Friday, January 18, 2008

51.In Search Of ...

There's not a lot of things that I remember about the 1970s. When the decade ended, I was five years, three months and 22 days old. So the only things that I remember are waking up early to watch the UHF test pattern—which I called “the wheel” (I wasn't a complete psycho because it had music playing over the background), the blizzard of 1978 and a few TV shows. One of which was the Leonard Nimoy hosted “In Search Of ...”

I begin this entry with that caveat because my assumptions based are still from the eyes of a three-year-old, specifically a three-year-old who wouldn't stay in his crib at night and wound wander out to the living room to hide next to the sofa and watch as his father watched “In Search Of ...” From beginning to end, ISO was a 70s freakout to a little kid (and actually, just about anyone): from the weird beginning that featured grainy, old pictures of cults, Bigfoot and UFOs to the strange, halting music to the reenactments of whatever phenomena that the show was searching for that week to Leonard Nimoy himself; the show was a bit off putting. To a kid under five, it was down right scary.

Quick aside, the strangest thing that I found when researching this show is that there was an album dedicated to the music of “In Search Of ...” If I heard that right now, I'd probably crap my pants in terror. Though I'd love to find it. If anyone knows where I can get this, drop me a line.

One of my earliest memories is seeing the orange back drop of the ending credits where the flashing pictures of Amelia Earhart, a castle on Loch Ness, a ceremony at Stonehenge and other “spooky” things flashed on the screen (the screen grab above, shows what the title screen was like and it's was similar to the credit screen). BTW, I don't mean to suggest that Amelia Earhart was scary, but for some reason when I was younger black and white photos bugged me and add that to the fact that she was a part of ISO and she may as well have been Darth Vader. After seeing those credits I remember running back to my room, putting a pillow over my head and trying to go to sleep.

So, yes, this entry has more to do with child trauma than anything.

Right now you're probably wondering how a show that was obviously so scarring, could be considered a favorite. Good question. As with a lot of childhood things remembered later, you begin to wonder if it really was that bad. For the most part, you never get to see what spooked you as a kid and you're left wondering if you were truly scared or just young. Luckily for me, during the mid-90s A&E reran the show and to my surprise, it was well done and most of the episodes weren't terrifying at all. Even the ending credits were tame—though I did get that embedded nostalgic scare a half second before they ran (the first time I watched the reruns). You'll be happy to know that unless you find a gaffer or a best boy frightening, the end credits aren't so bad.

As I continued watching the show in reruns, my nostalgia turned into a general fondness for the program. Even though I assumed that every episode was either about Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster or ghosts—because this was the first TV show I can remember and most of the first books I read, which were written in the 70s, were about this stuff, I sincerely believed that every person in the 1970s had either a ghost or monster living around them—the fact remains there was a lot of good, historical stuff being covered. And it was done is a way where it wasn't beating you over the head with biased information.

According to Wikipedia, there were six seasons (1977-1982) of ISO and 144 episodes were produced. The program was spun off from two movie-length documentaries “In Search of Ancient Astronauts” (which was the film version of the seminal alien close encounter story, “Chariots of the Gods”) and “In Search of Ancient Mysteries”, both hosted by Rod Sterling. When Serling died, Nimoy (who was already a God in the world of Science Fiction, thanks to his turn as Mr. Spock on “Star Trek”) took over the hosting job.

And I'm glad as ISO wouldn't have been even half the show it was without Nimoy. Sure Serling had a pretty good resume of hosting weird programs, but Nimoy (and I can't believe I'm going to say this) brought a sort of smoothness to the show that Serling's halting, speech patterns wouldn't have lent. That was another terrific thing about the show, it never tried to convince you that what you were seeing was absolutely true. The opening monologue said it all:

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine."

It's almost as if they were saying, “You want to believe in the Amityville Horror? That's cool. Here's a few reasons why it might be true.” And that what makes the show different from any documentaries on today, it allowed the audience to make up their own mind. With that being said, there's probably no way that they could make a show like this today. There are far too many ways of getting information and unless there is an obvious angle to the mystery, the modern audience won't want to watch it.

Forget about the rip-off show that came along four years after “In Search Of ...” was taken off the air (the Robert Stack hosted “Unsolved Mysteries”), ISO was really the forefather of a genre of cables channels that includes the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. To appeal to today's viewers, many of the ISO-inspired shows on these channels have to ratchet up the suspense factor. This means murder and violence.

For a show that dealt with mysterious topics, many of them were non violent. Just looking at the list of show topics, I could only find one real episode based on a serial killer (Jack the Ripper), two if you include the one on Jim Jones. Today, a program like this would need to have a few episodes on serial killers (Manson, Zodiac, Nightstalker, etc) to capture anyone's attention. Like the oft-repeated mantra of tabloid television, if it bleeds, it leads. That goes for unsolved mysteries shows too.

And that's a shame, because it seems like even the things that freak us out have grown bigger.

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