When I was a child the scariest thing on television was Unsolved Mysteries. Each week Robert Stack came into our homes for forty-four minutes to explain murders and rapes in brutal detail with the help of “dramatic reenactments” before letting us know that the person (or persons) responsible were still on the loose. I never felt less safe than during the commercial breaks following an announcement that someone who was removing people’s heads as a hobby could be in my area and that I should “be on the lookout” for the most generic description of a human being imaginable. It was amidst the Crystal Pepsi ads when the dread that had been slathered onto my eyeballs and crammed into my ears could slowly seep into the core of my brain’s fear center. But Stack didn’t just talk about cop killers in a robbery gone wrong or jealous boyfriends jamming screwdrivers into the faces of the women they once loved. Sometimes an episode would change gears and give you a bone chilling tale about a mystical haunting or swamp monster. I remember watching a segment about a family where the mom was psychic and she had a ghost as a best friend. The mom, named Heidi Wyrick, knew the ghost only as Gordy and described him as a kindly, older gentleman. Then, before you knew it, a totally different ghost began startling her in every single hallway the house had. She even verified the identity of both ghosts by looking through old obituaries. Then, one morning, she awoke with scratches on her face and the mystery of those scratches went totally unsolved.
With tales like that, it isn’t difficult to see why the show was so popular. My Aunt Dorothy would put it on like clockwork whenever I was over at her house. I’d spend the day running round pretending that I was Popeye and eating orange slice candy until my little body inevitably gave out and I was forced to recoup my strength in front of the television. So, whenever she flipped over, I was already completely hypnotized by old Warner Brothers’ cartoons or reruns of Knight Rider. Combine that with the fact that I only sat about eleven inches away from the screen and you can begin to imagine the sort of intense physiological stranglehold Unsolved Mysteries had on me. Before the show even opens you get hit with a title card warning you that the following program contains scary and disturbing images that may not be suitable for younger viewers. Other introductions warned you that everything you were about to see is a real account of actual events but that it’s not a news broadcast. Then it warned you, again, that it was scary before the haunted synthesizer warmed up, the logo came on screen, and Stack gave you a rundown on each of the mysteries that would be helping pure fear create the acid necessary to dissolve your stomach lining.
Even the upbeat mysteries would still scare my pants off because they’d start playing that terrifying music. I recall an episode where a mom in Michigan read a passage from the Bible about angels and her daughter simultaneously didn’t fall into the Grand Canyon. While it seems like that shouldn’t have been scary (or even broadcast-worthy), Unsolved Mysteries refused to play anything other than it’s signature nightmare fuel of a theme song as Robert Stack recounted the events in the most ominous voice he could muster. I watched episodes on Bigfoot’s whereabouts, UFO sightings, pirate treasure locations, and even one about Champ (New York’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster). Stack was unwavering in his scary professionalism and did nothing to indicate that a story was anything other than totally authentic and plausible. One woman’s hazy account on how she might have seen a Skunk Ape in the woods was presented identically to any number of missing persons cases or serial murders. Due to this consistency in tone, each mystery made me the same amount of terrified.
That is until the show started solving the shit out of mysteries. I’m not one-hundred percent sure what was going on with policing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but that show helped solve tons of crimes. It also reunited estranged families and even proved Area 51 existed before the government finally acknowledged it. Stack was always encouraging everyone to “help solve a mystery.” However if you had information on a satanic murderer or Nazi war-criminal hiding in your apartment building, your only option was writing it in. Yet, despite this inexpediency, over half of the crimes on the show eventually ended up being solved. What I saw as a weekly opportunity for childhood trepidation and others might have considered a guilty pleasure, ended up being something with the capacity to do good in the world. That wound up being the whole point of the show. Like most things that are scary (black holes, the spooky neighbor from Home Alone, socialized medicine), Unsolved Mysteries was just misunderstood. After I realized that, I didn’t bother being frightened anymore.