Mysteries of the Unknown – Time-Life Books (1980s)

The “Mysteries of the Unknown” series is the jewel in the Time-Life crown. You can’t talk for long about Time-Life books without this exploration into the paranormal coming up. It makes sense; UFO abductions, Stonehenge and Easter Island, telekinesis, ESP, and deja vu were at super-high popularity in the ’80s. Magazines and books like “Mysteries of the Unknown” rode this wave along with unforgettable shows like Unsolved Mysteries, and in doing so they really became an unforgettable part of the culture.

I don’t know what Time-Life’s marketing budget was in the ’80s, but it either had to be ridiculously high or cable ad time was ridiculously cheap. Just like we saw last time with “The Enchanted World”, there are a number of different two-minute commercials approaching the subject from a variety of creative angles – all with the same ridiculous authority that Time-Life quietly claims in all of its series.  Let’s take a look.

This one’s got a vibe in line with the aforementioned Unsolved Mysteries: a bunch of quick “this happened to these people” stories with re-created ‘documentation’ to back it up.  Straightforward and compelling, this is the vanilla treatment.

Next is my kind of Time-Life commercial: the faked “real world” casual conversation between actors where the paranormal just happens to come up.  This one’s great because the ‘authority’ in the conversation quickly shifts to a somewhat exasperated “read the book” response to the couples’ questions that is probably meant to be charming but instead comes off as a little bit insecure on the authority’s part.

Julianne Moore stars in the next one, a similar “real world” testimonial from “real people”. This one focuses more on psychic abilities.

More of the Unsolved Mysteries treatment here,  short re-enactments focusing on psychic abilities and mystical places like Stonehenge.

When I think of “Mysteries of the Unknown”, though, I think of this commercial. Two friends, one of whom is “Ben Randall”, whoever that is, according to the narrator, talking over dinner about how he entered an old 19th century farmhouse and knew he’d been there before.  The conversation, again, turns quickly into an exasperated “read the book” back and forth. This commercial’s only one minute, but feels like two!

This one’s remarkable for a few reasons. First off, Ben Randall’s back. In addition to Ben’s off-the-cuff conversation with a flight attendant where he (more successfully) uses the “read the book” technique to land a customer to a book series that he has no financial stake in, we need to also acknowledge this gargantuan airplane cabin with a “Langoliers”-level number of passengers.  Maybe these guys have more pressing issues that they don’t know about yet?

I’m no expert and I’m not prone to hyperbole, but this might be the most memorable collection of ads that I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the level of cable I saturated myself with back then.  Which one speaks to you?