Better Than Ephedrine: UM
A rundown of the 10 most insomnia-inducing features on America's original true crime show
Unsolved Mysteries. The mere mention of the program's title invokes feelings of uneasiness, and for many of us, memories of Wednesday evenings huddled with parents and siblings on the couch, unsure if we were truly prepared for what was about to transpire on the glowing screen before us.
And then we heard the opening notes of that infamous theme music---"Da da da da-da, da da da DA-DA!"---accompanied by a montage of flipping cars, police arrests, home invasions, supernatural apparitions, and other such unsavory scenes for a typical kid (whether age 6 or 16) on a dark evening. As if that weren't enough, the late great Robert Stack was the next thing to appear on the set, typically in his trademark khaki trench coat, in what looked to be a dark parking garage, or a dim cathedral, sometimes an investigator's office---or, particularly in the earlier years, on the location of the actual incident about to be featured. His distinct and resonant voice was absolutely perfect for narration purposes, and could easily push an already eerie segment into full-out frightening mode. For over a decade, the original Unsolved Mysteries covered the most baffling and unexplained murders, disappearances, scientific and paranormal phenomena, and other such things that made us all pull the covers over our heads at night, withstanding the oven-like heat we'd created with our breaths underneath lest an escaped convict or alien discover us in the darkness.
Now, for me, UM was always primarily a crime show, as the majority of the segments featured wanted individuals, sketchy disappearances, or con-artists as opposed to ghosts, UFOs, and other such topics. And those true crime segments, above all else, were always the ones that left me sleeping with all the lights on in my room at night, door swiftly locked. Many of them stuck with me over the years, and many still do on occasion keep me awake at night at age 22. Here I've selected the ten worst insomnia-inducing offenders.
10. "Son of Sam Parts 1 & 2" (original airdate November 2 and 9, 1988 respectively)
This two-parter explores the theory that David Berkowitz---arrested and incarcerated for the Son of Sam murders throughout New York City in the late 1970s, was in fact a scapegoat for a satanic cult. Allegedly, this cult could have in fact been responsible for a string of murders spanning into the late 1980s, some investigators theorize. On the surface, these two segments look generally harmless---your typical "satanic scare" conspiracy theory stuff that seemed to run rampant throughout 1980s American culture. However, this is anything but the case. Four composite sketches of the gunman assumed to be Berkowitz are featured, and all four are utterly badly drawn and terrifying to look at. The music, particularly in Part 2, is a horrific composition featuring "Psycho"-esque "EEK EEK!" effects with low humming synthesizer tones. And horrifically, Robert Stack reads aloud from the now-infamous letter directed to Captain Joseph Borrelli of the New York City Police Department, believed to have been written by Berkowitz:
"...I am a monster. I am the 'Son of Sam'. I am a little brat."
Peppered with actual black and white stills of Berkowitz sitting alone in his jail cell looking like a lunatic, this segment is almost too much to digest all at once. I recommend spacing the two apart, and definitely watching them before 6:00 PM.
9. "Friends to the End" aka The Boys On the Track (original airdate October 12, 1988)
Kevin Ives, 17, and Don Henry, 16, of Bryant, Arkansas went out to do a little deer hunting an hour after midnight on August 23, 1987 near the railroad tracks running by Don's house.Three hours later, they were dead, having been apparently run over by a southbound Union Pacific train. The state medical examiner originally ruled the boys' deaths accidental, claiming that they had chain smoked multiple marijuana cigarettes and had laid down and passed out on the tracks in a drug-induced stupor. The boys' parents challenged the ruling, and upon indepedent examination it was discovered that Don Henry had been stabbed and Kevin Ives had suffered a blow to the head hours before they had been run over by the train.
A week before the murders, an unidentified "man in military fatigues" was seen by locals in the area around the tracks and an officer was dispatched to investigate. As he approached the man, the individual turned and fired at the officer with a handgun and subsequently disappeared into the woods. Reports of a man wearing military fatigues was again reported on the night of the boys' deaths, just 200 yards from where they were discovered. In the decade to come after the airing of the UM segment, it would be widely speculated that Ives and Henry were actually witnesses to a police-protected drug drop that was part of a national conspiracy that allegedly involved the FBI, CIA, and even then-president and former governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton.
8. "Kurt Sova" (original airdate November 23, 1988)
On October 28, 1981, Newburgh Heights, Ohio teen Kurt Sova disappeared after attending a Halloween party at a duplex given by a young woman known as "Susan." His body was discovered in a ravine five days after he was reported missing by his parents, but the coroner determined that Kurt had died no more than a day and a half before the discovery.
More unsettling aspects began to pop up around the case, including a transient who had been in the Sovas' neighborhood around the time of Kurt's disappearance who discovered his missing poster in the window of a local record store. He entered the shop, went up to the counter, and asked the woman working behind the counter, "You see the picture of that boy over there?"
"Yes, what about it?" the woman replied.
"Well, you might as well take it down. He's going to turn up dead in two days. No one's going to know how he died."
The young man---found to be a "crazy from Detroit"---left the store and was later released by police when they determined him to be mentally unstable. No one knew, however, that Kurt's body would, in fact, turn up in two days just as he had described.
Sova's parents believe their son's death involved something that happened to him at the party and that they are not being told the entire truth by either "Susan" or the investigating authorities. As of 2008 his death is still unsolved. Scariest things about this episode include creepy police photos from a possible related murder in the area and a re-enactment of Kurt's father conducting a 3:00 AM search in the basement of "Susan's" duplex for any sign of his missing son.
