The Unsolved Mystery of the Max Headroom Incident
Before Al Gore and an alien race of super cats invented the internet, television was the main societal touchstone for the Western world. While TV is still a great source of comfort for most people in our society, in the ’80s, it was also a primary source for news, entertainment, and simply connecting with our culture. For viewers in Chicago, Illinois, the night of November 22, 1987 proved nothing was sacred when they were hit with a juggernaut of ’80s pop culture references so dark and unexpected that it made an episode of The Family Guy excusable. What’s been fittingly referred to as the “Max Headroom Incident” shook the city of Chicago that night with images and audio permanently etched into the American psyche.
You may think the most horrifying blight the creators of Max Headroom, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, unleashed on the world was the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie and you’d be right, but the Max Headroom incident was its own special brand of nightmare. Inspired by the cult ’80s TV show about a freaky artificial intelligence program that helps solve crimes, the Max Headroom incident found an unknown assailant targeting and successfully compromising two Chicago-based TV stations in one night. The broadcast of the Max Headroom incident initially interrupted WGN-TV’s The Nine O’Clock News in which sports anchor Dan Roan was re-capping a victory by the city’s beloved football team, the Bears. While some may say this was simply karma for the Bears’ 1985 dabbling in hip hop, “The Super Bowl Shuffle”, the TV pirate quickly dispelled any favoritism by turning from the jocks to the nerds, interrupting WTTW’s broadcast of Doctor Who.
What sort of vital message did the Max Headroom incident share with us, the common viewer? A barrage of ’80s references so bizarre and perverse that the claymation Noid solving a Rubik’s Cube atop a Delorean whilst wearing nipple clamps and 3D glasses doesn’t even come close. It was a television feed hacked into the WGN-TV signal consisting of a person wearing a rubber Max Headroom mask (that made Michael Myers look well-adjusted) standing before a shifting metal background. That’s about all WGN-TV got before they were able to successfully block the signal. But WTTW got the Max Headroom incident in full, with a minute and a half of broadcast signal intrusion including distorted audio. Again refusing to choose sides but instead dropping a bomb on everything we knew, the pirate casually lobbed a Pepsi can at the camera while sneering “catch the wave”, the slogan for the ill-advised branding fiasco that was New Coke. This demonic T.V. entity also called out Chicago sports radio legend Chuck Swirsky and donned a single glove and explaining “my brother is wearing the other one” (perhaps in reference to Michael Jackson). There were non-’80s focal points as well such as an allusion in song to the late ’50s cartoon Clutch Cargo and a brief lapse into a Temptations single.
But the Max Headroom incident veers from eerie to disturbing when at last the distorted voice exclaims “It’s like you got blood stains on it!” before tearing the single glove off then cutting to a French maid with face out of view, spanking an exposed ass with a fly swatter as the strange voice screams in comically unsettling defeated agony. And then just like that it was back to watching Doctor Who.
To this day, the pirate behind the Max Headroom incident remains unidentified. However, officials at WTTW claimed the pirate was using advanced, high-powered microwave signals (enough to overtake the station’s transmitter atop the Sears Tower). While previous occurrences of broadcast signal intrusion happened to HBO, this was the first case in which the pirate wasn’t found, adding that extra bit of creep factor to it.