As I mentioned in January of last year –you know, back when we could still remember what month we were living in– I’m a child of the 1980’s, and my development as a Fortean was largely influenced by Robert Stack’s baritone voice and the ominous piano riff of Unsolved Mysteries, as unmistakable to my ears as the X-Files theme. So when the announcement came that Netflix was planning on bringing back this beloved TV series, I had very high hopes for it.
The series premiered a week ago on July 1st and, sure enough, my favorite piano riff was back. There was even a very brief and quasi-etherical homage to Robert Stack by the end of the intro, for us nostalgic Gen X-ers out there. Aaaaaand… that’s it: no new host walking out from a dry-ice fog to explain the particulars of each mystery to the audience. Whether the decision to do without a presenter in this new installment of Unsolved Mysteries, was out of respect to the memory of the Elliot Ness interpreter –or just a gimmick to save costs– I’ll leave the readership to decide; all I know is that Luke Cage’s Mike Colter would’ve looked badass in a black trench coat…
Ahh, if only this would’ve been the only major change in the new Unsolved Mysteries! If there were any other paranormal junkies out there waiting on Netflix to provide them with a fresh fix of weird stuff, then now doubt they were as disappointed as I was with the choice made by the producers for this first season: Six episodes in total, out of which only one was devoted to UFOs; the rest dealt with murders and disappearances that have left the authorities scratching their heads, and the families of the victims grieving due to a lack of closure.
Now, maybe it’s a cultural thing or something, but unlike the majority of American viewers I’ve never been too much of a fan of true crime stories (my visit to the Museum of Death in Los Angeles with a group of friends in 2017 made me extremely uncomfortable). I’ve never understood why people get so obsessed with the pain and suffering inflicted by these real-life monsters on their victims. All those popular series on Netflix about serial killers like Making a Murderer and Manhunt? I’d rather rewatch old episodes of TNG while I wait for the new season of The Witcher, thank you very much.
So I gotta give credit to the Netflix producers that in spite of this they did manage to get me hooked on all the unsolved crimes presented in the episodes within minutes: The strange suicide of Rey Rivera who fell to his death from the rooftop of the old Belvedere hotel in Baltimore, leaving a strange note behind his home computer and with his long-time friend and employer refusing to talk to the police; the death of Patrice Enders, who disappeared in 2004 from her beauty salon and whose remains were later found, leaving behind her young son Pistol (!) and her much older husband who kept her ashes and slept with them as if they were a Teddy bear (!!); the murder of an aristocratic family in France with the father being the prime suspect and nowhere to be found; the death of Alonzo Brooks, a young man who was last seen alive at a party in rural Kansas; and finally, the disappearance of young Lena Chaplin, who was the main witness in the murder of her stepfather at the hands of Lena’s own mother and her new boyfriend.
Yes, all the cases were very intriguing, and the possibility that bringing them into public exposure could help solve these crimes is of course important –at the end viewers who could provide more information were encouraged to call the authorities or log in to unsolved.com– but the bad aftertaste they left in my mouth reminded me why I stay clear of this sort of entertainment.
There was even one case (Episode #4: “No Ride Home”) in which the disappearance of Alonzo Brooks and the unusual circumstances surrounding his death reminded me of the controversial Missing 411 cases investigated by researcher David Paulides: for instance, the fact that Brooks’s boots were found not far from where he was last seen, and his body was located by his family members on a place which had already been thoroughly searched by the authorities: a small brook, yet the corpse had no signs of drowning –or even signs of bodily trauma nor decomposition; bodies of water are, according to Paulides, a common recurrence in Missing 411’s.
When I mentioned this on my Twitter timeline during the weekend though, there were several people (including my good friend Tim Binnall) who disagreed with me and thought associating this probable hate crime to the Missing 411 mystery was an unnecessary distraction. To which I still maintain that I’m not trying to question the motive of his tragic murder, but the methodology; after all, when one suggests a particular crime shares some of the elements of the Missing 411 pattern, we are not saying the victim was killed by aliens or fairies (even though the circumstances behind a percentage of these deaths have led people to suggest some sort of ‘supernatural’ intervention). Alonzo Brooks could have very well been the target of a ritualistic murder –his interviewed friends mentioned he was particularly loquatious that night, which might suggest someone spiked his beverage– and taking notice of the odd details in his case could hopefully help in the finding of his attackers. Or not.
So what about the one true paranormal episode, then? In January of 2019 I wrote that I hoped the producers of the new Unsolved Mysteries would stay clear of cases that suffer from too much exposure, and in this regard at least they did not disappoint at all: The series of strange UFOlogical events clustered around Berkshire County, Massachusetts, on Sept 1st, 1969 which involved different independent witnesses of varying ages and background –Jane Green, Tom Warner, Melanie Kirchdorfer, Thomas Reed and his mother Nancy– are fascinating stories this seasoned UFO enthusiast had never heard of before and definitely deserve further attention, because they show a wide gamut of elements which have by now become cliched in close encounter narratives (mind control, paralyzing beams, abduction, missing time, etc) but back then hadn’t had a chance to penetrate the collective psyche –this is 14 years before Travis Walton had his abduction experience, and 20 before Budd Hopkins published his seminal Missing Time.
The original Unsolved Mysteries became one of the first TV shows to employ CGI in order to recreate what by now have become classic UFO events –like the boomerang-shaped objects seen on the Hudson valley in the 80s, or the triangular UFOs flying over Belgium in the 90s– but in the new Unsolved Mysteries the CGI is way more subtle and the UFOs remain almost ephemeral on the screen, as if to highlight how the true nature of these events continue to elude us, and the only record of them are the impression left in the memories of those fortunate (or unfortunate) to experience them.
So overall a must-watch episode that felt like a delicious ice cream dessert after having to finish a dreadful broccoli dinner. If future seasons of Unsolved Mysteries continue to follow this uneven format of 85% True Crime vs 15% Paranormal, I’m afraid I’ll have to give the show a hard pass despite my 80’s nostalgia.