What You Are About to See Is Not a News Broadcast
I’m permanently scarred by Unsolved Mysteries, my favorite thing ever committed to film. I mean that literally: thanks to Unsolved Mysteries, I have a scar — a near-perfect circle above my left eyebrow.
The year would have been ’87 or ’88, and I was seven-going-on-eight, a second grader in Mrs. Atkins’s class. I think it was autumn, although it might have been spring; it’s often impossible to tell the seasons apart in northeast Florida.
As television’s creepiest theme song blared from our boxy set, I was attempting to shelter under a blanket. Whenever an eerie twist of music or spooky turn of Robert Stack’s sonorous, grave voice seeped through the speakers, my terror would skyrocket if my back was blanket-bare. Picture Cole’s bedroom tent in The Sixth Sense, except without the relics and only marginally more effective.
This night, however, my attempts to burrow into safety weren’t working; my head kept dead-ending into still-folded sections of blanket that covered one body part but exposed another. As I frantically tried to get myself situated, like a kid who keeps missing the sheet’s head and arm holes in his DIY Halloween ghost costume, an unchewed nail on my hand sliced through the air. With one swift cut, it amputated a giant chicken pox scab on my face, right above the head of my left eyebrow.
I wailed like a bad actor playing a young murder victim, mourning an imperfect beauty that was now even more flawed. It was one of those Before and After moments in my life, the kind that are more devastating the younger you are and the sillier the event: I was convinced that I had uglified myself forever.
“Will it leave a scar?!?’ I cried, fears of ghosts and murderers and con ladies who would trick me into giving them thousands to cast out demons temporarily suspended. My mother lied to calm me a fraction. More soothing was the start of the program itself; for a solid hour, I forgot about my face and lost myself in UFOs, ghosts, fraud and conspiracy and murder cases. Like a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese, Unsolved Mysteries was the comfort food I needed to forget my sorrows. Thirty years later, it still is.
For anyone unlucky enough to have missed the greatest footage ever filmed, Unsolved Mysteries was a weekly series that ran from 1987 to 2010 on various networks, starting with NBC before moving to CBS, then to Lifetime before ending its run on Spike. Its golden age was the first run on NBC, from 1987 to 1997. Each Wednesday night broadcast began with these words, printed in white on a black screen and read aloud by a somber voice:
This is a program about unsolved mysteries. Whenever possible, the actual family members and police officials have participated in recreating the events. What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.
On the face of it, there’s nothing ominous about those words, except perhaps the subtle warning that you may be exposed to some bad amateur acting from the “actual family members and police officials.” But, still: it’s clear that what’s about to come on your screen is out of the ordinary. These are unsolved mysteries: no spoilers here. The show is “not a news broadcast,” a qualifier that has the effect of making the whole affair less reputable but also less stilted, less predictable.
Come to think of it, the phrase “[w]henever possible” has a sense of foreboding about it. When is it not possible? What’s happened to those actual family members and police officials to make them unavailable for a star turn on a primetime network show? (Back then, primetime network shows still commanded respect.) What commitments could they not possibly reschedule? A swim meet? The championship game? An anniversary dinner? A(nother) death in the family?? Or, are they dead? If so, was it natural causes? Or were they silenced by people who don’t want the truth to get out? Maybe . . . they were abducted by aliens???????
The basic Unsolved Mysteries format was simple and effective: hour-long episodes (minus commercials) with 3–5 segments a piece. The various categories that prefaced each segment in giant, golden sans-serif font (behind that iconic black background lined with six purple horizontal stripes) displayed the show’s range: ‘Suspicious Deaths,’ ‘Fraud,’ ‘Unexplained Death,’ ‘Murder,’ ‘Wanted,’ ‘Lost Loves,’ ‘Sci-Med’ (usually miraculous recoveries from critical injuries, thanks to a prayer circle or divine visitation), ‘The Investigators,’ ‘Final Appeal,’ ‘Lost Heirs,’ ‘Missing Persons,’ and the real draw: ‘The Unexplained.’ Each episode would include at least one paranormal feature and one ‘Lost Loves,’ in which family members would search for — surprise — missing loved ones: usually blood relatives lost through adoption.
If you want a cross-section of the 1980’s and 90’s cultural zeitgeist, just watch an original Robert Stack-hosted episode of Unsolved Mysteries, recently resurrected thanks to Amazon Prime (to ecstatic cheers from far more people than myself, I swear). Take the ‘Lost Loves’ segments. Thanks to far healthier attitudes about children born out-of-wedlock, we don’t have vast numbers of adopted adults seeking to be reunited with their birth mothers and siblings, or vice versa, today. Even when the episodes aired, you could sense a far more forgiving attitude towards mothers forced by furious and shamed parents to sign away their babies, as well as increased recognition that (usually) well-intentioned social services were wrong to split up impoverished families struggling to get by in the Depression.
