Countdown to Halloween #30: Michael Jackson

Regardless of your perception on Michael Jackson, he was the biggest pop star on Earth for the better part of three decades, and he totally redefined the music scene in the 1980’s. Maybe Michael Jackson did become white, maybe he did molest kids, but as David Chappelle would say, “He made Thriller. Thriller.“

In the 14-minute video, Michael Jackson played a zombified version of himself. In a nutshell, the video revolves around Michael watching a horror movie with his girlfriend, who gets scared and decides to leave the cinema. MJ follows her subsequently, and teases her about it. Then for some reason, they decide to walk across a graveyard even though it was a full moon. Zombies crawl/trudge their way to MJ and his gal pal, and Jackson is transformed into a zombie.  The Zombies and MJ start dancing and eventually crowd up against the girl, who then screams, but realizes it’s just a dream. MJ takes her home, but when he looks at the camera – Yellow eyes and fangs! Revealing his true identity as a werewolf.

While it is common knowledge that John Landis, director of many classics such as The Blues Brothers and American Werewolf in London, directed the music video, you may not know why he was involved in the first place. When Michael Jackson decided to make the music video, he wanted someone he liked. Being a fan of American Werewolf in London, MJ felt John Landis would be perfect for the gig, and eventually contacted him. Unsurprisingly, the interest was mutual. John Landis wanted to work on a “real” musical which would feature professional dancers and what he would consider “proper” shooting, compared to The Blues Brothers. So, the director gladly accepted the opportunity and wrote in addition to directing.

Perhaps, what made the video so memorable is its ambition. Before Thriller, music videos were often bland and predictable. MJ’s willingness to take chances, and Landis’ artistic vision combined to form the first theatrical music video – one with a story that is connected to the song itself. Furthermore, the racy content of their visions did create some controversies along the way, and thus, solidified itself as a legitimate piece of cinematic art. Ever wondered why was there a clarification on Michael Jackson’s personal beliefs in the beginning of the video?  It’s because members of Jehovah’s Witness were not happy with the plot of the video. MJ, then a practicing member of the religion, decided to include the clarification. Ironically, its inclusion only created more stirs.

Vincent Price, known for his performances in a number of horror movies, was the narrator of the song and the video, especially in the latter. His voice set the tone for the video and was largely lending genre credibility to the project. The narration was written by Rod Temperton, the writer of the track. Temperton wanted someone famous to narrate for the song. Quincy Jones, producer of the song, suggested bringing in Vincent Price. Eventually, it was Peggy Lipton, then-wife of Jones, who made Vincent Price’s involvement possible.

Anyways, Thriller ended up turning Michael Jackson from a big time pop star into a permanent icon. Record sales skyrocketed even though it had already been a year after the album’s release. MTV viewership saw significant rise, and eventually managed to become one of the most watched channels today, and where they churn out garbage like The Jersey Shore.

The video spawned a Broadway play, and was added to the National Film Registry – the first music video to have accomplished such a feat. Hell, there is an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the jacket MJ was wearing in the video. Of course, no piece of entertainment has established a major legacy without being spoofed and imitated at some point. South Park parodied the video in one episode (and eventually dedicating an entire episode to Michael Jackson’s antics years later). The sequence has Chef zombified off-camera and later, spoofing the song and dance moves, all of that in the iconic red jacket.

There is also a video of 1,500 inmates in Philippines dancing to Thriller. Their moves were choreographed to resemble those in the original music video. Hardcore criminals pretending to be zombies? That is the reach and influence this video had, also there is nothing possibly more comical than that. Anyways, this video managed to garner over 50 million views, making it an Internet sensation.

Thriller was not remembered for its zombies or werewolves. It was remembered for its transcendental impact across entertainment. Even after one-third of a century, the 14-minute video is still widely considered as the greatest music video of all time. Due to its place in the history of entertainment, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is well-deserving of a spot on our list of iconic Halloween characters.

Keep an eye out, another character on the Countdown will be revealed every night at 12:01 am for the rest of the month. You’ll also be able to find them HERE.

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