While Michael Jackson has always been a controversial figure, there is no doubt that with his passing we have lost an innovative artist. Not just a recording artist, or a phenomenal performer, but a visual artist whose videos were nothing less than Events.
Sometimes they were coronary events.
The Thriller album was released when I was three years old. The songs on that album are some of the first pop songs I was conscious of, and when my older siblings played me the title track, it was all I could do not to leap out of my own skin. It could have been the creepy sound effects. Vincent Price’s voice certainly had a lot to do with it. And then there was that heartbeat-like bass line—duh do-do-do-DO-do / duh do-do-do-DO-do—that recalls some kind of weird bass EKG machine. It was frightening for Three Year Old Me. The song would get to Vincent Price and I’d run out of the room!
So why couldn’t I stop listening to it?
Because even as it was scaring the living bejeebus out of me, it made me want to dance. I’d always been adverse to anything scary (still am, actually), but this song showed me that something could be scary… and fun. The fun and fear was turned up several notches when I saw the “Thriller” video, a short film that changed not only the music industry, but geekery as we know it.
The title song already has a geeky pedigree with horror legend Vincent Price doing guest vocals. The video one-upped that with the involvement of John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London, who both co-wrote the script with Jackson and directed the video. Up until this point, videos were still in their infancy and were little more than shots of the singer or band performing their song up against a white background. Thriller changed people’s idea of what was possible with a music video.
More a short film than a video at over 13 minutes long, it begins with a film within a film. Set in the 1950s, a young man and his girlfriend, played by Michael Jackson and Ola Ray, are walking through the woods when he asks her to go steady. She accepts, and he starts to tell her that he’s “not like other guys.” Of course not, because he’s A WERECAT! Watching this film are two modern teenagers, also played by Jackson and Ray. Too scared to finish the film, she leaves, and when Jackson follows after her, he pokes fun at her fear by taunting her with the first verses of the song. What follows next is an onslaught of zombies, special effects, and choreography that make this not only one of the most creative videos ever made, but also the most expensive of its day.
Watching the video again recently, though, I realized something else. Not only was Thriller one of the most creative videos ever, but it was also the precursor to a very modern phenomenon: the horror spoof.
From the first frame, Thriller makes it clear that the horror encountered here is not to be taken seriously. A practicing Jehovah’s Witness at the time, Jackson placed a disclaimer at the top of the film reading: Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult. Jackson’s character in the video self-referentially mocks the film he and his girlfriend are watching, as well as her reaction to it. Both artist and character see this film, and films like it, as fluff of which no one could possibly be afraid. But it’s fun fluff, and Jackson is clearly enjoying playing in the world of horror. Jackson and co-choreographer Michael Peters, who also choreographed the video for “Beat It”, take stylized film zombie movement and create one of the most oft-imitated and iconic dance numbers ever made. When Jackson is in his zombie make-up performing with the other undead, it’s frightening, it’s a bit unsettling… it’s also fun. Once again, we are taught that just because something uses elements of fear doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable, or funny.
Or make you want to dance.
Looking at “Thriller” in this way, it’s easy to see the progression to ironic takes on horror films like the Scream trilogy, which also winked at the horror genre while using techniques like a film within a film. Movies like Shaun of the Dead owe a great debt to “Thriller”, too, from its choreographed opening credit sequence of People as Zombies, to the zombies swaying to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Just look at this:
Shaun of the Dead:
While horror films themselves were much older, and the pop culture connoisseurs of the 1970s and ‘80s were already starting to see older horror films as “campy”, “Thriller” was the first Meta Horror Film, paving the way for much of the genre films we enjoy today. So, while the music industry has clearly lost a titan, we shouldn’t forget that the geek world also owes Jackson a debt for making a film that allowed us to poke fun at the things that scare us.