Unsolved Mysteries' Co-Creator on True Crime, Ghosts, and Netflix Success

“Tsunami Spirits”: Interview subject Kansho Aizawa as a child.
“Tsunami Spirits”: Interview subject Kansho Aizawa as a child.
Image: Netflix/2020

Six new Unsolved Mysteries episodes just hit Netflix, building on the success the first batch of episodes—a revamp of the hit series that’s been around since 1987—we enjoyed back in July. We’re obsessed, so we hopped on the phone with co-creator and executive producer Terry Dunn Meurer to learn more.

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Cheryl Eddy, io9: Did you ever think, 30 years ago, that Unsolved Mysteries would still be so popular as it is in 2020?

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Terry Dunn Meurer: You know, we had no idea. When we started the series, I was like, “I don’t know—are people gonna want to watch stories that don’t have endings?” And I think when we started solving cases, that’s when we thought, “OK, we can give some of these cases endings.” That’s when we got very hopeful and saw how powerful the brand is, and the concept is. But in answer to your question: I had no idea 34 years ago when we created this that I would be sitting here doing interviews about the reboot of Unsolved. It’s just been great.

io9: What did you think about the response to the show’s Netflix debut?

Dunn Meurer: It’s a different time for the industry, in that when the original show was on the air, it was broadcast; you watched it or you didn’t, and it might re-run. The audience didn’t get a chance to do what they can do now with the streaming on Netflix, which is watch it again, go back and look for clues, and kind of get more involved. That’s what we’ve noticed, is how engaged the viewers are in trying to solve these mysteries. We love that aspect of it—we spend a lot of time talking about these cases and it’s interesting to hear what other people’s thoughts are as well.

io9: How does it feel to look around and see how popular true crime is these days, knowing that Unsolved Mysteries was one of the original TV shows that helped fuel that obsession?

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Dunn Meurer: Well, we think of ourselves more as a mystery show. I think with true crime—there are some series that have open-ended cases, but for the most part they’re solved cases. So we do think of ourselves as a little bit different that way, because we are a mystery show and because the cases are unsolved. But the true crime genre has just taken off, it’s just blown up, and we are a part of that; the majority of our cases are crime-related because those are the cases that are solvable. The UFO cases or the ghost cases, those aren’t solvable, but we like to give our audiences variety.

That’s one of the things we look at when we’re trying to choose our cases, which is a tough job: is there something the audience is going to be able to do to help solve this case? Because sometimes there’s just no leads, there’s no theories, there’s no suspects, and we’re just afraid that there isn’t anything to give the audience to latch onto.

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“A Death in Oslo”: A room in the Plaza Hotel in Oslo, Norway, scene of the mysterious death of an unidentified young woman.
“A Death in Oslo”: A room in the Plaza Hotel in Oslo, Norway, scene of the mysterious death of an unidentified young woman.
Image: Netflix/2020

io9: I’ve always been curious about how Unsolved Mysteries decides which cases to feature, and now that you’re doing fewer cases per season, I’m even more curious. Even beyond solvability, are there certain elements or aspects you look for?

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Dunn Meurer: When we did the original series, we were focused more on domestic stories—we did some international stories, but because of Netflix’s international reach, we wanted to do [more] international stories. That’s opened up the entire world for cases. So we have, over the years, gathered and collected from viewers and others who sent in cases through our unsolved.com website. We put those into a database, and we consider all the stories that come in to us, or that our own researchers find. And sometimes we’re looking for a specific kind of story, and we’ll reach out for that story.

But I guess it’s variety of cases, and it’s diversity of international versus domestic and urban versus rural. And then in terms of the people whose stories they are, we want a variety of age and ethnicity and race and culture. We want to make the show as diverse as we possibly can. If there’s a case that has really unique twists and turns that we haven’t heard before—and we’ve heard a lot of stories—those would rise to the top. So we just go through the stories, and we start to put them together. In our conference room, pre-covid, we had a board where we put the stories up and move them around until we say, “Wow, that’s it. That’s the complement of cases that we need here.”

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io9: Unsolved Mysteries is unique in how interactive it is, not just with viewers helping to solve cases, but also, as you just explained, helping to choose which cases get featured. How has the audience engagement evolved over the years?

