday the 13th, nearly managing to establish a genre all its own. When combined with Spooky Stack and his penchant for hanging around places where it appears someone was killed five minutes earlier, the show has now managed to shift into the fast lane of fear and permanently affix the pedal to the metal.
Plus, if you thought the ride was over once each story began to wrap up, you’d be sadly mistaken, I’m sorry to say. Now comes the time when we’re told what the homicidal maniac/kidnapper/cult leader/abusive husband looks like, his last known whereabouts, and a picture of what the individual looked like at the time, as well as a digitally aged photo to represent what they might look like at the time the show aired (if a substantial amount of time had passed since the incident took place). The problem is that digital aging technology has, in my opinion, never been perfect, and the results usually end up looking like what the humans looked like in the original Toy Story. Not realistic, and always somewhat chilling to look at. These are the photos Linda Blair used as inspiration for her role in The Exorcist, I swear. Combining this with the fact that most stories were never updated in the years following the original airing of each episode, it would rarely take long for the audience to realize that said homicidal maniac/kidnapper/cult leader/abusive husband is still out there, probably looking horrifying.
Yes, the bulk of Unsolved Mysteries was designed to raise awareness of serious happenings and see if the audience can play the role of detective, but where the show really managed to push some buttons was in the way they delved into the supernatural/paranormal. Supposedly true stories of bizarre hauntings, ghostly encounters and even demonic possession took full advantage of the show's tone, seemingly tailor-made for stories like these. However, when the show decided to discuss the world of UFOs, that's when the adrenaline kicked in and you realize the room's lights probably shouldn't be off. I can recall many a time where I'd worriedly peek over my shoulder as Mysteries discussed the Allagash Abductions (four men allegedly abducted during a fishing excursion) or the Valentich Disappearance (a pilot vanishes after an apparent run-in with an unidentified aircraft), convinced an alien would be staring me right in my twelve-year old face. Plus, even though it’s understandably not too difficult to give a synopsis of the Bermuda Triangle, the legend of Bigfoot, or some British Columbia sea monster an air of extreme concern, Unsolved Mysteries didn’t help in making the overall viewing experience any less uncomfortable.
I mean, c’mon, the show even managed to talk about miraculous events, like unexplained healings or whatever became of Noah's Ark as if they were reading the novelization of Saw 4.
It could be easy to say I'm nothing more than gripped by fear of the original run Unsolved Mysteries, and will thusly never watch it again. The thing is, please recall my opening statements, in which I specifically mentioned the unforgettable nature of the program-it certainly left an impression, one that has allowed me to remember in great detail the things that made this show a standout in the annals of great television. Thought the show does live on in a new format with a host that isn’t Robert Stack, history has yet to produce anything of the caliber that Unsolved Mysteries used to be, and for that I'm grateful.
Simply because I'd be too scared to watch it.