We like to think that when we sit down at home to watch TV that we are safe and alone, and that we have control over what we will see and watch upon the screen. We like to believe that we can pluck out from the air and choose from the various programs that bounce about all around us. Yet, on occasion this sense of control and safety can be rudely violated by mysterious transmissions that come from the dark corners of the airwaves and spew forth with inscrutable messages and bizarre imagery that can startle, puzzle, and scare large swaths of the population who have been subjected to these images against their will. Here we will look at some of the creepiest, mysterious, and unexplained cases of strange TV intrusions that were broadcast by shadowy people or groups with agendas we may never understand.
One of the most notoriously bizarre and mysterious TV transmissions ever occurred on November 26, 1977, during regular news programming of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, over a local ITV station called Southern Television, in the United Kingdom. What has come to be known as the "Southern Television Broadcast Interruption" was a 6-minute long message preceded by an ear piercing shrieking noise that blasted out from TVs everywhere, followed by a strange, metallic buzzing and then a deep and somber, echoing voice that seemed to have been electronically disguised bellowed out from a person claiming to be an alien from another world. The speaker called himself Vrillion, and claimed to be a representative of “The Ashtar Galactic Command,” going on to give an enigmatic message, the entire official transcript of which reads:
This is the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, speaking to you. For many years you have seen us as lights in the skies. We speak to you now in peace and wisdom as we have done to your brothers and sisters all over this, your planet Earth. We come to warn you of the destiny of your race and your world so that you may communicate to your fellow beings the course you must take to avoid the disaster which threatens your world, and the beings on our worlds around you. This is in order that you may share in the great awakening, as the planet passes into the New Age of Aquarius. The New Age can be a time of great peace and evolution for your race, but only if your rulers are made aware of the evil forces that can overshadow their judgments. Be still now and listen, for your chance may not come again. All your weapons of evil must be removed. The time for conflict is now past and the race of which you are a part may proceed to the higher stages of its evolution if you show yourselves worthy to do this. You have but a short time to learn to live together in peace and goodwill. Small groups all over the planet are learning this, and exist to pass on the light of the dawning New Age to you all. You are free to accept or reject their teachings, but only those who learn to live in peace will pass to the higher realms of spiritual evolution. Hear now the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, speaking to you. Be aware also that there are many false prophets and guides operating in your world. They will suck your energy from you – the energy you call money and will put it to evil ends and give you worthless dross in return. Your inner divine self will protect you from this. You must learn to be sensitive to the voice within that can tell you what is truth, and what is confusion, chaos and untruth. Learn to listen to the voice of truth which is within you and you will lead yourselves onto the path of evolution. This is our message to our dear friends. We have watched you growing for many years as you too have watched our lights in your skies. You know now that we are here, and that there are more beings on and around your Earth than your scientists admit. We are deeply concerned about you and your path towards the light and will do all we can to help you. Have no fear, seek only to know yourselves, and live in harmony with the ways of your planet Earth. We of the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the plane of your existence. May you be blessed by the supreme love and truth of the cosmos.
Throughout the whole strange, rambling message, the video feed was totally untouched, save for slight distortion, and indeed the news anchor at the time, Andrew Gardner, went on with the report as if nothing was happening, totally unaware that his image was being overlaid with the haunting audio clip. The eerie message ended during a Looney Tunes cartoon as programming returned to usual as if nothing had happened. Not long after, the station apologized to viewers for the bizarre intrusion, and the media quickly jumped on the story. In order to curb the panic that was starting to spread due to the strange broadcast, the doomsayers that were cropping up to proclaim the message as the real deal, and the deluge of calls from concerned viewers inundating the station, the Independent Broadcasting Authority promptly publicly dismissed the whole thing as a hoax, although they also made it clear that such a signal intrusion had never happened to them before. Nevertheless, it was not long before the whole bizarre incident was being reported by news outlets all over the world.
