Theory and Conjecture: ‘In Search of…’ and the Golden Age of Paranormal TV

Features / February 8, 2018

GRASSO: Last week, a story came across the We Are The Mutants news desk that inspired equal parts hope and dread: a reboot of the classic paranormal documentary series In Search of… is in the works, appropriately hosted by the 21st century’s Mr. Spock, Zachary Quinto. I like Quinto well enough, and appreciate the sentiment of trying to resurrect probably one of the most important television shows from my youth. But of course I’m extremely skeptical about how well it will recreate the oddball outsider art aesthetic of the original series.

In Search of… grew out of a series of one-off documentary films by documentarian Alan Landsburg. Landsburg had produced some critically-acclaimed films in the 1960s, including Kennedy, The First Thousand Days, produced for the 1964 Democratic National Convention as a tribute to the late JFK. Later in the ’60s, he executive produced popular TV documentaries like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. In 1973, inspired by his reading of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, he produced an American recut of the Oscar-nominated West German film adaptation of the book, using Rod Serling as the English-language narrator and host. Landsburg went on to produce two more films in this vein, In Search of Ancient Mysteries (1973) and The Outer Space Connection (1975). By the time Landsburg managed to secure a regular syndicated television series, Serling had passed away, so Landsburg tapped Leonard Nimoy, star of another iconic sci-fi series from the 1960s.

If there’s one document from my early childhood that got the paranormal’s hooks into me, it was In Search of… Each weekend, usually late afternoon Saturdays on UHF television, Leonard Nimoy would host a globe-trotting trip into a topic from one of six of the series’ subject areas: “Extraterrestrials,” “Magic & Witchcraft,” “Missing Persons,” “Myths & Monsters,” “Lost Civilizations,” and “Special Phenomena.” My first exposure to Bigfoot, ufology, the Comte de Saint-Germain, ESP, and Atlantis were all thanks to Landsburg and Nimoy.

ROBERTS: It’s important to note that 1973’s In Search of Ancient Astronauts, the Serling-narrated recut Mike mentions, was what made Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? a bestseller in the US. The book had been a huge success in Europe upon initial release in 1968, but it took Serling’s smooth, mysterious tones and Landsburg’s know-how to kick off the ancient alien obsession that still resonates—albeit in a far dumber form—today. The influence of In Search of Ancient Astronauts was not lost on producer David L. Wolper (he produced Roots, among many others), who partnered with the Smithsonian Institute, with some hesitation on the part of the museum authority, to release Monsters! Mysteries or Myths, which aired on CBS in 1974. This was the first television survey—hailed as a “scientific investigative report“—covering the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster, and it “broke all existing records” for documentaries in the Los Angeles and New York markets.

By the way, I was very upset when I heard about the Quinto business, as you both know. The In Search of… reboot was our gig.

MCKENNA: Leonard Nimoy could have read out the European Union domestic wiring standards and it would have sounded exciting. Add to that his acquired science officer authority and I can only imagine the effect watching him work his way through the primary esoteric mysteries of the day would have had on anyone, let alone upon an impressionable kid. The nearest we got to that mixture of divulgation and kid-pop-culture SF weirdness was probably Doctor Who presenting the world’s most hauntological program about reading.

In the UK, probably due to our dearth of TV channels (then three, and not even all the time), the paranormal had mainly been trafficked in the form of books and magazines. Though credit should probably go to the BBC for its 1975 documentary The Ghost Hunters, given how soaked in the uncanny and the paranormal the zeitgeist was, it’s odd that it took the UK until 1980 to come out with its own riposte to In Search Of… in the form of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World,  (which, I am provincially proud to say, was a Yorkshire Television production—like the aforementioned Book Tower, it was produced by the independent television companies, and captured its native region’s unique blend of blowhard triumphalism and pastoral cosmic awe pretty well). Not as odd as a distinguished scientist and science fiction writer being considered enough of a well-known public face to be given the gig of hosting a prime-time TV series on the supernatural, though—and not as odd as Clarke’s strangled Somerset-come-King’s College accent (which I’d completely forgotten). I loved Mysterious World when it was first shown, but despite a soundtrack by Bruton Music regular Alan Hawkshaw, in hindsight there’s something vaguely institutional about it. It certainly feels a bit stuffy in comparison to In Search of…, its principal attraction being the window it provides onto a bizarre, parallel world that, though in some ways similar to our own, is also vastly different: the Britain of the late 1970s, when our much-vaunted eccentricity was still in its pre-codified, non-performative mode. How did the vastly more dynamic In Search of… play to you inhabitants of the USA when you first watched it?

