Signal Intrusion

On November 22, 1987, viewers tuning into WGN-TV were treated to two signal intrusions featuring the face—and presumably the ass—of pop culture icon Max Headroom. Someone, or something, had interfered with a popular television station’s transmission, appropriating the receiver to send their own programming across WGN-TV’s airwaves. It wasn’t the first time it had happened—records of signal intrusion post-FCC and IBA regulations date as far back as 1977. However, it certainly was one of the more marked instances of signal intrusion.

Part of what made the Max Headroom so marked was the fact that nobody could identify, nor block, the signal. To this day, those responsible have not been identified. At the time, experts speculated that the equipment used for such signal intrusion would be hard for the general population to acquire. The FBI report had hypotheses as to what happened, but nothing concrete. The case remains shrouded in mystery. As such, the thin divide between reality and fantasy has been even more obscured than normal, in the case of the Max Headroom incident.

Signal intrusion and breakdown has captivated me since I was a teen, in both literal and figurative capacities. The very core of interpersonal dynamic, of symbiosis, of connection, relies on the transmission and receipt of signals. In most cases, the dynamic between sender and receiver follows protocol established by nature. Then there are those rare cases in nature where signals are received by the wrong party, or are never received at all. Signals like those of the 52-hertz whale, whose calls echo through the waters, never reaching their intended audience. Instead, the whale wanders alone, transmitting a signal only heard and studied by an alien species above her home.

A still from the actual Max Headroom signal intrusion

The first time I ever encountered signal intrusion was on an old Peavey amp in my bedroom. I was picking up CB radio signals. There was a voyeuristic aspect to it, the sense that I was intruding upon others undetected. Conversely, there was also a sense of an invasive, unknown presence, that these voices were intruding on my life in some small way. It was a communication dynamic that, prior to the internet era, was relatively rare. At least in my experience.

Signal intrusion: in a denotative capacity it is a transmitted signal that overpowers or interferes with another transmitted signal. Intentionality doesn’t enter into the calculation. In a connotative capacity, signal intrusion is hearing voices through your amplifier. It is the 52-hertz whale calling to its species and being detected only by machinery. It is the smell of rot lingering in the air, transmitting the olfactory language of death and danger in an area that screams safety in a semiotic capacity.

And maybe, just maybe, it is the thought of another finding its way via some yet-undefined electromagnetic frequency through your skull and into your mind.

And maybe, somewhere out there, there’s a mind operating on a frequency different than everyone else’s. The human equivalent to the 52-herz whale, whose transmission exists on the same frequency as some dead AM radio station.

Maybe it’s one of us.

And maybe, just maybe, someone’s listening.

 

Kirk Jones is the author of Aetherchrist and Die Empty. When not writing, his life belongs to data entry and assessment, in all probability the two most-loathed sectors in higher education. He is an associate professor of humanities for the SUNY system, teaching graphic literature, creative writing, and in the near future, interactive narrative. He lives so far north in New York that the television picked up more Canadian programming than American programming when analog was prominent. He is tolerated by his wife, two daughters, and the cat (it isn’t his until the litter box is full) Spooky. Find him on Twitter @bizarrojones or on the web at https://bizarrojones.wordpress.com/.

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