Each episode began with (say it with me now, fans)
“This show is based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”
And you always knew, without fail, that the producers’ would jump to the wildest and nuttiest conclusion possible. It’s sort of like IN SEARCH OF… was the networks’ attempt to give equal time, just like they do for Republican and Democratic politicians, to the view of reality that makes the least sense.
“Okay, you’ve heard from sane people and experts. Now it’s OUR turn!”
I laugh of course, because I don’t believe in Bigfoot, or spirit photography or the extraterrestrial origin of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia. I’m a rational, skeptical adult with a functional, built-in bullshit detector. I don’t believe in Bigfoot, but I wish I did.
The thing I loved best about IN SEARCH OF… was the the music: harrowing, bizarre synthesizer notes that lent the show a real aura of high anxiety, often done in a minor key, with buzzes and shrieks, and musical chants similar to the Gregorian. It was like the soundtrack to fear and mystery. It would be wrong to say that the music was just “spooky,” but rather, the music evoked the unknown in an almost religious way. The music lent gravitas and awe to things at the liminality of experience, and compared to its music, the “suspense” music in other documentaries and even TV shows have looked invisible and chintzy in comparison.
There was, intriguingly enough, an IN SEARCH OF... soundtrack LP, one that I've been searching for for my entire life. Listen to a section.
Leonard Nimoy’s voice, as cold and grave as the tomb, worked perfectly with the spooky music. The series began with a pair of popular TV specials hosted by Rod Serling. Only after Serling’s untimely death was Leonard Nimoy hired. Nimoy’s presence, I suspect, was what made the show so popular: six seasons for a documentary show on Network TV is unheard of. This was in the era when Star Trek became the most popular show ever, and there was precious new material coming out; Spock in anything must have been a good consolation prize.
It’s strange to imagine IN SEARCH OF… without Nimoy. It’s like imagining CASABLANCA with Ronald Reagan in the title role. This, I suspect, is why the Sci-Fi channel remake of IN SEARCH OF… didn’t really work: it was too much of a traditional unsolved mystery/paranormal show, not enough creepy music or wild speculation, and no Nimoy. I once heard Edgar Allen Poe describe the genre of horror as a detective story where God is the detective, and that’s what Nimoy’s narrator felt like.
Watch a few complete IN SEARCH OF... episodes. This one's on Dracula:
What gave IN SEARCH OF… its power is that ultimately, it didn’t resolve anything. It refused to give straight and definitive answers, because their conjecture was fundamentally unprovable. Was St. Germáin really immortal? Are Andean carvings proof that the city of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia was “Earth Base One” for space colonists? Who the heck could know, or even prove it? This fundamental ambiguity to the mysteries examined was the spookiest thing about them. At some level, I didn’t WANT any of the mysteries to be solved. The existence of these mysteries themselves was enough to set the brain on fire.
IN SEARCH OF… had a “look” that was pure 1970s. As a result of this, it has much greater potential to frighten than something slick, fake-looking, and recent. Any given recreation on UNSOLVED MYSTERIES (the show that wishes it could be as cool as IN SEARCH OF…) had the same lighting and look as the Dixon Hill holodeck episodes on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
I can’t emphasize enough how important all these elements are. Alan Lansburg, the producer of the show, wrote a book that dealt with some of the themes of the show. Without the eerie atmosphere to provoke awe and anxiety, with Nimoy’s voice, and without the “seventies” film look, IN SEARCH OF.. just didn’t transfer to another medium. Landsburg’s book was just another paranormal casebook. Landsburg is himself an interesting figure: he created the only successful network TV documentaries, with THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU, IN SEARCH OF…, and THAT’S INCREDIBLE!
Here's another episode on the Tunguska Fireball of 1908:
My favorite episodes of the series were around religious or biblical themes in general, but specifically the episode where Coptic monks in Egypt claimed to find the resting place of John the Baptist hidden in their 1,900 year old monastery. To the best of my knowledge, the claim has been buried and not researched by any other source. Another story in the same vein would be the episode that argued that “Mt. Sinai” was actually at the only peak in the Sinai where there were Egyptian ruins – in other words, a site already sacred. At this mountain, the Egyptians worshipped Hathor, who assumed the form of a golden cow, which accounts for the Golden Calf.
My least favorite episode would be the one about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, because of the disappointment: recent genetic evidence shot down Anna Anderson’s claim to be the surviving Tsarina. It’s hard not to watch this episode with its speculation so utterly and definitively disproven. At some level, enjoying IN SEARCH OF… requires you pretend a little bit, to suspend disbelief.
All told, one thing that is interesting about IN SEARCH OF… is how, on some occasions, they were RIGHT. The very first time I ever heard the idea the Vikings landed in North America was in an episode of IN SEARCH OF… The idea Native Americans made landfall on North America was followed afterwards by an episode about “the Lake Monsters of Canada.” Nowadays, the idea the Vikings were bold enough to reach Newfoundland is now uncontroversial, a part of history. And this is a shift that happened within my lifetime.
IN SEARCH OF… was interesting in that it was a rare audiovisual treatment of traditional paranormal “culture.” For instance, they begin every anecdote about some weird creature with the ultimate “gotcha,” the Ceolocanth. They start with a statement like “If the Coelocanth survived, well then why not (fill in the blank)?”
I don’t miss being a kid. I value my independence and self-reliance. But one thing I do regret is the loss of the sense that there was something weird and miraculous in the world, that utterly fantastic is possible: witchcraft, hauntings, Yeti. A key piece to all of this is how the evidence was absent. IF ONLY someone could search under the left paw of the Egyptian Sphinx as Edgar Cayce predicted, there’d be a secret hidden library of scrolls that proved the existence of Atlantis!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone were to find a lost temple in the Andes filled with flying machines? Wouldn’t it just be every comic book dream come true? When I was a kid, I used to wonder all the time why there were no real superheroes anywhere, even Batman-types with costumes and exercise routines. That's why I enjoy IN SEARCH OF... even more as an adult. It's like someone telling you Santa Claus was real after all.
Now that YouTube exists (God bless the inventor!) I can watch the series again. What’s really surprising to me is that the product I’ve come to know and love (the A&E edited version) isn’t the original. It was actually a little thrilling to see the original opening credit sequence. I remember being a little miffed that when the show was re-aired on the History Channel, they re-cut the opening sequence to something right out of BILL NYE, THE SCIENCE GUY. It seems I never experienced the “real” opening. Likewise, I was amazed to learn that the documentary movie I knew as THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION was actually the original pilot special for IN SEARCH OF…, when the original intent was to have the series hosted by Rod Serling.
It’s a treat to watch ISO... again (at least the episodes I didn’t tape back in the VHS days – IN SEARCH OF… was the first show I ever used to regularly tape). It’s no exaggeration to say this show is a part of my life. There are several episodes I know by memory. When my Dad took me on a vacation to Arizona, I dragged him to see the Percival Lowell observatory because of the episode “IN SEARCH OF… Martians.” Whenever possible, I used to take dates to Coral Castle down around Homestead. When I visited Northern California for the first time, I structured my vacation video around the idea of an IN SEARCH OF… episode, with me doing my darndest to imitate Nimoy’s gravelly voice. And most importantly, while I don’t agree with their “theory and conjecture,” the show gave me awe and curiosity about myth, the past, and archeology that I possess to this day.