Thursday, April 14, 2011

History's Mysteries (1994-2006)

Besides movies and video games, one of my biggest interests is mysteries and unexplained phenomena. My main interests of the sort are the paranormal and cryptozoology. I guess being a fan of the horror genre just sort of naturally leads into the fascination of the unknown. Because of this, I've always enjoyed shows like Is it Real?, MonsterQuest, and, of course, Unsolved Mysteries. One show that I feel gets overlooked in this genre is History's Mysteries, a show that was produced in a seemingly sporadic nature from 1994 to 2006 on the History Channel. While the show no longer produces new episodes (though, with 154 episodes, I think they covered pretty much every mystery known to man), it still airs reruns, mainly on History International, to this day. Some episodes are apparently not shown anymore for some reason, which annoys me a little bit, but the ones that do air are very well made and informative.

The show's format is that of a documentary. Each episode is an hour long and is narrated by the typical guy with a cool guy voice while experts on the subject give their opinions and insight into it. The show takes an objective stance on whatever is being discussed and lets the viewer make up his or her mind after listening to all the evidence, which I always like. I feel that every show like this should do so. That's just my personal preference, though. For example, while I do like the National Geographic Channel's Is it Real?, many episodes of that show feel like they were made for the purpose of debunking the subject. But that's beside the point. One aspect of the show that is absent from reruns nowadays were introductions and interstitial segments featuring a man other than the narrator. I don't know why they were removed. But, again, this is just nitpicking.

The first episode I ever came across was the episode about the Loch Ness monster. I can't pinpoint when I saw it for the first time but I know it was sometime either when I was in middle school or early high school. After that, I tried to catch as many episodes of this show that I could. This is a show that I don't think had a set time-slot and just seemed to pop up whenever but was always enjoyable when you came across it. It didn't deal just with the paranormal and cryptozoology. It dealt with a myriad of subjects like the death of Marilyn Monroe, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the Shroud of Turin, Noah's Ark, the possible relationship between the occult and the Third Reich, the lost colony of Roanoke, and dozens more. While I didn't watch every single episode because not every subject interested me, they were always intriguing and well researched.

I will now list off some of my favorite episodes. Most of these will be about the paranormal but they all match the quality standard set by the show which, as I say, was good.

The Abominable Snowman: Of the three biggest mysteries of cryptozoology (the other two being Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster), the abominable snowman or yeti was always the one I was the least interested in. However, my interest went up quite a bit when I finally sat down to watch this episode. It goes through the Sherpa legends about the creature to its image in pop culture and western expeditions to study it. One of the most interesting stories told is that of an expedition that stole pieces of a purported mummified yeti hand from a monastery and when those pieces were analyzed, the results were supposedly in favor of it being from an unknown animal. Also, the man who took the finger bones wired human finger bones into the bone and this would eventually lead to the yeti being "debunked" when another expedition examined that hand. It ends with an interesting video called the Snow Walker, which shows a strange figure walking on a snow-covered hill. That video has since been revealed to be a hoax but what's interesting is that in the episode, Jeff Meldrum, a primatologist who often appears in shows about the yeti or Bigfoot, actually believes in the video. (Meldrum has fallen for so many hoaxes that his expertise is quite questionable)

Monsters of the Sea: Really should be called Monsters of the Deep because this mainly focuses on lake monsters with some sea monsters thrown in. It starts interestingly enough with a bizarre bubbling noise purported to be made by a Swedish lake monster. It discusses Champ (the Lake Champlain monster), Ogopogo of Lake Okanagan, legends of the giant squid and giant octopus, sea serpents, Cadborosaurus, and ends with the most famous lake monster of all, the Loch Ness monster. The segment on Caborosaurus, a strange creature said to inhabit Cadboro Bay in British Columbia, is very intriguing because a carcass of one of the creatures was apparently cut out of the stomach of a whale in the 1930's. There's even a photograph to boot. I also find the discussion of a giant sea serpent that was apparently seen on Halloween interesting because they debate whether it was a real animal or a prank. There's one guy on this episode that always annoys me. It's the curator of this museum who really looks down on the subject. One really stupid thing he said during the Loch Ness monster segment was that if there was a monster, thousands of people over decades would report something instead of random glimpses of a lump, of an out-of-focus photograph, etc. That gets me because thousands of people over decades have reported seeing it and the descriptions have not always been humps and some of the photos are intriguing. That statement was so stupid. I couldn't believe that asshole.

