This one means a lot to me.
Weeks after it became a regular series, Unsolved Mysteries aired a special Halloween episode. They’d only cop to it being an “all ghosts” special, but given its debut date — October 26th, 1988 — I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider it a Halloween stunt.
I loved Unsolved Mysteries from the very start of the “Stack era” (previously aired specials had other hosts), and so at the impressionable of 9, I watched this terrible parade of ghastly ghouls and reacted accordingly.
Unsolved Mysteries ranks among my favorite TV shows ever, but entertainment value aside, I can hardly think of another show that affected me so much. With spooky segments covering everything from UFOs to satanic rituals, it fascinated me to pieces and frightened me to death.
If you’re only familiar with Unsolved Mysteries from the “Farina era,” the Stack episodes were far creepier, with an added emphasis on haunting music, bleak sets, and of course, Robert Stack himself. A guy who could read Peanuts comics and make them sound like Lovecraft.
The ghost-related segments were of particular interest. They’re the ones that “got me” the most. Today I take them with ten pounds of salt, but as a kid, I accepted every Unsolved Mysteries ghost story at face value. And boy, did that mess me up.
There’s a certain type of paralyzing fear that’s exclusive to childhood. To “achieve” it, you need a total lack of cynicism and a special naiveté. Most of us forget what that fear feels like as we grow older, but when I watch these old segments again, I remember.
This Halloween special marked the first time that Unsolved Mysteries dedicated an entire hour to one specific “genre.” (Most episodes mixed things up, so you never knew if the next segment would be about space aliens or some guy from Utah who swore he had a twin brother in Missouri.)
There were four segments included, and all of them were later collected on the Unsolved Mysteries “Ghosts” DVD. (Which is why I’m going to limit the videos in this post to snippets. Wanna see the full segments? Buy the DVD. I have it. It’s great.)
Sadly, all Unsolved Mysteries DVDs lack the original opening sequence, which you can see in the above video. They tinkered with it from season to season, but it always had that theme, those effects, and a volley of scary clips from various segments. This intro set the tone for an hour of wonder… and torment.
Honestly, the intro is as spooky as any of the segments. I remember scaring myself by merely thinking about the music. Like, if I was alone downstairs and there weren’t enough lights on, it’d come creeping into my head, and I’d try so hard to get it out of there. Never worked. Shit just got louder.
Below is a brief look at the special’s four segments, which included some of Unsolved Mysteries’ all-time best ghost stories. I’ve included videos from each, and though they’re short, I think you’ll see exactly how a nine-year-old could’ve been positively WRECKED by this show.
Segment #1: Ghosts of the Queen Mary!
In one of the show’s most oft-repeated segments, we learned about the spirits supposedly haunting the Queen Mary, a cruise ship turned warship that eventually became a floating hotel.
During its tenure as a permanently docked hotel, the Queen Mary was positively rife with supernatural activity. The stories are varied, covering everything from unplaceable noises to full-on ghost encounters.
Unsolved Mysteries went into great detail about the incidents, but my favorite moment comes early, when a former employee talks about the time she saw an “old lady ghost” diving into the ship’s pool. Antiquated as the special effects might be, it’s still pretty freaky to see a glowing old ghost messing around on a diving board.
Okay, so maybe the old lady ghost isn’t that scary. Thing is, Unsolved Mysteries had incredible powers of suggestion. Some woman casually tells me that she saw a ghost, and suddenly I’m seeing them everywhere, only for the briefest moments, and always out of the corner of my eye. Goddammit.
Segment #2: Tallman’s Ghost!
The Tallman’s Ghost segment is LEGENDARY. It’s one of the scariest segments ever featured on the show, of any type. Here, a family “inherits” malevolent spirits after bringing an haunted bunk bed into their home. Most of the ghosts featured on Unsolved Mysteries didn’t mean much harm, but this time, those spirits were freakin’ pissed.
The family experiences so many terrible things. Kids get sick. People see witches lurking around the house at night. Disembodied voices offer death threats. Fires materialize and suddenly vanish.
The reenactment is fantastic. Everyone — especially “Dad” — looks exhausted and terrified. The house they live in seems kind of cramped, which only adds to the madness. There are plenty of eerie special effects at play, but it’s the stuff they don’t show that sticks with you most. (I mentioned that one of them saw a witch, but we never do. And what we imagine is so much worse than anything the production crew could’ve come up with.)
Not gonna front. Even today, under the right lack of light and with the right lack of sleep, memories of the Tallman’s Ghost segment can make me act like I’m nine years old again. And that’s… oddly cool.
Segment #3: The Haunted Wayne Inn!
Hundreds of years old, this hotel-turned-restaurant has had its share of spooks, with a lean on dead/undead soldiers from the Revolutionary War. Google is your friend if you’d like to know more, but for the purposes of this review, I’d like to focus on what happens in that short video.
DECAPITATED GHOST HEAD!
I’m watching it now, and yeah, it’s pretty silly. Like a gag from WDW’s Haunted Mansion. Unsolved Mysteries wasn’t afraid to be spooky, but they only got “gory” if a story really called for it. So instead of a bloody prop head, we just get a superimposed head of a guy who narrowly misses the mark on “standing still.” All told, it’s probably more comedic than creepy.
But back in 1988? Oh, jeez. The idea that I’d see twisted ghost heads strategically placed on our furniture was enough to make me walk with my eyes closed.
I have no reason to doubt the interviewee’s story, but some of you might. After all, Unsolved Mysteries did have a habit of letting people make huge deals over quick “hiccups” like this. (I’ll never forget the time they interviewed some woman about her firsthand encounter with the “Men in Black” — all because she passed someone on the street whose skin “didn’t look right.”)
Segment #4: The Tatum House!
Last but not least, it’s the story of Jim and Kay Tatum, an adorable, elderly couple who swear that they have a supernatural roommate.
Objectively, it’s pretty hard to buy their tales. Every encounter that they describe has a natural explanation. Hey, people hear strange noises, and people think they see things when they sleepily glance at angled mirrors. It’s tough to believe that a ghost would go through the trouble of manifesting in such benign, disprovable ways.
But at the same time, you WANT to believe them, because they’re just so cute and likable. In a rare treat for Unsolved Mysteries, Jim and Kay also star in their own reenactment. (You know what blows more than anything? Kay Tatum’s lack of an IMDB page.)
We’re given the impression that the Tatums eventually came to an loose understanding with their ghost. When you toss aside your skepticism, it’s neat to imagine the dead and the living settling their differences and watching the big game together.
At the end of the special, Robert Stack summarizes things with a truly bizarre analogy about solar eclipses, and then we cut to the credits.
I could’ve written a whole article about the ending credits alone. The music they used to close the show didn’t pack the punch of the opening theme, but in its way, it was twenty times spookier. If music could say “thanks for watching, now you will spend the rest of the night thinking you’re surrounded by ghosts and murderers,” that’s exactly what this music said. I’m a hundred years old and it still makes me shiver.
I loved this show. I still love this show. I credit Unsolved Mysteries as the start-point for so many of my fascinations, and for quite a few of my hangups. If you catch me off-guard and get me to name my points of passion without first considering what they’re “supposed” to be, I’d rattle off things like UFOs, cryptozoology, twisted crimes, and yes, ghosts. It’s all because of Unsolved Mysteries.
I guess Robert Stack just had a way of nurturing the dark side.