How "Unsolved Mysteries" Raised a Generation of Conspiracy Theorists

The show taught us that sometimes half-truths make for the best stories

July 1, 2020 10:00 am
unsolved mysteries
One thing that isn't a mystery: Robert Stack had good hair

In 1987, people weren’t plugged in. There was no Reddit, no Twitter. This made the spread of information — and with it, misinformation — a much more difficult proposition. Pizzagate would have sounded like a Domino’s giveaway, and even entertaining ideas like UFOs would make most of your friends think you were a crackpot. There were no basketball stars talking about their belief in the earth being flat; pop stars weren’t talking about chemtrails. 

That was all before Unsolved Mysteries

Long the stuff of shortwave radio and underground newsletters, conspiracy theories were made mainstream by the show’s methodical storytelling, which revealed that the world is far stranger than we could ever imagine.

When Unsolved Mysteries first appeared on NBC over 30 years ago, it broke new ground with interactive television. TV audiences have often enjoyed weird tales, but did so from a distance. The Twilight Zone hypnotized viewers in the early 1960s with contemporary sci-fi parables narrated by Rod Serling. In the 1980s, Orson Welles’s narration of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow — which dramatized the wild predictions of Nostradamus — captivated audiences, even convincing swaths of Los Angeles residents that a giant earthquake would annihilate their city in 1988.

One especially noteworthy show, In Search Of, which ran from 1977-1982, examined all things paranormal — as guided by the sage narration of Leonard Nimoy, less than a decade after his time on Star Trek. A disclaimer that the show’s information was “based in part on theory and conjecture” fit the trippy feel of the narratives. The first episode of In Search Of considered if plants could communicate with people. Featured in the episode was Cleve Backster, who founded and led the CIA’s interrogation section before starting his own school to train polygraph examiners. Backster believed that plants could feel pain — and also claimed that the way yogurt bacteria responded to electrical stimulation proved they had the power of perception.

Nimoy, like a good Vulcan, narrated without judgment. The show featured on-site interviews and a soundtrack alternately dramatic and playful. No subject was off the table: Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, the alien abductions, mysterious deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Amelia Earhart, Atlantis and cryonics. Decked in a turtleneck, Nimoy would offer a concluding summary to end each episode, his monologue grounded in a sense of wonder but low on certainty.

The New Age, ponderous feel of In Search Of was a product of its time. “There is a movement easing across the land,” Sara Davidson wrote in the ’70s for Harper’s magazine, “a movement in which individuals are trying to work out personal salvation — a way to proceed through life with harmony and peace, a minimum of tension, and a maximum of fulfillment.” She documented a groundswell of interest in spiritual enlightenment that had moved from covert backroom séances to the suburbs. The open-minded era of that decade had been replaced by the more skeptical ’80s. Viewers had enough fantasy; they wanted real life.

Before Unsolved Mysteries, creators Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrovemade a trio of specials for NBC under the moniker Missing … Have You Seen This Person? The programs depicted missing-persons cases, with a special focus on kidnapped children. After Raymond Burr and Karl Malden hosted the first three episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, the producers brought on Robert Stack. Already known to audiences as a respected actor for films like Written on the Wind and shows like The Untouchables, Stack felt more like an intrepid investigator than the esoteric Nemoy. Typically wearing a trench coat, Stack was serious but never stern, open-minded but not frivolous. And yes, he had a hell of a voice. 

The seven specials of the first season of Unsolved Mysteries featured lost heirs, amnesia cases, missing treasure and unexplained deaths. One victim, Aileen Conway, was found in a burning car on an empty bridge road in Oklahoma. The car’s heat was so intense, Stack narrates, that “the heat was so intense that the car had actually melted into the metal guardrail into which it had crashed.” Possibly even stranger was the scene at her home. The patio door was wide open. A garden hose dripped into their swimming pool. Her purse, with driver’s license and glasses, was left on the floor. The iron was left on in the bedroom, the bathtub was full of water, and the phone was off the hook. This was different, darker fare than most of 1987 TV — think Who’s the Boss, Moonlighting and Night Court.

The series became weekly with its second season, and the show hit its stride. By offering a diverse range of four stories per episode, the show was able to appeal to viewers compelled by the real and the supernatural. One notable segment that captured a popular urban legend was the hunt for the infamous D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a Seattle-bound plane in 1971 before leaping and vanishing into the wilderness. Cooper probably didn’t survive the fall, but there probably is just enough doubt to tempt the imagination.

The show depicted UFO sightings — lights in the distance and close encounters — along with kidnappings, murders, ghosts, long-lost family members and Satanic crimes. One early episode featured the tragic story of Kurt McFall, a high school student found half-naked and dead on a beach in the San Francisco Bay. McFall had joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, and would dress as a medieval knight for evening battles at an Oakland subway station parking lot. He soon became interested in more than just jousting: he apparently wanted to learn more about medieval religions, and befriended members of a local group. His father called it a Satanic cult, but one of its leaders — who used the name “Caradoc,” an ancient Welsh moniker — said McFall simply had “an interest in magic.” The group was likely part of the Feri tradition, a neo-pagan group started in the 1960s. But viewers in the late 1980s were hopped up on Satanic Panic, and McFall’s strange death felt intensely evil. 

