History Thread: Beyond Believable

If you grew up in the ’90s, watch a lot of Sci-Fi Channel reruns in the 2000s or spend any time on the Internet, you’re likely familiar with Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. This anthology series ran on Fox from 1997 to 2002, hosted by Star Trek‘s Jonathan Frakes and featuring voiceover by Don LaFontaine at his “In a World” best. (Yes, James Brolin hosted the first season, but his poor impression of Robert Stack hosting Unsolved Mysteries did few favors for the show.) The show’s irresistible gimmick involves Frakes presents five stories involving paranormal phenomena, coincidences or urban legends, then asking the viewer to determine which ones are true and which false.

The ’90s and early ’00s experienced a rash of similar shows, including TLC’s Mostly True Stories and a Believe It Or Not! series hosted by Dean Cain. All of these series featured goofy reenactments with lame acting and cheap production values, generally more silly than scary. What makes Beyond Belief stand out is Frakes, who introduces and closes each segment fiddling with silly props and making god awful puns, all with the world’s smuggest smile on his face. This inspired a rash of memes in recent years, which have met with Frakes’ approval, causing various nostalgia blogs, podcasters and YouTubers to revisit the show. It’s easily available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Freevee and other streaming services for those nostalgic, curious or stoned to peruse.

Cheesy though it is, the show struck a chord with young viewers by proclaiming creepy and outlandish tales as FACT. The problem is that Beyond Belief employs an extremely loose definition of FACT, which makes verifying the stories difficult. Many FACT stories are simply popular urban legends accepted as true, like the woman who dies after stealing a formaldehyde-soaked wedding dress off a corpse. So many stories incorporate obvious horror cliches and urban legend tropes – the character who was Dead All Along, the protagonists discovering a hidden fortune with the help of a long-dead relative – that it’s hard to take them seriously even when labeled FACT.

Naturally, Frakes presents the FACT stories in the vaguest terms possible. “Our research shows that this story happened somewhere on the East Coast about forty years ago” is worse than useless for viewers curious to learn more. A story like “Red-Eyed Creature,” about a family who either a) mistakes a heater’s red lights for a ghost, or b) has a demonic, red-eyed nanny plotting their doom, vaguely matches a million ghost stories without any distinguishing features. Perhaps it’s a sign that looking for FACT is a sucker’s game, as Frakes’s introductions suggest.

When stories do cite a source it’s always S. Robert Tralins, a pulp novelist specializing in masterworks like Attack of the Nymphomaniacs. While Tralins did write a few nonfiction books on the paranormal (which the series likely drew upon), they’re typical of the Astonishing Tales collections popular in the ’60s and ’70s, a volume of spooky just-so-stories sourced to the author’s “firsthand research.” His standards for inclusion seem about as rigorous as The Weekly World News, but with slightly fewer Bat Boys.

That said, it’s possible to find the basis for some FACT segments. Many are based on well-known stories or paranormal lore, while others require a bit of digging to uncover. While perusing this article, put your assumptions that FACTS must be based on actual events on hold, and enter a world…BEYOND BELIEF.

The Electric Chair (Season 1, Episode 1)

A man sentenced to die in the electric chair survives several botched executions. He’s later determined to be innocent, suggesting that Divine Providence protected him from an unjust death. Or maybe just a cautionary tale that electric chairs aren’t a good way execute someone.

The True Story: There are many stories of similarly botched executions and lucky (or unlucky) victims. This one’s probably based on John Babbacombe Lee, an alleged murderer who survived three hanging attempts in Victorian England; his sentence was ultimately commuted to life imprisonment. “The Man They Could Not Hang” has been chronicled in books like Charles Fort’s Wild Talents, along with several films, so it’s likely Beyond Belief‘s writers reskinned his story for this show.

Number One With a Bullet (Season 1, Episode 1)

The story of a man killed by a bullet (fired at him by the family member of the first man’s deceased wife) embedded in a tree for five years, freakishly dislodged by a chainsaw. Incredibly bad luck, or karmic justice from BEYOND THE GRAVE!?!

The True Story: This one updates a semi-verified Believe It Or Not story involving Harry Ziegland in 1913 Texas. That said, the circumstances are somewhat different – namely, instead of an improbable accident with a chainsaw, Ziegland used dynamite to blow up said tree. So, maybe attributing his death to that specific bullet is a stretch. 

Kid in the Closet (Season 1, Episode 2)

Easily the series’ most famous segment, about a boy who is terrorized by bullies during the day and a closet monster at night. Boy’s older brother tries to push him into the closet, but Boy convinces Brother to enter the closet instead to prove he’s not chicken. After a few feeble cries for help, Brother vanishes into thin air just as Mom arrives, leaving only a neat pile of his clothes on the floor. If this segment wasn’t creepy enough, James Brolin caused nightmares in impressionable young viewers by proclaiming this segment FACT.

