COMM 305 – History of Television

The History of Television course allows students to study the history of television, from the inception to its presence in modern day society.  Reading a book about television’s history and watching movies and programs across the decades shows this history.  For the research paper in the class, I decided to research and analyze the use of fear cues in the popular show “Unsolved Mysteries”.  After doing a content analysis of several episodes and discovering the current research in fear and crime in society, I determined that they show displays many fear cues.


In the past, much research has supported the idea that watching crime television increases actual fear of real crime.  However, research lacks in the area of explaining this phenomenon.  One explanation is the result of fear cues and techniques used throughout the show to try to induce fear in viewers.  This research is a content analysis of the fear cues in a popular reality based crime program, “Unsolved Mysteries”.  Five vignettes and the start-up sequence were selected for the analysis.  It is hypothesized that the content analysis will reveal many fear cues, including music, aesthetics, and narration.  The analysis revealed many fear cues throughout the show, indicating that watching this type of programming is similar to watching certain horror films.  Future research can focus on the effects of these fear cues to determine if they play a part in increasing the fear of crimes in individuals.

A Content Analysis of Fear Cues in “Unsolved Mysteries”

            The popular television show “Unsolved Mysteries” was first televised in 1987 and has remained one of the longest running shows in American history, which has also spawned many similar shows.  In each show, viewers are implored to report any tips or information they have about a featured mystery by contacting the show through their telephone number or website, where the information will be appropriately relayed to law enforcement.  This show is classified as a reality-based crime show and displays five unexplained phenomena, including murder, missing persons, fraud, wanted criminals, unexplained deaths, UFO’s, ghosts, and many others in each show with narration done by the host.  In addition, the last segment of the show focuses on updating viewers on past mysteries that have been solved, many times a result of viewer tips.  During each segment, mysteries are dramatized and acted out to allow viewers a better idea of the exact way the mystery unfolded (Unsolved, 2012).

Since its debut in 1987, “Unsolved Mysteries” has featured over one thousand mysteries in two hundred and sixty shows.  Not only have almost half of the featured wanted criminal cases been solved because of the viewers, but also over one hundred family members have been reunited and many other mysteries have been solved.  NBC ran the show for its first ten seasons, and then CBS displayed the show for its next two seasons.  Crossgrove/Meurer Productions created and produced the series since its first appearance.  Although it has lost some of its popularity over the years and is no longer featured in primetime television, currently, “Unsolved Mysteries” is still being shown on certain channels and continues to be updated with accurate information.  Viewers can still contact the staff with information and tips and remain solving the mysteries (Unsolved, 2012).

Previous research about reality based crime shows and other types of crime programming, including “Unsolved Mysteries”, have revealed that viewers tend to have an inaccurate perception of violent crime, thinking that more violent crimes occur than actually do.  Also, possibly as a result of an increased perception of crime and the fear techniques used in reality-based crime shows, research has revealed that viewers tend to be more fearful of crime.

In one study by Kort-Butler and Hartshorn (2011), fear of crime as a result of watching fictional and nonfictional documentary style and non-documentary style crime shows was assessed.  A survey was given to a sample, which reviewed their feelings on crime and punishment of crime, their television watching habits, and their fear of being a victim of a violent crime.  An analysis revealed that higher frequencies of viewing fictional and nonfictional crime dramas were positively correlated with a higher fear of crime and backing for the death penalty.  So, in general, individuals who viewed more crime shows were more fearful of crime and more in support of the death penalty.  Also, confidence in the justice system was negatively correlated with fear.  Thus, individuals who had less faith in the justice system tended to be more fearful of crime.  In addition, younger people and women were more likely to be fearful of crime than men.  Finally, previous crime victims felt that crime was increasing while males, in general, felt that crime was decreasing.  Overall, the more often individuals watched nonfiction crime shows the more fearful of crime they were (Kort-Butler and Hartshorn, 2011).

Another study by Chiricos, Eschholz, and Gertz (1997) surveyed many individuals in Tallahassee, Florida, a city with a high violent crime rate.  Individuals were asked to rate their fear of being a victim of several different violent crimes.  They were also inquired on their exposure to media.  Finally, they were asked to recall as many details as possible about three highly publicized violent crimes across the country and they were asked a couple of questions about their safety level in and around their neighborhoods.  Results showed that, overall, older individuals were less fearful of crime and females and African Americans were more fearful.  Also, people who watched more television and listened to more radio were more fearful of crime but reading newspaper did not have an affect on fear.  In general, women had higher fear of crime levels than men and individuals who watched more television tended to be more fearful of crime than non-media viewers (Chiricos, Eschholz, and Gertz 1997).

