Pop Culture Mysteries That Are Keeping Us Up At Night

Over 7.4K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Pop Culture Mysteries That Are Keeping Us Up At Night
Voting Rules
Vote up the most puzzling pop culture cases that need to be cracked.

In the digital age, many people across the globe have become internet sleuths, using grassroots methods (and Reddit) to find clues and raise awareness about unsolved mysteries. While many of these mysteries are true cold cases, others are markedly less sinister. 

Is it crucial to know the identity of a topless woman featured in two frames of a 1977 Disney film? Or what happened to Cap'n Crunch's "lost cereal," the limited-edition Freedom Crunch? That may be up for debate, but these pop culture puzzlers are still keeping us up at night. Vote up the mysteries that make you want to quit your day job and spend your days as a pop culture PI hunting down archival cartoon footage.

Latest additions: What Happened To The Champion Behind The Lost ‘Jeopardy!’ Episodes?

  • 1
    6,303 VOTES

    Why Is There No Record Of The Plane Crash Paula Abdul Says She Survived?

    Paula Abdul was a pop sensation in the 1980s and early '90s before she took a career hiatus, then reemerged as one of the OG judges of American Idol in 2002. Abdul has spoken repeatedly about the 1992 plane crash that led her to take a break from the spotlight. On the RuPaul talk show in 2019, she recalled: 

    During the end of my world tour... when I was traveling from one city to the next, in a small seven-seater plane, one of the engines blew up and the right wing caught on fire, and we crash-landed. I didn't have my seat belt on and I hit my head on the top of the plane... I withstood 15 cervical spinal surgeries and I had to take seven years off. 

    She's also discussed some version of the incident with Dateline (in 2003), People (2005), Larry King Live (2006), VH1 (2008), Dave Ryan in the Morning (2009), the Hudson Union Society (2014), Music News (2018), and Yahoo Entertainment (2020), as well as during concerts. But further investigation has led some fans to question her story.

    While the details have changed somewhat in her retellings, Abdul has often said the incident occurred on her way from St. Louis to Denver, and that the flame-engulfed plane landed in an Iowa cornfield. A Jezebel investigation revealed that Iowa would be a deviation of about 200 miles north from the flight path, and a search of aircraft accidents in the National Transportation Safety Board database found zero reports that fit Abdul's story during the alleged timeframe and area.

    A spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Administration said it was possible a crash wouldn't be investigated if it resulted in minor damages or harm to the passengers, and would be labeled an "incident" rather than an "accident." That led to the theory Abdul was exaggerating the event or mistaken about some details. But even the account of her break due to "excruciating pain" and multiple spinal injuries doesn't fit the timeline of her career. According to Jezebel, she finished the tour and released an underperforming album in 1995, then took a seven-year break.

    Despite the doubts, Abdul has never wavered about the plane incident, saying she kept it hidden initially because she feared people would view her as "damaged goods." Addressing her skeptics, Abdul told Yahoo Entertainment:

    It's like, there are seven other people that were on the plane, who were in that plane accident with me. So, I really don't care what people have to say. I don't. It's like, you learn and grow through wisdom and experience of being in this business, especially with the internet.

    As of 2021, no one has stepped forward to corroborate Abdul's story, and the mystery remains.

    6,303 votes
  • 2
    4,159 VOTES

    Who's Buying All The Glitter?

    Before 2018, no one gave a lot of thought to aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate, AKA glitter. It was a shiny, celebratory substance used on preschool craft projects and music festival attendee faces. End of story. But a New York Times piece on the glitter industry revealed there was so much more about glitter we didn't know, and could never know.

    For the article, journalist Chris Maggio reached out to the two main US glitter companies, both in New Jersey. The first refused to be interviewed, telling Maggio it was "a very private company," while the second, Glitterex, left readers with more questions than answers.

    Glitterex, which, according to its website, has over 50 years in the biz, was wary of Maggio visiting the company's factory and laying eyes on its advanced glitter-making technology. The company eventually relented, and Maggio and a Glitterex manager had the following exchange:

    When I asked [Glitterex manager] Ms. Dyer if she could tell me which industry served as Glitterex’s biggest market, her answer was instant: “No, I absolutely know that I can’t.”

    I was taken aback. “But you know what it is?”

