Television’s Biggest Unsolved Mystery: Chicago’s 1987 ‘Max Headroom’ Broadcast Intrusions
One of the most strange incidents in television broadcast history happened in Chicago, Illinois, on the evening of Sunday, November 22nd, 1987. Two local stations had their broadcasts briefly interrupted on separate occasions by a video recording with a masked man behaving erratically. He was dressed like 1980s fictional virtual reality star Max Headroom. The first intrusion had no vocal audio, but the second one had a distorted series of ramblings about pop culture, Chicago media references, sexual behavior and other just plain nonsense.
The creepy hack was instantly burned into the minds of anyone who was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see it, live or afterward. Those responsible for the incident were never identified, no evidence was seized and the case has never been solved, adding to the mysterious nature of it.
If you've never heard this story or seen these videos before, get ready for a ride...
The First Incident: WGN during the evening news
WGN-TV 9 was airing its live nightly 9:00 pm newscast. During a sports segment recapping a game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, the signal suddenly went dark. Then a low-quality video of a man in a Max Headroom mask with a cheap background resembling Max's computerized futuristic TV studio appeared on screen with a loud hum and buzzing, but no discernible audio. It lasted almost 30 seconds before engineers at WGN were able to override the hack and return to the regular broadcast. The sports anchor, Dan Roan, appeared on screen and looked baffled before saying "Well if you're wondering what's happened, so am I". He then resumed the sports highlights.
**WARNING- Some may find the footage in the videos below disturbing. One also contains brief partial nudity. Viewer discretion is advised.**
The Second Incident: WTTW during a Dr. Who episode
Just a couple hours later, late evening viewers were nestled in to a rerun of Dr. Who on Chicago's PBS station WTTW-11 that began airing at 11 pm. During the episode, the recording of the masked character appeared once again and this time there was no one to stop him. No engineers were on site at the station. And this time, there was audio. The interruption last almost 90 seconds and contained creepy voice altered ramblings and a scattered barrage of dialogue, using props at times, by the same Max Headroom impostor. It ended with the spanking of his bare buttocks by another character, an apparent woman wearing a dress and using a fly swatter. He was now holding the Max Headroom mask in his hand but with his head off-camera. The video ended and the hijackers ceased the transmission before the station's broadcast of the Dr. Who episode resumed.
Here is the most widely accepted transcript and some reasoning to what the character said during the video:
"That does it! He's a frickin nerd. [giggles] I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky, frickin Liberal! (referring to the longtime Chicago sportscaster). [giggles & moans] "Oh Jesus!"
"Yeah!" Holding a Pepsi can, he yells the New Coke slogan "Catch the wave!". [screams & moans] "Your love is fading!" he shouts (possibly a reference to The Temptations song "(I Know) I'm Losing You") Hums the theme to the old TV cartoon Clutch Cargo. [screams & moans] then "I still see the X!". Continues humming the Clutch Cargo theme song. "Oh, my files!" [moans]
"Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds" (The call sign of station WGN was an acronym for "World's Greatest Newspaper," a slogan borrowed from the early days of the Chicago Tribune.) Puts on a glove. "My brother is wearing the other one. it's dirty!" Takes off the glove and throws it aside.
From the new angle. "They're coming to get me! Come get me bi---!" He then gets spanked by the woman. [screaming] "Oh, do it!". [more screaming] The scream becomes a distorted drone and then cuts out with the video.
Aftermath and Investigations
Many in the Chicago area who witnessed either or both of these interruptions were disturbed by it. Some were angry about it cutting into their programs with such creepy, and at times offensive footage. But there were others who applauded the successful hack, finding it impressive to pull off. And some simply found it hilarious or were indifferent about it.
Investigations were launched by the F.C.C., but there wasn't much evidence to go on. The capture of the culprits likely would have led to hefty fines and perhaps even time in jail. The F.B.I. became involved with local Chicago investigators looking into the case, but it quickly became low priority since there really was no threat to the safety of the public.
Many theorized that it was an inside job at one of the local television stations or executed by a recently fired or disgruntled employee. It is widely believed that at least two or three people performed the hijack between taping the video and then later broadcasting it. The location of the taping or broadcast was never determined but is believed to have originated somewhere in the north or northwest area of Chicago.
Engineers at the time said it would have required skills that only someone in broadcasting could utilize along with equipment that few could afford to obtain or purchase. But later it was speculated that it might not require as much hi-tech equipment as one would think. If the hijackers set up close enough to the location where the signals were being sent from studios to the transmitters atop Chicago skyscrapers, they could theoretically overtake the signal relatively easy. But again, no evidence of who, what, where and why it happened was ever brought to light. And it remains that way to this day.
The Age Of The Internet Revives The Case
Once the internet took off, especially YouTube and later Reddit, video recordings of the incident resurfaced and people began to speculate about the case once again. A bold theory was posted by a Reddit user in 2010 when a person indicated they believed they knew who was responsible for the hijack. But it was later reported to be a false lead and faded among all other theories about who was behind the broadcasts.
People still discuss the bizarre intrusion on various online forums, but many believe the case will never be solved. However, the statute of limitations has long ended and the persons responsible could come forward now without any repercussions. And even though federal and local authorities have long given up on the case, new efforts using the technology and reach of the internet could shed light and lead to the discovery of clues that were never explored at the time.
But as of now, it is a very cold case with nothing but two minutes of strange video as evidence for one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in the history of television broadcasting.