Monday, July 13, 2009

Be Nice to the Ghost in Your House, or Life Lessons from Unsolved Mysteries

Without fail, summer makes you think about being a kid. Ah, innocent youth. Not having to support yourself, eating junk without knowing what calories were, and getting the crap scared out of you on a regular basis by an old man wearing a trench coat.

I'll never forget my first experience with Unsolved Mysteries. I was nine years old, at my grandma's house after dance class. Still in my leotard, I plopped down in front of Grandma's TV while she talked with my dad in the kitchen. The cable box was on channel 10--NBC--and a very creepy voice was narrating the story of Crystal, a woman who had gone missing and later turned up dead. Nobody knew why, although neighbors had heard screaming from her apartment earlier that evening. The reenactment faded to a gentleman I recognized from the movie Airplane!--only this time he wasn't funny. He was imploring, nay, ordering me to call a 1-800 number if I had any information about what happened to poor Crystal.

Any normal kid probably would have turned it off. I was not a normal kid.

From ages nine to fourteen, I would regularly tune into Unsolved Mysteries. It wasn't exactly family viewing in the Unpro house, and I was a busy kid, so I didn't watch every single Wednesday (later Friday). But UM was as much a part of my childhood pop culture experience as Full House or The Baby-Sitters Club. If the show were to be believed, there was a whole intriguing world out there. Yes, terrible things befell innocent people, but miracles happened and long-lost siblings were reunited. (When my friend Joe and I were thirteen, we pretended that we were related and that Robert Stack would eventually reveal the truth on national TV.) And I loved the regular Updates on past cases, where some viewer really DID have information, and the guts to call it in. I appreciated how the show was good to the people who watched it: they knew that we remembered the bank robber who wore cheesy disguises, and were kind enough to keep us posted on his eventual capture and jail sentence.

Of course, all good things must come to an end: once I hit sophomore year of high school, Unsolved fell by the wayside. I only watched occasionally, like before my boyfriend picked me up to go to the movies. Then in college, I got into it again, watching on summer mornings when I wasn't working. No one was more excited than I when Lifetime started rebroadcasting updated episodes in 2001. And although the show's second and best-known host (fun fact: Karl Malden was the original guy behind the trench coat, not Robert Stack) has passed away, I'll still tune in the revamped version on Spike TV, hosted by actor and former cop Dennis Farina.

Why was I initially so compelled by UM? I thought about it, and came up with this: as a curious small-town kid in a pre-reality TV world, raised on a diet of sitcoms where everything turned out okay within twenty-two minutes, Unsolved Mysteries was as real as it got. And it stayed with me, to the point where I actually *gasp!* learned stuff. It ain't just for Sesame Street, yo--a little fearmongering can go far. Below are the top 5 life lessons I gleaned from Stack & Co.:

1. Use your noggin. Whether you live in New York City or the middle of nowhere, ask yourself this: is it really a good idea to get into your car without checking the backseat first? Or ask a homeless guy to move in with you? Or jog alone at 2 a.m. on a college campus? I'd love to live in a world where I feel completely safe 100% of the time. Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist as yet. And don't interpret this as victim-blaming, but some folks don't seem to realize that many horrible crimes occur in small towns where "nothing bad could ever happen." From the time I was a little kid, Unsolved Mysteries taught me to keep an eye out for trouble, and to make good decisions about where I went, who I talked to, and most importantly, who I trusted. Sure, at nine years old my whereabouts were largely controlled by my parents, but as I got older the lessons stayed with me. Of course, one shouldn't let caution descend into paranoia. Of course, terrible things can happen to the most sensible of individuals. However, this was the first real place where I learned to go with my gut when I didn't feel safe.

2. Don't mess with the Stack. This dude was not just an actor. HE COULD OBLITERATE YOU WITH HIS EYES. Don't tell me you were never paranoid that he was looking right at you, those pale orbs emanating through the television set when he said, "If you have any information..." Instead of getting less threatening as he grew weaker and more wrinkly, this Untouchables detective turned mystery program host got spookier. More insistent that time was indeed running out to catch the fugitives and identify the lost children. And the voice: that rattling, gravelly timbre responsible for haunting the crap out of nine-year-olds everywhere. After watching Unsolved Mysteries on your grandma's static electricity-inducing TV, a life of crime was just not an option. Robert Stack and his ever-present trench coat were comin' for ya. And they meant business.

