DC Comics
DC Comics

15 Wondrous Facts About Wonder Woman

DC Comics
DC Comics

She's the Amazonian superhero who changed the world when she first emerged in late 1941. Shirking the passive portrayal of women as typists, librarians, or young girls in love (at least most of the time), she was a butt-kicking, take-charge champion of justice who very quickly became a star and holds her place next to the likes of Superman and Batman as one of the longest running superhero characters of all time. And she recently turned 75 years old. So Mental Floss asked DC Comics to dig deep into her history for some fascinating facts about the warrior goddess who deflects bullets with her gauntlets, wields the golden Lasso of Truth, and fights all manner of man and beast in her globe-spanning adventures. The woman who left her Amazonian home on Paradise Island to look after military officer Steve Trevor and aid him in his fight against the Nazis has grown through some amazing adventures since then.

1. SHE WAS AN INSTANT SENSATION.

When Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics #8 (dated December 1941, released in October 1941), she took the comics world by storm. But her then-publisher All-American Publications knew that they had something great. Her next appearance followed just a few weeks later in Sensation Comics #1 (dated January 1942), and she was one of the first superhero characters to get her own book, in the summer of 1942. "Superman was first, Batman was second, and Wonder Woman did it in less than a year from the moment she was first created," DC Comics archivist and librarian Benjamin LeClear tells mental_floss. "It's just mind-boggling." She initially had psychic powers like telepathy and astral projection, and she became invulnerable to electric shocks.

2. SHE HAS NEVER WORN A SKIRT.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

While several images make it look like she is wearing a skirt, they are actually culottes, split pants that vary from thigh to knee length. "It was never a skirt," LeClear says. "But it's so flowy and loose on the bottom that it flows in the early versions very much like a skirt." Over time, and on more than one occasion, the garment was shortened. "Sometimes it's because of taste, and other times because it's a lot easier to draw. It really did start out as a form of elaborate shorts," LeClear says.      

LeClear adds that the original costume design "had a fully Grecian look with sandals" that was rejected by both the character's creator, William Moulton Marston, and his wife Elizabeth, upon whom she was based. She thought a skirt was impractical for combat, and he insisted on boots over the sandals that had been suggested. Interestingly enough, sandals eventually showed up on the cover of a 1951 issue when she got an image makeover.

3. HER CREATOR ALSO INVENTED AN EARLY LIE DETECTOR TEST.

William Moulton Marston invented one of the first “modern” lie detector tests after realizing how people's blood pressure changed when they were lying. He constructed the first version in 1915 and published his findings in 1917. Beyond his involvement with the police and government, Marston was also an early champion of women's rights, so it's no surprise that he created Wonder Woman while pulling from his extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology.

4. SHE WAS ORIGINALLY MADE OF CLAY.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

Originally, Wonder Woman was made of clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and then brought to life. Later writers would add that the Olympian deities gave her powers reflecting her original description: "Beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules, and swifter than Mercury." In the post-New 52 era of the past few years, Wonder Woman became the daughter of Zeus proper, but as part of the ongoing Rebirth storyline she has learned that her past is a lie and is setting out to discover the truth.

5. SHE WAS A REFORMER OF CRIMINALS.

In the early days of superheroes, before the Comics Code Authority and censorship hit the comics industry in the mid-1950s, Batman had guns and Superman was hanging criminals by their ankles over the edge of buildings. Wonder Woman's creator felt that his beloved character was made of sterner moral fabric. She also was not going to kill people. (That would change many, many years later.) "She had this thing that other superheroes didn't do in her era—she was looking to reform them," LeClear says. "Especially [with] the female super villains, she takes them over to Reform Island [also known as Transformation Island] and tries to get them rehabilitated back to their true nature of women, which Marston believed was a superior nature and, like many suffragettes, thought was the only recipe for peace—women being in charge of society."

6. SHE'S THE ORIGINAL WONDER GIRL.

DC Comics Wiki

Back in the 1950s, DC Comics decided to tell some teenage stories of Wonder Woman, much in the same way that Superman's early years were explored through the Superboy series. The Wonder Girl idea was so well received that the company receded another generation and created Wonder Tot. "She's adorable," says LeClear. "It's Wonder Woman as a baby, just a little kid in a costume. They wanted to show all three of them together, so the writer Robert Kanigher came up with a weird idea where her mother was able to splice film together and show all three of them at the same time. It was an imaginary tale as if all three ages of Wonder Woman had an adventure together."