Dunn Meurer: In terms of the people who submit stories, there were a couple of stories in volume one that were submitted to us. Sometimes our researchers find stories that they come across, but oftentimes they’re submitted. Or law enforcement—the “Death Row Fugitive” case that’s in volume two was submitted by the U.S. Marshals. So law enforcement will reach out to us and say, “Could you please do this case? This case could really use your help.” So it isn’t just people who have a personal mystery; it’s law enforcement as well.

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“Washington Insider Murder”: Security-camera footage of Jack Wheeler provides the last images captured of him before his death.
“Washington Insider Murder”: Security-camera footage of Jack Wheeler provides the last images captured of him before his death.
Image: Netflix/2020

io9: The Netflix version of the series keeps the spirit of the classic series, but it’s definitely been updated in some significant ways, both in style—one case per episode, no host—and tone, I would say. When you were planning things out, what kinds of discussions did you have about how you wanted the series to feel in 2020?

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Dunn Meurer: We knew we wanted the people whose mysteries these are to do more of the storytelling, especially since we decided not to have a host. We like that, letting people tell their stories. Robert Stack carried a lot of the storytelling as the host and narrator, and now he’s not here, so the people whose stories you hear about, they carry the storytelling. You get to know them a little bit better, so it feels a little more personal.

I think we have more of a documentary approach to the Netflix series; the re-creations, the re-enactments in the original series, they were very literal—almost, like, scripted, where we had dialogue. And you look back at them now and you almost chuckle sometimes at some of them because they do feel a little bit dated. We wanted to have a more evocative vibe or energy, I guess, to this show, and find cases that have interesting [archival footage]. In the John Wheeler case, the security footage of Jack in the hours before he died just caught our attention. It was very haunting.

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We also look for cases that have more twists and turns in the Netflix series because the episodes are longer. There’s a lot of mysteries you can tell in 10 to 12 minutes, but we were looking for stories that maybe had more depth to them.

Let’s see, what else. We wanted to keep the music, with the homage to [Robert Stack in the opening credits]. He was such a big part of the series. We wanted the music to maintain its creepiness; people always point to the music, like “Oh, I remember that!” So there were a lot of things that we wanted to hold onto, and I think we did—we feel really good about the direction that the Netflix episodes evolved into from the original. It feels right.

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io9: Among the latest batch of Netflix episodes, the one that fills the sort of supernatural slot is also the one I found most intriguing, “Tsunami Spirits,” about ghost sightings in the wake of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Can you talk specifically about why you wanted to explore that story? 

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Dunn Meurer: There was a book that was written that one of our researchers came across, and it mentioned this phenomenon around the tsunami. It was intriguing to us. That episode was challenging because culturally, the Japanese people are very private about this kind of thing and their spiritual beliefs, so it was challenging to find people who were willing to talk about that. We felt like, it’s classic ghost, if you will—the idea if you die suddenly and leave behind unfinished business that your spirit can be restless and not be able to move on. This was an example of 20,000 people who were lost in the tsunami—that’s a lot of sudden death, a lot of unfinished business. It seemed like an interesting world and situation to explore.

io9: Looking back at all of Unsolved Mysteries, is there any particular case that has haunted you the most?

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Dunn Meurer: I think I would have to say it’s the Rey Rivera case, the “Mystery on the Rooftop” that we did in the first [Netflix] volume. That’s one I can’t stop thinking about. I go to locations and I stand in the places where these things happened, and standing on the rooftop of the Belvedere Hotel—it’s just mind-boggling that case could be ruled a suicide because there’s just not any way that Rey came off that roof. I know Allison Rivera, his wife, was up there, and the detectives were up there, and they all felt the same thing, and you could see why they felt that.

That case is really, really bothersome I think. That one is the most mysterious of all of them—that comes to mind, let me say that. We’ve done 1,300 cases and people say “What’s your favorite case?” and I say, “Aah! There’s so, so many that are important or powerful or chilling or sad”—so many emotions surround these cases so it’s really hard to just pick one.

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“Stolen Kids”: A childhood photo of Christopher Dansby with his family.
“Stolen Kids”: A childhood photo of Christopher Dansby with his family.
Image: Netflix/2020

io9: On the original Unsolved Mysteries, it was always so exciting when “Update” would flash across the screen, and you’d get the latest on what had happened with that particular case. Was there an update, or even a case that was solved because of the show, that you found the most rewarding?

