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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown

chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

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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The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it “nonsense.”

For others, the appeal is enduring. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, just hosted its first “mullet festival,” a celebration of all things badly shorn. “We have so many mullets in town,” said co-organizer Sarah Bedford. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years.”

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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