Long before audiences started listening to the podcast Serial or binge-watching Making a Murderer, another true crime show ruled the airwaves. For 14 seasons, Unsolved Mysteries focused on all types of mysteries that have yet to be solved. Whether they were crimes, tragic separations, or paranormal occurrences, the victims’ families relied on audiences to help solve cases.
Despite the show’s cult following, the show was canceled multiple times before being taken off the air in 2010. But fans can rejoice now because, after ten years, Unsolved Mysteries is back with its 15th season. What makes the series so unique? Has it helped solve any crimes?
We’ve answered all your questions and more with our list of 20 fascinating facts about Unsolved Mysteries. Let’s check it out!
It all began when William Catterson, a father of two, never returned home from his fast-food job. His car was found abandoned, with a chocolate cake for his wife still resting on the passenger seat. All leads led investigators to a dead end, and, after two years, the case was closed.
William’s family lost hope that he would ever be found, that is, until Terry Dunn Meurer aired the case on HBO’s Missing Persons: Four True Stories. The missing man happened to be watching the show and later turned himself in to authorities, admitting that he faked his disappearance. This inspired Terry to create Unsolved Mysteries as a way to solve cold cases and hopefully reunite victims with their families.
But before Unsolved Mysteries premiered on NBC in 1987, it actually started as a TV special called Missing… Have You Seen This Person? The three specials were hosted by David Birney and his wife Meredith Baxter and aired between 1985 and 1986.
The specials focused mainly on child abductions, and, due to the popularity of the show, some of the cases were actually solved. The TV specials were so successful at the time that producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove decided to widen the show’s scope to include all types of unsolved cases. While many Unsolved Mystery fans may remember these TV specials, the episodes’ actual footage is nowhere to be found online.
I don’t have to remind you how distinctive the goosebump-inducing theme music was. “One of the things that really worked was the music,” John Cosgrove said. “I had a lot of friends whose kids would run out of the room because the music scared them so much.” I don’t know about you, but I was one of those kids.
“We used to get letters all the time from parents saying, ‘Could you please change the theme music? Our children are terrified of it,’” Gary Malkin, the show’s composer said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. The theme music was so emotionally triggering and iconic, that when Netflix revamped the show, they kept it.
When I think of Unsolved Mysteries, Robert Stack’s face is the first thing that comes to mind. While he did host the majority of the show’s episodes, he was not the original host. The pilot of what eventually became Unsolved Mysteries aired in January 1987 and was actually hosted and narrated by actor Raymond Burr.
When the show was finally signed for more specials, actor Karl Malden took over the hosting and narrating duties, but his time on the show was short-lived. After two specials, Karl was replaced with Robert Stack, who hosted the final four episodes. Robert remained the show’s host until the show went off the air in 2002.
Hiring actual victims and their families, instead of trained actors, to do the reenactments may seem like a strange choice. After all, that’s what actors get paid to do. Not everyone has a flair for the dramatics. Why would Unsolved Mysteries go with this decision? The practical reason is that producers were working with a small budget, and not hiring actors was a great way to save money.
However, the series’ creators had another reason. According to a Reddit AMA, the show’s creators said, “One thing we realized as time went on is that when family members participated, it was a cathartic experience for them. And they felt good about doing something active to help solve the case. That was reason enough.”
When Unsolved Mysteries first premiered, critics called it “exploitative tabloid journalism.” In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Robert Stack said that he disagreed with this accusation. “We’re balancing two needs here,” Robert told the publication. “We’re trying to produce theater, and we’re trying to do a public service.”
Robert took his hosting duties seriously. He understood that while they were making a hit TV show, they were also telling stories about real, unsolved cases. Each victim had a family that was desperately trying to locate a loved one, and the episode had to be treated as such. The purpose of the show was to help police find leads, while also telling a gripping story.
When Unsolved Mysteries was just starting, they didn’t have enough money to hire top-notch actors. Sometimes the actors were so bad that producers would mask their bad acting skills with a little trick. “This is an Unsolved Mysteries hallmark, and it’s a secret,” David said in the DVD commentary, “but if the narrator talks a lot, and the actors don’t talk at all, it means the acting is really pretty bad, and the narrator is going to cover everything up.”