A third study by Heath and Petraitis (1987) sought to determine the relationship of television viewing and fear of crime out in the world.  A two-part study was completed to determine the relationship between fear of crime in one’s immediate area and in outside surroundings and the amount of crime television watched.  In the first study, participants were surveyed in several medium sized cities across the United States.  Participants were asked to share demographic information, crime encounters they have had, fear of crime in their own neighborhood, their own city, and New York City, and the television habits of the past weekday, television habits in general, and television habits on the weekends.  Finally, the types of shows participants watched were also investigated.  The results of this study supported the notion that fears of crime in distant settings and amount of television viewed were positively related, indicating that the more an individual watched television, the more they experienced fear of crime in distant settings.  However, fear of local crime was found to not be related to the amount of television watched or the amount of crime television watched.  Although, the amount of crime television watched was related to fear associated with urban crime and distant crime.  These results indicated that watching crime television did have an effect on perception of crime in cities, but people generally felt safe in their own environments (Heath and Petraitis, 1987).

The second study of this research (Heath and Petraitis, 1987) focused more on specific crime television viewing and fears of crime.  All participants were residents of Chicago or its suburbs.  Participants were asked more specific questions about television viewing and fears of crime.  They were asked about their level of safety in their neighborhood and the safety of an “average” person in certain areas.  Actual statistics about crime were used to analyze the results from the survey.  Once again, general television and crime television viewing were positively related to fear of crime in urban settings.  Also, specific crime show viewing was positively related to fear of crime in urban settings.  Additionally, general television, crime television, and specific crime television viewing did not result in a significant difference of fear of crime in one’s own neighborhood.  Thus, individuals who watched more television or crime television did not fear crime more than those who did not watch television as often (Heath and Petraitis, 1987).

An additional study by Doob and Macdonald (1979) sought to determine the effects of increased television viewing on fear of crime.  To do this, the ten patrol areas with the highest amount of violent crime and the fourteen patrol areas with the lowest amount of crime in Toronto, Canada during a seven-month period were examined.  Four of those areas were chosen to be a part of the research, two that were in the lower crime areas and two in the higher crime areas.  The areas of higher crime were generally poorer and required more public housing, while the lower crime areas were much more suburban and richer.  Of the four areas, participants were randomly chosen to be a part of a door-to-door survey.  At first, subjects were asked to report all the television programs they had watched in the past week.  Next, they were asked to complete a survey about the fearfulness of being a victim of crime, about other people becoming a victim of a crime, about the presence of crime in the area, and other questions about crime, safety, and their exposure to media.  The results of this survey indicated that individuals in higher crime areas were generally more fearful of crime regardless of crime television exposure.  Additionally, people in these higher crime areas were more likely to be exposed to more television and more crime television than those in lower crime areas.  Because those more exposed to television are also more exposed to crime, it is possible that watching more television did not have as much of an effect on fear of crime as being exposed to crime did.  However, results were consistent that viewing more television, specifically violent crime television, is positively correlated with fear of crime (Doob and Macdonald, 1979).

A final study done by Cavender and Bond- Maupin (1993) described a content analysis of seven hour long episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” and nine half hour long episodes of “America’s Most Wanted”.  Together, seventy-seven vignettes were analyzed and all percentages were based on that number.  The vignettes were categorized based on demographics, including types of crime, characterizations, including types of criminals and victims, and worldview, including safety of people and places.  The content analysis revealed that more than half of the vignettes featured murder, and only four percent of criminals were female, indicating that the vast majority of criminals were depicted as male.  Additionally, motive behind the violent crime was generally described as greed or jealousy (Cavender and Bond-Maupin, 1993).

Furthermore, fear cues were frequently used in these shows.  For example, injuries and deaths are described in great detail.  Other aesthetic techniques were used to evoke fear as well.  In one case, the host appeared on a dark, lonely road, which is a societal fear that many individuals both share and experience.  Also, criminal acts, such as a shooting or stabbing, were condensed to very slow motion to extend the suspense.  Overall, the clips tended to be overdramatized and to personalize victims. Victims tended to be the most vulnerable members of society, including women and children while criminals tended to be very dangerous and in need of physical restraints or to be masked behind a regular, model citizen, such as a construction worker or police officer.  According to this philosophy, anyone could literally be a criminal, no matter how trustworthy and innocent seeming.  Generally, these types of reality based crime shows were likely to enforce the notion that no one, no matter how careful, can be completely safe or free from violence.  Crime settings tended to either be places like eerie, dark alleys or safe neighborhoods, both instilling fear into the viewer (Cavender and Bond-Maupin, 1993).

