Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Legacy of Unsolved Mysteries

From 1987 to 1999, the world of television could be an absolutely terrifying place, especially for those of us who were young enough to remember those days and adventurous enough to watch channels that didn’t just broadcast cartoons. There was a chance, for those of us in America at least, that if we switched over to NBC during primetime hours, or happened by the Lifetime channel in the afternoon, we would be greeted by the most frightening program to ever air on television.

Unsolved Mysteries

For those of you who may not remember the show, or never watched it, first of all, be grateful that your mind is free from the all-encompassing fear that you were spared by your choices in television. Second, you have no idea the greatness that you were missing.

Unsolved Mysteries debuted on the NBC network as a series of specials in 1987, but officially came into its own in 1988 when the specials were successful enough to warrant a full, weekly, series. The format of the program was interesting in that it wasn’t like anything else that had really been done up until that point. It wasn’t a news show, though everything they talked about was real life circumstances. As the name implies, Unsolved Mysteries was about…well, unsolved mysteries. Each episode would feature a number of different cases of murders, robberies, fugitives, missing persons, and later, local legends and paranormal activities.

Each case had its own segment that was filmed in a documentary like style. The events of a case were often recreated with aspiring actors taking the roles of the people involved (a young Matthew McConaughey even participated in an episode) and interviews were conducted and filmed with the actual people involved in the case. These people would range from eyewitnesses, police, victim’s families, and the victims themselves if they were lucky enough to have survived whatever they went through.

The hope was that by giving airtime to these cases, a viewer may have information that would help solve the mystery. In this regard it was somewhat similar to a program that would premier in 1988, America’s Most Wanted. One of the key differences between the shows was that while America’s Most Wanted entirely focused on catching criminals, Unsolved Mysteries covered a variety of different events, and did so with a unique style of weaving together narrative storytelling with real life happenings. More than this, the program somehow managed to be informative, entertaining, and ferociously terrifying. Well, I say “somehow” but the answer is incredibly obvious to anyone who watched the show. It’s because of this guy:

Robert Stack.

Do you know why Robert Stack is wearing a trench coat? Because it’s amazingly cool. And because it’s scary. “How is the trench coat scary?” You ask. Well, imagine a very dark room with very little light. Now, fill that room with fog. Now take that fog filled room, put Robert Stack in a trench coat, put him in the back of the room, and tell him to walk forward through the fog towards the camera, and recite lines that include the words, “murder,” “dead,” “killer,” “fugitive,” “ghosts,” and “unknown.” Oh, and remember that dark room? Let’s turn it into a graveyard.

Maybe this isn’t sufficiently creepy right yet, but you also haven’t heard the theme song. It’s hard to communicate the effectiveness of the song in a written form. Basically, take your darkest fears and drop them one by one onto a keyboard. The 14 notes they churn out will be the melody of the Unsolved Mysteries theme. Then, add to that the howl and whine of souls being condemned to hell, a wind chime being blown by the breath of fallen angels, and an 1980’s drum machine. That is the theme song to Unsolved Mysteries.

Still not creepy enough? You haven’t listened to Robert Stack’s narration. Stack’s voice is one of a kind. It’s not boomingly resonant like James Earl Jones, it’s not intellectual like Stephen Fry, it’s not sinister like Vincent Price. Stack is perpetually cold and almost monotone. You know how news reporters will often keep their voice neutral when reporting a story? Stack does the same thing, except instead of being bright and warm and speaking to you as an audience, Stack is dark, emotionless, and speaking to the primal fear that resides within the corners of your heart, mind, and soul.

If you lived in New York, and Robert Stack told you there was a killer on the loose who gunned down three people in California, you wouldn’t want to leave your house that night because you’d be convinced that the murderer is outside your door right now, waiting to claim you. I have a friend who’s about six foot, eight inches and a solid 300 pounds. When he was doing a summer semester in college back in 2005, he’d be in his dorm room in the middle of the afternoon between classes, watching Unsolved Mystery reruns on Lifetime. Afterwards, he’d be questioning whether or not he should leave his room to go to his next class, lest a murderer be on the loose on campus. Robert Stack had awoken the irrational fear from within. When I asked him why he continued to watch the show every day and repeat the process of fear, he simply replied, “I can’t help it. The show’s still so good.”

