The 13th Floor

Read the Book! Remembering Time-Life’s MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN

“I never thought I would believe in it… until it happened to me.”

If those words just triggered a slight chill in your bones — or perhaps just a brief flash of goofy nostalgia — you’re definitely not alone. The above quote was first directed to an unflinching camera in 1989 by Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore, climaxing one of several television ads for the best-selling paranormal book series of all time: Time-Life Books’ MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN.

In the pre-internet days of mail-order merchandise, Time-Life Books dominated the airwaves with lengthy, slick commercial spots for various ornate book-club subscription sets, containing slim but classy, image-loaded volumes on a variety of historical topics (most notably their Civil War and World War II series), vintage photography, nature guides, cookbooks, how-to manuals and more.

One of their more popular collections was the 29-volume ENCHANTED WORLD series released in the 1980s — dedicated to myths, magic, folklore and the occult throughout history. Even if you haven’t read the books, you’ve probably seen this amazing TV promo starring the legendary Vincent Price:

Following on the success of ENCHANTED WORLD was Time-Life’s 33-volume MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN series, which ran from 1987 to 1991, and would ultimately become one of the company’s best-selling collections, arguably turning on an entire generation to all things paranormal — from UFOs and ancient alien theories to Bigfoot and Nessie sightings, some way-out theories about the origins of Peru’s mysterious Nazca Lines, tales of fortune-tellers from Nostradamus to Edgar Cayce, and the hidden secrets of the Egyptian pyramids.

Great Pyramid of Giza (Image Credit: Nina Aldin Thune)

Well-researched and stylishly presented with hundreds of high-gloss images, charts and diagrams, bound in embossed leather-look covers with eerie full-color artwork, the books served as a kind of bridge between the paranormally-obsessed 1970s — including the rise of the so-called “New Age” movement — and the X-FILES generation of the early ‘90s, which grew into the post-millennial craze for meme-friendly shows like ANCIENT ALIENS and countless cryptid-themed documentary series.

Image Credits: George Stock/François de Loys

The MYSTERIES collection was a huge success for Time-Life, and spawned numerous knock-off series from other publishers… but the originals remain etched into popular culture thanks to the memorable TV ads — which often featured chilling narration and brief reenactments of bizarre phenomena.

With titles like Mystic Places, The UFO Phenomenon, Phantom Encounters, Cosmic Connections, Mysterious Creatures and Psychic Voyages, the collection is essentially a more detailed, high-minded print version of the classic TV series IN SEARCH OF… which in turn was inspired by freaky ‘70s documentaries like CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH.

The “Bell Witch” and the Death of John Bell (1894 Illustration)

It’s actually a bit surprising MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN became such a hit with readers, considering the books were launched long after the pop-culture obsession with UFOs, Bigfoot, psychic powers, crystal gazing and out-of-body experiences had peaked. It’s possible the surprise success of the books ushered in a new trend of paranormal popularity, spiritualism and fascination with the occult… or at least played a hand in its resurgence.

Spider Lines, Nazca Plain, Peru (Image Credit: Diego Delso)

One factor which might have played a role in the books’ popularity is the high-profile ad campaign, which included 30- and 60-minute TV commercials, direct-mail flyers and full-page ads in magazines. In addition to moody images and creepy descriptions, the ads provided a toll-free number, through which one could subscribe to a monthly book club, beginning with the volume Mystic Places.

The television spots in particular are known for having traumatized more than a few young viewers… and although they seem a bit quaint today, I can understand how they could have creeped some kids out.

The first TV ad featured a cool analog synth soundtrack and ominous narration — both suitable for a horror movie trailer — and subsequent spots included brief, occasionally chilling reenactments of bizarre and unexplained events. These included the story of a man who is driven by an unexplainable feeling to cancel his airline flight… and learns afterward that the plane crashed, leaving no survivors; another depicts a man being seized by an unseen force within a circle of trees as his friends watch in horror.

This style evolved over the years into a loose “interview” format, with actors playing directly to the camera, providing personal testimony about a particular phenomenon. It’s during one of these ads that we’re treated to the smoky voice and intense gaze of young Julianne Moore (who won a Daytime Emmy for AS THE WORLD TURNS the previous year) as she describes a chilling out-of-body experience.

Then, of course, there were the “Read the book” ads: weird little mini-plays in which an “informed” devotee of MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN dazzles a skeptical friend or curious bystander with their esoteric knowledge — wisdom which has apparently improved their lives, as the reader is usually depicted as a suave, erudite type (though not too aloof… these books were for regular folks too, after all).

Revelations from the books, interspersed with images from their pages, inevitably pique the other person’s interest to such an extent that the reader begins toying with their curiosity in a mildly sadistic manner, always countering their questions with the same answer: “Read the book!”

I read the books… well, some of them, anyway. I never actually subscribed to the club, but about half of the volumes were available at my local library (eBay is overflowing with them nowadays), and I found most of them pretty interesting, if a bit dry in spots. There’s definitely enough historical foundation and scientific research to lend legitimacy to the fantastical mumbo-jumbo, which makes some of the paranormal stories genuinely creepy (Phantom Encounters documents some truly nightmarish legends).

Unfortunately, I can’t really recall having any “Read the book” moments with random strangers (as seen on TV), but I’ve definitely used that line in more than one conversation. Those who get it, got it… those who don’t just looked at me funny. But I’m used to that.