Michigan farmer Robert Reed said it looked like nothing he ever saw before: swollen lumps floating serenely over his East Lansing farm.

It had to be a UFO, he thought.

Eventually the blob settled into his cornfield and Reed discovered his UFO wasn’t extraterrestrial at all. A mass of heavy-duty weather balloons were tied together, holding a small Super 8 camera.

Pseudo-news program Hard Copy recreated of Reed’s 1989 discovery

Reed brought the balloons and camera to the Michigan State Police, who obviously thought the UFO scenario silly. Instead, they believed it was a statewide autonomous search by drug dealers to locate, harvest, and distribute marijuana.

Reed agreed. It was the most logical answer.

Just in case, they popped open the Super 8 and developed the film, hoping its contents would offer more clues. It offered them much more than they wanted. What they saw was 20 seconds of grainy, pre-digital horror. The shot open with a pasty face that appeared to be in the early stages of decomposition. A human body. And standing over the body…

[Two men] had a distinctive-type uniform on. 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. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.

~Detective Paul Wood, Michigan State Police

The shot pulls back, revealing a third, similarly dressed man standing near the body. One of the men suddenly turns and seems to reach toward the camera. Then the image swirls and shows a four-lane city street. It swirls again and melds into a shifting pattern of moving lights against a black background.

Stills from the Super 8 film.

Police were stunned. And chilled. Murder. Torture. A possible cult? Michigan police puzzled over it, unable to identify anyone or any landmark in the film. They passed the film along to law enforcement colleagues and it eventually reached Chicago police, who instantly recognized the landmarks at the tail end of the film. The shape and movement of those lights could only be one thing, the city’s elevated train, or the “L,” the city’s hundred mile long mass transit system.

Specifically, it was an alley in the Chicago’s Fulton River District, a posh neighborhood tucked between the Kennedy Expressway and the Chicago River. Since the investigation had just traversed state lines, the FBI stepped in and took the reins.

Teams of federal pathologists and audio-visual experts poured over the grainy film, isolating and enhancing any and all details. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent. Eventually more than a year passed since Reed had discovered the film in his cornfield, and then the FBI finally shared it conclusions with Chicago and Michigan police: “That’s a dead body, all right. Been dead for awhile by the looks.”

That’s exactly what the FBI told state and city police.

Desperate for answers, Chicago police pasted flyers all over the city, hoping someone might recognize the decayed but discernible face in the photo. And in 1991, an art student did. He had the dude’s album.

It was Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails, an industrial rock band from the Midwest who had released their first album Pretty Hate Machine in 1989.

And Trent was very much still alive.

The whole story came out and law enforcement backed away. The band had been filming a scene for its first single “Down In It” in Chicago and had attempted to get a kind of makeshift crane shot. They couldn’t afford the crane, so they came up with the balloon idea. Just as they started the camera rolling, the balloon shot into the air, with one band member making a futile attempt to catch it.

The decayed corpse on the ground? Trent covered in the band’s distinctive cornstarch makeup, something they did before every live show. Over the years it had become a calling card for the band. Sometimes they added chocolate syrup for dramatic effect. Dramatic enough to fool the FBI.

Reznor in cornstarch (left) and the entire band in cornstarch and syrup (right)

Word leaked back to Reznor himself, who found the entire incident equally funny and sad. Sad because time and resources had been wasted on something so obviously staged and funny because…

When the news came through that this was some sort of a cult killing, and that I had been killed, this great story, my initial reaction was that it was really funny, that something could be that blown out of proportion, and so many people were working on it. And I felt kinda good that the police had made idiots of themselves.

~Trent Reznor