Muddying the waters further and causing even more panic was the fact that subsequent reports changed details of the transcript to make it seem even more mysterious and threatening, and the name of the speaker even was sometimes changed to Asteron or Gillon, as well as other details that were changed in retellings. The story got so sensationalized and exaggerated that even now some details remain obscure, which only further fuels the strange conspiracy theories that continue to surround it.
At the time, the news of the Southern Television broadcast instilled a wide range of reactions in the public. For some it was just an amusing oddity, for others just someone playing a prank, and for still others it was the real deal; an actual warning from an extraterrestrial intelligence. As far as the authorities were concerned, it had all been simply a signal hijacking, with the rogue signal being traced to the Hannington transmitter in Hannington, Hampshire. This particular transmitter was susceptible to such hijackings, as it was using an outmoded method of catching rebounded signals through the air from another transmitter on the Isle of Wight, rather than the more secure method of using landlines. The official stance was that some unknown hoaxer or hoaxers had exploited this weak point and used the opportunity to send out a bogus transmission to incite panic; although the IBA did point out that such an endeavor would require “a considerable amount of technical know-how.”
Despite this official statement, and the fact that it was case closed as far as the authorities were concerned, there nevertheless have been plenty of conspiracies floating about the Southern Television Broadcast. Some still believe that it was truly a signal and message from extraterrestrials, and this dismissal as a hoax only further convinces them that the whole thing is being covered up. Even for those who agree that the transmission was due to human interference have found ways to spin it into a conspiracy. The most popular idea is that the transmitter was hijacked by a UFO cult called the Raëlian Church. The leader of the organization at the time was named Claude Vorilhon, similar to the mysterious speaker’s name, Vrillion, and the message itself seems to fit in quite nicely with the church’s far out teachings. There has also been the idea put forward that the message was actually a coded, encrypted message by an unknown agency for an inscrutable purpose. Although the most likely explanation is that this was merely the work of some prankish radio enthusiasts, that doesn’t make the case any less bizarre. No matter who it was or what they wanted, the hoaxers have never been caught, their identities remain unknown, their goal murky, and the debate goes on to this day.
Another of the more well-known and stranger of mysterious television intrusions is the infamous Max Headroom Incident. Anyone alive during the 1980s may be familiar with the iconic Max Headroom character, which was a plastic looking man with a stuttering, distorted voice and jerky movements that was designed to emulate a computer generated character, but who was actually played by actor Matt Frewer and billed at the time as “The World's first computer-generated TV host.” The character was typically shown overlaid upon a background that spun and moved about, as well as chaotic designs which all moved about in dizzyingly frenetic activity. During the 1980s, the eccentric and somewhat creepy character of Max Headroom was ubiquitous, appearing in movies, TV shows, and a variety of countless TV commercials, notably for Coca Cola. Yet there are some appearances which seem to have been a little less official and more mysterious.
On November 22, 1987, a bizarre transmission intruded upon the station WGN in Chicago, which was in the midst of its 9’oclock News. During a sports segment hosted by anchor Dan Roan, the TV image suddenly began to flicker and fade out into white noise, before the recognizable face of Max Headroom startlingly bloomed from the static sporting a maniacal grin. It was obviously someone wearing a Max Headroom mask, and in the background there was what appeared to be a shimmering, waving sheet of what looks like corrugated metal of some kind. The character on screen appeared to be trying to say something, but all anyone could hear at the time was a harsh, droning buzzing noise. The transmission was quickly shut down by station engineers and the programming cut back to a perplexed Roan, who said to his no doubt equally bewildered viewers, “Well, if you're wondering what happened, so am I.”
