1987 was a banner year for television. Tabloid journalist and celebrated huckster Geraldo Rivera landed his afternoon talk show and provided a platform for heavy metal kids, pickled porn stars and nascent neo-nazis. The Fox network was the latest addition to regular programming, just a sprinkle of fresh moisture on America’s cultural landscape where the crudely animated family on the Tracey Ullman Show didn’t matter...yet. And right out of the gates, debuting January 20th on NBC and hosted by Raymond Burr, Unsolved Mysteries began it’s nearly 23-year run of scaring the shit out of an entire generation.
Unsolved Mysteries was born out of a successful limited run of specials called Missing...Have You Seen This Person? in 1986. The producers, with a small hit on their hands, fleshed their idea out to encompass various intriguing real-life cases. The first few rounds of Unsolved Mysteries also began as specials, and didn’t really pick up steam until after 1988. Veteran actors Raymond Burr and Karl Malden filled the host slot at first, but then Unsolved Mysteries found its man - Robert Stack. The weekly series was born. Stack, always in a trademark trench coat (a nod to his role as TV’s Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, no doubt) and drenched in ominous fog would introduce and narrate a segment. The variety of topics can be generalized here:
Wanted - Fugitives or persons on the lam wanted for a crime they were connected to.
Unexplained Death - Unsolved deaths and murders with no leads.
Lost Loves - Missing persons and lost loves. Life was a bitch before Google.
Legends - The full gamut of paranormal activity. Ghosts, UFOs, cryptozoology, buried
treasures and general weirdness.
Updates - Smaller segments where an earlier story would be solved. It was often thrilling
to watch handcuffed fugitives sulk in the back of cop cars while Stack laid down the skinny.
A toll-free hotline was most always given after each segment, giving amateur Sherlock Holmeses and Watsons across America the chance to offer up any info. This situates the show as a precursor to reality television, and the popularity of this device was utilized whole hog for the Death Wish -lite America’s Most Wanted, which debuted on Fox nearly a year later. There were four segments in one hour-long episode, and in its early years the real-life people involved would act out the dramatizations along with being interviewed. This often led to unintentional comedic moments, a nice balance to the creepiness that permeated the show. Later on and what would be routine, unknown and up-n-coming (Matthew McConaughey!) actors were used in the re-enactments, while the interviews with the actual people remained.
D.B. Cooper, the Roswell incident, the ghosts of the Queen Mary, the El Dorado goldmine, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and a host of other strange and mysterious anomalies were all granted airtime. Stack, with his serious voice and demeanor, did a fine job of presenting the facts. He never talked down the material and would respect the weight of the story. Stack always stood a neutral ground. There were some definite “light” segments, stories that were so outlandish and full of shit that Stack had nothing to do but inject a more whimsical tone. Special effects ranged from laughable to pretty damn good as the show progressed, and these were mostly used on the UFO segments. Often the grainy footage of the cheap film stock that was first employed almost crossed the line into BBC territory, lending it yet another layer of creepiness (I’m terrified of 70s/80s BBC television, but that’s another article for another time).
But where the real terror laid was the music, specifically the opening theme and the Update theme. The opening theme was an eerie synth bombast, and each key sounded like Pazuzu laying a cold finger on your bones. It was dark and foreboding, and to this day it’ll trigger night terrors in the right people. The Update theme was an extension of the opening theme, but this time it sounded like a yowling cat stalking it’s prey. The Update music, used in conjunction with the menacing pencil sketches of the perpetrators that would slowly morph into their mug shots, would often caused me to hide behind a chair until it hit commercials.
Unsolved Mysteries was highly popular, but it’s success started to decline in the mid 90s. The show was moved from it’s staple Wednesday night to Friday nights. The show was outright canceled in 1997, only to be resurrected by CBS later that same year. By this time Robert Stack was in obvious failing health, his signature voice was almost diminished. Oddly, the CBS suits brought in B-list actress Virginia Madsen to co-host. The show was hitting rock bottom, and Lifetime cable picked it up, playing both old and new episodes until Stack’s death in 2003. The hotline was still in effect, as well as a website, with info still slowly leaking in. The show was brought back to life once again with Chicago ex-cop turned actor Dennis Farina, this time on Spike TV. Like almost every other show on that despicable channel, Unsolved Mysteries went through the hyper-editing grinder and eyeball bleeding graphics machine, even going as far as replacing the iconic chilly theme with a goddamn nu-metal version. The less we say about this far inferior version of the show, which ended in 2010, the better.
The show is available on DVD, organized in box sets by theme, a wise move on their part. I can attest to having a sleepless night after watching the “Bizarre Murders” edition. The show lives on in the internet era, there are wikis and forums where people are still sharing info and trying to crack some of these cases. Unsolved Mysteries was highly entertaining, informative, and spine-tingling television, and I thank it for feeding a healthy imagination while I was growing up.
Unsolved Mysteries Theme Song
The Circleville Letters
Henry Rollins/Joe Cole
The Allagash Abductions
Queen Mary Ghosts
Dakota Double Death