In the late 80s and early 90s, before the advent of reality television, if you wanted to watch programming about real life, you had two choices: the evening news or real-life dramas.
The latter, as their name imply, showcased stories about real people and events through live-action dramatizations. Around this time, my family habitually watched two real-life dramas: Rescue 911, which reenacted real-life emergency situations involving 911 calls, and Unsolved Mysteries.
You can only guess which one of those two I'll be talking about here.
#10: Unsolved Mysteries
Unsolved Mysteries first aired on NBC as a series of television specials before eventually becoming its own series. As its name implies, it showcased stories about real life mysteries, mostly murders and disappearances, though it also had stories about the supernatural and paranormal such as ghost and alien sightings.
These stories were reenacted through live-action dramatizations with interview segments of the people involved. At the end of each show, a hotline number was given, allowing television viewers to call in if they had any information about the mysteries shown. This was an extremely effective tactic that allowed many of the mysteries to be solved, though many more remain unsolved to this day.
This show had an extremely creepy atmosphere behind it, which was provided by two infamous elements. The first was its theme song.
Forget Twilight Zone. Forget X-Files. This is the theme song that nightmares are born from.
The song consists of little more than the same deep beats and high-pitch piano notes looped over and over again, and yet the combination of the two results in a haunting melody that seems more fitting for a slasher flick that a television drama.
Seriously. Just mute any movie like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th and play this theme music over it. You'll get the same creepy vibe as the movie's original soundtrack.
Perhaps the creepiest aspect of this song is how the opening sounds like a car fast approaching you, and when the actual song starts off, it feels exactly like a car crashing into you. I don't know if it's just me or if that was the actual song's intent.
And clearly I wasn't the only one scared witless by this song. While searching for it on YouTube, the very first top result isn't of the actual show opening, but of a slideshow of creepy imagery set to the theme music:
And yet it still manages to be effective! Just read the comments and learn how most people were terrified of this music.
But you need more than creepy music to have a creepy show. It also helps to have a creepy host providing creepy narration.
Enter Robert Stack.
Aside from the nightmare-inducing theme music, Stack was the other element of the show that people remember most about it. Think of him as this show's Ron Sterling, only instead of introducing fictional scary stories, he introduced real ones, and his delivery helped set the tone for them and the entire show.
Dressed in a brown trench coat, Stack looked and sounded almost like an FBI agent, the type that investigated the supernatural for a living, like Mike and Sculley. With a serious grave expression and an ominous voice, his narration helped add to the overall creep factor of the show. And yes, his voice work has been featured in other media: most notably as Ultra Magnus in the Transformers animated movie and in Nickelodeon's Butt Ugly Martians as, fittingly enough, the host of a paranormal show.
Surprisingly enough, this show lasted for a long time, running from 1988 up until 2002, though it waxed in popularity and ratings in its later years. With the passing of Stack in 2002, the series was canceled.
The good news is that it currently airs in reruns on Lifetime. The bad news? Both the theme song and Stack segments and narration were removed and replaced. In other words, what made the show infamously creepy was stripped away from it.
Even if the show no longer maintains its creep factor, it will always remain haunting the darkest reaches of our nightmares.
How scary is it? About as scary as a drunk with Tourettes Syndrome impersonating Robert Stack himself.