Tuesday, 20 January 2015

EVERYDAY STRANGE - Unsolved Mysteries

"What you are about to see is not  
a news broadcast."

On Tuesday, January 20, 1987, the magazine-style show Unsolved Mysteries first aired on NBC, as a special, hosted by Raymond Burr. The special and its subsequent sequels proved so popular that it was developed into a weekly series, hosted by Robert Stack. For anybody who was a single digit age when it first aired, chances are that the theme song (composed by Gary Malkin, see video above) still sends a chill down your spine. I know the X-Files theme is usually listed as the "it" spooky television theme, but Unsolved Mysteries has me running to my blanket, cardboard and pillow fort to this day.

Robert Stack [Image Source]
The show lasted an incredible 14 seasons on the air after a scrappy existence. In spite of still solid ratings, NBC cancelled the show in 1997 citing the desire for a "younger audience". It was revived by CBS for four or five more seasons before being cancelled in 1999. It was revived again in 2001 by Lifetime, but only lasted a little over a year before going off the air in September of 2002. The show was exhumed a final time in 2008 by Spike TV, this time hosted by Dennis Farina until the run ended in 2010. No new episodes have been developed since that time.

But the real grist of the show was aired during those initial few years. Ghosts, UFOs, people disappearing without a trace, all narrated by the stoic Robert Stack, the show was a pivotal feature of my childhood. I remember when a woman disappeared from my hometown of Richmond, BC and her story aired on Unsolved Mysteries. It was a Big Deal in town, let me tell you. After the show was aired her body was found in a strawberry patch across the street from the 7-11 on 3 and Blundell. That may not be exactly how the story played out, but that's the way I remember it.

That field is apartments now, I doubt any of the residents know about what happened there. Aside from being a sad story, it had a deeper effect on me as a child. Because the tragedy was so literally "close to home", and undoubtedly because of the way it was presented, eerie music and all, the story showed me that Unsolved Mysteries can happen in my own backyard. That the familiar didn't need to be mundane. That under every bush may lie a monster, even though I may walk by that bush every day on my way home from school.

I remember one day when I was 7 years old I rode my bike outside the neighborhood block. I wasn't supposed to and I knew it. The place I rode to was the 7-11 on 3 & Blundell. This was as far away from home as I had ever been on my own. I remember because when I went inside the store I got myself a slurpee and a copy of Marvel Universe Update '89 #5 because it had Mr. Sinister and Sabretooth on the cover (see picture).

I suppose there's no shame in admitting now that the reason I went to that 7-11 as opposed to say, the one on 3 & Williams which was closer to my house was because I wanted to see a dead body. It's stupid logic, but well, if something happened once, it could happen again, and I wanted to be there to see it. But standing across the street with my slurpee in hand and comic book folded in my back pocket, it all became a little too real. All of a sudden, dead bodies could mind their own business thank you very much, and I'd mind my own. I'd already seen enough Unsolved Mysteries by that point to imagine what could happen next if my curiosity got the better of me.

By the time I was in Grade 8 that overgrown lot had developed a reputation among local teens. There was a path in the grass you could take to get through to the other side of the block. The grass was between six and eight feet high by then and it was the home of at least one homeless guy who it was said would attack anyone cutting through his territory. Some of my friends had actually been spit on walking through there, who knows, maybe if he'd have caught them he'd have done a lot worse. It might even have demanded a new Unsolved Mysteries episode.

There are so many segments from the series that traumatized me for life. The most memorable of them all was about a family who lived in a haunted farm house. One of the daughters told the story that one night, she was sleeping on her side, facing away from the wall into the room, when she woke up, opened her eyes and saw a shadowy figure standing next to her bed looking down on her. Any attempt for me to explain the level of terror this story put me through pales to what it actually did, but I'll just say that to this day I sleep facing the wall and until recently, on the wall side of the bed.

In another segment, I learned what fear is: the Men in Black. I don't remember the details of it, but the gist of the segment was that if you report seeing a UFO, be prepared to get a visit from vaguely human looking men in dark sunglasses and black suits. My imagination took the scenario a couple steps further however, inferring from the segment that it didn't matter whether you reported the sighting or not and that you might just get disappeared after a visit from the Men in Black. This was long before the Will Smith movie came out, by the way.

So, when I saw my first UFO in the night skies above Glenbrook Drive when I was 11, I could have dropped dead from fright about what was going to happen next. But growing up didn't help much. When I was 21 years old I saw the same type of UFO in the night skies while in the next block over from the house I grew up in. I was scared shitless that night and the following night and the night after that ...

And just so you don't think your old pal LK Ultra has lost his remaining marbles, I don't believe the UFO's I saw were piloted by "alien visitors" or even piloted at all for that matter. They were remarkably similar in behavior, I just couldn't identify what they were, they might have been balloons, Asian lanterns or ball lightning for all I know, but it didn't matter, because Unsolved Mysteries taught from a very young age to BE AFRAID, and to BE VERY AFRAID.

As someone who at least tries to write horror stories I've often thought about how the hell do you actually scare people? Invariably I think back to Unsolved Mysteries as my touchstone. It's the scariest program I've seen, or ever will see, almost certainly because of the impressionable age I was when it first came on air. At this point, a good DVD collection would be vastly superior to the "best of" selections that are available today, it might be a bit unwieldy but one is long overdue.


Here's a mystery for you: where did Matthew McConaughey get his big acting break? "That's easy," I can hear you say, "it was Dazed and Confused." But you're wrong, it was Unsolved Mysteries. Read about this and 26 other useless bits of fascinating trivia at this location.


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