The True Story: Well, it is, kind of. Robert Tralins later admitted that the show didn’t tell the whole story: a boy disappeared from Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s after last being seen in a closet, only to turn up two weeks later hiding at a friend’s house. He used a crawlspace in the attic to escape, wedging the passageway shut so his parents couldn’t find him. Not exactly mysterious, but very clever for a little kid, I’ve gotta admit. 

The Family Tomb (Season 1, Episode 4)

Weird events transpire at the mausoleum of a wealthy family. After a young member of the family commits suicide, the coffins entombed in the vault move around between each new burial. Authorities can’t find any obvious entries, just a message not to add any more bodies to the vault. The family discovers that the dead girl’s father abused her, and presumably her spirit was unwilling to spend the afterlife in their company.

The True Story: Sound familiar? This of course is based on the Chase Vault of Barbados, which I’ve written about before. Although relocated to the modern United States, the outline follows the traditional telling closely, including sand sprinkled on the floor of the vault to capture footprints and the disturbances beginning after interring a young woman abused by her parents. The story is almost certainly a hoax, but it’s an entertaining and well-established piece of paranormal lore, so FACT.

The Plane (Season 2, Episode 1)

A pilot makes a stop at a small airfield to pick up a package. He discovers the manager of the field is a friend of his late father, also a pilot, who died in a crash. While reminiscing his plane takes off under its own power and crashes into a nearby field. Our protagonist discovers that his plane had been leaking fuel and that he’d miraculously escaped death, thanks to Dad’s Ghost as he finds the flying medallion in the wreckage. No explanation why Ghost Dad didn’t just fix the fuel leak instead but hey, if the writers didn’t ask that question why should we?

The True Story: This is based on an incident in November 1997 where a single engine plane experiencing mechanical failure made an emergency landing at an airfield in Ohio. While the pilot tried to manually restart the engine it took off and flew under its own power, apparently making it 90 miles before crash landing. No ghost involved. An unusual accident? Yeah. Mysterious? Not really. FACT? I guess.

The Wall (Season 2, Episode 3)

A man falsely accused of a crime is beaten by a crooked cop, then leaves a bloody hand print on the wall. The suspect soon dies in custody (“Let’s hear it for the crackhead!” chortles the cop), but his hand print remains, with prison staff failing to clean or paint it over. The cop soon receives a karmic comeuppance when the ghost of his victim throttles him to death in that very cell. The hand print vanishes soon after.

The True Story: This story is likely a reference to Alexander Campbell, a Pennsylvania miner executed in 1877 as part of the Molly Maguire trials. He was accused, perhaps falsely, of murdering a mine boss and hanged despite protesting his innocence. The story goes that Campbell left a muddy (not bloody) hand print on the wall of the jail in Mauch Chunk, which lore says can’t be cleaned or removed. A modern forensic investigation suggests that no one has ever really tried. But why ruin a good story?

Titan (Season 2, Episode 5)

Novelist Harris Fisher struggles to come up with a new book, despite badgering from his editor. After spotting a newspaper headline, Fisher conjures the story of an “unsinkable” ocean liner named Titan which strikes an iceberg on its maiden voyage, sinking with massive loss of life. His editor rejects Fisher’s story as outlandish and improbable. After all, it’s 1898 – who would imagine such a thing?

The True Story: This one is a straight fictionalization of Morgan Robertson writing Futility, a novel about an ocean liner named the Titan which sinks on its maiden voyage, 14 years before the Titanic did same. This is a fascinating, well-known coincidence, though we should note that Robertson was an experienced sailor and thus, writing a convincing account of an ocean liner sinking didn’t exactly require supernatural powers. Nor did his similarly prophetic story about a Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, written in 1914, considering widespread fears of Japanese imperialism on the West Coast. Sometimes authors can “predict the future” merely by observing reality.

Count Mystery (Season 2, Episode 6)

In this segment, a child goes missing, leaving authorities baffled. Luckily, a TV reporter remembers that years ago, they did a story about a psychic horse that performed at the county fair. He tracks down the horse and convinces him to provide clues to the child’s whereabouts, spelling out answers with his blocks. The cops find the missing boy in (where else?) a well. At the end, the reporter quips that the solution came “straight from the horse’s mouth,” har har.

The True Story: A psychic horse helps find a missing child? It’s more likely than you think! This segment is modeled on the true story of Lady Wonder, a Virginia horse with purported psychic abilities who helped find a missing child in the 1950s. She isn’t the only psychic horse on record, though it’s clear to people who aren’t Beyond Belief writers that their “abilities” came from training them to recognize cues from their owners.