Much previous research has given much compelling evidence of a positive correlation between fear of crime and amount of watched crime television in individuals.  However, this research does not offer an explanation as to the reasons behind this trend.  One school of thought argues that certain fear techniques are used in this type of programming and may have an effect on viewers, even if they are engrossed in the content and unconscious of it.  Even though over the years “Unsolved Mysteries” has been nominated for Emmys and has been recognized by government law enforcement agencies, like the FBI for its work in solving crimes (Unsolved, 2012), the true reality of the program is questionable.  The show tends to exaggerate real crimes by utilizing fear techniques, such as music and aesthetics, to try to evoke fear and uncertainty from viewers.  At times, the vignettes seem more like a horror film or crime drama then a dramatized version of a real life crime.  It is hypothesized that a content analysis of “Unsolved Mysteries” will reveal several fear techniques, like music, aesthetics, narration, and word choice, used to evoke and induce fear in viewers.  Though, for the purposes of this analysis, the effects of the fear cues are not in question; the focus is simply on the presence and meaning of them.


            In the present research, a sample of convenience was used to find an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” to analyze because the episodes were not readily available on television or the Internet.  A single episode could not be found, so five separate clips from the earlier seasons were used as a mock episode, following the five-vignette model the show generally used.  To keep consistency, all of the clips had the same host and start-up sequence, indicating that they were debuted in the same time period.  This mock episode included a clip about an obsessed ex-boyfriend who murdered his ex-girlfriend’s family, a clip about mysterious, threatening letters being received by a woman, a clip about human bones found in a backyard of a house, a clip about a popular ghost in Chicago named Resurrection Mary, and a clip about a college campus murder of a journalism student.  Before the analysis occurred, the researcher determined that the aspects of the show to be analyzed would be the start-up sequence including music and aesthetics, the music during the vignettes, the aesthetics during the narration scenes and re-enactment scenes, and the specific word choice used during narration.


            It is important to note that the start-up sequence has been slightly altered over the many years of the show but this analysis focused on the original start-up sequence from the first seasons.  To begin, the start-up sequence had a general feeling of uncertainty and eeriness.  The music was the most noticeable fear cue of the sequence.  In fact, it was almost impossible to ignore because it was quite memorable and obnoxious.  The creepiness and disturbing nature of the music could literally send shivers down anyone’s spine whether one is expecting the music or not.  It was intentionally meant to scare and frighten the audience.  It was suspenseful and viewers might have felt a sense of being followed or felt as if an ominous event was about to occur.  The easiest way to describe the opening sequence music would be reminiscent of horror show introductions like “The Twilight Zone” or “The X-Files”.  Aesthetic fear techniques were also used in the starting sequence to evoke terror.  The sequence reminded viewers of all of the types of mysteries that the show features, including murder, kidnapping, UFO’s, ghosts, and many others.   The background tended to be black and the overall sequence was dark and eerie, which suggested uncertainty and scariness.  Finally, shadows and very vague images and actions were used during the sequence to also instill that sense of uncertainty and the feeling that something bad is about to happen, maybe even to the viewer.  The vagueness of the sequence gave viewers enough to understand the frightening reality of many of the mysteries, but did not give enough to the viewers to allow them to feel safe and certain, even in their own homes.  Before the show even started, fear cues were used in the starting sequence to induce fear and terror in viewers.

Along with the music during the start-up sequence, the music during the vignettes was also considered a fear cue.  Throughout much of the vignettes, low music would play in the background that may have been consciously unnoticeable because, unlike the starting sequence, the music was much more subtle and not obnoxious.  However, the music could still have been playing into the viewer’s unconscious.  Minor key and pianos were often used during these times.  However, during more suspenseful portions of the clips, the music would assist the suspense by becoming louder and more ominous.  In one clip, the killer was walking down a dark hallway in his victim’s house.  As he approached closer to the victim’s bedroom, the music became louder and more intense until he finally reached his target.  The suspense was literally built through the music.

Another item in “Unsolved Mysteries” that was analyzed as a fear cue was the aesthetics of the narration scenes and of the reenactment scenes.  Different cinematic techniques were used throughout the entire vignettes to evoke fear.  For instance, before the vignette about the popular ghost in Chicago, the host introduced the clip.  However, he appeared on a dark, lonely road with nothing else in sight as he discussed a mysterious ghost who has appeared on that road before to many different people. Thus, before the clip even starts, viewers may have had a sense of eeriness and creepiness.  Because so many urban legends and ghost stories occur on dark, lonely roads, the use of this one was clearly meant to play into that societal fear.  Furthermore, he wore a long, brown trench coat, which indicated that his trustworthiness should be questioned.  In general, individuals wearing trench coats can be seen as criminals, like flashers or mafia members.  The trench coat was a subtle fear cue to show that even the host cannot be completely trusted.

