7 Crucial Lessons from Unsolved Mysteries

There’s a joke in my family that I was only made aware of recently, and it’s that I am going to wind up being like one of the sons from Step Brothers. Living with my parents well into my thirties. Unemployed. No car. Not married. The list goes on. My brother Willy P probably told the joke to my mother and she probably laughed because she thinks it’s true. Right now, at least, I think she thinks it could happen. In addition to freelancing and working in retail, I am looking for that ever-holy full-time job. And when it comes, glory will be upon us. Yet for now, everyday I must convince Mother, “Yes, I applied to many jobs today. Yes, I reached out to people on LinkedIn. No, Mother, I can’t apply to that job, I can’t afford a car. There’s only $80 in my bank account, $37,000 of which belong to my student loans.”

Sometimes I watch Full House at night. It’s not a great show, but I remember it being on in the background when I was very little – maybe three years old. Then, when I was in middle school and had the house to myself before anyone came home, I would eat a ham and cheese Hot Pocket and watch reruns. Now whenever I watch an episode I always have my computer next to me, convinced that as long as Final Draft is opened, I am still writing.

I feel like a disappointment to my parents and a broken record to my friends – I mean, how many times can you make a joke about having no money? As much as we need comedy to relieve pain and forget our woes, hearing the same joke over and over again becomes depressing. There are only so many times you can chuckle about Uncle Jesse’s hair or Kimmy Gibbler’s feet until you feel like you’re trapped in a mental institution.

So instead of remembering the good old days through corny sitcoms, occasionally I will turn to Unsolved Mysteries and visit the stories that scared me in my younger days, and to be honest, still do. That’s the thing about comedy – there’s a setup, and then a punch line, and not much else left to the imagination. But with mysteries, the story is never over until it is officially solved. When I get creeped out by something that had the same effect on me ten years ago, it’s almost like time has never changed.

For those of you who were not fortunate enough to be brought up by the school of Robert Stack, Unsolved Mysteries ran from 1987 – 2001 and brought to life the disturbing stories you heard on the news. It terrified even the most skeptic of viewers, and the opening theme certainly didn’t help. I still suffer post-traumatic stress when I hear the music followed by Stack’s spine-chilling narration reminding us that we might be able to help solve a mystery.

The show was extremely successful in finding criminals and reuniting families with their lost loved ones, or at least bringing some sort of closure involving a missing person’s whereabouts. And what separates this show from the copycats on Investigation Discovery and similar networks is that Unsolved Mysteries actually seemed dedicated to helping victims and families. What is on TV today is edited so heavily with campy special effects and overly dramatic narration and performances that it appears to be purely for entertainment, making a melodrama out of unfortunately real events. Whereas Unsolved Mysteries told the facts without flair, what you see today are basically TV movies in disguise – they have the actors smiling sinisterly into the cameras breaking the fourth wall, and each commercial break ends in some dramatic tune. Unsolved Mysteries treated each episode like a mini-documentary usually no longer than ten minutes. They interviewed eye-witnesses and loved ones and gave all sides of a story, so although they claimed at the beginning that the show “wasn’t a news broadcast,” it kind of was one, but with Robert Stack’s charm. Today, stories that would have taken Unsolved Mysteries eight minutes to tell take an hour, presumably so that networks can make advertisement money, but by the time you’re on the third commercial, you’ve already said “Screw this,” and have looked up what ultimately happened on your phone. It takes you out of the story, in contrast to how Unsolved Mysteries dragged you in and chained you to your chair. Today’s shows have no intention of bringing justice to families. They are only interested in making a profit off slightly titillating stories that happened to average people.

