By Eric Grundhauser
Turn on just about any channel of American TV between 1987 and 1991, and there was a pretty good chance you would be treated to strange tales of spontaneous psychic connections that were “DISMISSED AS COINCIDENCE." Or a normal-looking guy talking about a magician’s honeymoon in the Great Pyramid, before harping on his friend to “Read the book!” You might even see a young Julianne Moore telling a story about an out-of-body experience.
These were all commercials for Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series, a mail order book series that not only blanketed the airwaves with unforgettable commercials, but captured the zeitgeist of a burgeoning New Age explosion. The book series was a collection of thin, black volumes that delved into every corner of the mystical, metaphysical, and paranormal. But for all of their admirably in-depth explorations of everything from “Earth Energies” to “Mysterious Creatures,” one mystery remains: how did they get so popular?
Fittingly enough, it may have just been fated in the stars.
The Mysteries of the Unknown phenomenon began in 1987 when Time-Life Books began to test the waters for a series of books on the paranormal. Time-Life Books, a conglomeration of the two titular magazines, sold books via monthly subscriptions. Their series and titles usually focused on broad historical or utilitarian subjects like The Old West or Home Repair and Improvement, and were mainly sold directly to the consumer via television ads that blanketed the cable and broadcast airwaves. They were the kinds of books one’s dad or grandparents might buy.
Even within Time-Life, the series was nicknamed “books as furniture," says Tom Corry, former Product Manager for Time-Life Books, who helped develop the paranormal series and the ad campaign that saw it take off. According to Corry, who is now CEO of his own company, Healthcare Data Insights & Analytics, the roots of the Mysteries series are actually pretty mundane. “We already had a book series called the Enchanted World, and it was elves and fairies,” he says. “It was a pretty popular series.” Having found an audience for these books, Time-Life decided to see what other left-field topics readers might be interested in.
Moving a bit away from the myth and folklore of the Enchanted World, Time-Life began polling its marketing database to see if they could get a little more mysterious and metaphysical. The database was a collection of people who had filled out business reply cards (the company tip emails of the day), or purchased previous series from Time-Life. They responded with "decent interest," says Corry. "We thought we could probably squeeze a series out of this."
But the Time-Life editors weren’t that interested in the idea of this comparatively out-there new series. “Oh yeah. They hated that stuff,” says Corry. Time-Life had made its reputation on sober publications like This Fabulous Century and The Life Nature Library, so runs like the Enchanted World and Mysteries of the Unknown were far more fringe. But the customer interest was strong enough, and the sales projections made sense, so the project went through. While it may have lacked very much magic in its conception, Mysteries of the Unknown was about to beguile America.
The series debuted via Time-Life’s direct mail campaigns in early 1987, receiving, as Corry puts it, a “mediocre” response. But then came the Harmonic Convergence, a global meditation event organized by New Age author José Argüelles, that called for believers from all around the world to gather where they could in order to meditate on a common karmic goal. According to Argüelles, on August 16-17 of 1987, the planets aligned as predicted in an ancient Mayan prophecy, ushering in an age of global rebirth.
Who knows what effect the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 had on the karma of the planet, but the massive popularity of the event certainly marked a turning point in the sales of Mysteries of the Unknown. “There was the Harmonic Convergence, and then there was the power of crystals.” Corry says. “All this stuff out in the news, and out in the market, starts hitting on the Harmonic Convergence, and crystals, and out-of-body experiences. UFOs were kind of big ... Right after that, in the fall of ‘87, we couldn’t print enough books.”
While a seemingly cosmic synchronicity may have kicked off the series’ popularity, it was the TV ads that made Mysteries of the Unknown immortal. After the standard promotion cycle of direct mailings, followed by print advertising and reply cards, the first Mysteries of the Unknown television commercial hit the airwaves in September of 1987.
Developed by advertising agency Wunderman Worldwide, the ad had an ominous voiceover presenting the viewer with a series of seemingly unexplainable events, against a sinister John-Carpenter-lite soundtrack. “Northern Texas. An unidentified flying object is reported by at least a dozen people,” the voiceover intoned. “Although there were no storms in the area, it’s dismissed as lightning.” Then, during the same ad, came the image of a man who brought a coat hanger bent into the shape of an ankh to Stonehenge, getting zapped with a surge of yellow “power.”
These eerie/silly advertisements hit like a psychic blast, and Mysteries of the Unknown was on its way to breaking every sales record Time-Life had ever seen at the time. A New York Times article from 1988 reports 700,000 orders for the first book in the series, Mystic Places.
As sales of the series stayed strong, more commercials followed over the next few years. Initially mimicking the creepy voiceover formula of the original, the ads moved towards a more personal perspective. They began with dramatizations of people telling their unexplainable stories (Hey there, 1989 Julianne Moore!), before juxtaposing them with a grumpy skeptic. Later in the life of the campaign, the ads got even more elaborate, with one in 1990 promising to send subscribers “power crystals” if they drew a full moon over an image of Stonehenge printed on a mail-in reply card.
Perhaps the most iconic of the ads were the ones that spotlighted a conversation between an incredulous disbeliever and a Mysteries of the Unknown subscriber. One classic exchange:
Man 1: Mystic Places? Man 2: It talks about the Nazca Lines being runways for alien spaceships, and aliens interbreeding with ancient Peruvians. Man 1: Did they? Man 2: Read the book. Read about Aleister Crowley and his bride’s honeymoon night in the Great Pyramid. Man 1: What happened?! Man 2: Read the book!
“Read the book!” became a favorite catchphrase as people were bombarded with commercials for the series on every 1990s powerhouse network, from MTV to TNT to Nickelodeon.
While the ads capitalized on the skepticism surrounding the subject matter, the books themselves were much less flighty than one might expect. The researchers, writers, and editors at Time-Life who worked on the series subjected titles like Psychic Voyages and Spirit Summonings to the same rigors of investigation and annotation as any of their historical titles.
“One thing I have to say about Time-Life is that it was really well researched,” Corry says, “because the guys in New York, the chairman of the board of Time Inc., they had a real focus on editorial excellence.” The volume entitled Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects alone has a bibliography that references about 178 different sources. The book itself is only 176 pages long. No matter how skeptical one might be, it certainly seemed like the books got as close to the bottom of their mysteries as they could. Although, according to Corry, the editors never really did warm to the subject matter.
When Mysteries of the Unknown was initially released in 1987, there were only 20 volumes in the series. By 1991, when the series was finally discontinued, it had grown to encompass 33 titles, including Cosmic Connections, Witches and Witchcraft, and The Mind and Beyond. The true hidden powers behind the Mysteries of the Unknown were sales figures, and as those slowed, the series ended.
The interior of Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects (Image by Eric Grundhauser)
Mysteries of the Unknown lives on most indelibly in the minds of those that were hypnotized by the unforgettable ads (Corry won a Cleo for one of the TV spots, and credits the series for defining his marketing career). Time-Life Books was shut down in 2003, and the company now focuses on selling multimedia things like DVDs and CDs. No mention of the Mysteries of the Unknown series can be found on its website, but copies of the thin black tomes still pop up on eBay, Amazon, and the shelves of used book stores. Physical copies of the books now seem like mysterious artifacts themselves: half-remembered grimoires filled with the hottest timeless mysteries of the 1980s and '90s.