Following this bizarre signal intrusion, 2 hours later the local PBS affiliate station WTTW was in the middle of airing an episode of Doctor Who when the same strange intruder reared his head again. It was clearly the same man this time as well, down to the waving metal sheet in the background, and in this case vague, distorted audio could be heard emanating from the static noise. Although it was impossible to glean what “Max Headroom” was saying through the cacophony of noise, some parts were audible enough to glean out the words, although they made little sense. At one point the intruder says “Catch the wave,” which was the slogan for New Coke at the time, and at another point he holds up a glove and says “My brother is wearing the other one.” He also hums the tune from the TV show Clutch Cargo and rants about a sports reporter named Chuck Swirsky, during which he calls Swirsky “a freakin’ liberal.” He also shouts “I stole CBS!” and the nonsensical “I made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.” There is also a part where he seems to be trying to give viewers the finger, although the camera is too close up for it to be visible. Most bizarrely, the clip ends with the disturbingly surreal image of the intruder’s buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter by a woman wearing a dress as he shouts out, “They’re coming to get me!” The unsettling, 90-second video then cuts to black and goes back to Doctor Who, leaving thousands of viewers staring open mouthed and wondering what in the world they had just seen.
It seemed obvious that this was someone playing a joke, but to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there was nothing funny about it. They immediately launched an investigation into the incident, enlisting the help of the FBI. It was thought that the pirate transmission had originated in Chicago due to the fact that it had been sent out over WGN and WTTW’s local satellite and land links. It was also speculated that the perpetrator would have possibly needed a very powerful and expensive transmitter to pull it off, suggesting that they were well funded, although it has later been ascertained that such equipment would not necessarily need to be particularly pricey or elaborate, just high enough and close enough to the TV transmitter to override it. Other than this, at the time there was not much to go on, and the investigation was eventually abandoned without apprehending a single suspect.
There have been a lot of theories as to who the Max Headroom pirate was and what he wanted. It has been suggested that he was anywhere from a disgruntled ex-employee or someone who had a grudge against the TV networks, to someone trying to spread propaganda, slander, or simply make a statement on the state of modern media, to merely a bored prankster or even an autistic radio enthusiast testing out his shiny equipment. We will probably never know for sure. The Max Headroom signal pirate has never been identified, his motive never truly understood, and his truly odd broadcast lives on as one of the weirdest and most mysterious TV transmissions ever.
Another very bizarre transmission was aired over the Emergency Alert System of CBS affiliate station KRTV, in Great Falls, Montana. On February 11, 2013, the station's Emergency System came alive during an airing of “The Steve Wilkos Show,” with the very authentic sounding announcement, complete with the preceding EAS attention signal, that a zombie apocalypse was imminent. The eery transmission said:
Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Follow the messages onscreen that will be updated as information become available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.
Despite such an absurd claim, considering that the message was broadcast over the official emergency channel and seemed so genuine, there were those who took it seriously and emergency services were flooded with calls from concerned citizens who truly thought that zombies were rising from their graves. KRTV was quick to announce that the message was a hoax, and that their transmitting equipment had been hijacked by an unidentified party. Police were rather humorous about the incident, with one Lt. Shane Sorensen, of the Great Falls Police Department, stating: “We can report in the city, there have been no sightings of dead bodies rising from the ground.” Even so, some police officers at the time later stated that they nevertheless had it in the back of their mind, “what if?”
Interestingly, shortly after the KRTV incident, several other stations in Montana and even a station in New Mexico were hacked with similar messages warning of an impending zombie attack. Obviously such an attack did not occur, and it is clearly a hoax, but perpetrated by who and for what reason? Although the hijacker for the original KRTV zombie broadcast has not been caught, it is suspected that it was either a prankster or some sort of viral marketing campaign for a zombie movie or the hit TV series The Walking Dead.
Joining the ranks of bizarre tales of strange TV transmissions is one that came from a station that didn’t even exist at the time and should not have been broadcasting anything at all. On September 14, 1953, TV viewers across England supposedly had their regular programming interrupted by an the call sign for the TV station KLEE, which was based all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in Houston, Texas, in the United States. Many of these viewers took photographs of the phenomenon in order to prove that it had happened. This was all already strange enough, because this was in the days before satellite transmissions and a signal from Houston should not have been appearing on TVs in England in the first place, not to mention the fact that American and British TV signals were incompatible, but things would get even stranger.
