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Sunday, May 10, 2015


World events are depressing, so let's indulge in a bit of weekend fun. At least, this is my idea of fun: Some of you may find this story a bit creepy.

Many of you know about the November 22, 1987 "Max Headroom" signal intrusion in Chicago, Illinois. This entertaining podcast discusses the various theories regarding this incident, while this 2010 Reddit entry and this investigation offer a probable solution. The likely perpetrators were two socially clumsy individuals who combined high technical skills with a juvenile sense of humor.

What amazes me is how much we now know about that incident -- and how little we know about a much more impressive signal intrusion which took place ten years earlier.

On November 26, 1977, the Hannington UHF television transmitter in southern England, which served Southern Television (part of the ITV network), was hijacked by a voice claiming to represent visitors from space. The incident, known as the Southern Television broadcast interruption, lasted a little more than five minutes, and left quite a few viewers upset.

The signal hijacking made the news around the world: I heard about it in faraway Los Angeles, where a local news anchor used echo effects to imitate the Voice From Space. And yet, strangely, there was no real follow-up, and no public debate over the potential for danger. If there was an official investigation, it was conducted very quietly. The public soon forgot all about the event, although it did inspire a storyline in Daredevil comics. Today, there are a number of people who know all about the Max Headroom affair yet have never heard of the 1977 incident.

I never forgot about it. Thanks to the internet, the entire world now has a chance to see and hear the granddaddy of all broadcast hacks.

At 5:10 in the afternoon, newsreader Andrew Gardner was delivering the latest news about the crisis in Rhodesia. (Some accounts name another broadcaster, but Gardner was definitely the man involved.) The picture became distorted, and a low-pitched pulsing sound insinuated itself into the audio: THUNGGG...THUNGGG...THUNGGG...

(That pulsing noise may derive from a sound effect heard in a classic science fiction film or television show. It sure seems familiar, though I can't quite place it.)

At that point, folks all over the southern part of England heard the low, metallic, echo-y voice of a claimed space alien. In what I must presume to be an attempt to blend in with the locals, the visitor spoke with a charming British accent.

The name of the alien remains a point of contention, since that portion of the audio is quite difficult to make out. I distinctly recall that when the story was reported in Los Angeles, we were told that the alien had identified himself as "Ashtaroth." Fortean Times magazine reported the name as "Asteron." Many transcripts use the name as "Vrillon" or "Gramaha." (Spelling variants abound.) 

The Voice announced himself to be the representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. That term will be familiar to those few who have made a close study of the American fringe.

The Voice spoke for roughly five minutes, although the audio would fzzz in and out, and was often indecipherable. Visually, the garbled news broadcast segued into a series of commercials, one of which advertised a candy bar. The commercials gave way to -- O, sublime happenstance! -- a 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon titled "Falling Hare." This is the classic World War II short in which Bugs does battle with a gremlin. (Best line: "Gasp!")

Just to add to the mystery, the Bugs Bunny portion of the presentation included a brief shot of Daffy Duck. Daffy does not appear in "Falling Hare." I can't even come up with a theory as to why Daffy was in there.

The THUNG sound continued for some time after the Voice concluded his lecture. The sound increased in pitch, then faded out altogether. Andrew Gardner then reappeared, looking a bit shaken:

"We understand that viewers in some parts of the region are receiving a breakthrough in sound. We're sorry about this and we're doing our best to rectify the fault."

Although ITV made a brief clip from this episode available to newscasters around the world, a video record of the full "experience" remained locked up in the ITV vaults for decades. A few years ago, the entire signal intrusion was finally made available as a YouTube video, which I have embedded above. Unfortunately, the image is marred by a rather annoying watermark.

A number of people have uploaded their own signal intrusion videos onto YouTube. One of the uploaders is a religious nut who blames demons. Several YouTube versions synch the audio to subtitles, which make it easier understand what the Voice is saying.

Actually, the fact that a complete transcript exists constitutes another sub-mystery, since the Voice is impossible to comprehend for fairly long stretches. Is the transcript actually the original script -- and if so, then who wrote it?

YouTubers have responded to these videos with their usual inanities. Most of the comments come from faux-hip youngsters who insist that the whole presentation must be a hoax of recent vintage. Sorry, kids: Millions of older people (including myself) heard about the incident back in 1977, and quite a few Britons can recall seeing the broadcast as it happened. Andrew Gardner (who died in 1999) is clearly recognizable from photos available on the internet.

Some young people seem to be under the impression that the signal intrusion was just a stunt intended to publicize Star Wars, which was released in May of 1977. A ridiculous suggestion. Why would the filmmakers take such a risk? Why would they commit a criminal act in order to help the one film that needed absolutely no help at the boxoffice? Nothing links the Ashtar message to any events in the film.

Here's a sample of what "The Ashtar Galactic Command" had to say to southern England in 1977:
All weapons of evil must be removed.

The time of conflict is now past and the race of which you are a part may proceed to the highest planes of 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.
Be aware also that there are many false prophets and guides operating on your world. They will suck your energy from you -- the energy you call money and will put it to evil ends giving you worthless dross in return. Your inner divine self will protect you from this.
These words have no relation to the George Lucas universe. However, the text is perfectly consonant with messages that have been offered by various flying saucer cults since the 1950s.

