On the night of November 22, 1987, unsuspecting Chicagoans just settling in for a quiet evening of TV were treated to an incredibly bizarre occurrence on their television sets, one which – to this day – remains unsolved.
The first part of the incident happened on (then-independent) WGN, during The Nine O’Clock News. In the midst of a sports replay, the channel suddenly went black. Fifteen seconds later, it fuzzed back to life – only this time, it wasn’t the news. It was a mysterious being clad in a Max Headroom mask, hopping around like a mad person. There was no audio, and almost as quickly as it started, it ended; quick-thinking engineers in the studio switched the station’s broadcast frequency. Once back on the air, the bewildered sports reporter quipped, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I.” However, this was only the beginning – the main event would happen two hours later.
Around 11:15PM, just a few minutes into the “Horror of Fang Rock” episode of Doctor Who which was showing on the public access channel WTTW, the masked maniac struck again. Seemingly out of nowhere, all across Chicagoland, WTTW’s reception began to crackle and break-up, and viewers were once again confronted by the disguised phantom – but now the visuals included sound. For the next minute and a half, the bizarre hijacker held the channel hostage and commanded the audience’s attention by moaning out cryptic messages, writhing about, and eventually dropping their pants and being spanked with a fly swatter.
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For those unfamiliar, Mad Headroom was a popular omnipresent TV mascot at the time – similar to Spuds Mackenzie, Elvira, and The Noid. The character (played by Matt Frewer) originated from a British made-for-TV movie, but became wildly popular worldwide thanks in part to his retro look and odd vocal tics. Soon, Headroom was appearing on talk shows, pitching soft drinks, and even hosting his own television program. It was one month after this program was cancelled that the pirates illegally seized the Chicago airwaves.
Another important thing to note about this “signal intrusion” is how rare something like this was then. Nowadays, almost every American has the necessary tools to “hack” – a computer and an internet connection – sitting in their bedrooms. But back then, there was no modern Internet (at least in the form that we know it now) – everything was phone systems, microwaves, and satellites. And to pull off a feat like this required major in-depth knowledge of the task at hand – not mention some heavy-duty equipment to pull it all off.
So who are the mysterious people behind the infamous intrusion? It seems everyone was a suspect at one point – from jaded telecommunication workers who had access to the right paraphernalia, to bored teenaged phreakers from the Chicago suburbs. While the incident caused a stir – even the FCC and the FBI were briefly involved – no one was ever caught nor charged with the crime. And now, 30 years later, it doesn’t look like anyone ever will be.
Below is the actual footage from the signal intrusion that occurred on November 22, 1987. Enjoy the nightmares!