Coming home from school on half-days when the show was on Lifetime and being scared out of my wits, Unsolved Mysteries taught me many lessons that have shaped how I approach life, which I would like to share with you:

1. Don't use an ATM at night

There was one case about a young man named Matthew Chase who disappeared after going to an ATM to deposit a check from work. Records show that he was able to make it to the machine, but that he had attempted to take out a large sum of cash. Authorities thought this was suspicious, and when they looked at the video footage of him at the bank making the transaction, there was a man standing inches away from him. They believe that this man was Chase’s killer, and that Chase was requesting such a large amount to alert the bank of his situation. His body was discovered weeks later and his killer has never been found. This case always scared me because of what a sucky situation it was – he only had an hour left to deposit that check; that’s why he left in the middle of the night to do it. So by waiting until the last minute but also not wanting to get murdered, you risk not having any cash money. I saw this episode long before I was depositing checks, so what stuck out to me the most was how vital it is to be aware of your surroundings. One time when we were little, Willy P and I were staying at our dad’s house and we decided to walk to the corner store to get some Stewart’s. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a truck following us, but didn’t think anything of it. Allentown, NJ is one of those towns where once an out-of-towner enters, they get lost, even though it’s really just one road. I think some people get confused and think they are in Allentown, PA. That’s why I didn’t think anything of it. Then as we walked out of the store and back to our house, I noticed the truck slowly following us from behind again, stopping whenever I glanced at the driver. I said something to my brother, who at the time was still puny and eye-level with me. He got out one of the root beer bottles to use as a weapon, and even though this guy probably could have had at least had a knife or gun, he drove away. I always figured that because we were aware of his presence, we may have scared him off. Instead of going home, we went to our neighbor Pat’s house, so that if he were following us and wanted to kidnap or murder us, Pat would be the decoy. She and her boyfriend were both twice the size of us – maybe even three times, and instead of kids they just had a stupid St. Bernard that was born on September 11, 2001 and barked all the time and always got into our house somehow. It wouldn’t have been a big loss. Being aware of our surroundings definitely paid off, since we weren’t killed, and that was owed in part to Unsolved Mysteries.

2. Don't partake in fighting with strangers

One major lesson I learned from Unsolved Mysteries is to not fight with strangers unless absolutely necessary. You don’t know what they are capable of and most of the time what you are fighting over is not worth it. A sad example that comes to mind is the “Texas Most Wanted” episode, which also happened to be Matthew McConaughey’s first onscreen performance ever. He is ripped in it. So hot and so much Texas. Anyway, this episode always stuck with me not only because of how disturbing it is, but it was the first time I experienced a blacked-out face – you know, when someone wants to be anonymous so they are interviewed in silhouette. This scared the hell out of 13-year-old Rachel, but I’ll elaborate on this in my following bullet point. In this episode, McConaughey plays Larry Dickens, a father who witnesses a man (real name is Edward Bell) masturbating in front of children playing in the street. He chases the guy away from the kids while his mother calls the police – but then Dickens steals his keys to try to keep him there. Bell then shoots Dickens, Dickens stumbles into his garage where Bell follows him. His mother leaves him (with the garage door opened!) to call an ambulance, and Bell returns with a rifle to finish the job. We are reminded how unpredictable strangers can be, and when avoidable, we should leave dangerous people to the professionals. Like when I am at work and a difficult, uneducated, crack-head hillbilly excuse of a woman yells at me that I am being rude for asking her to not sit on the stairs, which I only ask her not to do because I don’t want little kids to fall over her and lose their teeth as it looks is what happened to her, I let Rockefeller security know of the situation because they got my back and we have a secret handshake and they most likely are better at fighting crazies than I am.

A similar case detailed a woman who was on her way to work and behind a truck that was swerving and acting obnoxious. If someone on the road is being aggressive, try your best to avoid him or her. Very few things in this world are worth taking a bullet for, and getting to work on time is not one of them. When the woman tried to pass him, the driver blocked the road, got out of his car and shot her. The woman asked to remain anonymous, but somehow online I found out her name was Janice Katilius. I think other news sources at the time may have used her real name. I checked up on her. I like to check up on these people sometimes, make sure they’re doing okay. I act as a silent guardian, watching over them via social media and keeping them out of danger without them knowing. According to Facebook, Janice is doing well.

