Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares as a Child #4

Fifty-Seven Minutes into the Future Edition

The newest installment of my series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.

The Fear

What if you gazed into the abyss, and the abyss offered you a Coke?

I’m going to be honest with you, the title here is technically a lie: I didn’t develop this fear until my late teens. Then, as now, I spent way too much time online, and someone somewhere posted something about the “Max Headroom signal hijacking.” In the ‘80s, a couple of hackers broke into a Chicago news station, and broadcast a bizarre video of themselves making fun of Chicago reporters, singing songs, and uh, getting spanked by a woman with a flyswatter. They did it twice, actually, and you can watch both videos of both hacks on YouTube. To this day, the perpetrators have never been found.

I watched the video at eighteen or nineteen, and something about it made my skin crawl. It shouldn’t have unsettled me as much as it did: I grew up with an engineer father who worked for L.A. news stations. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about bored, disgruntled technicians pulling pranks on news anchors who treated them badly, or radio DJs disrupting each others’ broadcasts. I know these kinds of things happen, and I know how they happen. What was it, then, that I found so upsetting? I think it was the mask. One of the people involved had been wearing a Max Headroom mask. I didn’t know what or who that was, but it felt familiar, in a horrifying way.

For those of you born after me, Max Headroom was a talking head character from the ‘80s that was just that, a talking head. He was played by a human being, but was meant to look like a CG creation, and his recorded segments were deliberately glitchy, sped up or slowed down, to make him seem unreal. He was supposed to be funny, but the road to hell is paved with things people thought would be funny.

As soon as I watched a Max Headroom video, I never wanted to see one again. Anything Uncanny Valley has always terrified me, as we’ve previously discussed, and Max Headroom is its apotheosis. He is from the Uncanny Valley like I am from the San Fernando Valley. He’s human, but he’s not; his existence mocks ours. Memento Masahiro Mori! If I might get pretentious for a second, and let’s be real, I always do, he’s also close to Freud’s idea of the uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Max Headroom felt familiar. He didn’t give me nightmares as a child, but he reminded me, very strongly, of the nightmares I had a child.

But people have been telling me for years that Max Headroom was good, actually. I was particularly inspired to revisit my fear after watching Cody Johnston’s Our Popcorn Dystopia, an opus on apocalypse and the ‘80s pop culture with larger messages we all chose to ignore. I guess I’ve been meaning to revisit it since I was twenty-five and dating the obligatory older man you date in your twenties, and he told me Max Headroom was actually super anarchic and funny and cool and not the nightmare I thought it was. I know it sounds mansplainy, but I am determined to be able to retain something good out of every relationship I’ve had, it may as well be this.

Revisiting the Fear

There’s a contradiction in Max Headroom’s very existence. He’s not just one thing. In some ways, one could argue that he kind of is the essence of the struggles of the ‘80s, punk versus corporatism, technology versus humanity, all in one. But also, he makes jokes and sometimes wears sunglasses!

To face my fear, I first watched clips from The Max Headroom Show. I hadn’t known that his whole thing was interstitials: his jerky, jokey, glitchy segments were meant to be played in between music videos. That alone makes him a little less intense. If you’re around my age and grew up in North America, you might remember Face from Nick Jr., or the weird Zoog characters from the Disney Channel, or maybe even that time there was an animated, talking “O” who introduced afternoon shows on Nickelodeon. A whole show of them would probably be a little much, but they made sense as part of a larger programming block. Max seemed a little less creepy in his proper context, and also when I realized he wasn’t actually digital: he was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer in heavy makeup.

I don’t know why I didn’t realize that when I first saw him all those years ago. Of course they wouldn’t have had the technology to make a face look that humanoid in 1985. (The first CG-animated film to portray a human with expressions actually came out that same year: it was called Tony Del Petrie, about a dying pianist thinking back on his life. It was remarkable for that time, but these days it looks extremely dated. Poor Tony’s face looks like Richard Dreyfuss’s mashed potato sculpture in Close Encounters, and his chin looks like… well, I’ll let you see for yourself.) And while Max still has a creepily smug air about him, that was intentional. In the documentary Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom, the creators of Max explain that when they were asked to create interstitials for a music video program, their idea was a “boring TV presenter, but make him computer-generated.” British artists with a soft spot for cyberpunk, they were obsessed with American “talking heads.” They’ve gone on record saying they specifically wanted a “middle-class white man in a suit,” an “Aryan,” “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host” talking at people about music videos. They wanted him to be like Ted Baxter or Colbert Report-era Stephen Colbert. He’s supposed to be the worst.

“What would you do to help the world if you could spend 30,000 pounds a week for the next thousand years?” Max asks in the first episode. “Well, that’s how much the government are spending on Trident missiles. Don’t facts like that just wipe you out?” Then there’s a sound of a bowling ball hitting pins, and he smiles, creepily. “I’d rather tap dance!” He says, and does.

