Exploring The Unknown

1945 - 1948

Above image courtesy of Tune In For Terror © 1992


This series was billed as a documentary, but that's more marketing spin than anything else. The shows were comprised of fictional stories based on science-- in other words, science fiction. The producers would take a scientific concept, marry it to a dramatic plot, and produce mutant children that bore little resemblance to either of their parents. They were so ghastly, though, that they were impossible to ignore, kind of like the car crash that you can't avoid gawking at as you drive by-- even if you dread getting nightmares as a result.

The episode "Dark Curtain" dealt with mental illness. It was certainly a serious issue. Veronica Lake starred as young woman stricken with paranoia. Her sister and fiancé send her off for "treatment" after she strangles her pet kitten and tosses it out the window. She suffers weeks and weeks of electroshock therapy, complete with injections, restraints, and leather straps to press the metal electrodes firmly to her head.

It would have been bad enough if the show presented the shock treatment as a miracle cure, but no, that would be too tame for Exploring the Unknown. Instead, they decided to kick it up a notch, taking it even further beyond the pale... I can't begin to do the incredible injustice justice, so why even try? I'll let the series speak for itself:

Doc: "This is a progressive psychosis of the most deep seated kind."

Sister: "Does that mean hopeless?"

Doc: "No, science doesn't admit the word 'hopeless'. But nothing has worked. Psycho therapy, electric shock, insulin, coma, five months now of treatment."

Boyfriend: "Well, is there anything left?"

Doc: "Just one thing. So risky that it's just tried on only the most acute cases. Then, the chances are two to one against it."

Sister: "What is it?"

Doc: "It's called Lobotomy."

Sister: "Lobotomy?"

Boyfriend: "I've heard of that."

Doc: "It's a brain operation. It's actually cutting part of the frontal lobe of the brain away from the rest."

Sister: "Wouldn't that kill her?"

Doc: "3% of the patients do die, Mary, but 30% are better."

Boyfriend: "Completely cured?"

Doc: "I said 'better.'"

Perhaps the most chilling part is when the hospital intercom announces the procedure with typical clinical detachment:

Filtered Voice: "Operation scheduled 9AM. Operating Room B. Dr. Ward operating, assisted by Dr. Nelson, intern Niles. Nurses, Wood, Blake, Johnson. Lobotomy."

The actual procedure is described in painstaking detail, while the patient is wide awake "under local anesthesia". The doctor cuts a hole in the skull while the patient, under nothing more than Novocain, talks about how the surgeon is trying to kill her. We're supposed to think she's crazy, but given what we know now about lobotomies today, she was more right than wrong. Once the surgeon has permanently scrambled the brain tissue with his butter knife, the announcer proudly proclaims, "Science has dared to probe a living brain, to cure an unbalanced mind!" (Triumphant music follows.)

Once you get over the terror of it all, a sort of gallows humor takes over, and you find yourself chuckling over the amazing whitewash the show gives the procedure. By the time the good doctor addresses the audience to summarize his mad science, I actually found myself laughing out loud-- but it was only to prevent myself from whimpering...

Doc: "The recovery is long and slow. Ellen, because of her naturally bright mind and good constitution, is one of the lucky few in a favorable position to benefit from the operation. How much? Only time will tell. She'll be child like again."

Ellen: "I'm going to call this doll 'Isabel.'"

Doc: "Her memory will not respond at first."

Ellen: "Where did the spoons go? I can never remember."

Doc: "She'll not have the ability to make decisions."

Ellen: "What dress should I wear today?"

Doc: "But her fears will gradually disappear."

Ellen: "A tea party? I'd love to go and see everybody."

Doc: "You must remember that although Ellen takes her place in normal home life, she has changed. You'll have to treat Ellen as if she's learning many things for the first time in her life."

The real pièce de résistance is when the announcer enthusiastically sums up the (unintentional horror) drama with the following spin:

Announcer: "What is ahead for Ellen? At least a return to normal living. Perhaps eventually a job. A productive place in society. And within herself, happiness and freedom from tension. By means of Psychosurgery, science's newest weapon against mental disorder, a girl has been saved from the darkness of hopeless insanity, as science explores the unknown!"

Wow. Talk about putting a happy face on horror... she might even get a job-- polishing lug nuts or some other repetitive task. And that's really some normal home life, as she floats around the household like a ghost, unable to find the spoons or decide what diaper to wear. But as long as she can still name her dolls, the operation was worth it. At least the boyfriend didn't wind up marrying her. Then the story would have taken on a Stepford Wives sci-fi dimension.

Sure, I joke about it now, but of all the OTR horror shows I've heard, this one disturbed me the most and left the worst aftertaste-- and that's saying a lot. Not since the 1950s Duck and Cover "educational film," have audiences been subjected to such misinformation packaged as fact. To think Hollywood was helping market lobotomies is still hard to believe. Granted, their TV shows today seem to promote similar mindlessness in viewers, but that's still no excuse. This series was aired at a time when trust in radio and science was high. Who knows how many listeners were encouraged to try this horrendous "cure all" on a problem child or relative. The surgery that was used and abused by medical professionals for decades to control unruly patients by turning them into lumbering zombies, or-- if they were lucky-- only semi-retarded adults. The famous Kennedys were one family that used the procedure on their own daughter, Rose Marie, in 1941. She had caused then Ambassador Kennedy some embarrassment with her mood swings and by sneaking out at night from the convent where she was attending college. The operation left her retarded. Her speech was unintelligible and she would stare at the wall for hours.

It's a downer, there's no two ways about it. Mental illness was, and still is, one of the hardest diseases to understand and cure. If there is anything positive to draw from this particular episode of Exploring the Unknown, it is that it demonstrates how even in Science, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Adding to the oddness factor of this already bizarre series is the fact that the other two surviving episodes have absolutely nothing in common with each other. One deals with the all-too-real threat of plagues, and the other is a light-hearted Christmas comedy. How's that for diversity?

Exploring the Unknown lasted for three years. If these were the only shows that survived, you have to wonder what the others were like. Yikes! Personally, I can only recommend this series if you have a strong stomach, or else a very dark sense of humor (preferably both)!

The Standard Intro:

(Dramatic Music)

Announcer: "The National Broadcasting Company presents Exploring the Unknown. Starring Morry Amsterdam.

(Music: Up and under.)

Announcer: "This is Andre Beroosh inviting you to listen to the most modern program in radio. More truly in step with the times than any other, because it's about the one thing that most affects our life today and tomorrow, science! A new and dramatic use of radio. Combining fictional stories with authentic information, drawn from the notebooks of science and industry by the Research Institute of America!

Alternate Opening:

(Dramatic music)

Narrator: "A lonely stretch of waterfront, late at night. two men walking cautiously. Alone. These men are doctors. And they're searching for a source of a threatened epidemic, the Black Death! Science at work, searching for knowledge that will shape your world of the future. Dramatic stories of science and industry! Exploring the unknown!"

Announcer: "Today, Science Fiction Magazine presents the dramatic story of doctors whose job it is to protect our nation against epidemics of contagious disease. Today's story stars Melvin Douglas as Dr. Miller in 'The Bells Toll.'"

Hear it now, FREE!

(Courtesy of RadioHorrorHosts.com)

"The Dark Curtain" (47-12-20) Mental illness and the latest miracle cure are featured.

"The Bells Toll" (47-05-04) A story about modern plague hunters.

"The Christmas Cloud" (47-12-21) A Christmas comedy of sorts.

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