When I was a kid, my mother employed a highly effective behavior modification technique in order to keep me in line while out in public. It was called, “Let’s all watch Unsolved Mysteries,” and it was so successful that to this day I feel a little quiver of fear at the mere mention of station wagons in school zones, men with greasy hair, lights in the sky, bunk beds or quicksand. From 1987 until 1991, at 8pm on Friday nights, she would push the button on our little, wood-panelled television, and I would settle down, Indian style, on the orange shag carpeting in order to have the shit scared out of me by Robert Stack.
Sidebar: Yes, Indian style. That is what I wrote. This was before the era of political correctness and “criss cross applesauce,” and while I am all for being sensitive, it must be said that this “criss cross applesauce” business is total garbage. What does it even mean? “Criss cross applesauce” describes pie, dammit, not the way a nine-year-old you would sit on the floor and tip your head back until your neck ached so that you could watch TV. Just like how the old lady did not cry after she swallowed the fly. No, she died. She died. She had swallowed a horse and a donkey and a cow and a pig and a goat and a dog and a cat and a bird and a spider, for Christ’s sake, and wouldn’t you die, too? Indian style. Died. Not the most sensitive, perhaps, but at least that shit made sense.
In any case, I both adored and abhorred my weekly pilgrimage into the terrifying world of the criminal and unexplained. Robert Stack always said that for every mystery “there is someone, somewhere, that knows the truth. MAYBE IT’S YOU.” And oh, how I wanted it to be me. I studied every grainy surveillance photo for likenesses to my teachers and relatives, hoping upon hope that just one time I’d make a match. It was like the world’s biggest game of Clue, only with less Tim Curry and more jail.
But as much as I wanted to play real-life Nancy Drew, after each episode I would lay in bed for hours, staring at the popcorn ceiling and fear-spiraling my way out of any hopes of sleep or psychological normalcy. The worst nights came after episodes in which Robert Stack profiled supernatural or just plain accidental mysteries, sadistic programming decisions in which no one knew the truth and everyone was afraid to shop antiques stores in fear of bringing home a haunted headboard. It was upon this exposure that I spent several years absolutely convinced that my brothers’ bunk bed harbored evil spirits that wanted to set our trailer on fire, a prospect made even more horrifying by the fact that Unsolved Mysteries had also taught me that trailers often explode in fires. There was a brief spell in which I drove my mother insane by tip-toeing any time I had to walk the hall. I always said “I don’t know,” when she would ask WHY I was walking like that AGAIN. What I really meant was “I’m being careful not to disturb the bunk bed ghosts that will explode our house while we sleep.”
“I don’t know” seemed simpler.
Last year, when planning a vacation to Florida, Unsolved Mysteries once again exerted its hold over me. While perusing tourist websites, Nick said, “How about we take a day to go to the Everglades?”
“No, look, they have-”
And that was the end of that. With the story of one little girl from Florida who never returned from an Easter Egg hunt, concluded by ominous descriptions of the quicksand and wildlife inhabiting the Everglades, that entire section of the Sunshine State instantly became dead to me – DEAD TO ME – and I will never, ever, evereverever go there. Ever. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the Everglades were the inspiration for The NeverEnding Story, and its swamps contain the evil sadness that sucked up Artax and made me cry sad and bitter tears for what felt like a million years. It was Robert Stack’s monologuing about the quicksand in the Everglades that caused me to nearly have a nervous breakdown that time my mother got the car stuck in the “soft shoulder” on the side of the road, and made me feel like I had to throw up when MythBusters decided to experiment with sand-and-water sinkage.
But… it also stopped me from ever venturing too deeply into the wilds of the Adirondacks while on Easter Egg hunts. Which is why, from a parenting perspective, this whole “Unsolved Mysteries as family programming” idea was so damned brilliant. 20 years and two kids later, I can appreciate the value of a terrorist mindset in the production of reality TV. Unfortunately, nothing like Unsolved Mysteries exists anymore – we’re more sensitive these days. We sit “criss cross applesauce” and sing about old ladies who cry after they ingest the full mammalian contents of a working farm. We prefer our reality TV to be about finding true love and losing weight and winning races, all concepts that are somewhat disturbing if you really think about it, but have the ability to be packaged in a way that will make us do the happy cry into our giant bags of M&Ms. We call this progress, this new age in which we parent with logic and reason. I get it, I’m grateful for it. I want to be a good mom and not parent out of fear.
Even if I do make myself hoarse with 3,000 reminders a day about boundaries while playing outside.
And not messing with things that don’t belong to you.
And not disappearing into trees on nature walks.
3,000 fucking times a day. For real.
Until I’m hoarse.
Sooooo, hey… Totally unrelated note: Turns out that some of those old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries are available online.
Well, now. Isn’t that interesting.