This triage actually confused other DC writers, who assumed one of them was Wonder Woman's sister. "The later Donna Troy was created from that internal misunderstanding about who the first Wonder Girl was," LeClear explains. "Wonder Girl had a skirt, but Wonder Woman did not. It's much later that she gets that armored skirt that she has in the [recent Batman v Superman] film, which is starting to become her new predominant look. It does throw back to the flowiness of the original costume, but has this other military strength aspect to her that we've come to expect out of her in the last 30 years."

7. WONDER WOMAN LOST HER POWERS FOR A FEW YEARS.

In an unusual narrative twist, Wonder Woman surrendered her powers in 1968. She wanted to stay in Man's World and look after Steve Trevor (who, ironically, was killed off), rather than join her Amazonian sisters in traveling to another dimension. She opened a mod clothing boutique, dressed in the fashion of the time, and learned martial arts. "The mod years have some great looks for her, but no real fixed costume," LeClear says. "She had a white jumpsuit with a W on it, but she wore all kinds of glamorous clothes in that period." The Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, which aired in 1974—one year before the Lynda Carter series—was inspired by this incarnation of Wonder Woman.

8. GLORIA STEINEM GOT WONDER WOMAN’S POWERS BACK.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

The famed feminist grew up loving Wonder Woman, and after she got Ms. magazine rolling in December 1971, she got permission from DC to put her favorite childhood icon on the July 1972 cover with the tagline "Wonder Woman for President." (She had previously run for the Oval Office in a storyline set 1000 years in the future, published back in the 1940s.)

"Gloria Steinem put her on the cover in her classic bathing suit and tiara look and asked DC what was going on with Wonder Woman at the time," LeClear recalls. "She was horrified to find out she had no superpowers. She said that could not stand. Girls and women needed to know about the strength and power that was Wonder Woman as a superhero, so based on that we put her back [into her classic mode]." The classic costume also returned with the emergence of the TV series starring Lynda Carter in 1975.

Steinem also gets credit for collecting all of Wonder Woman's Golden Age adventures into a book many years before the graphic novel trend set in. She commissioned and paid for it.

9. DIANA PRINCE HAS HELD A VARIETY OF JOBS.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

As the Wonder Woman/Diana Prince storylines and continuities have mutated over the years, she has held a variety of different positions, from being Steve Trevor's assistant to being a spy to being a romance editor in the 1950s. She also worked in fast food and as a singer. (In real life, Lynda Carter has successfully toured in recent years as a jazz and pop vocalist. She recorded an EP of songs for the Fallout 4 video game soundtrack last year.)

Perhaps the most notorious gig was Wonder Woman herself serving in the Justice Society of America as their secretary, which reflected the sexism of the time.

"There was a great questionnaire in the back of All-Star Comics #11," according to LeClear, "and it said: 'Should Wonder Woman be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?' So they put it up to the kids to vote, and what's crazy is that by an 8-to-1 margin they all voted in favor of it. And of course they put her in as secretary."

10. THERE HAVE BEEN SEVERAL WONDER WOMEN.

While Diana is the Wonder Woman, there have been other stand-ins during various phases throughout her history. Orana challenged her for the title in 1978 and won, but she later died "because of her brashness," says LeClear. Artemis later challenged Wonder Woman for her title in 1994, won, took her power, then also passed away. "So the lesson is don't beat Wonder Woman in a contest; it doesn't work out well for you."

Donna Troy, the most famous Wonder Girl, filled in for Wonder Woman at a certain point "because there have been points where Wonder Woman has disappeared through death or Multiverse transformation or travel," says LeClear. Another replacement was Nubia, "a brief character who was a sister of hers who'd been raised by Mars instead, who really had an equal claim and challenged her for it," LeClear says. "She died and has been erased by later Multiverse continuity changes." Nubia first emerged in 1973.

In one storyline, Diana died and was granted divinity as the Goddess of Truth. While her daughter served as a god in Olympus, Diana's mother Queen Hippolyta actually became Wonder Woman for a time, and DC liked the idea so much they had her travel back in time to join the Justice Society of America in the 1940s. It was after "that whole Multiverse trick that we did where they put the original Golden Age comics as just existing back [in] another world," notes LeClear. "She was able to travel to that and fill in the part as Wonder Woman."

