‘Buzzfeed: Unsolved’ a spooky salve for a lonely generation

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 10:55pm

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The late writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who penned challenging, wondrous speculative fiction, asked in an essay whether science and fantasy were really all that incompatible: “Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions.”

The adoring, obsessive fans of YouTube’s “Buzzfeed: Unsolved” divide themselves into one of two camps, according to their co-host of choice. There are Boogaras, hardcore disciples of the excitable theorist Ryan Bergara. And there are Shaniacs, who ally with the show’s counterweight, the stolid cynic Shane Madej. Together, they prove Le Guin right: Among skeptics and believers alike, there’s an undeniable shared thrill in the unexplained.

The web show, which began exploring true crime cases in early 2016 and launched its supernatural-focused series later that year, is something of a cross between the wee hours of a preteen slumber party and the trenches of the YouTube comment section, kooky, giggly and rambling. In each episode, Ryan presents Shane with some bizarre phenomenon — alien abductions, the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, the Illuminati — and makes his case for supernatural funny business with the help of stock photo visual aids and flinty narration.

Occasionally, the two venture out to the sites of unsolved mysteries, where Ryan is ritually mocked for his vigilance by the cheerful, insouciant Shane. “Hey there, demons. It’s me, ya boy,” Shane declares in a bar rumored to contain a portal to hell, Ryan left trembling nearby.

“Laugh all you want, now,” snaps Ryan, strapping on a bulky protective helmet in an episode that follows their hunt for Bigfoot, “Sasquatches are actually known to smash things over the head to kill them.”

“Buzzfeed: Unsolved” is both an eager embrace of our cultural fixation with unexplained mysteries and a satire of that very fixation. If Ryan is our unending appetite for answers, Shane is the snarky inner Greek chorus content to shrug things off. The show’s approach to the supernatural, whimsical but reverent, encourages curiosity and self-deprecation in equal measure. And in many ways, it feels like a show for our time.

The millennial interest in the occult — the resurgence of astrology, the flirtation with witchcraft — has been largely understood as a response to a universe that seems governed by nothing but chaos. After all, what are ghosts and ghouls and aliens but subversive ways of rationalizing an unpredictable world? It seems a little counterintuitive — haunted hospitals and sudden disappearances seem like they should unsettle. But there’s something strangely comforting about the way “Unsolved” proffers and dissects theories, even the most ridiculous ones.

That may be the reason that “Unsolved,” like many of Buzzfeed’s video offerings, has racked up millions of views and engendered a community of sorts, equipped with its own memes, merch, fan pages and inside jokes. Today’s young Americans are a stressed, lonely, fatigued generation. In supernatural inquiry, perhaps there’s a chance to feel like part of something greater, more meaningful, with elevated cosmic significance. Attempting to make sense of life’s puzzles doesn’t require that we completely abandon logic and rationality, “Unsolved” and Shane remind us, only that we approach the task with sincerity and an open mind. And if there’s some fun to be had along the way, well, what’s the harm in that?