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The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television

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On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.

In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.

In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.

The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.

In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.

The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)

Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.

Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.

Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.

Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.

The VHS box art for an early video release of the Zuni doll segment
MPI Home Video

Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.

Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.

When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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