    “Oh, God, yes,” she said, and laughed. “And you would never guess it. Let’s just leave it at that.” I asked if she could tell me why she couldn’t tell me. “Because they don’t want anyone to know that it’s glitter.”

    “If I looked at it, I wouldn’t know it was glitter?”

    “No, not really."...

    I asked if she would tell me off the record. She would not. I asked if she would tell me off the record after this piece was published. She would not. I told her I couldn’t die without knowing. She guided me to the automotive grade pigments.

    The exchange led to fervent internet debate about who was buying bulk glitter and why they didn't want anyone to know it. Theories ranged from the US military to Crest toothpaste. In 2019, the podcast Endless Thread attempted to solve the glitter mystery and concluded that the secret No. 1 use of glitter was probably boat paint, after talking to someone in the boat-making industry who buys a lot of glitter.

    Still, Glitterex refused to confirm or deny this, and many sleuths weren't convinced, as many boats are obviously glittery. Glitterex also lists its use in the gel coat and paint industries on its site homepage, making those uses seem hardly a secret. The debate continues.

    4,159 votes
  • Who Is The Culprit Behind The Max Headroom Hacking Incident?
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    2,483 VOTES

    Who Is The Culprit Behind The Max Headroom Hacking Incident?

    Max Headroom is a British "artificial intelligence" character who hosted music video shows in the 1980s. Actually played by actor Matt Frewer in prosthetics, he wasn't truly AI but was meant to be a dystopian digital talking head from the future who satirized the predominantly white, male, talking heads of news shows. 

    On November 22, 1987, Chicago viewers of WGN's 9 pm news were in for a surprise. As sportscaster Dan Roan recapped the Bears vs. Lions game, the signal cut to black. Fifteen seconds later, a person in a Max Headroom mask appeared on screen in front of a spinning metal background. About 30 seconds later, a confused Roan reappeared on screen. 

    Two hours later, the masked culprit appeared again to interrupt a WTTW (Chicago TV station) airing of Doctor Who. This time, the hack lasted a minute and a half, leaving more time for even weirder antics. The hacker spoke up the second time around, but the audio was difficult to understand. The figure mentioned they were better than Chuck Swirsky (a WGN pundit) and recited a Coca-Cola slogan while holding up a can of Pepsi (Max Headroom was a Coke spokesperson at the time).

    The situation devolved from there. The masked Max Headroom told viewers they'd "made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds," a dig at WGN, which stands for "World's Greatest Newspaper." Then the figure pulled down their pants to partially reveal their bare buttocks, while a masked woman showed up to spank them with a fly swatter.

    Some viewers were amused, others traumatized, but the FCC took the hacks seriously. At the time, there was mounting concern terrorists might use such hacks to leak sensitive or false information to the public. An investigation was launched, with a maximum penalty of $100,000 and prison time for the offender(s), and although investigators pinpointed a warehouse where the broadcasts may have been filmed, the mystery was never solved.

    The internet continues to investigate the strange incident, and many theories have been proposed over the years. To pull off the hostile TV takeover in the '80s, the culprit needed to be in the Chicago area and have broadcasting equipment capable of overtaking the channel's signal strength. One popular theory, due to the repeated WGN connections, is that the stunt was pulled off by a disgruntled former employee; WGN had conducted layoffs around the time of the incident.

    Who pulled it off, as well as what the hacking was supposed to do/be, are questions that remain up for debate. Though it may not be comfortable content for everyone, the first and second incidents are both available on YouTube.

    2,483 votes
  • Why Did 'Sesame Street' Air An Episode With 'Crack' Creatures?
    Video: YouTube
    3,447 VOTES

    Why Did 'Sesame Street' Air An Episode With 'Crack' Creatures?

    In the late 1970s, a boy named Jon Armond watched a Sesame Street episode. A short, animated segment of the episode showed a girl in her bedroom with cracks in her wall. As she looks at the cracks, they come to life, taking her on a journey into the wall with animals named "Crack Camel," “Crack Hen,” and "Crack Monkey." Then, she meets a final growling, decaying figure, which Armond remembered as "Crack Monster."

    According to Armond, he thought about this clip every day for 30 years, simultaneously "terrified of it and mesmerized by it." He frequently brought it up to other people his age, hoping someone else remembered the segment, and finally in the digital age, took his search to the internet.