When British broadcasting authorities tried to contact the station in Houston, they were told that KLEE had been off the air for the past 3 years, and that it was impossible that an identification card from them could have been broadcast from there. Indeed, KLEE had been purchased by the station KPRC-TV in 1950, and no KLEE related programming or call signs had been transmitted since. Still, some photographs of the phenomenon were sent to them from several viewers who had personally witnessed the odd event, which seemed to prove it was real. Officials were baffled as to what could have caused the mystery broadcast, and there were some theories floated around, such as the idea that English viewers had just confused a commercial for Kleenex tissues for the call sign, or that the signals had been bouncing about in the atmosphere for the past 3 years, but none of these possibilities really fit. A full investigation by both KPRC-TV and the BBC was unable to find any explanation for the weird intrusion, nor even definitive proof that it had ever really even happened at all, but some digging around by engineers from the Chrysler Corporation in America seemed to suggest that it had in fact occurred.
The whole story was spooky to be sure, and was subsequently picked up in the December 1958 issue of Reader’s Digest, from where it proceeded to capture the public imagination and launch itself into the pantheon of true tales of strangeness and the unexplained. However, eventually some suspicious details emerged that began to perhaps point to a hoax. It turned out that there was no evidence that the transmission had been picked up all over England as had originally been claimed, but rather from a fairly well defined area. It also came to light that several other TV stations in America, The Soviet Union, and even South America had also been sent similar photographs from England of their call signs displayed on British televisions, with KLEE being the only one that had been replaced by another station. This was suspicious because it suggested that whoever was sending the photos had possibly not done a lot of fact checking and was merely working with outdated information. Additionally, many of these supposed TV identification cards displayed slight changes or inaccuracies, and the one from the Soviet Union apparently had the glaring mistake that it had been written in English. These photos also only displayed the identification cards themselves, and never showed any of the programming preceding or following the call sign transmissions, so it was hard to tell if they were ever really broadcast live on British TV at all.
This still left the question of why someone would orchestrate this hoax of sending photos of American TV calls signs from England to various stations far and wide. What could they possibly want? This remained a mystery until KPRC-TV received a letter from an alleged business partner of one of the people who had sent pictures of the KLEE call sign. The sender explained that they had invented a new type of revolutionary TV that could pick up signals from vast distances away and without the need for an antenna. With this bold claim, it seemed that this was likely a scam perpetrated by some hucksters trying to push a bogus technology, perhaps with the aim of eventually suckering investors out of money.
It was theorized that they had obtained call signs from various TV stations, or at least reproduced them, and then had transmitted them to TVs over a small area in England while encouraging viewers to take photographs to prove the astounding technology worked. Since faking whole TV programs would have been difficult, only the call signs were broadcast, and this explained why only they were shown in the photographs. Regardless of the fact that the KLEE incident is most likely a hoax or scam of some kind, and that probably the only mystery is that the hoaxers had made a mistake in their intricate plot by not being aware that the KLEE call sign was no longer used, it is still often written of as a true tale of the bizarre and unexplained, and many people still insist that is a genuine unexplained phenomenon. Nevertheless, whoever it was that perpetrated this apparent hoax has never been identified and their true ultimate aim is unknown.
It will probably remain a mystery as to who carried out these TV signal hijackings or why. What is known is that these incidents and intrusions have left behind bafflement and wonder in their wake, and shown us that the airwaves are mysterious places that are not always as secure that we’d like to think they are. We like to think that we have privacy as we sit watching TV in our homes, yet sometimes eery and inexplicable messages from places unknown can bounce through the atmosphere to punch through our favorite shows and intrude right into our living rooms to puzzle and even frighten us. It is disturbing, almost a feeling of being violated that someone out there could have the power to do this and to creep into the homes of thousands, or even millions of people. Yet the technology to do this is available to those who have the means, knowledge and the desire to exert their will and demented messages using the air all around us as a messenger and means to reach out to haunt us. When will it happen again and what will the message be this time? Stay tuned and you might just find out.