Murder and mayhem. Ghostly apparitions. Alien abductions. Robert Stack in a trenchcoat...never, ever blinking. I want to marry Unsolved Mysteries.
Debuting in 1987 and lasting through several incarnations (including a couple of stupid ones), it was Unsolved Mysteries' first few years that fans remember most fondly. In the sea of thirty-minute sitcoms and sixty-minute melodramas that owned our TV sets in the late '80s, try to fit in this square peg: A show focused on bizarre murders, UFO sightings, and on particularly lucky Wednesday nights, the Loch Ness Monster. With a straightshooting motif that never felt particularly sensationalized, even its most preposterous segments seemed totally believable. (They even made me slightly buy into that one about a psychic who gained his powers after being struck by lightning...triggering an otherworldly visit to the celestial home of glowing angel people...who then showed him glimpses of a hundred future events by opening a series of magical briefcases in some idiotic near-death parody of Deal or No Deal. But only slightly.)
Unsolved Mysteries had its share of feelgood stories and happy endings, but that isn't how the series made its mark. No, people watched Unsolved Mysteries because getting creeped out is a big old bag of secret joy. The people behind this show were the masters of creeping you out. As if the true crimes and maybe-true supernatural events weren't freaky enough in plain facts, the way they were presented was guaranteed to get my ten-year-old ass hiding under a Snoopy blanket, every time. From Stack's haunting voice (he could rattle off his favorite condiments and still send men into tears), to the soul-destroying synthy music, to the insane overacting of the amateurs hired for the reenactments, Unsolved Mysteries was downright unsettling without ever really seeming like it was trying to be. On the other hand, it's hard to argue that they weren't trying just a little, otherwise Robert Stack wouldn't have been telling us so many critical details while standing in front of battle-damaged mausoleums at four o' clock in the fucking morning.
I had a record-setting number of irrational fears throughout my childhood. I blame this show. It taught me that good people could be get murdered simply by parking too far away from a shopping mall's entrance. That investigating a peculiar noise in the backyard could lead to an alien abduction. That placing a classified ad is an invitation for a serial killer to come knocking on the front door. I still can't look through a window without expecting some bogeyman to hop up with Rambo's knife.
In celebration of the show that turned a generation into spineless tiptoers, surrender your sense of safety to the seven scariest segments in Unsolved Mysteries history!
Summary: Random Family X finds a videocassette on the side of the road. They take it home, reinforcing that nobody can spot an abandoned videocassette and not take it home. Instead of the expected Hollywood blockbuster or slimy porn, they're treated to several minute scene of a house burning to the ground, demonically narrated by the person who set the fire.
Thoughts: I was a pretty young when this segment aired, and it did a number on me. I don't think anything in the world had scared me so thoroughly, not even that scene from The Fly where Jeff Goldblum throws up on Twinkies. The video of the burning house, apparently shot from the darkness of a nearby woods, would've been eerie enough. With the narration, it was utterly horrifying. Speaking obtuse lines ("LOOK AT IT, OMAR.") with an intentionally demonic voice, Unsolved Mysteries doesn't just present this as the work of a demented arsonist, but as the work of a SATANIC demented arsonist. The worst kind! (There was some oddball paraphernalia found with the tape -- such as a ceramic decorative skull, which to this day remains the true calling card of any legitimate devil worshipper.)
There were creepier segments on Unsolved Mysteries, but the difference here is that what you saw was real. This footage shown from the tape was no reenactment: Real house, real fire, real Lucifer doing the voice-over.
While the "UPDATE" added to the video below wasn't a part of the original segment, the big revelation will come as no surprise: This was really just the work of some bored, punk kids, who burned down an unoccupied home for kicks. It's still a big time crime, but it doesn't pack quite as much punch as a nomadic Satanist setting houses on fire while old ladies slept inside.
PS: The music accompanying those Unsolved Mysteries "UPDATES" used to torment me, and not just because it was typically the cue for declassified footage of a found corpse. I'm saying, the music itself is scary. It's the kind of music that'd play in some bad old video game when you were running out of time to complete a puzzle. I hate it.
When I watch this segment now, the arsonist's narration seems more stupid than creepy, and clearly reads as an idiot kid just messing around in a really stupid way. But when I was young and impressionable, this was powerful stuff that kept me awake for far too many nights. I never found out who "Omar" was, but I knew he had horns. :(
Summary: Matthew Chase moves to Los Angeles with a few friends. He then goes missing, and the only clues to his whereabouts are left in an suspicious trail of ATM machine visits on the night of his disappearance...including one with a surveillance camera nearby. When that last part comes to light, the guy doing the score punches eighty-five keys on his piano simultaneously to guarantee maximum fear.