GRASSO: Interesting that you ask that question, Richard, because I often like to contrast In Search of… with the other seminal TV documentary series of my youth, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Cosmos, like In Search of…, was presented by a genial, avuncular host with a distinctive vocal delivery. They both sent their cast and crew jet-setting across the planet for location shoots. They both used historical reenactments to alternately profound and cheesy effect. Both largely followed a generic TV documentary formula that was standard in the 1970s (one that Landsburg himself arguably helped set!). I think what makes both series so engaging now (and made them must-watch TV for young me back in the early ’80s) was the fact that you never got bored of a topic. In Search of… was the perfect length; a half-hour syndicated slot, in reality more like 22 minutes with commercial breaks. If an episode didn’t get over with you this week, there’d be one next weekend that would. Sure, In Search of… featured the same parade of talking head interviews you’d see on Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (or any of the UFO documentaries that populated the UHF airwaves back then, like 1979’s UFOs Are Real, another seminal document for me). But I think that In Search of… edited and assembled its pieces with an express eye towards engaging the viewers. Which could mean, quite often, scaring the pants off them or creeping them out! Every uncanny, foreboding, warbly, synth sting from the show is burned into my formative memories. Some of the reenactments definitely cross over from cheesy to genuinely frightening: I’m thinking specifically of the very opening of the classic Season 1 episode of Bigfoot, where a group of miners are confronted with a pack of Sasquatches trying to break into their cabin. The crude, joggling first-person footage, shot from the perspective of the Sasquatches hurtling through the thick foliage, haunts my childhood memories, like some kind of bizarre document sent from another world. This was, indeed, a kick-ass episode.

My dual childhood allegiance to both Nimoy and Sagan meant that I was exposed to equal parts science and pseudoscience growing up. The opening narration of In Search of… assured us that “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.” And, to be sure, some of the In Search of… topics, particularly around real-life historical figures who met mysterious ends, adhere closer to the “science” side of the science/pseudoscience divide and keep the speculation to a realistic minimum. Conversely, as adamant as Carl Sagan was about not falling into the traps of superstition and blind belief, even eight-year-old me could see that the boundaries between science and superstition were quite porous. It was difficult for me to completely exorcise the supernatural from my worldview when Sagan himself was informing me about scientists and cosmographers, like Kepler and Newton, who had their own mystical worldviews that helped them construct the scientific theories that built the modern positivist world. Science and the supernatural, even Sagan seemed to concede, were adjacent territories.

Which means, of course, that even the pseudoscientific researchers featured on In Search of… inherit some of the worst prejudices and problems of their era. When I purchased the In Search of… boxed set some years ago (a terrific purchase, by the way), I started a very slow, deliberate rewatch. During a few of these episodes, I happened to be watching in a group with people who were younger than me and had no memories or associations with the show. And the run of episodes we happened to be watching just seemed by coincidence to have an awful lot of what looked like very ethically-dodgy animal testing. My friends were kind of shocked at this development, but it hadn’t set off any alarm bells with me until I saw it through their eyes and realized, yeah, this is pretty messed up.

ROBERTS: In Search of… epitomized a certain mood, more than anything else. That’s the sense I get watching it now. Before drones and GPS, before our final and despicable capitulation to the technocratic oligarchy (fuck Elon Musk and his orbiting limousine), the extraordinary was still possible and tangible; it couldn’t be bought, and ordinary people might chance upon it on a back road or a dark lake. It was our last collective moment of magic. Of course, there are far more shows today purporting to investigate the paranormal, but they are as bloated as they are staged: infrared helmet cams, EVP recorders, motion sensors—just a concatenation of gadgets to catch reflections of ourselves, vulgar monuments to the death of imagination. Today, almost everybody believes in the paranormal in one form or another, which is to say that almost nobody believes in the paranormal.

MCKENNA: Maybe it’s also that the paranormal once seemed to represent something that, in its absurd way, was essentially democratic and egalitarian—something that could happen to anyone, anywhere, and that seemed to belong to the humble and the amateur as much as to the “expert” or the obsessive. It definitely feels as though after the X-Files’ “I want to believe,” there was a shift from the paranormal priority being the wanting—a romantic yearning for something vast, something that opened things up—to it being the believing, the having the fervently-held answers for everything that shut down all discussion—to some extent, this has happened in other aspects of our society as well. Nowadays, the cultish, religion-like aspects that were always a big part of interest in the paranormal seem to dominate, and given how deeply the paranoid version of interest in the paranormal has seeped into the culture, reviving In Search of… now feels a bit pointless, and perhaps even counterproductive.