So if the narrator was silent during the actor’s scenes, that meant that producers thought the actors were doing a good job. “So the game was, how many seconds of the sync sound takes could you get to play in the open? The more sync you got to play in the open, the better the scene. Pretty simple.”
During a 1998 interview with Conan O’Brien, Robert Stack was asked about the outcome of some of the Unsolved Mysteries’ episodes. Stack then shared a story about two crooks from Pontiac, Michigan, who happened to watch an episode that featured their crime.
According to Robert, criminals Jerry Strickland and Melissa Munday had watched an Unsolved Mysteries segment that connected them to a robbery at a gas station that ended in the murder of its attendant. Police received around 15 tips from people in the area after the program aired. When the police came to arrest them a few hours later, the criminals were already waiting for them. It just goes to show just how popular and meaningful Unsolved Mysteries came to be.
While the reenactments were important, they weren’t the only component of the show. “The interviews were so important to the way Unsolved Mysteries was produced,” John Cosgrove said. “People would think that the most important thing was the recreations, but really having articulate people who can summon up the emotions of what it felt like [was key].”
The interviews are what gave each episode substance. The emotion and personal touch from each interview are what really drew audiences in every week. Keva Rosenfeld, one of the show’s directors, also added, “You trusted the interviews. If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have a good episode.” In the current Netflix reboot, the show deep dives into one case per episode and relies heavily on interviews to tell the story.
Unsolved Mysteries covered over 1,000 cases during its various reboots across four different networks. More than half of the fugitive episodes helped solve cases. Over 100 families have been reunited, and at least seven wrongly convicted people have been exonerated and released from prison. In total, over 260 cases were solved thanks to the clues and tips provided by viewers.
Just days after Netflix dropped the first six episodes of their Unsolved Mysteries reboot, fans started obsessing over each case’s details, hoping to solve at least one of them. “We’ve probably gotten around 2,000 emails that would be considered either tips or comments,” Terry told Variety. “Every day, we kind of do a tip debrief at the end of the day. And we get so excited about what’s coming in, and feel hopeful that these cases can be solved.”
David Vasser, who directed three Unsolved Mystery episodes from 1989 until 1996, made an interesting point on the DVD commentary. He said that because most of the early directors had a background in documentary filmmaking, it impacted the way each episode was put together.
“We were all used to real life,” Vassar said, “and in the first couple of seasons, it shows. Only occasionally had we worked with actors, and if we did, we worked with actors as hosts because they were hosting a documentary we were making.” The beginning seasons were shot with a small crew, which was made up of around five or six people. “It was like silent films in the 1900s. We did everything ourselves,” David added.
In the early ‘90s, an hour-long drama cost around $1.5 million per episode (compared to today’s $5 to $7 million). However, the show’s producers revealed to The Baltimore Sun that an episode of Unsolved Mysteries could be produced for at least 25 percent of that cost. So how did the show’s producers manage to keep costs so low?
For starters, the overall production didn’t rely on extravagant effects and action scenes. The shooting times for each episode were also relatively short. Interviews and reenactments only took around four to five days, and with editing usually taking around a month per segment. John Cosgrove also added that most of the shoots took place around Los Angeles, which helped keep production costs down.
The original series covered several themes, including murder, wanted fugitives, missing persons, ghosts, UFOs, paranormal events, amnesia, missing heirs, and more. Unlike Netflix’s reboot of the series, the original episodes consisted of four stories from different themes, with an update on an older case.
“Almost every show has an unexplained death in it, and almost every show has a lost love story,” Terry told The Los Angeles Times. “Then we’ll mix and match in there a legend or a gold mine, or we’ll put in one of our UFO stories.” The idea was to mix and match different themes so that anyone watching could find a story he or she felt a connection to.