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Dunn Meurer: I would say the cases that we profiled in a category called “Final Appeal,” where there’s a mystery surrounding somebody who’s been convicted of a crime and maybe didn’t do that crime, so a “wrong man” case. There’s one case, a woman named Patty Stallings who was sentenced to life in prison for killing her baby. We profiled that case and shined a light on it, and the prosecutor opened it up, investigators looked at it, and she was exonerated. It’s a long story but she was exonerated and I do feel that was a result of the show.

There’s seven cases like that—seven people who were wrongly convicted who Unsolved Mysteries contributed to them being released from prison. You feel like you’re saving a life almost when you help those kinds of cases. And then, getting the wanted fugitives off the streets—those are very, very rewarding since you feel like they could be killing again and other people could be losing their lives.

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And the lost loves—in the old series, we would do lost love stories where people just wanted to find somebody from their past. Those were the tearjerker updates that we would present because those were the easier cases to solve back then. Now, with social media and with the internet, we don’t have as many of those kinds of cases. People can solve those themselves.

io9: Speaking of updates, do you have any updates to share about the previous batch of Netflix cases?

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Dunn Meurer: There are updates but there’s no solved cases yet. Like the Alonzo Brooks case, “No Ride Home,” the FBI are working on it every single week. They’re interviewing new people, and they exhumed Alonzo’s body to see if they could find any new forensic evidence. The French police are following up on the over 100 leads that came in on [Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès], the “House of Terror” guy who probably, allegedly, killed his family.

One of the surprises was that we got a number of—they’re not really tips, but comments that came into the website about the UFO case [“Berkshires UFO”]. These are people who sounded very, very credible, so thankful that we told this story because they had the same experience back then. The same day, September 1, 1969, they had the same experience, or their parents, they remember their parents talking about what was going on that night. So they felt very vindicated—and they, too, like the participants in our episode, were kind of afraid to say anything all these years and they felt like now they could come forward.

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From Netflix’s first Unsolved Mysteries release, “Mystery on the Rooftop” investigated the strange death of Rey Rivera, seen here with his family.
From Netflix’s first Unsolved Mysteries release, “Mystery on the Rooftop” investigated the strange death of Rey Rivera, seen here with his family.
Image: Netflix/2020

Rey Rivera, that story probably had the most social engagement. The two investigative reporters in that case, they’re still following up leads, they’re still working on that. I don’t know if that will ever be solved but they’re certainly turning over some rocks on that one.

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So there are little updates. But on cases like Alonzo Brooks, those take a long time. If they’re going to press charges against someone, they have to do their due diligence and make sure they have an airtight case. They don’t want to arrest someone and have the case fall apart. I’m still hopeful about that case and the Patrice Endres [“13 Minutes”] case, that the authorities will follow some lead and it will lead them in the right direction.

io9: Will we be seeing more seasons of Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix?

Dunn Meurer: That’s an unsolved mystery! [Laughs] We’re definitely hoping. There are so many mysteries and cases that we want to put out there to try and solve. We hope that Unsolved will go on forever because unfortunately there are new unsolved cases every day.

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Unsolved Mysteries volumes one and two are now streaming on Netflix.

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For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.

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DISCUSSION

brainlock-2
Brainlock can NOT FKG reply on kinja

I hope they work in an “Updates” show, like the hour is spent giving updates on the various cases over the years. 5-10 minutes each update, you could easily fill an hour with that.

I’m still surprised they covered my stomping grounds in Misery.
The Murder Mom episode, one of the girls now lives in my home county, and I later learned she’s in one of the local groups I’m following on FB. The town where her sister was last seen (and possibly buried?) is the one my mother moved to about a month before she got sick, and I still believe the local Salem judiciary is crooked as fuck over that, considering how things turned out for us.

The old series apparently covered a “repeat family abduction” story that I had nearly forgotten about and only learned the link after I bought the guy’s car. I worked with mom’s cousin at the time, and he recognized it, confirmed it was his brother-in-law I bought it from, and oh hey, you’re into that weird science fiction stuff, right? He was on that Unsolved Mysteries, claiming his family were UFO abductees! D was a farmer and not prone to go for that stuff, and he said his wife’s brother was the same way, had it not happened to him.

Hell, I could fill an entire 20+ episode season with stuff I’ve experienced beyond that.

so, yeah...