I suppose it’s sort of apt that the program’s title evokes Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)okay, it’s a jump, I know—because, like in the novel’s vivid evocations of the sensory world of infancy, a childlike feeling of mystery, confusion and awe—the sense of a world of possibilities whose rules are still malleable—are inherent in the enigmas that In Search of… goes, ahem, in search of. And also because Leonard Nimoy’s voice is the madeleine to top all frigging madeleines: as I said earlier, I’d happily watch Nimoy investigate the mysteries of knitting or of DIY guttering repair, because charisma, poise, and intensity like his don’t come along that often. I’m sure Quinto’s a personable enough guy, but he doesn’t have that ineffable whiff of the strange, of the remarkable, about him. And something like this demands as its face someone as strange and remarkable—and as beautiful—as its subject matter.

GRASSO: I may not have successfully conveyed in this piece up to this point what In Search of… meant and still means to me. In an era before the shattering and multiplication of media outlets—before the introduction of cable TV—In Search of… was a fixture on syndicated television. Back then, you had maybe six or seven stations to choose from on a weekend afternoon. Why were Weird series like In Search of… or UFO documentaries like UFOs Are Real shown on my local UHF stations so frequently back then? Well, the first factor is that demand for these kinds of programs was extremely high in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Cold War-era belief in UFOs, for example, hit its highest level (57%) in 1978, the year after In Search of… debuted. As we’ve discussed here at We Are The Mutants this week, from the late ’60s through the early ’80s, there was a tremendous amount of this kind of sober, measured (or wild-eyed tabloid!) analysis of the paranormal on bookstore shelves, in the checkout aisles at supermarkets, and on television airwaves.

When researching In Search of… and other UFO-related documentaries from the 1970s for a recent academic paper, I discovered that this narrow media landscape was, ironically, one of the reasons Weird media flourished on television at the time. With the establishment of broadcasting laws in the early 1970s that required US TV stations to fill their time with non-network-produced programming, independent producers like Landsburg were suddenly in favor. Network affiliates and local independent stations were forced by these “fin-syn laws” to buy cheap programming like old B-movies, reruns of network sitcoms, imports from foreign producers like ITC, and fringe documentaries like In Search of… to fill their schedules. The combination of a restriction on the number of television stations and laws that favored independent producers led to a narrow pipeline where television was basically de facto forced to carry Weird stuff. The coming of cable in the 1980s, where there were fewer restrictions on programming, diluted the Weirdness of America’s television landscape. Suddenly, 1970s television’s short menu of bespoke options became a little more streamlined, a little less grotty. As Kelly said above, with In Search of… the paranormal was somehow made messy, tangible.

I mentioned at the outset that In Search of… feels like outsider art, and it’s not just the Weird topics the show covered or the array of oddballs they interviewed. It’s the visual and sonic aesthetic as well: the grainy film stock, those eerie synths, the charmingly amateurish recreations. Try to get something like this on cable television in the mid-to-late ’80s and you’d have been absolutely out of luck. It’s one of the reasons why, whatever happens, Zachary Quinto’s late-’10s version of the show won’t be able to hold a candle to the original (nor did the version hosted by The X-Files‘ Mitch Pileggi in the early ’00s). In Search of… is the product of a unique set of environment, influences, and circumstances that we’ll likely never see again. It’s a document of its time and place, a serialized encyclopedia of the tabloid occult that bubbled under the surface of an American media monoculture that is long gone. These reasons, and so many more, are why the show will always remain so close to my heart.

10 thoughts on “Theory and Conjecture: ‘In Search of…’ and the Golden Age of Paranormal TV

    • It is most certainly hit or miss! I just watched Clarke’s Mysterious World for the first time a few months ago and adored it. With ISO, I skip around, watching one or two episodes every few weeks. I have 8 seasons of Three’s Company to finish, after all…

  1. I loved watching In Search Of back in the day. Me and my dad used to watch it on local TV rowing up in the late 70s. I still remember watching my first episode on the ghost hauntings in the U.K. I remember it scaring the crap our of me.

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