Today, Unsolved Mysteries may have a cult following, but that wasn’t always the case. “For two years, nobody paid any attention to this show, and all of a sudden comes America’s Most Wanted, which is 14 months after our show went on air, and everybody thinks we copied it,” Robert Stack told the Chicago Tribune in 1988.
Created by John Walsh, America’s Most Wanted worked with law enforcement to locate missing persons and fugitives. John became a human and victim rights activist after his six-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered. Similar to Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted focused on solving cold cases, while also telling a gripping story. The show ran on the Fox network until it was canceled as a weekly show in May 2011.
After its second season, Unsolved Mysteries became a smash hit. The Emmy Awards took notice, and the show snagged consecutive nominations for Outstanding Informational Series from 1989 to 1993, and again in 1995.
Unfortunately, just like the saying goes, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” the series never managed to win. They lost to PBS specials like Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers, Nature, or TNT’s MGM: When the Lion Roars. The series did, however, frequently rank within the Top 10 TV programs in the country thanks to its viewers’ desire to help solve crimes. The thought that viewers may have an unsolved mystery in their own backyard gave the series a unique edge.
The segment Lucky Choir told the story of a church choir that met every Wednesday night at exactly 7:25 p.m.; however, one day, the entire choir was late to church and narrowly avoided an explosion that blew up their church at 7:27 p.m. Unsolved Mysteries’ producers wanted to include an explosion in the reenactment, so they chose a church in Unadilla, Nebraska that was ready for demolition.
They placed five cameras around the building, and the special effects team blew it up using 75 sticks of dynamite and three 10-gallon barrels of gasoline. According to the Unsolved Mysteries fandom page, the explosion was way bigger than anyone expected. There was a huge fireball that shot up into the air, scaring everyone on set.
Matthew McConaughey may be an Academy Award-winning actor today, but his first role was a shirtless murder victim in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. “They got the guy,” McConaughey told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. “They found him around Bryan, Texas, about two weeks after that show.”
SNL veteran Taran Killam also made an appearance in 1995 as a young German boy, and Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines played a grieving mother in a 1997 episode. Other actors took part in the series, including Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim and Happy Together’s Stephanie Weir. Although there was an early policy of hiring real people for the reenactments, the show’s producers turned to actors in later segments.
For a show that crammed four different mysteries into one episode, finding new mysteries was a constant challenge, especially when the Internet didn’t exist. With over 550 episodes, the number of stories that needed to be gathered was staggering. In a Reddit AMA, Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove revealed that their story finding team was very resourceful.
“We had viewers who sent in cases, law enforcement would contact us with cases, and we had a team of researchers constantly looking as well.” The show’s co-creators and producers also said that they used a newspaper clipping service that would send in articles about interesting stories from all around the country.
Some of the segments delved into paranormal and supernatural mysteries. While there were some convincing stories, many people were afraid to appear on the show. People with UFO stories and ghost sightings were scared of exposing themselves to potential ridicule. However, the show’s producers explained that the more articulate and compelling their evidence was, the more intrigued the public would be.
“It was really tough to get people to agree to do the interviews,” John Cosgrove said. “Having us talk to them and pay such close attention to them and help them explain it to the public seems to help them.” That being said, the Netflix reboot only features one alien abduction episode, and it expects to keep supernatural stories to a minimum.
When the series first premiered, Robert Stack told viewers to call the Unsolved Mysteries hotline or send letters to producers if they had any information about the cold cases featured on the show. The hotline remains up and running, even after Spike TV’s reboot of the series that ended in 2010.
With the Netflix revival, producers also updated the method used to send in tips. The show now has a website, where audiences can share their own unsolved mysteries, explore the show’s cold case archive, and submit tips about cold cases. While Netflix’s first batch of six episodes has yet to be solved, producers hope that fans’ curiosity will lead to at least one solved cold case.
Now, this next story may not have been featured on Unsolved Mysteries, but it’s so crazy that it could have made the cut. Linda and Richard Hoagland looked like a perfect couple on the outside, but things were not as they seemed. Richard Hoagland disappeared mysteriously in 1993, and no one ever saw him again.
Keep reading to find out what happened.