TV That Ruined My Childhood: Unsolved Mysteries.
NBC’s documentary style crime program did more than collar criminals, it terrified children. So a win-win.
Amazon Prime’s latest offering, Lore, was nominally inspired by the long running (and technically still running!) crime show Unsolved Mysteries. While Lore failed to make my spine tingle, it did shake loose some terrifying memories I had of growing up watching Robert Stack describing crime and unexplained phenomena.
His gruff voice may have been meant to intimidate crooks, but it worked like a siren’s song on my young mind. As much as I was terrified of the cutthroats, murderers and aliens that filled each episode, I was transfixed by the man in the trench coat. He starred me down like a mongoose stares down a cobra, insuring that I would spend my Wednesday nights convinced every little noise was a psychopath who was going to chop me up and feed me to Bigfoot.
Unsolved Mysteries went through many incarnations over the years. It started out as special programming on NBC, hosted by Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame. Strong initial ratings led to the show becoming a weekly program that aired every Wednesday night, hosted by another gruff TV lawdog, Robert Stack. The show lasted ten years on NBC, even spawning a short lived spin-off called Final Justice. A change of time slot ultimately did the show in, causing ratings to tank and the show to wander from NBC to CBS and then to other smaller channels like Lifetime and SPIKE. As of today, it still maintains a presences online through a website, and on You-Tube. It still takes cold cases and occasionally solves them. Not bad for a TV documentary from the 1980’s.
The mysteries that were unsolved on the program really ran the gamut. Unsolved Mysteries would air four or five segments that were about everything from wanted fugitives, long lost relatives, missing persons, and paranormal phenomena. The show centered around dramatic reenactment of these cases, with a pretty decent budget for a TV show of the era. Especially chilling were the re-enactments of either murder cases or alien abductions. This show was Fire in the Sky and The X-Files before those became famous, and it purported to be true. That was the freakiest thing. A guy who knocked over a liquor store had equal billing with Sasquatch or invaders from another galaxy.
As the show went on, you started to really see more of the fanciful stuff. If it wasn’t a murder story it was usually about aliens. People had gotten a bit jaundiced with the police reality concept (Fox was currently killing it with COPS) and had grown a taste for the paranormal (once again, Fox was killing it with The X-Files.) To keep pace, Unsolved Mystery grew to resemble a tabloid at the super market: either shocking crime that would make your toes curl or lurid accounts of monsters and little green men. That was were the line blurred and pre-teen nightmares began.
Everything about Unsolved Mysteries was meant to grab you by the lapels and shake you. Robert Stack looked like his face had been carved out of wood with a hatchet. His voice sounded like an ultimatum delivered over brandished guns. He started each show in a knock-up of crime alley, walking through a wall of smoke to address the camera. My left hand to god, I thought each time he came out that he must have been in that alley slapping stoolies around for info or gunning down Bruce Wayne’s parents. He was intimidating as all fuck.
The music of the show was nails on a chalkboard. The theme was like the James Bond theme – quiet repetition that suddenly erupted into brass horns like gunfire. The music that separated the segments was a creepy synthesizer loop like the kind John Carpenter used in his horror movies such as Halloween. Whenever a case got solved or a viewer called with a clue, the shows music shouted at you as a graphic flashed on the screen announcing the juicy news. If it wasn’t so damn enthralling, I would say what they did on that show should have been illegal.
Trust No One.
The final straw for me as a kid was that everything on the show was presented as the gospel according to John Q. Law. These were real crimes with real criminals who really got caught and really went to jail. Often the reenactments featured the actual victims or family. How on earth was I supposed to know truth from dramatization when it all walked and talked like the real McCoy. And that brings us to aliens.
As a young kid, I was fascinated with the paranormal. I read my library dry on the subject, children’s and adult’s section. I could tell you the coordinates where Flight 19 went missing over the Bermuda Triangle, how many saucers were reported by Barney and Betty Hill (who lived in my home state!), and I could explain why the Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot wasn’t an ape. I lived and breathed this stuff…and now suddenly a show about true crime was reporting on alien abductions and missing planes with the same steely resolve as a bank robbery. It must mean that stuff was real, too! And that meant…every single car-headlight that swept across my bedroom at night was aliens looking to whisk me away for gruesome experiments.
Unsolved Mystery, The Legacy.
I have a fond spot in my heart for Unsolved Mysteries, even after all of the sleepless nights. Looking back at it, it was probably in the top five of my most watched shows. I never missed an episode of Brisco County Jr. I never missed an episode of The X-Files. I certainly never missed an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Sure, it’s pretty easy to see in hindsight that for all the good it accomplished, it really was the television version of the salacious rags touting alien conspiracies at the checkout line, but I still loved it.
It was quite a surprise to me that not only was Unsolved Mysteries being heavily rotated on the streaming services, complete with actual updates on cases that had been solved since the episode aired, but that UM was once again collaring baddies with the help of You-Tube and the internet. I never watched the latter day seasons when Stack left the beat, but I’m glad it was there to scare the crap out of other kids like me. One of these days I might just check out some of those episodes…
On second thought, maybe not.