The myth of the Ashtar Galactic Command was not invented for the purposes of this broadcast. In 1977, that myth was roughly a quarter-century old, although only students of fringe religious movements would have known about it.

The growth of this particular mythos offers an interesting insight into the way belief systems originate.

Some of you may recall my posts about the historicity of Jesus and Mohammed. There are many reasons why nearly all academics studying the history of religion (a group which includes many agnostics and atheists) stipulate that these two individuals actually existed. I have argued that one useful way to approach this question is to study the formulation of religious movements in modern times. If you do so, one general principle will become clear: Religions have founders. Without Joseph Smith, there would be no Mormonism; without L. Ron Hubbard, there would be no Scientology; without Abhay Charan De, there would be no International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

No founder, no faith.

I have encountered only one possible exception to this "no founder, no faith" rule: The myth of the Ashtar Command. That myth plays a role in several of the strange cults that have arisen from the American flying saucer subculture.

Quite a few small religious sects have congealed around the idea of extraterrestrial visitation. The most infamous of these groups is the Heaven's Gate cult led by the late Marshall Applewhite. Another well-known UFO religion is the Raël movement, founded by a rather disturbing Frenchman named Claude Vorilhon. (He was born in Vichy in 1946 -- and one is tempted to connect that fact to his later use of the swastika symbol.)

The similarity between the names Vorilhon and Vrilon has led to speculation that the Raëlian Movement engineered the Southern TV signal intrusion. I doubt this theory. I have never seen any literature in which Vorilhon speaks of the Ashtar Command; he usually refers to a collective he calls "the Elohim."

That said, the Ashtar mythos figures heavily in the theology of various flying saucer cults. To be honest, I can't quite understand why so many different groups have fastened onto the term Ashtar. The few scholars who have studied the Ashtar meme seem puzzled by its rapid spread "under the radar" of conventional society.

The first person to channel messages from a being named Ashtar was George Van Tassel, a strange but genial figure who lived in the California desert, where he constructed a dome-shaped building called the Integratron. If my "religions have founders" dictum has any validity, then we must point to Van Tassel as the man who founded the modern faith of Ashtar.

His belief system derived, in substantial part, from earlier cults that had splintered away from Theosophy, the religious group founded by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Blavatsky, however, did not place any special emphasis on the term Ashtar, which receives only passing mention in the Theosophical dictionary.

Nobody knows what prompted Van Tassel to fixate on Ashtar, the name of a deity who was once worshiped throughout the ancient near east. This god was also called Attar, Athtar, and (in female form) Ishtar and Astarte. He/she was associated with war, with storms, and (oddly enough) with the planet Venus. Despite this bellicose heritage, the Ashtar who speaks to modern UFO cultists usually conveys a message of peace.

(Many mythologists believe that the Greek goddess Aphrodite is a variant of Astarte.)

In June of 1952, Ashtar told Van Tassel that the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb would result in the elimination of all human life from the planet. The bomb went off as scheduled in November of that year; Ashtar's prediction proved somewhat faulty.

Nevertheless, Asthar remained very popular with a certain type of spiritual seeker. Other groups began to receive messages from the so-called Ashtar Galactic Command. Most of these gatherings remained tiny and obscure. To the best of my knowledge, none of these sects has ever offered an accurate prediction of anything.

In the 1980s, one "Ashtar" group made its home near Tehachapi, California. The leader of this organization, George Green, relayed messages from a being called Hatonn, who was supposedly part of the Ashtar Command.

It's possible that "Hatonn" was meant to be the name of the Voice in the 1977 signal intrusion.

Green's weird diatribes were collected in a series of large-format books called the Phoenix Journals, which originally bore dark green covers. These bizarre (and sometimes hilarious) privately-printed volumes received widespread distribution throughout southern California. For a while, the damned things were everywhere, even in major bookstores -- and yet, despite their former ubiquity, original editions of the Journals are now quite rare. Many of the Hatonn books reprinted conspiracy material available elsewhere on the American fringe, although the rampant plagiarism never resulted in a court case.

(As you may have guessed, those puzzling books prompted my own interest in the Ashtar meme.)

I never understood where Green got the money for his operation.

And I cannot understand how Ashtar acolytes in the UK managed to pull off the 1977 signal hack -- completely undetected by authorities.

In fact, I've seen no articles indicating that the British government spent much time looking for the perpetrators. Hijacking a major television signal must have required expensive equipment, not to mention the technical skill involved. Why wasn't GCHQ all over this?

If any of my readers can come up with explanation for this mystery, I am all attention.

Added note: Some hours after I finished writing the above, I discovered that an online magazine called The Kernel had covered the same territory in a story published in 2013. The story includes more technical details about how the hack may have been done. Check it out.
Joseph, I have no explanation for annything concerning the mystery hacking, but can specullate that it was simply an elaborate practical joke. And, although this is off-topic, I found The Phoenix Journals easy to find through AddALL, a very useful site for locating any used book.

In the 1980s, one such group made its home near Tehachapi, California.

My tin foil hat is getting weak but cia.

Thanks for the info
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