In the 80’s and 90’s, moreover, everything was blamed on Satanic cults, from the Son of Sam murders (a somewhat convincing segment, actually) to just about any suspicious death involving younger adults (less convincing). An example of the latter segment is an early one about the death of a Bay Area teenager at San Francisco’s Land’s End named Kurt McFall. After the authorities ruled his apparent fall off the cliffs a suicide, his father asked Unsolved Mysteries to broadcast the case, which he believed was a murder involving people his son had started hanging out with in the last years of his life.
And just who were these people? First, you had the Society for Creative Anachronism, which, according to its website, has been “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe” since its founding in 1966. In other words — and in the segment — the SCA is a bunch of young and not-so-young adults who like to dress up in medieval costumes, swing fake swords, and bang fake shields around. (The DIY costumes filmed in the segment are simultaneously impressive and adorable, like really good tinfoil origami.)
Then, there was the leader of a pagan worship group that Kurt also became involved with: a grey-haired middle-aged man with a debatable mustache and a bored monotone who called himself Caradoc, after a Welsh tribal chieftain in Roman Britain. Thanks to UM’s production values and mandate to make everything normal seem as unnatural as possible, “Caradoc” came off as completely sinister, his every action made shadowy and suspicious, when he was closer to nerdishly weird.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Kurt’s grieving father insist, citing debatable evidence, that there’s no way that his son could have deliberately or inadvertently caused his own death. One of Kurt’s longtime friends even states that “these types of organizations don’t make threats; they make actions.” (He’s right about the SCA, although not in the way he thinks he is.) I cannot say for sure that Kurt McFall died of a suicide, an accident, or foul play — and, as many posters about the case on the Sitcoms Online message board attest, it’s possible that Caradoc was involved somehow. But I can say that the attitudes to the members of the SCA and the pagan group were rooted in a fear of anything non-conformist — think attitudes towards the Beatniks in the 50’s and 60’s — rather than any concrete evidence that these people were dangerous and thirsted for blood.
The Satanic cult hysteria, however, is just one remnant of a sometimes happier (for some) yet often more oppressive (for most) time. When I was a child, the ‘Unexplained’ segments on UFOs and ghosts were my favorite. I wanted to believe so badly in these supernatural events that I think I actually did — or learned how to believe as long as I didn’t question my lack of reasoning. Back then, like now, everything was a government conspiracy. Our shadow cabals, however, had nothing to do with faking school shootings and blowing up our own buildings in the name of foreign terror and everything to do with Roswell, NM and Little Green Men.
A few years after September 11th, I was studying in Scotland and attended a talk about the rising importance of angels as a symbol and metaphor after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In making his point, the academic pointed out that UFO sightings had plummeted following 9/11. We humans always look for proof that the powerful are hiding things from the powerless — a symptom of the deep-rooted desire to believe that random events have a purpose and a design, to refuse to believe that one Lee Harvey Oswald or a bunch of nobodies from Saudi Arabia could launch national grief and global chaos. When I rewatch UM segments on the Rendlesham Forest incident or the Kecksburg incident (“incident” being code for UFO sighting), I long for a time when the scariest theories involved flying saucers and wide-eyed grey beings with slender fingers and oversized heads.
If that explains why Unsolved Mysteries is comfort food for my brain and psyche now, it does little to explain why I loved it so much at the time. At best, I can attribute it to a combination of factors. I love a thrill, as long as it’s a story. (Force me on any roller coaster faster than Space Mountain, and I’m telling my loved ones how much they mean to me so that they know before I end up muscle and bone putty on the ground.) I love a mystery, the magnetic pull of the unknown and the possibility it could be solved. And, even before my parents divorced and I developed a debilitating chronic illness, I had always felt a kinship with the darker side of life. I still remember sobbing with horror when a friend of my mother’s told us how darkly awful she had found Silence of the Lambs — which I had recently seen and which remains one of my top five favorite movies — because I was convinced I was some morally bankrupt Satanist for having loved it.
Still, how many other kids loved those very same things and never got into this show with the fervor of a person who has just found religion? I suppose my adoration is as much an unsolved mystery as the show that inspired it. Or, to paraphrase Robert Stack said as he closed out a segment on the Shroud of Turin, perhaps I’m missing the point: for true believers in Unsolved Mysteries like me, it’s simply a matter of faith.
Next time, on Unabashed Unsolved Mysteries Fan: taking a closer look at ground zero for UM’s UFO segments, the Roswell segment.