If (like me) you watched too much true crime TV in the 1990s, the Unsolved Mysteries theme is enough to spark some pleasingly bizarre memories—of aliens, psychics, ghostly phenomena, and host Robert Stack, always there to insist that you (yes, you!) might be able to help solve that night’s string of cases.
Unsolved Mysteries ran for over a decade—often dipping back into its own library of hundreds of episodes to update earlier segments as the years went on—and Stack wasn’t its only host; a revived version that aired after Stack’s passing in 2003 starred Dennis Farina, and there’s been talk of a new version in the works.
Also, it’s worth noting that Unsolved Mysteries, which was structured around re-enactments and interviews with experts and witnesses, didn’t only deal in paranormal subjects; it also offered investigations into cold-case murders, long-lost relatives, fugitives from justice, and so on. But this very clearly wasn’t America’s Most Wanted—it almost always had at least one foot dangling into the realm of those Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown books.
For this list of our favorite eerie cases, we’ve gone back to the classic Robert Stack Unsolved Mysteries era; seasons 1-12 are all streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu. Share your (yes, your!) favorites in the comments!
In classic Unsolved Mysteries style, the saga of a late-1950s Yeti search party that traveled through the Himalayas is stitched into an episode that also contains far more serious tales—like that of a recently reunited elderly couple searching for the baby they’d been forced to give up for adoption decades prior. At any rate, the Yeti segment includes an interview with Peter Byrne, one of the members of that Himalayan expedition, who discovered mysteriously huge footprints on his initial visit—and then, on a return trip, pilfered a finger from a “Yeti hand” on display in a mountain temple.
Back in the U.S., tests on the finger proved inconclusive. But since the show is called Unsolved Mysteries, Stack himself gives Abominable Snowman believers a shred of hope, reminding us that “it seems impossible, but...we must remember, it was only 70 years ago that the Giant Panda of China was first observed in the wild by Western man. Until then, it too was regarded as nothing more than a mythological creature.”
The lead-off segment of this episode offers a re-enactment of the events leading up to the disappearance of Flight 19—five Navy planes that, famously, vanished into thin air during a training exercise in December 1945. The Bermuda Triangle thus became seared into the popular imagination as a mystically perilous region—the planes and their alien-abducted pilots a plot point in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This Unsolved Mysteries episode briefly follows an explorer’s determined hunt for one of the five missing planes, though later in season three, a follow-up episode focusing on the underwater wreckage deduced that it was not part of the fated “Lost Patrol,” which remains lost to this day.
Unsolved Mysteries’ Halloween-themed episodes could always be counted on for extra helpings of the show’s brand of woo-woo content, and season three’s seventh episode did not disappoint. There are segments covering a coastal South Carolina ghost said to protect islanders from deadly hurricanes, the story of a stockbroker who was found dead after a vision quest (or, more likely, a nervous breakdown of some kind) in the Southwest desert, and a feature on a psychic named “Katie” whose story is so strange that Stack insists “you be the judge” of whether or not she’s for real.
Katie sees ghosts, has visions of crime scenes, that sort of thing. But her wildest ability is sweating what looks like gold leaf from pores all over her body—something skeptics are seemingly able to duplicate using hairspray and metallic foil from an art-supply store, though Unsolved Mysteries leaves the whole thing rather open-ended, as promised.
This action-packed episode—filmed when notorious mobster-turned-fugitive Whitey Bulger was still at large—stays mostly grounded, but it does include the very strange account of “tiny toxic blobs of goo” that rained down on a small Washington town multiple times in August 1994. In the aftermath, many residents came down with the same mysterious flu. Under analysis, the “perplexing precipitation” (some choice Stack phrasing there) proved to contain human white blood cells, but was otherwise unidentifiable; what’s more, nobody could figure out how it got up in the sky in the first place. Was it human waste expelled from an airliner? The FAA was able to rule that out. Was it, as many locals believed, a secret military test of some kind? Per usual, Unsolved Mysteries doesn’t make an outright judgment call, but the editing suggests that “maybe we were biological experiments of some kind?” is still a theory worth keeping in play.
In an episode that also delves into the murder of Tupac Shakur (still unsolved, 24 years later), Unsolved Mysteries also turns its attention to one of its beloved “mainstream science says it can’t happen” situations: chronicling the phenomenon of people suddenly bursting into flame. We meet a man who discovered the charred remains of his father in 1986, as well as a meter reader who was making his rounds back in 1966 and stumbled upon a pile of human ashes (and, somehow, one lonely foot), and still seems quite unsettled by the memory. While Unsolved Mysteries itself remains staunchly objective, the show does bring out a believer and a skeptic to weigh in separately—and the word “crackpottery” is used by guess which guest.