Malibu Cop (Season 2, Episode 8)

A crabby policeman, trying too hard to impersonate Humphrey Bogart, investigates the murder of a woman on the beach near his home. After rousting the usual suspects, he starts having nightmares of the crime and noticing some strange scratches on his chest. After piecing the clues together, he determines that he must have killed the woman himself – while sleepwalking! This isn’t even the weirdest Beyond Belief segment involving sleepwalking: a later segment, also marked as FACT, features a man cursed to sleepwalk until he turns into a doll.

The True Story: Well, the doll story is impossible to verify even if Tralins assured viewers that he saw the doll himself. But the sleeping murderer draws on a fairly well-documented case. In real life, the cop-killer was famous Paris detective Robert LeDru who shot a man while vacationing in Le Havre in 1887; he received a life sentence instead of hanging after “proving” that sleepwalk murder was possible. That said, LeDru certainly isn’t the only criminal to have blamed his actions on somnambulism, something still the subject of fierce debate in criminology circles.

A Joyful Noise (Season 2, Episode 8)

The marginally mysterious tale of a church choir who are delayed for a rehearsal, just long enough to avoid dying in a gas explosion. Lucky for them, but is this really worth including on a show about paranormal phenomena?

The True Story: This incident occurred in 1950s Nebraska and was well-known enough to feature on Unsolved Mysteries before turning up on Beyond Belief. One wonders why this is considered mysterious rather than simply lucky, but it happened so, FACT.

The Hooded Chair (Season 2, Episode 8)

A snotty businessman inherits a rare hooded chair for his collection. Not long after adding it to his home, his friends and servants start dying after sitting in the chair. His assistant discovers that the chair’s previous owners all met bad ends, including Napoleon Bonaparte who sat in it just before the Battle of Waterloo. Vowing that “I will not be destroyed by a chair!” the man tries to destroy it first with an ax; the chair retaliates by zapping him with a death ray.

The True Story: cursed chairs are pretty common but this appears to be based specifically on the Busby Chair. The chair was supposedly cursed by one Thomas Busby soon before his arrest for murder in 1702, though the stories surrounding it didn’t emerge for two centuries. A WWII legend claims that any British airman who sat in it before a mission would be killed in action. After this happened enough times, the chair was taken away from its pub and placed in a museum where it could no longer curse anyone dumb enough to sit in it. The chair has a long history in media, appearing in everything from Unsolved Mysteries to the anime Hetalia: Axis Powers.

Voice from the Grave (Season 2, Episode 9)

A nurse is murdered at the hospital where she works and police can’t locate the culprit. Until, that is, another nurse begins speaking in the voice of the murdered woman, reliving the murder and offering details that she couldn’t possibly know. Initially skeptical, the investigating officer uses the possessed woman to trap her suspect, a janitor at the hospital, into confessing.

The True Story: True crime buffs and paranormal aficionados will likely recognize the inspiration without research. This is the famous story of Teresita Basa, a Filipino therapist in Chicago who was murdered by a hospital orderly in 1979; her ghost supposedly possessed a coworker and identified her killer from beyond the grave. Whether or not that’s what really happened, the murder case it’s based on is extremely well-documented, so this one’s an easy FACT. 

The Chess Game (Season 2, Episode 9)

An elderly man (Dick Van Patten) is heartbroken by the death of his lifelong friend and chess partner. When he tries to play chess against his wife, he discovers the pieces being manipulated by an unseen force. He soon decides that his invisible opponent is the ghost of his friend, and according to the narrator they continue their friendly rivalry into the afterlife.

The True Story: According to The Autistic Art Critic, this story has a loose basis in fact. Businessman Patrick Kelly was friends with wrestler Maurice Tillet, and the two enjoyed playing chess together. After Tillet’s death, Kelly continued playing against his friend in a fashion, using an electronic chess game programmed with Kelly’s moves and represented by a death mask. Touching, if a little weird.

The Scoop (Season 2, Episode 11)

In which a reporter from the Boston Globe predicts the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa in 1883 after seeing the eruption in his dream. Yes, another precognitive dream story, one of the many wells from which Beyond Belief drew again and again.

The True Story: It took a bit of digging to establish that, yes, this is a myth that predates the show by several decades. The earliest reference I could find was in Frank Edwards’ mystery compendium Strangest of All (1956). Edwards, as we’ve discussed before, is not a remotely credible source about what is fact or fiction. But we’ll give the writers credit insofar as they didn’t invent it themselves. FACT-ish.

Graffiti (Season 2, Episode 12)

In this silly segment, someone graffitizes a school with the message Remember Pearl Harbor. A juvenile delinquent, implied by Frakes to be Satan, is the likely culprit but won’t confess despite the Principal badgering him about it for hours. At the end, the Principal decides to expel Li’l Satan from school, then wonders what “Remember Pearl Harbor” means. After all, it’s December 5th, 1941!