This fear would get ratcheted up ten-fold whenever they focused on paranormal cases. It’s one thing to be afraid of a fugitive on the loose; at least that’s a threat that you can understand and the police are actively trying to put a stop to. But what do you do about a haunting? What do you do about an alien abduction? What do you do when you’re visited by a spirit that tells you she’s been murdered, and she knows who the killer is? And sure, you could be saying right now that you don’t believe in any of that stuff, but that’s because you’re reading my words, and I am not Robert Stack. If I were Robert Stack, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You’d be busy trying to find a clean pair of underwear thanks to how mightily you’ve shit yourself.

Unsolved Mysteries covered a lot of well-known paranormal phenomena, and did so in a way that didn’t pass judgment on whether or not the events were true or false. They presented the facts of the account, as were relayed by those who experienced it. The Kecksburg UFO incident, The Allagash Abductions, The Gurdon Light, The Myrtles Plantation; obviously these weren’t stories that aimed at getting the audience to phone in tips to solve them, they were informative/entertainment pieces. They were also done in a way that was meant to make you think about these occurrences and the possibilities behind them.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Unsolved Mysteries was supposed to come across as ungodly terrifying, but that’s what Robert Stack achieved in his hosting duties. He was so terrifying that in 1997, NBC couldn’t take the horror anymore and cancelled the show…or it could’ve been declining ratings. Either way, CBS decided to start airing the program and in 1999, added actress Virginia Madsen as a co-host.

There are three important things to note about Virginia Madsen:
1)      Virginia Madsen does not sound like Robert Stack
2)      Virginia Madsen does not rock a trench coat like Robert Stack
3)      Virginia Madsen is not Robert Stack

CBS failed to realize that the only suitable co-host for Robert Stack would’ve been another Robert Stack. However, due to the lack of cloning technology available at the time (and now for that matter) the network was unable to secure another Robert Stack for the show. The end result of this failed experiment was the second cancellation of Unsolved Mysteries in 1999.  Hope was not lost however as the Lifetime channel, which had great success airing reruns of the show, decided in 2001 that they were going to produce new episodes of it to air alongside the older ones. Showing a great degree of wisdom, Lifetime did not hire back Virginia Madsen, and returned Robert Stack to being the one and only host. More than that, Lifetime managed to alter the history of time itself and for any segments that Virginia Madsen previously narrated, they had Stack re-record them. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of going back in time to advise Francis Ford Coppola, he probably shouldn’t cast his daughter in Godfather III.

Sadly, in 2003, Robert Stack passed away. His death was actually, in no way, mysterious. He was 84 years old and died of a heart attack. This means that at 82 years old, Robert Stack was still doing new episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, rocking a trench coat, and scaring people into states of unparalleled panic. No matter how badass you think you are, you can’t even hope to compare to 82 year old Robert Stack. Congratulations, that’s life. Deal with it.

That being said, Spike TV thought that they could revive the show in 2008. Instead of doing the only sensible thing and making a digital version of Robert Stack and help him live on in immortality, Spike decided to replace him with this guy:

Dennis Farina.

You’ll note how if you look closely, he is clearly not Robert Stack. The lack of a trench coat is a giveaway. Farina wasn’t necessarily a BAD host of the show, but he also has no idea how to act on the set of Unsolved Mysteries. Look at the guy. He’s borderline smiling! That’s not how you host Unsolved Mysteries!

Here we see Farina trying to act with his hands. Robert Stack never acted with his hands. You want to play a drinking game? Watch an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries and take a shot every time you see Robert Stack take his hands out of his pockets. You will never get drunk. Ever.

But perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Well this isn’t a fair comparison. Farina isn’t wearing a trench coat, he’s wearing a suit. If Robert Stack were wearing a suit, he wouldn’t look nearly so badass.”

Wrong. It may actually turn out that the trench coat made Robert Stack LESS terrifying.

By this point in time you may be wondering, “Is there anyone who could possibly replace Robert Stack? Is there anything that could live up to the legacy of Unsolved Mysteries?” Well, there may be, but you won’t find it anywhere on television.

Enter the world of YouTube content creator, Rob Dyke:

Rob Dyke’s YouTube channel, TheRobDyke, was created in 2012 and initially featured him making simple webcam videos and later branching out into various comical endeavors. He would eventually develop a recurring series, “Why Would You Put That On The Internet,” which, as the title implies, has him discussing idiotic things that people have actually shared online.