3. Pay phones are bad. So are vans, pickup trucks with decals, and gas stations. Living in a major city, I walk a lot. And I STILL edge away from big ole vans, just like I did as a kid. Too many children featured on Unsolved Mysteries were snatched while riding their bikes or going out to buy a new romance novel, never to be heard from again. Women weren't immune to the van threat, either--and they were doubly vulnerable at gas stations with pay phones. Yikes. This life lesson kind of goes along with #1: I learned that anywhere dark, abandoned, or sparsely populated was maybe not the best place to be by myself. Granted, I don't have a car anymore, and pay phones have all but disappeared. Then again, bad stuff happens while waiting for public transportation too.

Funny story about #3: I have a good friend whom I'll call Bob. The summer between my junior and senior year in college, Bob and I would carpool to this outdoor theatre show we were doing, at a historical site in the middle of nowhere. Because our parents were overprotective and cell reception nonexistent, we would often give them a call from the pay phone at the town's only gas station when rehearsal concluded for the evening. One night, I had made the mistake of telling Bob about an Unsolved Mysteries rerun I had watched that day that involved a) a young woman, b) a kidnapper, c) a gas station, d) a pay phone, and e) a truck with an ugly decal. The young woman had been on the pay phone with her boyfriend, but the call was cut short when the boyfriend heard screaming. Witnesses say that a creepy guy in a pickup truck had been hovering near the pay phone (she had asked, "Do you need to use the phone?") and most likely took the young woman against her will. Scary stuff. It gets worse: the boyfriend stayed on the line, and a male voice eventually picked up the phone and said, "I didn't need to use the phone anyway."

Because Bob enjoyed scaring me (still does), after I concluded the "heading home now" call to my parents, he snuck up behind me and said in my ear, "I didn't need to use the phone anyway."


Don't worry, he got an earful of obscenities from me. Probably a slap or two.

4. Humanity can pleasantly surprise you. Two words: Lost Loves. After forty-five minutes of robberies, kidnappings and general nastiness, this segment gently reminded viewers that there were in fact nice people out there--and you could help find other nice people who'd made a positive difference in their lives. My personal favorite: the story of a single mom and her son camped out in a woodsy cabin in rural Germany during World War II. On Christmas Eve, they heard a knock on the door: three American soldiers had lost their way, one of whom was seriously injured and couldn't walk without assistance. But the unexpected visitors didn't stop there: soon after, a few members of the Nazi troops also came upon the cabin. The mother invited everyone to spend the evening out of the cold, on one condition: that all weapons were placed in the shed, out of sight and hopefully out of mind. The food was meager and the language barriers high, but quiet merriment eventually ensued. I can't remember how the mystery itself turned out--I think one of the American soldiers was looking for everyone else, or maybe it was the young son doing the investigating. Either way, the story was a heartening parable on the true meaning of Christmas: in the midst of a terrible war, a group of individuals with wildly different backgrounds and beliefs set their differences aside and came together for one special night. No, I am NOT tearing up right now just thinking about it! It's, um, allergies. Yeah.

5. Be nice to the ghost in your house. Especially if he or she is currently inhabiting the bunk beds you have thoughtfully purchased for your young children. We all have a ghost in our house--a prevalent and annoying presence that seems to exist solely to make your life hell. Even if you're not getting thrown against a wall, screamed at, or otherwise terrorized, chances are the "ghost" is infiltrating your life in an inconvenient manner. The best thing to do? Acknowledge the presence, that it possibly existed before your arrival and no doubt has a history that doesn't involve you. Calmly and politely ask it to leave--verbally or nonverbally, depending on the situation. And if all else fails, get the hell out. Destroy the bunk beds. Realize that some things are indeed out of your control. Know that freaking out is never the answer, and a clear, cool head will get you far. And impress the Stack, who's no doubt sporting a trench coat in that Big TV Set in the Sky.

Was I the only crazy kid who watched Unsolved? Say it ain't so (in the comments)!


  1. I didn't but I did watch Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction and that's close enough. :)

    I also just did a post on my other blog about the Are You Afraid of the Dark episode with the creepy old lady ghost. So yes...if you piss off an old lady ghost, bad things go down!

  2. This was too funny!! I STILL get the heebies when the theme music starts (jeez- just thinking about the Stack in his trench, the swirly fog, the mysterious music and his deep voice is giving me goose bumps). I, too, will not use a pay phone at a gas station without at least 2 peeps watching my back, I look at least 3 times at that truck with the decal (b/c I KNOW it will be the key to solving a brutal homicide) and I ALWAYS check my backseat before unlocking my vehicle and getting inside........RIP the Stack! Farina will never compel me to call the 1-800 number- NEVER!