When The Outer Limits debuted on ABC in 1963, one of the most iconic and troubling opening sequences ever to hit television appeared on our screens for the very first times. “There is nothing wrong with your television set,” it told us. “Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We will control all that you see and hear.” This is true of any TV broadcast — the network is of course in control of what you’re seeing — but this simple opening narration created the conceit that our television sets had been taken over by something different, something… otherworldly. But we knew it was fiction, so we settled back to enjoy it in the same way we do when we huddle around campfires, telling scary tales to each other in the dark.
Little did the creators of the show know, however, that over 20 years later, the people of Chicago would end up in an Outer Limits-type situation in real life. On November 22, 1987, the signal during channel 9 WGN’s regular broadcast of the nine o’clock news cut out without warning. What replaced it ran for only 30 seconds, but in spite of its brevity, wasn’t an image easily forgotten. A person wearing a mask — the latex kind that covers your whole head — suddenly flashed up on the screen. The mask was designed to look like Max Headroom, the fictional AI character played by Matt Frewer who had first been introduced to the world in the 1985 made-for-TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. The Max lookalike stood before a sheet of corrugated metal, moving around as if he were dancing; there was no sound beyond a low buzzing noise. It was intensely bizarre, and it could only mean one thing:
Someone had hijacked the television station.
WGN’s engineers worked quickly, circumventing the hijacking by switching the frequency of their studio link to that of another transmitter — but this incident wasn’t the only oddity of the night. Later on, during channel 11 WTTW’s 11pm broadcast of Doctor Who (the Fourth Doctor story “Horror of Fang Rock”, for the curious) it happened again. The same person in the same Max Headroom mask, standing before the same sheet of corrugated metal again took over the station; this time, though, he won himself 90 seconds of screen time. 90 seconds may not seem like a whole lot of time, but you’d be amazed what you can accomplish in a minute and a half.
Though it was heavily distorted, sound accompanied the second intrusion; the fake Max’s words make little to no sense, however, throwing a variety of pop culture references — sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, New Coke and Pepsi, the Temptations song “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” an animated show from the ‘50s called Clutch Cargo — together with some screaming and moaning and a hefty dose of profanity. Viewers were then treated to the image of the fake Max having his arse whipped with a fly swatter by someone dressed in a French maid costume before being suddenly dropped right back into Doctor Who. Yikes, right?
A number of people who happened to be taping the show at the time manage to record the event, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we can now watch it in all its unsettling glory on YouTube:
I think sports anchor Dan Roan said it best when remarked after the first of the intrusions, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”
Taken together, the pair of incidents went down in history as one of the weirdest things ever to happen on television. They became known as the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion, and we still have no idea who did it… or why.
Broadcast signal intrusion wasn’t new at the time of the Max Headroom incident; indeed, three other notable incidents had made waves in the decade or so prior to it. Here’s a quick rundown:
The first — which is also generally acknowledged to be the first television broadcast signal intrusion of its kind — occurred on November 26, 1977. Some joker going by the name “Vrillon” interrupted a local ITV station in the UK, Southern Television, to warn its watchers that the Intergalactic Association would take action against humans unless they threw away all “weapons of evil” and learned “to live together in peace.” The hijacker was never caught, although I think the sci-fi element of the message was am amusing touch.
The second occurred about a year and a half before the Max Headroom incident: Someone calling themselves “Captain Midnight” jammed HBO’s signal on April 27, 1986 to protest scrambling and the costs satellite dish owners at the time needed to shell out in order to access pay channels. “Captain Midnight” turned out to be John R. MacDougall, a satellite dealer from Florida. MacDougall was fined $5,000 and placed on one year’s probation; today, he owns and operates McDougall Electronics in Ocala, FL. This incident resulted in the passage of Title 18 Code 1367, which made satellite jamming a felony.
The third occurred in September 1987, when the Playboy Channel found itself taken over by a Christian Broadcasting Network employee by the name of Thomas Haynie. Haynie replaced Playboy’s regular broadcast with a colorbar test pattern overlayed with text urging viewers to repent and find Jesus. Haynie was determined to have violated the code passed after the Captain Midnight incident, resulting in his conviction, sentencing to probation, and suspension from his duties at the Christian Broadcasting Network.
None of these incidents, though, was quite as inexplicable as the Max Headroom one — which is perhaps why it has become as famous (and infamous) as it has.