3. Do face your fears, no matter how dumb they are

The anonymous faces freak me out – especially if the person alters his or her voice to protect their identity and uses a really dumb fake name like “John.” I can’t explain one hundred percent why this creeps me out. When I first saw one of these interviews in the segment aforementioned, I was paralyzed the whole day, like I had seen a ghost myself. We had a half-day at school and I was home alone, so I called my mom, and she goes: “Let me get this straight. You heard a story about a guy jerking off in the street in front of little children, who then murders an innocent man trying to stop him, and you’re afraid that someone hid their face during an interview? I’m working right now. I’ll see you at 6.” For me, it goes back to this psychological fear that what you can’t identify is threatening. I could write an entire memoir about my anonymous-face-phobia, but I will say my fear was slightly put to bed – maybe tucked in but not put all the way to sleep – when I was reading about this one case, the Las Cruces Bowling Alley Massacre. In 1990 at a bowling alley in Las Cruces, New Mexico, four people were murdered at gunpoint and three others were injured. One victim “Ida,” was interviewed anonymously, but in an interview revisiting the tragedy 20 years later, she showed her face. It was interesting to see the face behind the silhouette, but was also rewarding to see how she has been able to move on by the seemingly small act of revealing her identity. 

4. Don't communicate with ghosts because they don't play by human rules

If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it, especially if ghosts or demons are involved. Spiritual entities don’t play by human rules. In my opinion, the scariest paranormal case the show ever profiled was called “Tallman’s Ghost,” where a family was haunted by a demonic presence after purchasing a bunk-bed. Their kids kept getting sick, things kept getting moved, and everyone kept envisioning the house catching on fire and the family being murdered. It became so unbearable to live there that they had to move out. Now, there may be very little you can do about a haunted house or buying something that you don’t know has a negative energy to it. But if something doesn’t feel right, always trust your gut, because it will only get worse the longer you wait. For example, my dad’s house is haunted. I’ve never actually seen anything while I was wide-awake, but before my stepmother came in and started touching all my stuff without permission, my belongings were always getting moved around. In the middle of the night I can hear footsteps when I can also hear everyone snoring. My brother claims that once a door slammed right in front of him for no reason – which I believe because that entire night he wouldn’t leave my side, when normally he calls me names like “Retard with an NYU degree” and “500 pounds of bird shit” and goes his own way. Then early one morning, a woman was in my bedroom asking me if I was waking up. I told her I was going to go back to bed. A few hours later I yelled at my stepmother for being in my room, but then I realized the woman I was talking to looked nothing like her. The same thing happened a few months later when I was home sick with bronchitis. Now whenever I’m there, my bed always shakes at 1 in the morning. It doesn’t feel like it’s threatening me, but it doesn’t feel welcoming, either. There’s not really much I can do about it, since I didn’t buy a haunted bunk-bed or anything, but I do my best not to engage and simply ask to be left alone. Sometimes it works. If anything, it has really given me a liking to sleeping in the same bed as someone else, that way I don’t feel as on my own. 

5. Don't hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers

Unfortunately, the United States isn’t Sweden or Norway where everyone is happy and trustworthy. We don’t have free healthcare or education and people are generally a lot more enthusiastic about killing strangers. It seems pretty obvious not to get into the car of someone you do not know. But let’s say I’m in a really good mood, and that one day I miraculously have the money to own a car. Unsolved Mysteries taught me not to take a chance on that hitchhiker who has a really convincing story where he’s just got to make it to this one place really fast. In the segment profiling the murder of Dorothy Donovan, her son, Charles Holden had picked up a hitchhiker who claimed he needed to see his sister because she was giving birth. Holden agreed to give this man a ride, but when the stranger became violent and left the truck for a brief moment, Holden was able to speed away. As he was arriving home, he noticed the stranger lurking around his home. He then called the police and when they arrived, they found his mother stabbed to death. I was always curious in this case whether or not the killer (who in 2006 forensic evidence confirmed was a man named Gilbert Cannon) had stolen Holden’s wallet and knew of his address or had just by some bizarre coincidence broken into the same house. I could never find any information about the bizarre outcome other than that Cannon claimed he was high and went into her house because it was the only one he found without a light on. Either way, when you open your car door, you open yourself up to a world of weirdos.

