Pop Culture | TV | 90s | 80s
13 Things You Never Knew About 'Unsolved Mysteries'
In the late '80s and early '90s it seemed like pretty much everyone was obsessed with all things spooky or unexplained. Shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, and The X-Files made sure that no matter what, we always got our weekly creepy fix.
But of all the shows that filled us with fear, none were more terrifying than Unsolved Mysteries. It wasn't just that the stories were real, everything about the show combined into a perfect storm of scary that guaranteed we were never sleeping again.
The theme song, Robert Stack's perfect voice, Robert Stack's trench coat, Robert Stack standing in dark alleys and cemeteries, okay so Robert Stack played a big part in why the show was so good.
But no matter how much you loved the show, you probably didn't know these stories that went on behind-the-scenes. So join me, and perhaps we can help solve a mystery.
NBC cancelled the show for a pretty dumb reason
Unsolved Mysteries had several different TV "homes" during its time. The majority of the show's run, starting in 1987, was on NBC. That changed in 1997, when NBC announced that despite the show's success, it was being cancelled.
You would think that, considering the show was still a hit among its audience, NBC probably had a really great reason for not wanting to continue with the show. Well you would be wrong. NBC said they were cancelling the show because they wanted more shows for younger audiences.
Clearly they didn't understand that there were plenty of kids watching (and being traumatized by) the show. Luckily, the show was picked up almost immediately by CBS, although Lifetime and Spike would both go on to air the show in later seasons.
Robert Stack wasn't the original host
Without a doubt it was Robert Stack who made the show what it was. When Spike brought the show back in 2008, they were forced to find a new host only because Stack had died in 2003.
The new host, Dennis Farina was fine, but it just wasn't the same. However, while Robert Stack is (to this day) the host that everyone associates with Unsolved Mysteries, he wasn't even the original one.
In fact, there were actually two hosts before he got to grace us with his trench coat. Unsolved Mysteries actually started out as a number of TV specials starting in 1987. What would become the show's pilot was hosted by actor Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason fame). The two specials that followed were hosted by Karl Malden (A Street Car Named Desire).
After this, Robert Stack came on board for the last four specials and stayed on as Unsolved Mysteries became a weekly series.
They still have an active website
While the show's been off the air since 2010, Unsolved Mysteries is far from dead. There is an up-to-date and active website where you can look through the show's archives, and submit tips on still-unsolved cases.
But that's not all, they also have an official YouTube channel, where they post updates to cases as they happen. Unfortunately they don't really posts clips of the show, but thanks to a new company taking over the distribution rights, the show has started rolling out on streaming services. The YouTube channel even announces when new seasons become available online.
The show started out using the real people in the reenactments
As cheesy as some of the segments' reenactments were, they were an important a part of the show, at least as important as Robert Stack. In the first season they were so low-budget that they didn't want to spend money hiring actors, so according to frequent-director David Vassar, they just used the actual people playing themselves where they could. The results were mixed at best.
Luckily as the show became more successful, they had room in their budget to hire actual actors. Though that still didn't stop some of the reenactments from being pretty garbage, even the cheesiest reenactments still scared the hell out of us.
There's a reason why some episodes had way more narration than others
Apparently there's an easy way to tell which reenactments are actually good: whether the actors in the scene actually talk. If the acting was particularly bad, the show would cover up the performance by just having a narrator (either Robert Stack or someone being interviewed) talk over the scene.
The more you hear of the actor, the better they were. Sounds like a solid plan, but it didn't always work as planned.
Jack the Ripper gave them a reason to do a Halloween special
It seems pretty fitting that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time would give Unsolved Mysteries a reason to do a special on the spookiest holiday of the year. During their first season, to help celebrate Halloween they aired a special episode where instead of their usual mix of four different cases, they had four ghost stories.
But the producers hadn't originally planned to do anything special for Halloween. That changed when NBC heard about plans for a live special event called The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper, where they planned to "reveal" his true identity.
Funnily enough, the Jack the Ripper special was actually being produced by the same people as Unsolved Mysteries, and the show would actually devote an episode to the infamous murderer that same year. The Halloween Special was a smashing success, and led to several other themed episodes.
The success of the show allowed for a bigger budget, but that led to one of their reenactments going a little too far...
They actually blew up a church
Proving just how much their reenactment budget increased after their first season, one scene for a segment in their second season got way out of hand. The mystery they were focusing on was that of the West End Baptist Church choir, who may just be the luckiest people ever.
Their choir practice always started at 7:25 pm on the dot, however on March 1, 1950 a gas leak caused the entire church to explode at 7:27 pm. But here's where it gets weird, on that night, all 15 members of the choir happened to be running late for various reasons.