So that was Max’s shtick. But it wasn’t his whole story. Apparently, when the creators pitched him, the network wanted a backstory, so they teamed up with some writers who also had an interest in cyberpunk and created the film Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes into the Future. In it, Edison Carter (also played by Matt Frewer) is a hardboiled reporter working for ruthless capitalist Channel 23 in a near-future London. He exposes scandals and corruption, but then he uncovers some scandal and corruption in Channel 23 itself, namely “blipverts,” subliminal advertisements that hypnotize the viewers and in some cases, cause them to explode. But the explosions usually only happen in people with pre-existing conditions, so what’s the harm?

When Carter tries to expose this, they try to have him assassinated in a car park, but then they realize that shit, he was actually a huge draw for their channel. So they do a “we can rebuild him” and create a digital character using Carter’s consciousness and a computer generated image. Their new creation who calls himself “Max Headroom”, a after the last thing Carter saw in the car park before he ostensibly died.

Except surprise, he didn’t! He survived! And Max Headroom is too glitchy for primetime TV! The studio head discards him, only for a couple of art-punks to stumble across his broadcasts and decide, in spite of everything, that he’s somehow the perfect host for their pirate TV station. He gets them ratings, while Carter makes a miraculous recovery and goes on to expose the blipverts scandal and hold Channel 23 accountable.

Twenty Minutes into The Future, to my surprise, was a fun watch. A large part of this is Matt Frewer, one of those actors that truly disappears into a role. I’ve seen him in many things, but I almost never recognize him until I read the credits. When I was a child we had a VHS documentary about Dr. Seuss’s life, called Searching For Dr. Seuss. Matt Frewer played the Cat in the Hat as a sort of narrator. He managed to play the Cat without ever getting too creepy or weighed down by the makeup, the way Mike Meyers did in the early 2000s version. (Sorry, Mike Meyers. I still love Wayne’s World and Austin Powers.) I also saw him in the movie 50/50 about ten years ago, and he was great in that. But I don’t think I knew what he actually looked underneath a shit-ton of makeup, or when he was young.

Now I do, and I’ve realized something uncomfortable: I’m very attracted to ‘80s Matt Frewer. Damn him for his high cheekbones, the wry undertones in his voice, and his icy Canadian-ness. Seriously, people love to talk about the aloofness of Scandinavian actors like Mads Mikkelsen and the Skarsgards, but there’s something of that in Canadian actors, as well. (Must be the cold.) That kind of aloofness typically isn’t attractive to me, but there’s also a playfulness to Matt Frewer’s performances. He has a physicality can be funny, or scary, or both at once. (He also got to work with my crush Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black, so maybe there’s some transference there.) There’s a part of the movie where Edison Carter wakes up disoriented in his even hotter co-worker (played by Amanda Pays)’s bed and damn, that is the hurt/comfort fic I didn’t know I needed.

Anyway, back to non-horny things. Watching Twenty Minutes Into the Future reminded me of something I told a friend when I was fourteen and deep in my psuedo-intellectual phase. I had realized something that I was sure no one had ever come up with before, and I tried it out on my actual-intellectual friend, Zach.

“Utopia is relative,” I told him.

“Duh!” he replied, immediately.

Duh, indeed. But dystopia is relative, too. Anything in Richard Wright’s Native Son or Elie Wiesel’s Night is as dark as anything in George Orwell or Phillip K. Dick. (Although, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever completely understood a Phillip K. Dick book, and I’m not sure many other people have, either. I have a similar relationship with his work that I do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s, and he doesn’t even have more accessible works like Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love to reel me in.) “This is just like Orwell!” has been said so much it’s become a meme, and many, including myself, have pointed out the irony of raging against “socialism” by referencing lifelong democratic socialist George Orwell. Margaret Atwood may have some questionable politics now, but she has said that when she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, “I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.” Dystopia is all around us.

“Duh,” you might say, echoing Zach. Of course we’re living in a dystopia. There’s a fucking pandemic on! There was an attempted coup the day I tried to start this entry. But even before Covid, before Trump, a lot of the world was living in a dystopia. The point of Max Headroom being “Twenty Minutes into The Future” is that it could happen any time now. Thatcher’s U.K. was, to many, a dystopia. People talk of people with pre-existing conditions dying of Covid like it’s no big deal in the exact same way the executives and technicians in Max Headroom talk about viewers exploding. It’s always dystopia somewhere.

Is It Still Scary?

Yes, but not in the same way.

Max Headroom himself is surface-level scary. Once I could get past the glitching and weird vector art backgrounds (which, in a way, is scary in itself—does that mean we just get used to the uncanny?), he was even kind of… funny? His Christmas special is especially so, and I was happy to see some people I knew in it. (Robin Williams had a great conversation with Max!) Twenty Minutes into the Future, on the other hand, is scary, but intentionally so. It’s a cautionary tale.

