Some kids dream of becoming famous actors. Others fantasize about living a life free from homework. My childhood wish was a little different: I wanted to call into Unsolved Mysteries with the tip necessary to reunite a lost father with his daughter or send a bad guy to jail.
That dude who fled Pittsburgh after he ripped off an elderly man of his life savings? He's in California and a checker at my local grocery store! Get him! The missing mom from Florida? She's my first-grade teacher! I found her!
Week after week, I would watch carefully to make sure that I didn't miss any clues or those creepy police sketches of suspects. I am sad to report that 6-year-old me, who wasn't even allowed to cross the street by herself, was never able to crack any cases.
Hosted by the irreplaceable Robert Stack, Unsolved Mysteries originally ran from 1987 to 2002. Using dramatic re-enactments — oftentimes with stilted acting, bad disguises, and early CGI that made already eerie mysteries downright terrifying — and interviews with actual witnesses and people who knew the victims, Unsolved Mysteries put a spotlight on all kinds of unresolved matters, including murders, kidnappings, disappearances, and fraud cases, and unexplained events like UFO and Bigfoot sightings.
Nearly everything about the show was scary. The re-enactments were never gruesome, but the spooky synthesizer-heavy opening and mournful closing themes were bone-chilling. Stack, with his sober demeanor, was never shown on a boring stage or behind a desk. No, he would introduce the segments while standing in cavernous mausoleums and foggy graveyards and candlelit gothic churches, usually wearing a trench coat. With his solemn voice, he could make reading the ingredients list on a package of instant oatmeal sound sinister.
I would watch from the safety of our living room couch, planted firmly between my mom and dad. Before you question their parenting, they never would have let me watch the show if it freaked me out too much, but since I loved reading Nancy Drew books and thought it was fun to tap walls in the hopes of discovering a secret passageway, of course I was going to want to tune in to Unsolved Mysteries.
My favorite cases were the ones with the weirdest twists and turns, with mysterious phone calls and ominous letters and possible sightings and near misses. One chilling segment I'll never forget was about a man who was attacked by a crazed hitchhiker, and after he managed to escape, drove to his mother's house and found that the hitchhiker had picked her house at random and murdered her. Then there was the infamous Ghost Boy, a spirit who haunted the St. James Hotel in New Mexico. This boy ghost had a scratched face and curly blond hair, and he scared me more than anything else I ever saw on that show because the '90s special effects made him look like he was sprung from hell.
Now I can look at Ghost Boy and laugh, but back then, I had to squeeze my eyes closed and cover my face with my hands anytime he appeared on screen. Of course, the producers decided to throw Ghost Boy into the credits the next season, so every week I had to make sure I was on the couch when the show started so I wouldn't have to try to walk in with my eyes shut. It was a very trying time.
Usually, the show was meant to provide a real public service, and generate leads on unsolved cases. It legitimately worked. There were often updates about average people who were watching the show when they realized their new neighbor was actually wanted for murder. Sometimes, viewers would be watching with the suspect, and they'd say they told him he looked just like the sketch, which was actually really dumb and not something you should say to someone that you're pretty sure is a murderer on the lam.
At the time, Unsolved Mysteries was one of a few ways to get national attention on a case, whether it was a kidnapping or a lost love. People looking for their biological parents or childhood best friend couldn't do a simple Google search, or plug a name into Facebook. They needed to hope their loved one, or someone who knew them, was watching and able to call the tipline.
True crime is having a moment now, with countless podcasts, documentaries, and YouTube series dedicated to describing cases that are solved or still open. I don't listen to or watch any of these, but I can tell you one thing I would watch: new episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. How fantastic would it be, now that we have made so many technological advances over the last 20 years, to bring the show back? The new Unsolved Mysteries wouldn't have to change its format, just, sadly, it's host and narrator. (Stack died in 2003, and actor Dennis Farina, who helmed a reboot that ran on Spike from 2008 to 2010, died in 2013.) I nominate Dateline's Keith Morrison, because he has both the voice for it and experience with the subject matter. While no one else will ever be able to say "Join me, perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery" with the same gravitas as Stack, he could come close.
There's a very dedicated Unsolved Mysteries fanbase that posts on forums online, and people write at length about looking for new clues and trying to figure out if any cases with similarities are linked. They aren't doing this for fame or to be lauded as heroes, but out of a sense of fairness and justice. It's not right for a mother to die without knowing why her son disappeared 40 years ago, and it's not okay for someone to scam hundreds of people out of millions of dollars. The recent identification of the suspected Golden State Killer is proof that determination can keep a case alive, and techniques that weren't available in the past can ultimately solve them (thanks, sophisticated DNA testing!).
The original episodes of Unsolved Mysteries are on Hulu, and while the mysteries may be old, there's still a need to solve them. Watching these familiar segments (never alone, with the doors locked and shutters closed — that theme song doesn't get less scary with age), I'm reminded of the immortal words of Robert Stack: "For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere, who knows the truth. Perhaps that someone is watching. Perhaps, it's you."