When they were filming the segment, they managed to find a former church that was slated for demolition so they were able to easily shoot a reenactment of the actual explosion. They hired a special effects coordinator to set up the explosion, which they intended to be just big enough to cave in the roof.
What they got instead was a massive fireball that went about a quarter-mile high and rained down debris on them for almost 20 minutes.
Robert Stack didn't take himself (or his role) too seriously
Robert Stack's voice was easily one of the most important parts of the show. Not only was it instantly recognizable, but there was something about his tone and cadence that made even the most outlandish paranormal mysteries feel absolutely terrifying.
But as serious as his persona on the show was, off the set he made it clear that he did have a sense of humor, including about his role on the show.
Robert Stack actually parodied his "character" not once, but twice. The first time was for a 1997 Pepsi commercial, where he warned us of the dangers of Pepsi theft, and how we can prevent it with the help of the Pepsi Club.
A year later he would poke fun at himself (and his show) much more blatantly in 1998's Baseketball, a sports comedy starring South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone. At one point in the movie, Coop (Trey Parker) disappears after finding out their team's clothing line was being made by child workers, leading to what is easily one of the funniest moments in the film.
From the insane reenactments, to the fact that everyone in the Unsolved Mysteries office is either playing Solitaire or Myst, everything about it is just perfect. Also it's impossible not to laugh when you hear Robert Stack say "According to Angelique Bones, a nosy bitch who lives up the street" completely deadpan.
Some big name celebs got their start on the show
While all famous actors gotta start somewhere, some actors have...stranger....starts than others. All of the hosts were obviously actors who already had established careers but some, like Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O), Bill Moseley (Honey I Blew Up The Kid, House of 1000 Corpses), and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) all got their starts thanks to appearing in one of Unsolved Mysteries reenactments.
There's also one major A-List actor that can be added to that list: Matthew McConaughey.
The episode aired in 1992, and the segment focused on Larry Dickens (played by McConaughey), a 26-year-old who was murdered after confronting a half-naked man who was exposing himself to children.
His killer, Edward Bell, was a convicted pedophile who, after Dickens took his truck keys and attempted to make him wait for the police, grabbed a gun from his truck and shot him to death in front of Dickens's mother and younger sister.
Luckily, the mystery didn't stay unsolved for long. Thanks to the segment, tips poured in and Edward Bell was arrested in Panama and is currently serving a 70-year sentence.
In 1993 McConaughey got his iconic role in Dazed and Confused, so he definitely turned out alright alright alright.
Not everyone on the show were believers in the paranormal
Unsolved Mysteries had a pretty broad scope for the "cases" they would focus on. While some, like murders and disappearances, were grounded in reality, others focused on things like ghosts, aliens, and creatures like Bigfoot.
But while the weirder stuff tended to be the most popular, some people behind the scenes weren't as into it as their viewers. In fact, both the producers and Robert Stack were pretty skeptical about the more supernatural segments they did for the show.
Considering how much those paranormal episodes totally freaked us out, that skepticism obviously didn't show. Honestly, even the wildest, least believable stories they told sound both terrifying and entirely possible when its being narrated to you by Robert Stack.
A lot of Robert Stack's bits were shot in the same place
In every single episode, whenever we saw Robert Stack he was always in the creepiest locations: dark alleys, cemeteries, weird candle-lit rooms, and similar places that would always set the mood for a story that was guaranteed to keep you awake at night.
But as it turns out, most of the locations were actually all the same place: a masonic temple in Pasadena, California. According to Producer John Cosgrove, they kept going back to that same location "because it evoked ghostly spirits and things like that." Well, they weren't wrong.
They did actually solve some mysteries
While they never found Bigfoot, or proved the existence of aliens, the show did have a hand in solving some of the real world mysteries they covered. Apparently, having Robert Stack look you in the eye and ask for help solving a mystery does pay off.
While there's no definitive number on how many cases were solved thanks to the show, the show's website claims that more than half of the episodes focusing on wanted fugitives have been solved thanks to tips from viewers.
According to the Unsolved Mysteries wiki, 367 of the roughly 1000 cases profiled on the show have been categorized as "solved." That's a lot of people brought to justice, and a lot of families who, for better or worse, finally found answers.
The show might be over, but that's not the end of Unsolved Mysteries
At the end of 2016 it was announced that the Robert Stack episodes of Unsolved Mysteries were going to be available on streaming platforms in the coming months. While they initially were only available on Amazon Prime, they have also recently come to Hulu. They also still take tips about their cases on both their website and their YouTube channel.
In the words of Robert Stack himself, "For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere, who knows the truth. Perhaps that person is watching. Perhaps...it's you."