Lost Media: A Modern Mystery

Hollywood’s first vampire film–a Nickelodeon short involving a man crawling out of a clock face–the Wicked Witch lands in Sesame Street. What do all these descriptions have in common? They are all famous examples of lost media, and the people searching for them have formed a community around rediscovering missing entertainment.

Anything can become lost media as long as it existed at one point and then became rare or completely disappeared. An example of the latter are the many films from the silent era that were either destroyed in fires or significantly decomposed. In an article from The Collider about lost films, Matthew Mosley estimates about 75 percent of all silent films are presumed missing forever. About half of all sound films made before 1950 are lost as well.

That does not include scenes that were filmed then cut from the picture. The celluloid from the film strips were often burned or reused, which may have been the case with the infamous “Jitterbug” song in the “Wizard of Oz” or the full ending of Tod Browning’s “Freaks.”

On the Internet, through forum posts and Reddit threads, old films are not the only things sought out. Children’s cartoon episodes, commercials that only aired a few times, and even entire music albums are also investigated. Amateur sleuths have searched for all kinds of media hoping to save another piece of art from obscurity.

Sometimes they resurrect something, like the “Sesame Street” episode featuring the Wicked Witch. Oftentimes, they come up empty-handed, but that is part of the fun; the search is often more enjoyable than the discovery.

Why do I enjoy lost media and find myself watching hour-long video essays about a lost TV pilot I never knew existed? Why do I type to a chatroom of people speculating about Theda Bara’s “Cleopatra” deteriorating in a collector’s basement? 

First, I am fascinated by the inherent mystery present in lost media. Were these movies tragically lost masterpieces, or are we inflating their significance because we cannot view them today? Was that commercial we saw as a child that terrifying, or were our childish brains distorting a harmless ad into something outlandish and disturbing? As more lost media is found, the more we discover about ourselves and the people of the past. That is thrilling to me. 

Second, I find it a more ethical alternative to the recent interest in true crime cases. Going down rabbit holes and contacting the people involved in the mystery is more enjoyable when it is not involving real people’s tragedies.

I have many sources I use for lost media information, but my favorite is a YouTube channel by the name of “blameitonjorge.” In his video essays, Jorge details the entire journey of a particular piece of lost media, from it first being discussed to the current stage of the search: still lost, partially found, or discovered intact in a broom closet. He also has entries covering multiple works but with a particular focus, like all the lost media found in the past year.

While I have not been an official participant in any searches, I have been doing some independent research on a few that are close to my heart, known as “holy grails” within the community. Some of these involve “Cleopatra”, the Wicked Witch in Sesame Street, and the first vampire film from Hollywood “London After Midnight.” I guess being a film major, I’m drawn more towards lost films (especially silent) but that’s not all I look for.

In the category of lost songs, both “The Most Mysterious Song on the Internet” and “Everyone Knows That” (searcher-given titles, not official) intrigue me for different reasons, the former we have the whole song for, and the latter only lasts for 30 seconds.

In conclusion, not all art needs to be new. There is great art of the past that is neglected, overlooked, or misplaced. Rediscovering and preserving those works can enrich and foster art again in modern times. If some of what’s found turns out to be bad or just nothing special, c’est la vie. The hard work of an artist, however long ago, prevented from being permanently unknown is enough of an award, at least for me.