The True Story: There are a few variants of this myth, which paranormal researcher Garth Haslan traces back to Fate Magazine in 1957. Most variations claim the incident took place two years, rather than two days before America entered World War II, which would be less remarkable considering that the United States had been on the vege of entering the war for months. Factual? Probably not, but Beyond Belief stories even having a chain of evidence this clear is unusual, so FACT it is. 

The Curse of Hampton Manor (Season 3, Episode 1)

A smug, unscrupulous realtor (played by Bob Newhart’s TV wife Mary Frann) who has vanity license plates with dollar signs sells a cozy house to a young couple, ignoring her assistant’s warnings that the manor is CURSED. A few months later, the man returns, haggard and distraught, as he’s gone broke, lost his wife and developed a bleeding ulcer since moving into the house. Bev the Realtor mocks him before buying the property back at half the asking price. She pays for her hubris, and stupidity, while making a phone call in the bath during a thunderstorm. No points for guessing what happens.

The True Story: In an unusual turn of events, Frakes tells us that this segment is based on Dunnellen Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut, notorious as the summer home of real estate mogul Leona Helmsley, who bought the property soon before her conviction for income tax evasion in the ‘80s. Around the time of Helmsely’s arrest, tabloids reported that Dunnellen’s previous owners met similar misfortunes, though one suspects the odds of stock brokers and land speculators experiencing bad luck is higher than usual. Presumably Bev the Realtor is a stand-in for Helmsley, who died of natural causes in 2007 (bequeathing much of her fortune to her dog) and wasn’t electrocuted in her bathtub. 

Where Have All the Heroes Gone (Season 3, Episode 10)

A famous Western actor, Lash Connors (not to be confused with Lash LaRue or Chuck Connors) dies of a supposed suicide while starring in a popular ’50s TV series. Two young punks (again with the young punks) break into his home to steal his memorabilia. They are stymied, however, when Lash’s ghost appears in cowboy guard and scares them off with a warning to reform their ways, or his ghost will lynch them. According to Frakes, they heeded his warning – but who can say for sure?

The True Story: While the particulars of the story are invented, it strongly parallels Superman actor George Reeves, who also died mysteriously during the production of his show. His ghost reportedly appears at his old home in costume, although I’m not aware of Reeves threatening to murder any young malefactors. But that wouldn’t comport so well with Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Mysterious Strangers (Season 4, Episode 1)

An old lady in frontier times allows two scruffy, rain-drenched travelers to spend the night at her home. Despite their shifty behavior the woman takes to the visitors, and confides in them that she’s about to lose her home to a greedy landlord. The visitors, grateful for her hospitality, give her the money she needs to pay rent…then steal the money back from the landlord the next day, proclaiming themselves Frank and Jesse James!

The True Story: This is a famous though apocryphal piece of folklore surrounding Frank and Jesse James. It’s hard to believe that this actually happened, considering how many Robin Hood-type stories sprung up around Jesse James during and after his lifetime. But we grade Beyond Belief on a steep curve, so FACT.

The Flower Jury (Season 4, Episode 8)

The only witnesses to a murder are a greenhouse full of flowers, who testify against the killer using a polygraph machine. Yeah, this was one of the last episodes and clearly the writers didn’t care any more.

The True Story: Well, true in a manner of speaking. It’s clearly inspired by polygraph expert Cleve Backster’s experiments with plant communication and intelligence, which formed the basis of the popular 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants. Needless to say, scientists were and remain unimpressed by Backster’s work, and I’m not aware of plants actually testifying in a murder trial, but hey, FACT.

And one other strange story to mention:

The Mummy (Season 2, Episode 7)

In this tale, an Egyptologist receives a valuable mummy he gifts to an antiquities museum. Soon after, the museum’s staff start reporting a ghostly woman appearing at night. Eventually, the ghost appears to the curator and beckons him to follow her to the mummy. It turns out that the mummy is in fact a woman murdered by the Egyptologist and hidden in the bandages.

The True Story: This one is labeled FACT, but a cursory internet search finds no results…except for uncanny parallels to the Persian Princess scandal of 2001. A Pakistani museum came into possession of a mummy supposedly from the Persian Empire, and after several months an American archaeologist tipped curator Asma Ibrahim that he’d encountered the Princess on the black market. Ibrahim quickly discovered that the “ancient” mummy was actually a woman who had vanished from Baluchistan in 1996, apparently killed in a car accident. This would seem like the clear inspiration, except Beyond Belief‘s take on the story aired two years before the hoax. Did Jonathan Frakes predict the future!?!

So, how many did you guess? Can you rely on Jonathan Frakes to tell you the truth? Or is Commander Riker warping reality into a lie?