Friday, May 13

TV Month 2016 - The Unsolved.

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It was the Summer of 1986, and I was on death's door.

I had the flu. The little kid flu. To this day, it's about as sick as I've ever been. I was riding out a 100+ degree fever on my grandma's couch, sweating straight through to the springs. We didn't have air conditioning, but we did have a box fan that blew humid, recirculated air into my face between punctual bouts of barfing into an ice cream pail I kept by my head.

I slipped in and out of consciousness for the duration of the weekend. I slept, I sweat, I barfed and I watched TV.

It was during one of these comatose, surreal fever dreams when I saw a commercial that I had never seen before. It was advertising a cereal that didn't exist (Circus Fun), but it felt so real. It was like Lucky Charms, but with circus animal marshmallows. It had creepy clay animation and a deranged-sounding carnival barker. It felt like a nightmare broadcast, and it freaked me out something proper.

The whole ordeal was weird enough to convince myself that I had made the entire thing up; a byproduct of being sick as a dog at the age of 4. I never saw the commercial again, I never saw the cereal at stores, and nobody I ever talked to confirmed that the cereal ever existed. Case closed: It wasn't real.

Then 30 years later, this happened.

Well, son of a bitch. It was exactly how I had remembered it.

In the light of day (and adulthood), it's hard to pinpoint why certain, seemingly random things scared you as a child. But you definitely remember the feeling. I remember being afraid of the billboards advertising Jellystone Park, because of the giant, looming visage of Yogi Bear in the night sky. I remember seeing commercials for Time/Life's Mysteries of the Unknown book series and darting out of the room (I then went on to purchase all of them). And I remember this damn Circus Fun commercial, mostly because of the surreal uneasiness. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

My curiosity always got the best of me; my fear taking a backseat to discovery. I read every book, watched every movie and took in every TV show that frightened me.

My jam was the Paranormal. Anything unsolved. Serial murderers on the loose. And wouldn't you know it, the 1990's blessed us with all of that and then some in the form of Unsolved Mysteries, the scariest television program ever made:

It was pitch-perfect nightmare fuel. The opening disclaimer. The iconic music. The reenactments. The haunting voice of Robert Stack. The way they swayed between journalism and pseudoscience in a way my childlike brain couldn't differentiate. Unsolved Mysteries was the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of scaring the shit out of me. I remember they did a two-hour special on nothing but poltergeist cases, and I couldn't sleep for days. It knocked something loose, presumably forever. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

My love for the unexplained moved into the late 90's, as Unsolved Mysteries was followed by its FOX successor, Sightings.

Like Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings was not so much of a news broadcast as it went into the fringes of speculation and sensationalism (ie: bullshit). However, Sightings was all about the paranormal, all the time. Even after being canned by FOX, they moved to the Sci-Fi (NOT SyFy) Channel for the remainder of their run.

Pre-Alien Autopsy, I recall an episode where they attempted to track down the creator of the 'Guardian Tape,' or when they camped out for weeks at the sight of the 'Heartland Ghost,' where a supposed poltergeist was wreaking havoc on a young family. Pre-Internet, this was as far as my rabbit hole could go, and in retrospect, that was all for the better. I would have certainly become a Dale Gribble-type if left to my own devices. I needed to know more. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

On Halloween night in 1994, CBS paid homage to War of the Worlds with the made-for-TV movie Without Warning. It was a clever film about aliens contacting us, America retaliating with violence (as we do), and the aliens retaliating by wiping us off the map. No problem, right?

Not so fast. While cheesy in retrospect, Without Warning was presented as a live broadcast of actual events as they happened, at a time where such media didn't exist in abundance. Also, while a disclaimer opened the show and bumped in the first few commercial breaks, the announcement did not resurface for the remainder of the presentation. In short, people were taken in and flipped their collective wigs. A lot of people, including myself.

It's not that I thought what I was seeing was actually happening. It's just that it was such a raw example of what could possibly happen if the shit went down, that it jettisoned me directly into an existential crisis regarding our mortality. It looks so ridiculous now, but I can't stress how effective it was on my 12-year old psyche.

I no longer live in a world where I'm fearful of aliens, poltergeists, Robert Stack and cereal commercials. But I am still afraid of the Unsolved. Only now, this manifests itself in the form of xenophobes, homophobes, racists, nationalists and anyone else who acts out of hate and fear, simply because they do not understand thoughts outside of their own. 2016's been weird, man.

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Yeah, I wish.


These last couple of weeks have been an incredible nostalgic roller coaster. We are very close in age (I'm a 1981 birthday) and I grew up in California, but so much of what you have discussed is my childhood as well. Particularly the programming block from last week... Disney afternoon and Saturday mornings were highlights of my childhood and bring back such fond memories.

Thanks for running this series!!
The pleasure is all mine; thanks much for the kind words!

I had been looking for a way to talk about this stuff for quite some time, and I thought the best method was to present it the way I remembered it: Fuzzy and sorta disjointed. Akin to flipping through the TV dial and catching random snippets.

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