Thoughts: I got into Unsolved Mysteries because I loved anything having to do with ghosts, monsters and space aliens. But those aren't the segments that stuck with me. The "true crime" stories were ten times as horrifying. The crimes differed and the victims sometimes didn't lose more than their wallets, but the takeaway was always the same: No matter how normal your life, no matter how normal your neighborhood...bad people are out there, and they're gonna get you.
When this story debuted, it was only classified as a "Missing Persons" segment. Later, one of those infamous "UPDATES" was tagged on, adding a whole new layer of terror: Matthew Chase's body was found, shot to death.
That makes the key shot of the original segment all the scarier. A record of his bank activity showed that on the night Chase vanished, he made a string of visits to random ATM machines. At one of these machines, a security camera got a few shots of Matthew...and at the last second, someone standing right beside Matthew. The mysterious person is presumed to be his thief and eventual murderer. Between the situation, the eerie grain of the security tape and the shadowy shot of the presumed killer, those few seconds of Unsolved Mysteries felt like hours. Knowing that the case still hasn't been solved makes it all the more haunting.
Summary: After purchasing a used bunk bed, the Tallmans' home is invaded by a horde of evil spirits, who torment the house's occupants in the form of witches, fog, disembodied voices, ghastly telekinesis and fiery illusions. House's occupants are not pleased.
I'll explain the bunk bed part in a minute.
Thoughts: Most of the show's "ghost segments" seem pretty silly in retrospect. When you strip away the reenactments and just listen to the "facts," you're left with a lot of obvious bullshit -- like ghosts who can ring dinner bells and jiggle cans of change, but use their powers to do nothing but those things. The reenactments are generally good, but the on-camera witness/victim testimonies are...well, they're usually from the exact types of people who you'd expect to yap about ghosts on national television.
The team behind Unsolved Mysteries was great at making everything -- and especially, everyone -- seem legitimate. With careful wording and editing, all of the obvious holes in the stories were effectively masked, and it could take several viewings for someone to realize that they were being spoonfed a load of crap.
I had to include at least one ghost story on a list of the show's scariest segments, and common sense dictated that I choose one with a great "ghost shot." Such ghoulish images were par for the course on Unsolved Mysteries, providing the series with many of its most frightening visuals. In "Tallman's Ghost," there are no such visuals. In the reenactments, you never really see the specters. Even without them, it's still the show's scariest ghost tale.
As the story goes, the family picked up a bunk bed that had some baaaad feelings attached to it, because once it came in the house, the Tallmans were almost constantly under siege by evil spirits. Some of their claims are dumb -- in one instance, they blame the family's three young children being sick on GHOSTS, because it's apparently unimaginable that three kids living in the same house would get sick at the same time. Others were more undeniably attributable to pissed off spirits -- such as radios turning their dials by themselves, and garages going on fire only to return to normal moments later. Typical ghost shit.
Set in a shadowy house full of creepy nooks and really dim lighting, it wasn't so much what you saw that was so frightening, but what you didn't see. In the segment's scariest scene, a family member is woken up and surrounded by ghastly smoke. The kind of ghastly smoke that can talk. Since talking smoke isn't the type of entity to waste words with benign pleasantries, it goes right for the throat: "YOU'RE DEAD."
The story is relentlessly ludicrous, and that's what makes it great. Unsolved Mysteries treated the ludicrous stories with just as much respect as the believable ones, and when you apply that kind thoughtfulness to a story about a family under attack by witches and fake fires, you've got a Top 7 moment.
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Summary: Gord McAllister and his wife are sleeping comfortably at a rest stop, in their parked camper. A cop knocks on the door and warns that they can't park there overnight. Only he wasn't really a cop.
Thoughts: This one packs the extra whammy of having victims who you really, really feel bad for. After the "cop" reveals himself to be an armed thief, Gord barely escapes with his life as the thief murders his wife and another person in a nearby car.
The reenactment is one of the best (worst?) of the series, with the actors playing the victims seeming legitimately terrified, and the guy playing the killer seeming legitimately terrifying. Just reading the details of the case is enough to make you wonder what's wrong with the world, but seeing it reenacted with such horrifying finesse is almost too much to take. During the interviews with Gord (the real one, not the actor), he's beyond heartbroken and understandably unable to move on. When you remind yourself that these events actually happened, and that the guy on the screen's pain is totally real, it's hard to watch. Then remember that when you're finished watching it, they're going to transition to a shot of a scary police sketch using a musical sting better served as the audio introduction to the Imperial attack on Hoth.
Using what was then new technology, Gord and the cops formulate a 3D composite of what the killer looks like. And he looks like a killer. Criminal sketches were some of the most chilling parts of Unsolved Mysteries, and this one was easily among the most brutal. It's a weird phenomenon, but people always look so much scarier when they're drawn or rendered.