“More than 300 years ago, a condemned killer pronounced a curse on the seat as he was led to the gallows,” Stack tells us, noting that Thomas Busby was allowed to visit his favorite North Yorkshire pub, sit in his favorite chair, and guzzle a pint before heading to his execution. His parting gift—declaring that whoever sat in his place would meet a sudden end—became a legend that persisted into the 20th century, with various soldiers, bricklayers, roofers, janitors, and others over the years proving its curse to be correct, at least anecdotally. These days, the macabre artifact is mounted on the wall of a nearby museum, placed too high for anyone to actually sit in ever again. As Stack reassures us, “Its killing days are presumed to be over.”
The Yeti got its own Unsolved Mysteries spotlight, as did Florida’s famed Skunk Ape, but the series also devoted multiple segments to different Sasquatch sightings over the years. The man-ape’s first appearance on the show came in season one, in a story involving “12 reliable witnesses” (most of whom don’t appear on camera) and a few shreds of evidence (photographs of tracks in the snow, hair caught in a screen door) collected in the Colorado mountains.
The re-enactments—picture a hulking actor in a shaggy costume loping through the snow—are probably more memorable than any of the actual findings, though that didn’t curb the show’s enduring curiosity about the creature. In a season six episode, Unsolved Mysteries accompanies a group of Bigfoot enthusiasts (including Peter Byrne, the finger bandit from the Yeti episode) into the Pacific Northwest forest to check out reports of recent encounters. “Even hoaxes are usually based on something,” Stack declares, but anything that could constitute proof remains elusive by the end of the segment.
Any series purporting to investigate the unknown must have a ghost ship, and there’s no more fascinating tale in that realm than the saga of Mary Celeste. In what has to be one of the most elaborate Unsolved Mysteries re-enactments ever, we travel back in time to a sepia-toned 1872, when the ill-fated ship sailed out of New York harbor—only to be found abandoned four weeks later off the coast of Portugal without any passengers (or any solid clues as to what happened to them). The ship’s valuable cargo—barrels of pure alcohol—was mostly intact, so some suspected a conspiracy involving the captain of the ship that discovered the abandoned craft, or even a mutiny among the Mary Celeste crew was to blame.
Stack chimes in with the most boring, and therefore most likely, scenario—that fumes from leaking barrels drove everyone into a lifeboat, which then accidentally became separated from the main ship. But all told, Stack reminds us, “the secret of the Mary Celeste remains to this day a tantalizing unsolved mystery.”
One of the greatest unsolved mysteries of Unsolved Mysteries is how a show so obsessed with extraterrestrials managed to hold off until its season two premiere to visit Roswell. Airing four years before The X-Files gave alien conspiracy theories a prominent pop-culture platform, this episode meticulously breaks down what’s still the most famous incident in UFO history: The morning after a wild thunderstorm in 1947, a rancher finds some very unusual debris scattered around his fields.
Unsolved Mysteries offers up interviews with the rancher’s nearest neighbor, the son of one of the first military responders to the site, and the officer ordered to issue the initial press release about the incident—all of whom agree that something very out of the ordinary happened that night. Does it prove E.T. exists? We still don’t know. We’ll probably never know. But as a hopeful Stack puts it, “perhaps...just perhaps.”
The famous Chicago ghost gets an appropriately spooky segment in this Valentine’s Day-themed episode—which in Unsolved Mysteries terms means “lost loves,” of course. Resurrection Mary, said to be the spirit of a beautiful young woman killed in a 1934 traffic accident and buried in Resurrection Cemetery, is known for accepting rides and then vanishing when the car reaches the graveyard entrance. The re-enactments are particularly striking in this one, with a spectacularly glowing ghost in a flowing gown, and even though Stack warns against picking up hitchhikers around the cemetery, all the interviewees who claim to have seen Mary in the wild seem way more thrilled than terrified.
Unsolved Mysteries often covers similar subject matter from episode to episode, whether it’s reuniting estranged families or charting alien abductions. But once in awhile the show finds a totally unique topic, as in the case of “psychic artist” Coral Polge. To put it simply: She draws dead people. As she explains it, it’s an ability that blends intuition with a sort of spin on automatic writing, and—as side-by-side photos of the deceased and Polge’s drawings show—sometimes she’s alarmingly accurate. She admits she doesn’t get it right every time, and of course, Unsolved Mysteries is going to highlight her greatest successes out of “100,000 eerie portraits,” as Stack calls them. But however she does it, it’s downright uncanny.
After the death of his abusive grandfather, 21-year-old Don Decker apparently gained the ability to manifest something like a rainstorm—indoors. The rain began at a house belonging to his friends, then somehow followed the group across the street to a pizza restaurant, then Don started levitating, bleeding from spontaneous claw marks, screaming “it burns!” at a rosary, and generally acting possessed. Among several witnesses, the police officers present were divided on what they’d seen, but when Don started making it rain inside the local jail, a priest was summoned to take care of what everyone had decided by then was some kind of demonic situation.
This entire segment has so many facets of WTF—seriously, why would anyone go to the trouble of faking something so specifically freakish?—but Stack, ever the classy host, has just the right speech on hand to put us even further over the edge: “As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.