Since its formation, heavy music has served up some wild, eccentric and infamous stories, everything from Ozzy Osbourne infamously biting off the head of a bat to various outrageous rock star antics spurred on by the excessive consummation of illegal substances.
And while there’s plenty of bizarre stories out there, perhaps no tale tops the time that Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor became involved in an FBI murder case. In fact, the FBI apparently spent two whole years investigating the alleged death of the singer, only to finally realise that he was very much alive, and that it was all just a crazy misunderstanding sparked from the discovery of some confusing film footage.
The story began back in 1989, when a circular cluster of objects floating over a Michigan farm in Burr Oak caught the attention of farmer Robert Reed. Apprehending the strange object, he discovered it was actually a group of large weather balloons fastened to a Super 8 camera.
At the time, local farmers in the area were reportedly under investigation for allowing wild marijuana to grow on their properties, so with this in mind, Reed assumed it was possibly the authorities’ way of keeping an eye on any illegal operations, and decided to hand it straight over to the police.
After informing Reed that his assumption was incorrect, and that no authorities were permitted to carry out such surveillance, the East Lansing state police developed the film. What they saw was shocking, and prompted an immediate call to the FBI.
In the film, a male body with a strange substance marked across his face lies lifeless in a dark city street, while two menacing leather-clad men loom over him. Then, the camera begins to rise up into the sky away from the scene, just as a third figure is captured running away from the incident.
Straight away, the Michigan police began analysing the footage for potential clues, and soon discovered that the lights within the video were of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was 200 miles away.
Paul Wood, a Michigan State Police detective, told US television tabloid show Hard Copy (who ran an exposé on the incident in 1991), that he noticed that the ‘criminals’ in the video “had a distinctive-type uniform on.” He continued, “As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes.” Of the harrowing scene captured on the camera, Wood concluded: “So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”
Following a thorough dissection of the tape, little was uncovered, aside from the theory that the unknown substance on the dead body must have been a sign that the victim had begun decaying.
The fact that the gang members were presenting themselves in a way that was easily identifiable (emblazoned with a crest on their jackets), and were filming such an unsavoury event, only to have the footage be let out into the abyss via a set of balloons, was baffling. What did it all mean? And who was the mysterious victim who reached his fatal end at the hands of these dangerous-looking men?
Struggling to get anywhere in their case, the FBI decided to share stills of the video with the public as a last resort.
Fortunately, this reluctant move proved successful, and the identity of the victim was soon revealed after a young art student picked up one of the FBI’s flyers that was printed with an image of the scene and dropped off at his school.
The student informed the police that the man in the video was Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, and the scene itself was most likely a shot from the industrial metal band’s music video for their smash hit Down In It, which he had recently viewed on MTV. The biggest shock of the revelation: that the man in the video was very much alive, meaning that the law enforcement agency had spent months investigating a complete hoax.
Thanks to the aforementioned fan, from there onwards, each part of the puzzle was immediately solved, with the police contacting Nine Inch Nails’ manager to secure the last bits of information.
They discovered that the substance on Reznor’s face wasn’t the mark of early bodily decay; it was actually the band’s attempt to replicate blood using corn-starch; a cost-effective swap-in on a tight budget for a band in the early days of their career. And to create elevated shots, they used the weather balloons as another cheap DIY technique, as cranes were too expensive (and drones didn’t exist at this point). This method, of course, was the reason why the lengthy FBI case was ever opened, as whilst they were filming, the ropes attached to the balloons that Reznor was holding snapped, and causing the camera to fly off.
When the vocalist was notified about the cock-up, he commented in an interview: “My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it. There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.
“Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something”.
Speaking of how the incident was explored on an episode of Hard Copy (which also came with cheesy actor re-enactments), Reznor quips: “Total junk gossip exploitative journalism. That was the icing on the cake: getting on the worst TV show in America”.