June 27, 2010

Secrets of the mysteries of the unknown: The Max Headroom hijack incident

An interesting cultural artifact that I discovered the other day: Have you ever heard of "the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident"?

Surely, you've heard of Max Headroom, star of the self-named TV series, Coca-Cola pitchman and otherwise late-'80s pop icon. (Surprising tidbit: The image of Max wasn't at all computer-generated; actor Matt Frewer just slopped on a hella amount of latex and makeup.) In 1987, at the height of Max's cultural currency, something bizarre happened in the the Chicago area. Imagine, if you will, you're sitting in your parents' basement at 11:15pm in late November, Doritos bag on lap, watching a Doctor Who rerun on the local PBS station. See what happens…

Weird. In case you didn't put it together, someone hijacked the signal with their own (crude) 90-second film, depicting a babbling lunatic in a Max Headroom mask. It looks like that's some kind of aluminum sheeting being rotated in the background (to mimic Max's familiar Apple II–esque background) and, yes, it ends with "Max" being spanked with a flyswatter wielded by someone in a dress.

Interestingly, about two hours earlier, a similar incident had occurred on a different network in Chicago, featuring 30 seconds of the same sequence, albeit without sound. The event attracted considerable media attention:

More detail and a transcription of Max's babblings can be here. Other than the fact that this is just kind of cool, you have to wonder what was going on here—hacking a signal like this is apparently extremely difficult, and considering that the culprit was never found or punished, this is an impressive stunt.

But why? There are two obvious possibilities, art project or prank, but both are undermined by similar facts. If it's art, it's complete crap: It makes no sense, even in bizarro underground-art terms, clumsily stabbing at a puerile media criticism by way of an established icon of media criticism. Plus, the dude in the mask sounds like he's wacky on the junk, so clearly he hasn't invested much in the performance. True, completely sucking hasn't stopped literally gazillions of artists throughout history, but these guys clearly didn't suck when it came to the technological aspects of the project.

Ditto for the prank theory, which is a little more in line with the quality of the performance. They might have just a few idiots fucking around with a camera, but they certainly weren't fucking around when they managed to interrupt the signal, and managed to never get caught.

All in all, it's nice that they didn't get caught: no harm done, and now we have a nice little mystery on par with the fate of the Mary Celeste, the chupacabra and the popularity of Ashlee Simpson. It makes life richer.