Unsolved Mysteries suggested that we were always on the periphery of the unsafe. But it never felt overly moralizing; in fact, the show was often empathetic and genuine. One emblematic story was the disappearance of Patricia Meehan, a 37-year-old woman who caused a car accident in rural Circle, Montana. Dazed and silent, she got out of her car, walked down the road and climbed over a fencee before heading into a dark field. She was never seen again — at least not officially. According to the show, Meehan had been spotted more than 100 times in Montana and Washington; this has since grown to over 5,000 alleged sightings. The show implied that Meehan might have amnesia, but like with other segments, refused to take a hardline stance so as to not influence viewers. That’s because the audience was the key to the success of Unsolved Mysteries. Although a disclaimer at the start of the show said, in part, that it was “not a news broadcast,” Unsolved Mysteries was something more: it was a chance to make things right.

A 1-800 number solicited tips, leads and ideas from viewers. An army of phone operators forwarded useful information to relevant authorities and family members. According to the producers, the show helped solve an impressive number of cases: more than 260 to date. Unsolved Mysteries set the interactive template for other shows, like America’s Most Wanted, which debuted in 1988, but focused on more conventional cases. Unsolved Mysteries embraced all things strange, and the weekly ritual of viewers sitting down to see and hear unusual stories had a curious result. 

Unsolved Mysteries was quite literally a show from a different century. At first, the mysteries were culled from the newspaper reports. Campy transition screens announced the topics of different segments. There was the sublime eeriness of CCTV clips, odd ATM camera photos and dramatic recreations that themselves felt authentic in their blurriness. The score sounded like something out of a John Carpenter film. Even today, when you talk to people that came of age during the show’s heyday, you’ll find people who recall it as a spookiest hour of television programming they were allowed to watch. 

While the show retained a sizable viewership throughout its run, Unsolved Mysteries doesn’t get enough credit for being so influential. In 1993, shortly after The X-Files premiered, creator and producer Chris Carter spoke with Cyberspace Vanguard, a sci-fi and fantasy zine. At the end of the long-forgotten interview, Carter says The X-Files is best understood as “a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Unsolved Mysteries.” The grainy, lo-fi look of the show is one that today’s movie directors try to replicate. Even re-watching it in 2020, there is something slightly unsettling that you might not be able to put your finger on. 

Unsolved Mysteries cultivated mainstream interest in conspiracy storytelling, creating the right mix for shows like The X-Files to thrive. It is difficult to imagine a character like Fox Mulder being so successful unless viewers were prepared to accept even the possibility that strangeness could be taken seriously. 

The Stack era of Unsolved Mysteries ended in 2002, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The show was briefly resurrected for Spike TV, but recycled and edited old segments rather than introducing new cases. Other shows followed in its footsteps, but none could capture its unique magic. In fact, the end of Unsolved Mysteries led to a fraying of conspiracy storytelling. One example is Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura, which ran from 2009-2012, and was hosted by the titular former Minnesota governor. In that show, Ventura was center stage: he was a guy who was going to reveal the deepest government secrets to us. Channeling his old professional wrestling persona, Ventura brashly demanded answers, grilling politicians and government officials. 

The series also showed how conspiracy thinking can go off the rails, as Ventura always tried to connect everything in some convoluted web of secrecy. The show grabbed big ratings for truTV, but Ventura’s knack for provocation caused real problems. One episode, “Police State,” was only shown once, after making some highly suspect intimations about FEMA and martial law. In one scene, Ventura quietly treks through the Georgia backwoods with none other than Alex Jones. The Infowars host takes Ventura to a clearing with stacks of long plastic containers, which he claims are coffins to be used in the event of mass, government-orchestrated extermination. In reality, the containers are standard-issue grave liners, but that’s a less interesting story.

Conspiracy Theory, however entertaining, indulged in everything that Unsolved Mysteries avoided. It posited wild, multinational conspiracies, where its predecessor merely reveled in showing how discrete, unsolved events puncture holes into the fabric of our collective certainty about life. The theories provoked by Unsolved Mysteries were singular and narrow, the conspiracies of real-life tragedies and confusion, not unbridled fantasy. 

Today, it’s hard to toggle through cable offerings at any hour of the day and not find shows dedicated to conspiracy theories, from the History Channel using cryptozoologists to talk about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster to shows unmasking secret societies like the Illuminati and the Bilderberg group. One of the most successful book franchises, Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, is based largely around biblical conspiracies. “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” has gone from conspiracy to meme to punchline. We live in conspiracy-obsessed times, and it’s no coincidence that Unsolved Mysteries was there at the dawn of it.  

Now, the show’s original creators are back for the Netflix reboot. Six episodes premiere on July 1, with six more to follow. Audience leads are solicited at the end of each episode.

The iconic theme song still hits. The new season shows us again how conspiracy thinking, at its most genuine, is connected to a sense of wonder about our world — that we haven’t figured everything out. The format shift to one story per episode is perfect: we can now settle into often heartbreaking stories and reach a level of intimacy that was difficult in the past. The murder of a family, the disappearance of a mother and a likely hate-crime are all portrayed with technical skill and care. The show’s production style is much sleeker, but its heart is earnest.

In 1990, Stack told the Los Angeles Times that the show tried to balance two needs: “We’re trying to produce theater and we’re trying to do a public service.” The new Unsolved Mysteries made the right decision to not have a host, but the ghostly form of Robert Stack appears at the end of the opening credits — implying that his presence still inspires the show. The old Unsolved Mysteries revealed how conspiracy theories make for great storytelling; the new version of the show demonstrates how such storytelling and thinking can be ambitious, responsible and maybe even necessary.

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