11. WONDER WOMAN GAINED THE ABILITY TO FLY.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

When she originally emerged, Wonder Woman wore a tiara that doubled as a boomerang-like weapon, had gauntlets that could deflect bullets, and wielded the golden Lasso of Truth. The Invisible Plane first emerged (powered by an invisible propeller) in Sensation Comics #1 and it was later changed to the Invisible Jet as real-life technology evolved. She first gained the ability to glide on air currents in Wonder Woman #98 (May 1958), and in 1985 her origin was rebooted and she has been able to fly ever since. In recent years, the Invisible Jet has taken a reduced role given her natural abilities—although, depending upon the writer, her flight skills vary.

"When I worked on Superman: For Tomorrow, in which Wonder Woman played a pretty big role for several issues, she went to the Fortress of Solitude," says Jim Lee, artist, writer, and publisher of DC Comics. "When you show her flying, it begs the question: what is the Invisible Jet for? I wanted to draw the Invisible Jet and thought it was a cool part of the mythology. It looked a little more militaristic and futuristic, then she dropped out of the jet and kind of flew in on her own powers. In my mind as creator, she had the power of flight for short periods of time. So the jet was for more long-range purposes."

12. FOR A FEW YEARS, SHE AND SUPERMAN HAD A THING.

While Steve Trevor has been the perennial love of her life, DC shook things up when they rebooted their major heroes with the launch of The New 52 line in 2011. Wonder Woman got a more super powered paramour. "One of the interesting things about New 52 was that it allowed us to nullify the marriage between Superman and Lois Lane and restore that classic love triangle between Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane," explains Lee. "That also allowed us to do some different creative material that had never been more fully explored. That Superman-Wonder Woman relationship was well received, and we were able to build a little franchise out of it." But with the 2016 DC re-launch of the Rebirth line, the classic Wonder Woman-Steve Trevor relationship is back on.

13. HER MOVIE AND TV HISTORY IS SPOTTY.

For some reason, Wonder Woman had a slow start making it to television. Unlike Batman or Superman, who appeared in 1940s serials, the first attempt at a Wonder Woman series was a botched attempt in 1967 to portray her as the young daughter of a traditional matriarch who does not understand why she does not want to just settle down with a man. Watch the teaser; it's awkward.

Cathy Lee Crosby starred in the 1974 TV movie, which took its lead from the power-less Wonder Woman of the mod era, giving her a star spangled jumpsuit and sending her after villain Abner Smith (Ricardo Montalban), who stole code books from the American government. The special actually did decently, but ABC decided to retool their approach, which paved the way for Lynda Carter and the well-known series of the late 1970s.

The original pilot in November 1975 was a success, followed by two one-hour specials in the spring of 1976. Then 11 episodes comprised the first full season in 1976-1977. While a ratings success, the show switched networks to CBS, who reduced the period piece budgetary costs by shifting it from the WWII era to the 1970s, where Diana Prince—now a full-fledged government agent—was working with Steve Trevor's lookalike son. The show lasted until 1979.

Since that time, efforts to bring Wonder Woman back to TV or the movies have not been so valiant. A 2011 TV series created by David E. Kelley starred Adrianne Palicki in the titular role. Diana Prince was CEO of Themyscira Industries (a nod to the renamed Paradise Island from the comics), her privately run, crime-fighting organization. Her identity was not so secret, her plane was highly visible, and her lasso was used as a normal weapon, not as a truth-telling device. The pilot was never aired and the show never got its wings.       

Finally, the goddess superhero has gotten her own movie after appearing in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The Wonder Woman movie, which hits theaters on June 2, stars Gal Gadot in the title role and is already poised to kick butt at the box office.

14. THE CATHY LEE CROSBY AND LYNDA CARTER VERSIONS HAVE MET.

The DC series Wonder Woman '77, which is a comic book recreation of the famed TV series, pitted the two women against each other when the Carter version developed amnesia and found herself in the alternate universe of the Crosby continuities. As she started to sort out all of the craziness, the two engaged in an urban rumble. This is probably the only time the two TV characters have officially crossed paths. "That's a nod to the past that's done in a very entertaining, clever, innovative way," says Lee.

15. THE NEW WONDER WOMAN SERIES HAS TWO STORY ARCS.

Image courtesy of DC Comics

The re-launch of Wonder Woman is a biweekly series that alternates between a retelling of her origin and a more modern storyline that starts with a jungle adventure involving her, Steve Trevor, and her old nemesis Cheetah. "I think the aim [of the current creators] is an abnormal one, which is to take all the disparate takes on Wonder Woman and try to synthesize them into a whole," explains Lee.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “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.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“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,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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