Aesthetic techniques were also used in the vignettes as fear cues.  For example, in the clip about the mysterious letters being received, the reenactment scenes served as fear cues.  This type of fear cue, though, was much more subtle.  The first example was the use of safe neighborhoods and places as the setting.  In the reenactment, their house and neighborhood were often seen.  Their house generally looked like any other middle class American home, which meant that most viewers had something to relate it to, and, in many cases, this relation was probably with their own homes.  Also, viewers witnessed the woman in the vignette walking down the driveway to retrieve her mail, an activity that many viewers do on a daily basis.  The normalcy and safeness of the clips may have allowed viewers to feel that these terrible things could happen to anyone, including him or herself.  The woman who is the victim of the threatening letters held a job as a bus driver, and she was seen driving her bus during the vignette.  This is another fear to try to make viewers feel that victims are everyday, innocent, average, and hardworking people that viewers can relate to.

Finally, criminals were often either portrayed as either mysterious strangers or normal, trustworthy people.  In the clip about the ex boyfriend who killed his ex girlfriend’s family, the criminal was portrayed as an average, normal male who turned insane, which is a fear cue that showed viewers that anyone could potentially be a criminal.  He was shown attending college and taking his girlfriend on a date.  In the other clip about the bones found in the backyard, the criminal was never found, but the creepy, mysterious son of the mother whose bones were found in the yard was clarified as a potential suspect.  Thus, the most innocent and average people could be criminals or the typical, mysterious stranger could be the potential threat.

A final portion of “Unsolved Mysteries’ analyzed for fear cues was the word choice used by the narrator.  The narrator tended to use words as fear cues by instilling a sense that no one is safe and crime could happen anywhere.  An example of this type of word choice appeared in the clip about the college campus murder.  The narration started out describing college as a safe place where young adults go to brighten their future.  Since a violent crime occurred on this “safe” campus, it could potentially occur on any college campus to anybody, even those who work hard and have a promising future.  Another example of word choice as a fear cue occurred in the clip about the mysterious letters.  The narration started by describing the small Ohio town as one that hardly ever draws attention from the outside, where people are hardworking and live average lives.  So, threatening letters could be received by anyone, especially those living in average areas.  Word choice was used to subtly evoke fear in viewers by letting them understand that they could be the next victims.


The hypothesis that a content analysis of “Unsolved Mysteries” would reveal specific fear cues was supported, which agreed with previous research, such as the analysis completed by Cavender and Bond-Maupin (1993).  Although the present research concurred with other research, the research had many limitations.  For instance, only five vignettes were used for analysis, which is not a very large sample.  Also, vignettes were not chosen randomly.  In fact, a single episode was not even used for analysis because of the lack of availability, so vignettes were only selected on availability.  A better sample would have been randomly chosen out of the entire population of episodes and clips.  Also, because the sample was one of convenience and hand chosen by the researcher, bias may have entered into the choosing.  It is possible the vignettes were chosen on preconceived notions of which ones would exhibit the most fear cues or another bias may have occurred.  Fortunately, this research and previous research about relationships between fear of crime and viewership of crime television shows, including a study by Chiricos, Eschholz, and Gertz (1997), a study by Heath and Petraitis (1987), and a study by Kort-Butler, and Hartshorn (2011), leads to much future research.  For example, the effect of these fear cues is an excellent topic for further research.  An investigation or an explanation of increased fear of crime as a result of crime television viewing would determine whether fear cues are a cause of this or if it is related to something else completely.  Additionally, there are potential effects of the fear cues that may have not even been discussed yet.  Overall, even though this research was cohesive with previous research and the original hypothesis, future research can focus on the effects of fear cues and techniques used in reality crime programming and the relationship between these cues and increased fear of crime.


About. (2012). Retrieved from

Cavender, G., & Bond-Maupin, L. (1993). Fear and Loathing on Reality Television: An Analysis

of “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries”*. Sociological Inquiry, 63(3), 305-317.

Chiricos, T., Eschholz, S., & Gertz, M. (1997). Crime, News and Fear of Crime: Toward an

Identification of Audience Effects. Social Problems, 44(3), 342-357.

Doob, A. N., & Macdonald, G. E. (1979). Television Viewing and Fear of Victimization: Is the

Relationship Causal?. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology37(2), 170-179.

Heath, L., & Petraitis, J. (1987). Television Viewing and Fear of Crime: Where Is the Mean

World?. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 8(1/2), 97-123.

Kort-Butler, L. A., & Hartshorn, K. (2011). Watching the detectives: Crime programming, fear

of crime, and attitudes about the criminal justice system. The Sociological Quarterly, 52(1), 36-55. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2010.01191.x

In Cosgrove, J. (Executive Producer), Unsolved Mysteries. Cosgrove/Meurer Productions.

Television Research Paper


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