Perhaps scariest of all, though, is the real-life arc of the Max Headroom character. I highly recommend this fantastic video, On Max Headroom: The Most Misunderstood Joke on TV on the history of Max and the many ways he was misunderstood. There were layers upon layers of irony to him as a character, and more and more were added as he grew in popularity, a sort of lasagna of irony. He grew into something far beyond his creators’ control, becoming something alien to them and their values. Isn’t that every science-fiction story since Frankenstein?

See, the problem was people liked Max Headroom too much. He started out as a parody of men who were basically parodies of themselves, Bill O’Reilly yelling “WE’LL DO IT LIVE!” made into flesh. Virtual flesh. Is there such a thing? I guess there has to be, because that’s what Max was. He was a villain, or at least a shallow and amoral antihero, but he was funny. CBS tried to launch a series focused on Edison Carter, with Max Headroom basically becoming a snarky side character — an ALF, if you will. None of the original creators were involved, and the show did not last very long. I’m attracted to Edison Carter, but apparently I’m alone in that—and also apparently he’s WAY more of an asshole in that series, I haven’t watched it. It makes sense to me that it didn’t work: people didn’t want stories about investigating corporate corruption, they wanted funny lines delivered by a creepy guy in front of some funny lines. Max himself had become too popular.

This happens all the time, we’ve talked about it before. Someone makes a character who’s a real asshole, and people end up loving that character because he’s a real asshole. Maybe he’s troubled and therefore seen as “misunderstood,” like Rorschach or Draco Malfoy. Maybe he lives a life that actually seems pretty cool, like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe he’s just funny, like Cartman or Strong Bad. (Weirdly, I can’t seem to think of any non-male examples of this type of character off the top of my head, but I’m sure they exist.) Personally, I think it’s because people are attracted to nihilistic characters. The human condition is to be afraid, to feel vulnerable, and nihilists don’t ever seem to be afraid. Max Headroom is nihilistic. Edison Carter cares too much to be a nihilist. Of course people liked Max more.

It was also the ‘80s, when people loved to reward Max’s brand of shallow mercenary behavior. (There’s a reason Gary Trudeau started drawing Ronald Reagan as a Max-lookalike in Doonesbury.) Corporate America quickly noticed Max’s popularity, and asked if they asked his creators if he could be in commercials, including one for a special new Coke drink. His creators said yes. For all the anti-corporate sentiment and appreciation for the punk DIY aesthetic in Twenty Minutes into the Future, they sold him out pretty quickly. The writer of the On Max Headroom video thinks it’s actually pretty hilarious that he was the spokesman for New Coke, a kind of “performance art” on the part of the character’s creators. He argues that the character’s downfall was the misguided attempt to make Max a “lovable scamp hero.” They should have let Max remain a villain, or at least an antihero.

I agree with him there, but I still think there’s something unsettling about the New Coke commercials, almost as unsettling to me as the TV hijacking incident. Corporate mascots and commercials have always seemed a little creepy to me (one day I will write a post about my deep horror of several McDonald’s mascots), and I think maybe it’s the uncanny again: you get that it’s trying to make you feel something, but you don’t recognize what it is. You don’t know who or what’s behind them. I wrote above that Max feels less creepy in context, and he is definitely much creepier out of it. I’m very glad I don’t remember these commercials, I would not have wanted to see him between Simpsons segments on The Tracey Ullman Show. It’s very weird to watch hundreds of people cheering him on like he’s a dictator, or listening to him comparing New Coke to… kissing? Maybe it is the lovable scamp heroification that bothers me after all.

The joke of it was that New Coke was a product that famously failed. Did the creators of Max Headroom suspect that would happen? Is that why they did it? Probably not. Probably they just wanted to make a lot of money. Most people do. I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t trust anyone whose only goal is to make money, but most people want to make money so they can live easier lives or take care of themselves and their friends and family. Most of the original punks ended up selling out, eventually. That’s life under capitalism, baby!

And I can’t lie, when I wrote “It’s always dystopia somewhere” I couldn’t help but think “that would look really cool on a t-shirt.”

Stuff I Did This Week: In case you missed it, I had a great talk with some fellow child actor friends on The Coogan Chronicles! Part one and part two are out now! And I also got to have a great conversation with Hatty Jones and Jordan Maxwell, two former child actors from across the pond, on our experiences. Listen to it here!

Last night I did a Zoom game show called “Climate (In) Jeopardy” to raise awareness about a proposal for a new fracking plant in my old neighborhood in New York. There are already serious issues with air quality and asthma in that area, and we played a game with The Sierra Club to learn some sad facts about fossil fuels and pollution in New York. You can watch the video here, and if you want to reach out to Governor Cuomo to tell him to stop NRG’s new plant, you can send a letter here!

Tomorrow night, February 11th, we are doing a Welcome to Night Vale show! We’re bringing back The Investigators, one of my favorite shows with some of my favorite ever Faceless Old Woman lines! Get your tickets here!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Wiggin Snoggers (my friend Aaron came up with this one)