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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Who Was Behind the Max Headroom Signal Intrusion?

On an Autumn night in 1987, a mysterious face invaded the living rooms of many Chicago residents. A man wearing a mask interrupted regularly scheduled programming for just a few moments before vanishing from the universe forever. The culprit, who has never been identified, wore a mask of 1980s cyberpunk icon Max Headroom. This bizarre mystery celebrates its 30th anniversary today, so it’s time to take another look at it.

Who is Max Headroom?

Originally appearing in a British TV movie and then a couple of TV series, Max Headroom is a fictional artificial intelligence character well known to those who grew up in the 1980s. Despite being dubbed “The World's first computer-generated TV host” Max was in fact created using a human actor and a combination of prosthetics, make-up, costumes, and hand-drawn backgrounds to create the illusion of a CGI character. Max also spent some time as a spokesman for Coca-Cola and had an appearance on Sesame Street. By the start of the 1990s, Max Headroom had faded into obscurity. His most recent appearances include a cameo in the Adam Sandler film Pixels (portrayed by the original actor) and is referenced in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One where he appears as an actual virtual AI assistant. But residents of Chicago may know him from somewhere else.


The Incident

The broadcast signal intrusion actually refers to two incidents that occurred on the same night. The first took place during WGN-TV's live telecast of its primetime newscast, The Nine O'Clock News. During a sports segment, the screen went black for 15 seconds, and then Chicago saw something unexpected and unexplainable. The broadcast cut to the image of a man wearing a rubber Max Headroom mask (similar to those you see of politicians at Spirit Halloween stores) with sunglasses over the eyes and a brown jacket over a white shirt and black tie. In short, it was a crappy Max Headroom costume. For the brief time it was on the air, the figure seemed to be moving around in front of a sheet of moving metal clearly meant to emulate the real Max Headroom’s hand drawn “digital” backdrop. The only sound was a buzzing noise. Engineers at WGN were able to end the intrusion and cut back to a confused newscaster. Max Headroom was gone for now, but he would later that very night.
WTTW, Chicago’s primary PBS station, was broadcasting its regularly scheduled episode of Doctor Who (specifically the Tom Baker serial Horror of Fang Rock) when the scene was interrupted by a wave of static. The Doctor’s image was soon completely replaced by that of our imposter Max Headroom. This time, Max was not muffled by staticy sound. The audio was working enough for the audience to hear his message. And his message was bizarre as can be. Max basically acted like a complete weirdo for 90 seconds. He hummed the theme to Clutch Cargo, referenced Max Headroom’s relationship with Coke, and even called out WGN’s sportscaster. When he wasn’t doing that he was humming, moaning, screaming, laughing, and holding up a bunch of random stuff. The video lasted long enough this time to cut to its second half, which showed a woman spanking his exposed butt with a flyswatter while dressed in some sort of costume. This point was apparently enough for the gods of broadcasting, because mid butt-smack it cut back to Doctor who before it got any weirder.


The Culprit

The incident made national healdlines, but whoever was behind it has never been identified. The culprit would’ve allegedly faced “a maximum $10,000 fine, up to a year in prison, or both.” The statute of limitations has expired, so whoever did it could totally just come forward and probably get another 15 minutes of fame. But who exactly was this Max Headroom? What was their motive? And where are they now?
There is almost zero evidence, just a series of random context clues that have left professional and ametuer investigators stumped. The key question about how this was done is disputed. Some have said it wouldn’t have been very difficult, that any radio buff could’ve pulled it off. Other’s say it’s so complex it must’ve been someone in the industry. The fact that Max mocks the sportscaster of WGN, the original target of the first incident, points to a member of the Chicago broadcasting community. But the maturity level of the video itself suggests a younger individual.
At least three individuals were involved in the production of the video itself. One person played Max and then there was the girl spanking his butt with a fly swatter. The presence of a third person is confirmed when the camera shakes a bit when the other two are on camera, as if the third person bumped the tripod. The video was also prepared beforehand and thus the incident was not improvised live. Broadcast safe static lines appear at the bottom, and there is a hard cut between the two main segments of the video.
I'm a bit of an unsolved mysteries fan, but most unsolved mysteries involve a horribly depressing story of a woman or child getting kidnapped, raped, and murdered. So naturally I gravitate towards geekier mysteries like this. Not only is this interesting in the pop culture sense... It's just weird. We can talk about Who and How all day, but I wanna know Why. What was the point of this? Was it just the earliest form of internet trolling? Speaking of the internet, however this was done back then is even more interesting because it will never be able to be done again in the digital age.
Many internet sleuths have come forth with theories about the true identity of Max Headroom. One theory pointed to a now deceased YouTube artist. One Redditor claimed to have grown up with the perpetrators before coming out months later and saying he was wrong. There’s even been a few who claimed that they were Max himself. None of these have gone anywhere and with 30 years having gone by, we may never know the who or the why or the how of the strangest and weirdest unsolved mystery of all time.
Now, I know you all want to see it, so I'm going to link to it below. But just be warned: I've only ever seen this thing once and it creeped the hell outta me. It's weird and funny but it's also freaky and kinda scary. So just remember: I told you so.

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