The creepy factor of broadcast intrusions in general and the Max Headroom incident in particular is much easier to explain than a lot of the things we’ve been looking at in Scare Yourself Silly: They’re just so effing weird. The lack of logic — or at least, the lack of logic that we can understand — makes incidents like this difficult to fathom, and when we can’t figure out the reasoning behind such odd behavior, we get uneasy. I suspect part of the fake Max’s weirdness also goes back to the uncanny valley thing we explored when we talked about Robert the Doll. I would argue that Max himself — the original character, not the hijacker dressed as him — would fall into the uncanny valley if he existed in real life; he’s fictional, though, so we can kind of give ourselves and him a by when it comes to the creep factor. To take the likeness of that figure, though, put it on a real person, and then shroud that person in the strangeness of the broadcast signal intrusion… well, it kind of becomes nightmare fuel.
All of this, by the way, is compounded by the fact that we’ll probably never know who did it. The FBI investigated, but they failed to crack the case, leaving the whole mess unresolved. Unsolved mysteries are as enthralling as they are maddening; we can theorize until the proverbial cows come home, but once all is said and done, all we can do is sigh and say, “Oh well. I guess we’ll never know.” That very unknowability is what draws us to these mysteries, as well as what keeps us so tightly leashed to them.
Maybe that’s why also, once upon a time, a number of intrepid Internet users latched on so quickly to something called “The Wyoming Incident.” In 2006, a video began circulating along with a chunk of text proclaiming it to be an example of a broadcast signal intrusion from a local programming channel in Wyoming. The so-called Wyoming Incident featured clips of disembodied human heads, high-pitched noises, and weird messages splashed across the screen (“YOU WILL SEE SUCH PRETTY THINGS” was one); it was also said to have induced illness in those who watched it. In case you want to tempt fate:
But don’t worry — this one turned out to be false. I actually wrote about the Wyoming Incident a number of years ago; in fact, it’s how I found out about the Max Headroom incident in the first place. Originally created by a bunch of Goons from the Something Awful forums, the initial Wyoming Incident video sparked enough interest to inspire them to build an alternate reality game, or ARG, from it. Although it had potential, though, it ultimately proved unsustainable over the long term — waning interest from both its community and its creators, as well as the story’s general lack of plotting, resulted in its being abandoned in 2007.
Just when you thought you’d come to terms with the uncertainty surrounding the Max Headroom incident, though, comes this: Three years ago, someone posted an AMA on reddit stating that he believed he knew who was responsible for the intrusion. Redditor u/bpoag — real name Bowie J. Poag, according to Vice Motherboard’s Chris Knittel — wrote that when he was growing up in suburban Chicago, he had a number of friends who were into the local phreaking/hacking scene. They were mostly casual acquaintances, but Poag knew them all by name and hung out with them occasionally. Among them were two brothers, both quite a bit older than Poag, whom he referred to as “J” and “K.” J, whom Poag believes to have been the perpetrator, had moderate to severe autism and was under the care of K at the time. At a party that occurred shortly before the broadcast intrusion, Poag overheard a few people talking about something rather mysterious-sounding indeed:
“They were referring to J planning to do something ‘big’ over the weekend. I remember that word, ‘big,’ because it piqued my curiosity as to what might be considered ‘big’ by their standards. I later asked them collectively during the dinner we all had at Pizza Hut later that night what they were talking about earlier, what ‘big’ was, and someone (probably K) told me to ‘Just watch Channel 11 later tonight’ as sort of an offhanded suggestion. I did happen to be watching Channel 11 later that night, having forgotten about the whole ‘big’ conversation earlier that day. I saw it [the intrusion], but I didn’t put 2 and 2 [sic] together at the time.”
But again, we’ll never really know. Poag is keeping the true identities of J and K hidden—and while we’re on the subject, we don’t even have absolute proof that J did commit the crime. Rick Klein, founder and curator of the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, for example, doesn’t buy it; he told Knittel, “Whoever ‘Max’ was, he sure didn’t act like he had any form of Asperger’s syndrome — even if under the influence of drugs or not.” He finds more weight in the fact that the attack was originally leveled directly at WGN: Maybe it was a “disgruntled former employee,” he suggested, or someone who applied but didn’t get a job there, or maybe an engineer with the equipment and know-how to pull off an intrusion of this scale. Who is right? Maybe both; maybe neither. One thing’s for sure: Whoever did it isn’t talking, and as long as they stay silent, we’ll stay in the dark.
You kind of have to wonder what Matt Frewer thinks about it, though, don’t you? After all, his face got hijacked as much as the two television stations did — which might just be the creepiest thing of all.
Lucia Peters is endlessly fascinated by creepy things, both real and imagined; she writes about them regularly at The Ghost in My Machine. Her work has also appeared on TheGloss, Crushable, Bustle, and BettyConfidential