Unsolved Mysteries never tacked an "UPDATE" onto this segment, but from what I've read, a suspect was finally named.
Summary: After a camping trip, a group of guys are alarmed to learn that they've all been having the same series of strange nightmares. Now they're convinced that they were abducted by aliens during that trip, and they've done a good job of selling their story to the masses.
Thoughts: In retrospect, many of the alien-related segments on Unsolved Mysteries were pretty bland. Lots of junk with home-taped footage of what were either flying saucers or porch lights, along with banal interviews about alleged government cover-ups. I ate it up as a kid, but there's only so many times you can watch terrible footage of an alleged UFO before wondering if anyone...anywhere...has a decent fucking video camera or a view that isn't obstructed by five barns and ten thousand trees. Fool me twice.
But when Unsolved Mysteries had a good alien story, they didn't mess around. Skipping past the long build, this one's money scene detailed the victim' memories while under hypnosis: Aliens beamed them onto their ship, stripped them, experimented on them, and then dumped them back at their camp site with wiped-out memories and nothing but a sense of lost time to tell them that something was amiss.
They include the real audio from those hypnosis sessions, along with sketches of what the guys claimed they'd endured. Many abduction stories have a "harmless" quality to them, but this one doesn't. (I cannot count space aliens who swipe semen samples from their captives among the "happy go lucky" variety.) For as much as I would've killed to see a flying saucer during my youth, segments like this made me think twice about going out to look for one.
Summary: Pregnant woman stops at a soda machine, gets assaulted by a serial killer. He leaves her for dead, but she survives and drives off...only to end up directly behind her would-be murderer's car.
Thoughts: Though the segment is more specifically about how the authorities go about profiling a serial killer, the scene described in my summary is what everyone remembers most. With the right music and the right kind of lunatic playing the killer, it's important to note that a scene where a pregnant woman is stabbed 475,000 times isn't even the scariest part of the segment. That honor goes to the scene where the woman somehow pulls herself together and drives off, only to end up directly behind her attacker. Exiting her car and making it to the safety of a friend's house, the bad guy pulls up, stares and drives off into the night.
"New Hampshire Serial Killer" is a pretty popular (if that's the right word) segment with Unsolved Mysteries fans, but if I'm being honest, I think it has just as much to do with the blacked-out Pepsi logo on that vending machine as the attack itself. No idea why, but I always remembered that. On Unsolved Mysteries, even debranded vending machines were kind of creepy.
Summary: After years of harassing calls, notes and brutal attacks, Cindy James was found dead outside an abandoned house, bound, gagged and drugged. Yet, everyone but Cindy's family members and closest friends believes she committed suicide.
Thoughts: This one's a bit of a cheat. I don't think it really stands up as one of the "scariest" segments in Unsolved Mysteries history, but it's certainly one of the most eerily fascinating.
One of the "fun" things about watching the show now is that you're a Google search away from seeing if there have been any updates to the cases. Even if there haven't been, you're going to uncover a heck of a lot more information than you got from one hasty segment of Unsolved Mysteries. When the show was at its peak, it wasn't just the best resource for this kind of stuff -- it was seemingly the only resource. Now? Plug nearly any featured case into a search engine, and you'll be shocked at all of the twists and turns that the show left out -- either for time, or because certain details didn't mesh with how they wanted to portray a specific case. This is a perfect example: There are many details about this story that Unsolved Mysteries never brings up. If you want to freak yourself out, look it up sometime.
Nobody who has ever spoken out about the Cindy James case really knows what happened. If they do, they aren't telling us the whole story. As we learn, Cindy reported instances of harassment for years, which sometimes culminated in violent attacks. But according to some, the harassment and attacks were all staged by Cindy herself. After her body was found, an autopsy revealed that she died from an overdose of morphine. How she managed to hogtie herself up in a way that screamed "I was murdered!" after taking that much morphine remains a serious point of debate, and to this day, anything said about Cindy James's death has seemingly carried no more weight than an opinion.
On Unsolved Mysteries, we hear both sides of the argument, but the "suicide" argument reads louder and clearer. Having read so much more about the case, I'm not so sure. It may not be one of the show's scariest segments in a literal sense, but the fact that you can't watch it without spending a few minutes (or hours, or days) envisioning the grim scenarios and trying to plug in the missing pieces -- which presumably would also be grim -- gives it a distinct chill.
Unsolved Mysteries currently airs in some misshapen form on Spike TV, but from what I gather, they only show it once every 17 weeks, at 3 AM. Not necessary, anyway: A lot of the best stuff has been released on DVD, and what hasn't is probably available online. As its popularity paved way for dozens and dozens of like-styled programs, I write with much confidence that TV shows that tried eight times harder to mess with your head couldn't come close to Unsolved Mysteries. It was the perfect storm of scares, special effects and Stack.