In February of 2014, Rob premiered a new show, “Seriously Strange.”

As opposed to his comical videos, there was nothing funny about this series premiere. In the debut episode about unbelievable coincidences, Rob discussed a man’s repeated suicide attempts being interrupted by the same monk across different places and times, vehicular accidents caused by the same taxi driver, a man who was killed by a bullet that was embedded in a tree, and the death of Edgar Allen Poe.

Rob would continue doing his comedic shows, but he had now developed a persona and style that would continue to make his Seriously Strange series more and more engaging, frightening, entertaining, and informative.

Like Unsolved Mysteries, Seriously Strange finds its host on a simply arranged set, standing in front of the camera, narrating the events of strange or criminal happenings in a way that is unlike other programs. Rob’s voice isn’t like Stack’s at all, but he somehow manages to carry a similar edge and tone. Stack was cold, deep, and direct. Rob isn’t nearly as cold. His voice often displays degrees of emotion, especially when he’s referencing the victims of a crime in which case his informative tone drops slightly in an expression of condolence and respect. Stack’s voice could be incredibly eerie, Rob’s isn’t. If anything, Rob may be slightly unsettling in how calm he is, but he also speaks at a faster pace than Stack did, allowing him to present his information in a quicker fashion, which is much better suited to the shorter length of his program.

Being a YouTube program and not a network television show, Simply Strange doesn’t have the access to the funds required to stage reenactments, contact people for interviews, or make elaborate productions. What the show does have is the work of an artist named Joopis.

Joopis’ artwork isn’t incredibly ornate or complex, but it is incredibly effective. Most of the detail in the drawings is placed on people’s faces. The effect of this is beneficial in two ways; the first is that it emphasizes the emotions of the people in that moment, the second is that it enhances the creepiness of the show and the stories it tells. In the picture above, there are three places your eyes are drawn to; all of which happen to be the areas which feature more detail; the guns, the faces, and the blood spray. The art doesn’t glorify violence, it presents it in cold, hard fashion, just as Rob’s narration presents the events. In some ways, this is more effective than the re-enactments shown on Unsolved Mysteries. Joopis’ art is not something you normally see, it’s not something you’re accustomed to. Because of this, it can rattle you and shock you in a way that you haven’t become oversensitive of. Rob has sense developed a number of spin-off shows that fall into the same style of Seriously Strange: Twisted Tens, where he does a countdown of ten dark/creepy incidents, occurrences etc. and The Serial Killer Files, where he dedicates an entire episode to the life and criminal activities of a particular serial killer.

Both of these shows maintain the same entertainment/informative style of Seriously Strange and Unsolved Mysteries, with Rob telling the tales in his typical deadpan manner. It should be noted too that when it comes to The Serial Killer Files, Rob does not spend one second glorifying or making a spectacle of these criminals the way mass media outlets do. In every episode, Rob takes the time to detail the often terrible upbringings these people had that led to their minds being warped enough to do the deeds they did. He also doesn’t treat these killers like tortured souls. When he speaks of them, his voice stays neutral, but he will not hesitate to call their actions evil, heinous, despicable, and whatever adjective would work to adequately state how sinister they were.

Rob’s shows often cover a range of subjects that would’ve gone far beyond the scope of Unsolved Mysteries. He has episodes that describe various torture devices, medical mistakes, and things found in the ocean. There are times where he does do episodes on kidnappings or unsolved mysteries, and in true Unsolved Mysteries fashion, he implores people with any information to contact the relevant authorities and includes the contact information for the agencies that would be in charge of the cases.

Sadly, we will never have the opportunity to experience a continuation of Robert Stack’s Unsolved Mysteries; the greatness of that show died with him. If there’s to be an heir apparent though, that title has to go to Rob Dyke. If you’re like me and have fond memories of those foggy rooms and Robert Stack strolling through them with his trench coat, then you need to start watching Seriously Strange. To this day, it is the only thing I’ve seen that even comes close to capturing what made Unsolved Mysteries so great. As a matter of fact, it’s a far better continuation of the show than what Spike tried to do with the Farina episodes. Now, if only we could get Rob into a trench coat.