When I was little, I developed an unusual habit. Where other kids wanted soothing bedtime stories, I—exposed to horror movies maybe just a little bit too early by a teenage uncle, such that I spent my chicken-pox absence from kindergarten gleefully watching Jason Goes to Hell—was after something different. Tell me about a disaster, I used to beg my parents. Tell me about a fire. My parents, fortunately for them and, as far as I was concerned at the time, deeply unfortunately for me, had not had a great deal of personal experience with environmental calamities or axe murderers. But where they failed in the grotesque horror department, another figure in my life prevailed: Robert Stack.
Beginning in 1987, the gravelly voiced Stack hosted Unsolved Mysteries. Part documentary and part spooky reenactment, the series delved into cold cases, delivering a fix of nightmares where my loved ones fell short. There were cases notorious (D.B. Cooper, a 1962 escape by three prisoners from Alcatraz, the murder of Tupac Shakur) and obscure (the Taos hum, the Gurdon Light), supernatural (the Queen Mary ghost ship, Roswell, chupacabras—really!) and wretched (murders and kidnappings aplenty), all hemmed in by the show’s iconic, creepy theme song.
After a decade off the air, Unsolved Mysteries is finally back: Last week, Netflix released the first six episodes of its reboot, backed by executive producer Shawn Levy, best known for his work with Stranger Things. Much about the new iteration is different, from its prestige gloss to the absence of Stack, who died in 2003. But at its core is the same appeal (not to mention the same creepy theme song): Can its audience crack the case?
Stack was pushing 70 when Unsolved Mysteries came around. He was an actor, but he fit the bill as a shrewd investigator—he had, after all, spent four years earlier in his career playing a Chicago prohibition agent in The Untouchables, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series.
In its early years, Unsolved Mysteries was a smash hit—at one point, episodes regularly brought in an astonishing 30 percent of the national audience. But as the ’90s wore on, the series’ ratings slipped (Stack himself blamed, among other things, the baseball strike); after Stack departed, shortly before his death at age 84, Dennis Farina briefly took the reins.
Rather than attempt to replace Stack, the reboot arrives without any host at all, letting the documentary structure guide it instead. Unlike the original series, which featured a grab bag of different stories in each episode (a producer once joked that there was a formula: a love story, a death, and a legend or paranormal caper), the reboot goes deep on one story per episode. The six episodes released on Netflix—the first half of the planned season, with the rest to come later in the year—mostly have to do with murder, or maybe-murder: a suicide in Baltimore that might have been foul play, a suspicious death and possible hate crime in rural Kansas, a quintuple homicide and missing murderer in France, a missing person in Missouri, a murder in Georgia.
Then there’s the series’ fifth episode, “Berkshires UFO”—which, yes, sure is about an alleged UFO encounter in the Berkshires, back in the I’m-sure-nothing-else-was-going-on year of 1969. It is both the series’ worst episode and its most fun—Unsolved Mysteries, after all, was always equal parts puzzle and camp, and it’s nice to see its reboot offer at least some of the latter. The new version of Unsolved Mysteries reins in the original’s heavy use of reenactments, generally deploying the segments as a method of scene setting (a man walking into the woods; a drone shot of a child riding a bike down a suburban road). But the UFO episode—which features interviews with adults who say that, as children, they levitated in bright lights, with one professing the aliens communicated with her via “mental telepathy”—leans into the classic Unsolved Mysteries aesthetic, with flying saucers galore. (Allow me to direct your attention to the Stack classic, Mysteries of Alien Beings.)
The other episodes are handled much more soberly, which is not to say they’re dry. “If you can find Osama bin Laden way across the dang world,” says one possible victim’s brother, “you can find out somebody here who did something.”
The original Unsolved Mysteries made a point of positioning itself as part of the various ongoing investigations—or, more to the point, as a vector through which you, the humble viewer, might step in yourself. Each episode ended with a plea: Stack appearing on-screen, wrapped detective-like in a khaki trench coat and fixing his eyes on the camera.
“Tonight’s mysteries are stories without endings,” he purred in one representative episode. “All missing that one vital clue. Perhaps someone watching tonight knows what happened and can reveal the truth. Perhaps it’s you.”
Amazingly, it often was viewers who cracked the case. A convicted murderer who had escaped jail a decade earlier was located in Canada after an episode about him aired. On another occasion, a man wanted for the murder of his wife was located and ultimately took his life after engaging in a shootout with police just hours after being featured on Unsolved Mysteries. The show reunited a woman with her lost siblings: “I was standing there in the studio (after the program ran) and this guy came over and said, ‘I have your sister on the phone,’” she remembered at the time. “I just started to cry. I cried for a week.”
Sometimes, the realization that the show’s lens was fixed in their direction was enough to persuade crooks to turn themselves in: In one instance, a pair wanted for murder and robbery surrendered outright to police after they happened to catch an episode featuring them. So, too, did a man accused of killing his wife and two children one day after an episode about him happened to come on while he—then incognito—was watching television with a friend in Hawaii. “This guy looks like you,” the friend remarked.
(Not all the show’s fans were necessarily interested in solving cold cases: Years before his arrest, the BTK killer wrote a letter to the son of one of his victims, lamenting that the son’s story would have been a good fit for Unsolved Mysteries.)
By 1990, just three years after it had become a regular series, Unsolved Mysteries boasted that it had solved “35 crimes, [found] two missing heirs and [reunited] 10 sets of loved ones.” Occasionally, the series would air what it dubbed an anniversary show, trotting out reunited families and mourning relatives with justice finally in hand. Over the years, its roster of solved crimes has only grown; in its heyday, reruns were often appended with an “UPDATE” banner at the episode’s end, boasting that these mysteries, at least, were officially solved. The audience participation was always the point.
In some ways, that model is at least mostly passé: Many of the original Unsolved Mysteries cases turned on people seeking fugitives or lost loved ones, a process made eminently simpler by things like the internet, improved police databases, and widespread recreational DNA testing on sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com.
These days, true crime is often the province of civilian sleuths—people like Michelle McNamara, who used online tools to chase killers. (McNamara, currently the subject of HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was particularly interested in identifying the Golden State Killer, who was ultimately found via a family member’s use of recreational DNA testing after McNamara’s death. He pleaded guilty last month.)
Already, new Unsolved Mysteries viewers are determinedly searching for leads. The new show goes out of its way to pitch itself to amateur investigators, concluding each episode with a Stack-like prompt to head for the show’s digital tip line. The case of Rey Rivera, the man whose death in an apparent suicide in Baltimore is featured in the series’ first episode, has been an early subject of obsession; after a Redditor’s theory that Rivera’s death might have had something to do with the movie The Game went viral, one of the show’s creators released a statement saying he had floated it to the man’s widow, Allison. (She “doesn’t place any significance on the movie The Game.”)
In the end, viewers’ ability to crack the case might end up being beside the point: Perhaps the real draw is simply the implication that it just might be possible for them to do it at all.