The Hunt for Jack the Ripper: Really intriguing murder mystery episode. It tells the story of the legendary serial killer's reign of terror in London, the various victims (with really gruesome photographs of the butchered bodies), and how the killing suddenly ceased for no reason at all. I found it interesting how the killer was named after a letter that was probably just a hoax and how the classic image of the killer as a man dressed in black with a cape is no doubt wrong and he would have looked more like a sailor. A bunch of suspects are discussed and why or why not each one of them could have been the killer. Also, there was another series of murders after the ones in London that may or may not have been the worker of the same murderer. The episode ultimately leaves you with a sincere feeling of mystery, with the reenactments portraying the classic fog-covered London streets and the killer stalking in the shadows.

Alaska's Bermuda Triangle: This episode talks about bizarre disappearances in Alaska. The most prominent story is of the disappearance of two important men of Congress and how their deaths were probably the fault of an arrogant pilot. There are also discussions of ancient legends of shape-shifting evil spirits who could be responsible for the disappearances. One image that always interests me is this old, vintage footage of Eskimo kayaking in the frozen water around these glaciers and when he gets to a certain point, he simply disappears into thin air. It's just such a bizarre, eerie image to me.

The Loch Ness Monster: Like I said, this was the first one I ever saw and it immediately caught my attention because this mystery has always intrigued me. It does a great job of telling the monster's history, from the ancient legend of St. Columba subduing it to modern sightings and investigations. It, of course, talks about the infamous surgeon's photo and how that picture, supposedly, was revealed in 1994 to be a hoax orchestrated by a big-game hunter who was originally hired to find the monster but fired when he resorted to trickery. (I said supposedly because that photo's real story is often debated despite the supposed reveal.) It talks about the interesting film that Tim Dinsdale shot of a strange object crossing the loch and about the underwater photographs of Robert Rhines, which were the famous flipper, body, and "gargoyle head" pictures. Those were purportedly debunked to be either the result of re-touching or just being pictures of debris on the bottom of the lake. Adrian Shine is present, as he is in just about every documentary on the Loch Ness monster (he must get sick of being asked about it so much), and they discuss Operation Deepscan, the stunt he headed to sweep the loch from top to bottom with sonar. He admits that he knows many are probably pissed off at him to this day for proving that the monster may not exist. It ends with a great message: the legend of the Loch Ness monster should probably stay intact because the mystery is always more interesting than the solution.

Bigfoot and Other Monsters: I've always been annoyed that the show never did a whole episode on Bigfoot and only did this one that lumped it in with other mysteries like Mokele-Mbembe, dragons, and the Chupacabra. Of course, they talk about the Patterson film and how the Native Americans have had legends of the Sasquatch for centuries. The mystery of Mokele-Mbembe, an apparent dinosaur that lives near a remote African lake in the Congo area, is very interesting and Richard Greenwell, a cryptozoologist, talks about just missing an enormous creature that swam up the river from him and was big enough to cause small waves. Not one of their best episodes but interesting nonetheless.

Amityville: The Haunting: First of a two-part episode about the case of the Amityville Horror. This part discusses the murders of the Defeo family by young Ronald Defeo Jr., and the subsequent claims by George and Kathy Lutz that the house was haunted. Both George and Kathy are dead now and seeing Kathy in this episode is sad because she's on a respirator and seems absolutely shattered. It's interesting to their descriptions of the haunting: the evil spirit that took the form of a pig to their daughter, the strange green slime that tended to appear, the infestation of flies in the middle of the winter, and the final horrific night that caused them to flee from the house. Despite claims that the story is all a hoax, the interviews with the two of them seem sincere and they both, especially Kathy, look afraid. Makes you wonder.

Amityville: Horror or Hoax?: This second part of the Amityville episode discusses the investigations of the house, the book and movie that were based on the story, and the allegations that this story was concocted by the Lutzes for money. This episode got me because it was the first time I saw that freaky photograph taken during one investigation of what appears to be a ghostly child peering out from a dark bedroom doorway. Whether or not the story is true, that photograph is scary as hell! Now, Ed and Lorraine Warren, the two purported psychics who investigated the house, don't feel that credible. I always have a hard time believing psychics but these two feel more like showmen than psychics to me. There's all the controversy about who lied to who, how there are discrepancies between the book and what really happened supposedly, and how strange things kept happening to a lot of people involved with the case. Whether it's real or not, the ending is eerie. George Lutz says, "I wish it were a hoax. It's not." And the last shot is a long zoom into those freaky, eye-like windows of the house. It's really scary.

There are other episodes of History's Mysteries that I like such as the one about the legends of werewolves and the true story of Frankenstein but those episodes are the ones that stick out to me. While you can still catch the show on History International, some of the episodes (like The Loch Ness Monster) aren't shown anymore for some reason and the episodes are sometimes re-packaged into other programs (the episodes about the Amityville Horror were refurbished into an episode of Notorious on Biography Channel or something). But, you can't argue with good documentaries and this show is one of the best examples. So, if you like mysteries, I definitely recommend checking this show out if you have History International.

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