7. "Patricia Meehan" (original airdate November 1, 1989)
In April 1989, a woman was involved in a head-on collision with a mysterious woman one night on a Montana highway who did nothing but get out of her vehicle and stare at the other woman blankly before climbing over a fence beside the highway and walking off into a field. The mystery woman was identified as Patricia Meehan of Circle, Montana and has not been heard from since. It is believed that Meehan was suffering from a "rare and dangerous form of amnesia" and may have believed she caused a fatality in the accident, causing her to flee the scene. Aspects of this segment now permenantly seared into my mind are the re-enactment of Meehan's scary-beyond-all-levels-of-scary wide-eyed stare at the other woman after the crash and this "haunting" photograph (as Robert Stack described it) found on a roll of undeveloped film in Meehan's camera:
6. "Florida Convenience Store Abductions" (original airdate November 6, 1991)
Deborah Poe disappeared from a Circle K convenience store while working the graveyard shift in 1990 and has never been heard from again. A witness claims that around 3:30 AM she went in to buy cigarettes and found a muscular male with stringy dark hair behind the counter. He wore a Megadeth tee shirt, a single cross earring, and a ring that looked like a skull. He appeared to not know where the cigarettes were located and was generally suspicious. Could he have been responsible for Poe's abduction? Features a horribly scary composite sketch of the suspect, and a classic, oft-quoted line amongst us Unsolved fans: "You really shouldn't smoke, you know"---uttered by "Megadeth guy" as he handed the pack of cigarettes to the witness.
5. "The ATV Murders" (original airdate January 3, 1990)
Three men go out for a joyride on ATVs on Signal Mountain, Tennessee near Chattanooga one evening in 1988. They are met with a shotgun. Witnesses reported three ATVs covered with blood in a trash dump off one of the local roads, later, the bodies of the three men were found in another dump eleven miles away. Locals suspect the killer may be one of their own. This case was updated some 15 years later when local resident Frank Casteel was arrested, tried, and incarcerated for the murders, but it makes the segment no less difficult to watch. The music is unusually unsettling and the re-enactment of the killer firing his shotgun is enough to make you never want to go out into the woods again. As I live relatively close to Signal Mountain and have been up there numerous times myself (even by Casteel's home), this case especially frightens me.
4. "The Orange Sock Murders" (original airdate August 14, 1991)
Bobbi Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee are found murdered in the Breckenridge, Colorado area in early 1982 months apart from each other. Found near Oberholtzer's body is an orange sock, not belonging to her. Schnee is later discovered wearing the match of the orange sock when her body is found. This leads authorities to believe that the two women were murdered by the same individual, likely someone who offered the women a ride home as hitchhiking was a common practice amongst locals at the time. As of this date the investigation remains open.
3. "Angela Hammond" (original airdate February 5, 1992)
Clinton, Missouri resident Angela Hammond is abducted from a pay phone one night in 1991 while talking to her boyfriend. As her abductor drove around the pay phone, Hammond described him to her boyfriend Rob: he was a "filthy, bearded man" driving a late '60s or early '70s model two-tone green Ford pickup with a mural of a fish jumping out of water on the back windshield. As the man grabbed Angela from the phone, Rob heard her screams and hurried out to the parking lot where the pay phone was. En route, he passed a speeding truck and heard Angela scream his name from the window. Rob threw his car into reverse and managed to stay behind the abductor for roughly two miles. However, when he threw the vehicle into reverse, he had badly damaged the transmission and his car quit when he made a sharp right turn. The truck sped away into the night, and Angela Hammond has not been heard from since. This segment contains one of the most frightening lines in all of UM history. After Rob heard Angela scream on the phone, he heard another voice over the line, that of a man. All he said was, "I didn't need to use the phone, anyway."
2. "Tara Calico" (original airdate September 20, 1989)
A Belen, New Mexico college student disappears after a morning bicycle ride in 1988. One year later, in a Port St. Joe parking lot, a woman happens upon a chilling Polaroid photograph of a young woman and a small boy, bound and gagged in what looked to be the back of a van. This woman is greatly suspected to be Tara Calico, who has yet been found. The photo may be easily found through an Internet search; I will not post it here as it's extremely disturbing and would be, I think, inappropriate. DEFINITELY not a segment for evening viewing, or, for the faint of heart, EVER viewing.
1. "New Hampshire Serial Killer" (original airdate October 24, 1990)
Jane Boroski stopped at a secluded New Hampshire rest stop around midnight on a summer night in 1988. Soon after, a man in a Jeep Wagoneer pulled up beside her. He asked her "if the phone was working", then proceeded to open her driver's side door and stab her over 18 times with a knife. She fled into the parking lot, finally slumping over and "playing dead" in an attempt to get her attacker to stop. He got into his Wagoneer, and stared down at her as he drove away the scene. Jane managed to get into and start her car, speeding away to a nearby friend's house to get help. She soon found herself directly behind her assailant. She hurriedly pulled into her friend's driveway and made it onto his porch. The man in the Wagoneer, who had gone on when Jane had turned off, had apparently turned around up the road and momentarily stopped in front of Jane's friend's house and watched until her friend emerged from the house. He sped away into the night and has not yet been identified, although he is suspected of murdering at least seven other women in New England throughout the 1970s and '80s. I am not exaggerating when I say this segment kept me awake for nearly a week. Not only does it include some musical scores that would put any horror movie to shame, but the composite sketch of the suspect will send you running out of the room. I travel quite a bit as my husband currently works out of state, and this segment made me swear off rest stops completely---even in the middle of the day. There is, however, an "up" side in this case: Jane Boroski was seven months pregnant at the time of her attack, and two months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl---despite the multiple stab wounds she suffered.
And these are only the beginning. I believe there really needs to be a support group for Unsolved fans, because we probably account for over half the reported insomnia cases in North America. Better than Ephedrine? I definitely think so. It's the reason why I'm a grown woman still awake at 3:00 AM with every door locked and every light on in her house, after all.