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Remembering The Strangest (And Still Unexplained) TV Hack In Chicago History

By Justin Freeman in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 20, 2015 6:20PM

Max Headroom hack video still

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on the night of Nov. 22, 1987. According to the Farmer's Almanac, it was a pleasant 53 degrees. The Bears were triumphant over the Detroit Lions with a score of 30 to 10. And an episode of Doctor Who aired on WTTW, only to be interrupted by a hacker in a crude Max Headroom mask speaking barely intelligible English. It was weird.

For the uninitiated, Max Headroom was this odd British new wave cyberpunk satirical fake news show in the mid '80s. Even if you have never seen the show or heard the name Max Headroom before, at some point during your adventures on the internet you have probably at least stumbled across photos of the character. Or maybe you remember him as a spokesperson (spokeshead?) for Coca Cola?

Max Headroom video still

It's an iconic visual. Eminem recently payed homage to the persona of Max Headroom for his "Rap God" video that came out a few years ago.

But let's return to 1987. WGN sportscaster Dan Roan was on camera discussing the latest sports news on the 9 p.m. news, probably beaming that the Bears had defeated the Lions earlier that day. It was a run-of-the-mill broadcast until the screen suddenly went black for about ten seconds at about 9:14 p.m.. Without warning, a loud harsh atonal static sound overwhelmed the speakers and a man in a Max Headroom mask appeared on screen manically dancing for about 20 seconds before WGN regained control of their airwaves and cut back to the news.

"If you're wondering what's happening, so am I," Roan said with a nervous chuckle.

About two hours later, WTTW channel 11 was airing an episode of Doctor Who. It was a rerun of the episode "The Horror of Fang Rock" during Tom Baker's tenure as The Doctor. Everything appeared to be business as usual until partway through the episode until 11:15 p.m. Again, a loud atonal static took over the television signal and a strange man in a Max Headroom mask appeared on TV. This static intrusion was slightly less harsh than previously; maybe the hackers figured something out that was missing from their first attempt. This attempt appeared to be a pre-recorded VHS tape.

This time amidst the static, you could hear the hacker in a Max Headroom mask speak and he had some very peculiar things to say. "He's a frickin nerd!" he proclaims at one point like a demented supervillain in a Saturday morning cartoon in reference to Bulls commentator Chuck Swirsky who was at the time a commentator for DePaul. He threw an empty Pepsi can into the camera yelling the Coke slogan "Catch the wave." And our personal favorite was when he moaned and thrashed maniacally for a few moments before yelling to Chicago as an entity in this horrific robotic voice that "YOUR LOVE IS FADING."

Before WTTW finally regained control of their airwaves, a woman begins smacking Max Headroom's bare ass with a fly swatter as he continued to yell incoherent nonsense. Then the channel cut back to that episode of Doctor Who. "As far as I can tell, a massive electric shock. He must have died instantly," Tom Baker coincidentally said, as The Doctor.

People freaked out.

Confused viewers called WTTW nonstop to voice their concerns. WGN technicians suspected an inside job and launched their own investigation, but never found out who hacked their airwaves. The FCC and FBI investigated as well but also came up short. The Sun-Times reported on it with the headline of "2 Channels Interrupted to the Max" while the Tribune ran a story about it entitled "Powerful Video Prankster could become Max Jailroom." Local TV news ran wild with it as well. In a pre-internet world, the hack quickly became infamous.

Many theories are out there about who did it and why, but the bottom line is nobody really knows who hacked WGN and WTTW that night. I think we'd rather not know. It reminds us that even though most of the information that you’d probably want to know about the world is readily available in the palm of your hand with your phone, mystery still exists.