“This program is about unsolved mysteries…”
That introductory message was followed by a Halloween-inspired theme song and the voice of host Robert Stack, a voice that would feature prominently in my nightmares for years to come. For the unfamiliar, Unsolved Mysteries is a documentary-style TV show that originated in 1987 and went through multiple hosts and networks over the course of its run. But the height of its popularity came during the Stack years, which lasted from 1987 to 2002. Each episode features three or four unsolved cases, covering a wide range of subjects: murders, kidnappings, supernatural occurrences, lost treasure, and even historical mysteries, such as the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. The producers used actual evidence, interviews with those close to the case, and some of the most mullet-heavy reenactments ever recorded to tell the story. At the end of each episode, Stack would plead with viewers to contact the authorities with information on the cases they’d just seen—and give updates on any previous cases that we, the viewers, had helped solve.
UM has been scaring the hell out of me since I was a child, and images from episodes I watched 20 years ago are still etched in my memory. One story that stayed with me was about a man who, in 1939, inexplicably picked up a woman standing in front of a cemetery and took her to a dance. Afterward, she asked him to take her home and directed him back to the cemetery, where she immediately vanished upon leaving the car. Between the ages of seven and 12, you could not convince me that each and every hitchhiker I saw wasn’t actually a ghost trying to make its way back home.
Earlier this year, when the show became available on Amazon Prime, I jumped back on the Unsolved Mysteries bandwagon, and I’ve been amazed by how much I remember from the original run. Plus, the canny distributors of UM, which is now streaming on Hulu as well, deserve extra credit for providing up-to-date news on the cases in question: I can finally sleep at night knowing what happened with that missing girl whose parents thought they saw her in a New Kids on the Block video! (Spoiler: they didn’t.)
Though true crime TV is sometimes seen as trashy or exploitative, my most recent viewing suggests that UM’s storytelling has more in common with prestige docuseries than we tend to admit. Though they stretch their examinations of a single case over the course of multiple episodes, Netflix’s Making a Murderer and The Keepers and HBO’s The Jinx still follow much the same narrative template that Unsolved Mysteries helped pioneer: Each introduces a case, the theories that might explain it, and the potential suspects, then sorts through the evidence for and against each.
In a 1988 episode of UM, for instance, which profiled the murder of Kurt Sova—a 17-year-old found dead after a neighborhood party—each person of interest had a conflicting story about that night, or mysteriously disappeared before they could even be questioned; similarly, the 1987 investigation into the disappearance of Dottie Caylor—an agoraphobic woman who vanished without a trace after rarely leaving her home in the years prior—offers as much evidence that Dottie methodically planned her escape as it does that she was murdered by her estranged husband. Likewise, The Keepers examines five potential suspects in the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, an instructor at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School, over the course of its seven episodes, presented incriminating evidence for each. Different viewers could end the series certain that Sister Cathy was killed by an archbishop who feared she would expose him as a pedophile; or by a mysterious, unnamed man at the church; or the by boyfriend whose proposal she had rejected, or other local men with suspicious stories.
This similarity isn’t just in the narrative structure, then; it extends to the inconclusiveness of their endings. For instance, Johnny Lee Wilson, the subject of a 1990 UM episode, was accused of the murder of an elderly woman and later arrested for the crime. During the episode it’s suggested that Wilson was mentally unfit to stand trial and that his confession was brought about by hours of tireless questioning. The episode creates a sympathetic character out of Wilson, though it ends with him still behind bars—reminiscent of Making a Murderer, which calls into question the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in the murder of Teresa Halbach. Both Unsolved Mysteries and Making a Murderer produce compelling evidence of more than one miscarriage of justice, though neither offers a conclusive alternative theory of their respective case: Instead, we’re left with stories of corrupt police departments framing innocent men and the failures of the criminal justice system as a whole—hardly the satisfying arc of an average episode of Law & Order.
And though the recent docuseries have been rightly lauded for drawing attention to cases in which that system fell woefully short, this, too, was one of the motivations of Unsolved Mysteries. Each week, households across the country tuned in to UM to be entertained, of course, but part of that entertainment was participatory: the belief that one might help solve a mystery. And quite often, audiences did: In one such case, featured in a 1988 episode, viewers in Boise, Idaho recognized their neighbors as fugitives Diane Brodbeck and Jon Yount. (Yount had been in prison for murder when Brodbeck began visiting him and eventually helped him escape.) It’s this same craving—for justice, and perhaps for closure—that likely drove the 500,000-plus people who signed a petition to free Steven Avery after Making a Murderer debuted. And it’s that craving for justice that made Robert Durst’s apparent confession in the final moments of The Jinx so satisfying.
There are, of course, fundamental differences between a TV series that explores multiple cases in a single episode and one that dives into a single case over the course of a multi-episode arc. The latter is able to delve into every piece of evidence and every person of interest, even devoting entire episodes to dead-end leads. In the tacit contract between filmmaker and viewer, it’s assumed that no stone will be left unturned—that we, the viewers, are being given the full story. In contrast, UM often had no more than 10 or 15 minutes to gloss each case, so details and evidence simply had to be left out. The show was obligated by time restraints to be in the business of deciding what was and wasn’t pertinent information—which applies to docuseries as well, though to a far lesser extent. Though Making a Murderer has drawn criticism for leaving out information, it’s impossible to imagine telling even a streamlined version of Teresa Halbach’s murder in a 15-minute segment.
Today, I’m not so sure UM would work as well as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, despite the consistent hunger for true crime. For one thing, we no longer trust salacious programs purporting to solve true crimes or explain paranormal activities: As consumers, we’ve learned that “unscripted” and “reality” don’t always mean what they imply. But a well-crafted, thought-provoking docuseries can satisfy our curiosity without making us feel like that curiosity is crass.
We’ll never stop being fascinated by the very worst of humanity, but the way in which we want to consume it has changed and will continue to do so. UM changed the landscape of true crime on television and changed what we expect from it. The show, like the series that have followed it, didn’t always provide the answers we wanted—but then, neither does real life. Robert Stack did, however, always leave us with one comforting message: the hope that the unsolved would be solved and justice would be served. “For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere who knows the truth,” as Stack says. “Perhaps that someone is watching. Perhaps it’s you.”
Unsolved Mysteries is now streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Stephanie Ashe is a freelance pop culture writer who didn’t watch Mad Men, OK? Just give her a break. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieAshe_ for her thoughts on TV and music, and which scratching posts her cats like best.