6. Don't have an affair (but also don't live in a small town)

I’m not very good at dating, and I think part of that is because as a teenager, I was afraid the person I might date might have another significant other, who might get jealous and then might try to kill me. In the case of the “Circleville Letter Writer,” a woman named Mary Gillespie and other town residents of Circleville, Ohio began to receive threatening anonymous letters detailing their personal lives. Gillespie was targeted for allegedly having an affair with a school official (that was according to her, untrue). A booby-trap had been set up along her bus route, and after receiving a threatening phone call, her husband Ron stormed out of the house, only to be found dead in his car. Mary’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour was accused of being the murderer because it was his gun used to set the booby-trap, though he maintained his innocence. When the letters continued to be sent while he was in solitary confinement, they finally released him. 

The writer sent a letter to Unsolved Mysteries when the segment first broadcasted in 1994, warning them not to get involved. People stopped receiving letters around the mid-‘90s, but Ron Gillespie is dead, Paul Freshour (recently deceased) spent ten years of his life in jail for a crime he was clearly not guilty of, and hundreds of people lived for decades in fear. Whether or not any of the allegations were actually true, this case always made me want to be a faithful girlfriend, in the event someone wanted to hold anything over my head. It also made me realize that in small towns people are way into others’ businesses and that’s not how I would like to raise my at-the-moment-non-existent children. 

7. Be smart about one-night-stands

Some of you are out there and having one-night-stands, but without Unsolved Mysteries, you might be unsafe. In the segment called “Burning Bed” (of no relation to the Farrah Fawcett made-for-TV-movie) we learn about Megan Curl, who was tied to her bed and set on fire by a man who she had brought back to her apartment after a night of dancing. As horrific as this incident was, it inspired me to come up with a checklist for bringing back a guest of any sort to my place of residence:

  • Have I met this person more than once?
  • Have I had more than two drinks & if I have, is this something I would do without two drinks?
  • Are my roommates home?
  • If I do not have roommates, does at least one person know my whereabouts? 
  • Does this person seem weird? (Now, if everybody could answer this question correctly, no one would ever get murdered, but again, trust your gut.)
  • Do I have an exit strategy if things go wrong?

Megan did have a neighbor-friend looking out for her, but sadly this was not enough. When dealing with strangers in your home, one can never be too cautious in taking the necessary steps to not being murdered. And not getting pregnant. And not getting AIDS. Use protection. If someone’s face makes you want to throw up when you are kissing it, it is okay to say no. It is also okay to never have sex. 

I owe my life to Unsolved Mysteries; without it, I may have been too cocky to partake in dangerous activities, and I maybe would have died prematurely or worse, have been stuck in an unhappy marriage living in the Midwest. Here I have some tidbits that I have gathered from multiple episodes, where I don’t have a personal anecdote for them at the moment, but my story is still yet to be written.

  • Don’t become a prostitute; you can always just become a dancer.
  • Don’t play with a Ouija board.
  • Drugs, sex, and money are at the heart of many crimes so choose your actions wisely.
  • We don’t have reason to be afraid of UFOs just yet, although Roswell is pretty scary.
  • People can still be reunited and justice can still be served even when all hope is lost.

It seems kind of weird to be nostalgic about a show that profiles the darkness in humanity, but I think it’s a way to connect the past to the present and acknowledge that we are the same person all throughout our relatively short lives. The families who are missing loved ones never forget them, but they learn how to cope. The victims of murders are so much more than just what their final moments were – they were people who, like us, sometimes thought too long about whether they should make dinner or get takeout, or if a T-shirt could go one more day without being washed. And it helps me realize that the down-on-her-luck 23-year-old Rachel is still the awkward teenager who is afraid of a creepy show on Lifetime, and will one day be the retired old lady annoyed that after decades, it is still unavailable to stream anywhere online.  

Rachel Petzinger is a writer living in New Jersey. Her web series, Dear Rachel, recently filmed and released an Unsolved Mysteries parody episode.