    Eventually, in 2008, Armond came across a blog post by Jennifer Bourne, a cartoonist who was also searching for the elusive Sesame Street clip known as "Cracks." Other commenters were also haunted by the segment, and a "Cracks"-hunting community formed. While Children's Television Workshop (CTW, the production company behind Sesame Street) offered little help with who created the segment, or when and why it stopped airing, Armond's contact at CTW Archives did inform him that it first aired on February 10, 1977, in the first 15 minutes of episode 979.

    Things got even more bizarre in late 2008, when Armond received an untraceable fax from someone saying they would send him the copy of "Cracks" if he signed an agreement to not post it online or show it to anyone else. Armond signed, and six months later, received an envelope with no postage or return address containing a DVD and a note inside, reading, "We trust this completes your search."

    Armond did show the segment to Bourne but refused to post it online, per the contract he signed, and other web sleuths still clamored to see the clip, including Daniel Wilson, founder of The Lost Media Wiki. After years of trying to track down the clip, Wilson received his own anonymous communication in 2013: an email with an attachment titled "Cracks." Wilson hadn't signed any agreement, so he posted the lost video publicly

    It turns out the terrifying figure Armond remembered as the "Crack Monster" was actually the "Crack Master." Why a segment featuring "crack creatures" stopped airing doesn't seem like such a mystery. But the creator of the segment, and the person who sent the anonymous copies, remain mysteries.

    The Studio 360 podcast attempted to track down answers and found the woman who voiced the girl, Dorothy Moskowitz, also the lead singer of '60s experimental rock band The United States of America. But though Moskowitz described recording the episode as an odd experience, she couldn't remember the names of anyone involved, recalling only a mysterious woman dressed in white linen.

    3,447 votes
  • 5
    2,222 VOTES

    Who Is The Topless Woman In Disney’s ‘The Rescuers’?

    Although many Disney films have been accused of inappropriate subliminal messaging, the first and only time Disney actually recalled a video occurred in 1999, when The Rescuers was re-released on home video.

    The animated film, which debuted in theaters in 1977, contained two frames featuring a topless woman in a background window as mice Bernard and Bianca fly through NYC on the back of an albatross. It's so brief (two out of 110,000 frames in the film) that it's imperceptible at normal viewing speed, as it was shown when it appeared in theaters in 1997, 1983, and 1989. The first release of the film on video, in 1992, used a different print that did not contain the woman.

    Once her presence was discovered in the '99 version, Disney recalled 3.4 million copies of the film. Disney spokeswoman Claudia Peters explained the recall was "to keep our promise to families that we can trust and rely on the Disney brand to provide the finest in family entertainment." However, Peters declined to elaborate on who was responsible for the offending image, or what their motive may have been, other than to say it was an internal matter that occurred during the film's production.

    Who inserted the image, why they did it, and the identity of the topless woman remain a mystery.

    2,222 votes
  • 6
    1,922 VOTES

    What Is The Mysterious Plant In A Popular Indian Street Snack That Vendors Won't Reveal?

    When journalist Barkha Kumari bought a popular snack from a street vendor in the southwestern India state of Karnataka, she ended up unearthing a mystery that's been debated by botanists for decades. In an article for Atlas Obscura, Kumari said the vendor was slicing ultra-thin, large slices from what looked like the trunk of a tree. The snack itself was bland in flavor, but crunchy, juicy, and seasoned with lime and other sweet or savory options.

    The vendor told Kumari it was a tree root from the forests called Bhoochakra Gadda (or Ram Kand Mool in the north). Looking the name up online, she discovered the scientific name, Maerua oblongifolia. But the more she researched Maerua oblongifolia, the less it fit with the snack. Botanists told her its roots were dry and inedible. 

    Further investigation revealed that in 1994, several researchers concluded the snack was from the base of a local agave plant species. A later 2010 DNA barcoding analysis concluded it was an 89% match to Agave sisalana. 

    Vendors have kept the plant's identity shrouded in mystery, and sell only a few slices at a time. Agave is widespread in India, but can be toxic if eaten in large amounts, giving credence to the theory. But when Kumari spoke with a local professor who'd studied agave extensively, he said it was "impossible" the food was agave, which has an entirely different taste and mouthfeel.

    Kumari even tried to speak to a vendor of the snack directly about where he sources the plant. He responded, "Ask anything but this, please. Nobody will tell you anything. This is how this business is."

    1,922 votes