Film

Thriller, Nevermore: Michael Jackson’s Tell-Tale Obsession with Edgar Allan Poe

Matt Sullivan

Much has been made of Michael Jackson’s identification with the character of Peter Pan, but the late singer had another literary devotion that didn’t make it into his obituaries: He was an Edgar Allan Poe fanatic.

Much has been made of Michael Jackson’s identification with the character of Peter Pan, but the late singer had another literary devotion that didn’t make it into his obituaries: He was an Edgar Allan Poe fanatic and had long planned to star in a biopic about the horror writer.

Called The Nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, the European-funded vanity project was a dream for the King Of Pop. "Michael says by the time he's done preparing for this, the audience isn't even going to know it's him, with the major makeup,” co-executive producer Gary Pudney told USA Today’s Jeannie Williams in 2000. “The new Michael is Michael Jackson, the movie actor. That is what he wants to devote his energies to.” Jackson pronounced the script as “very scary”, and although the movie was not a musical, he planned to sing a song with lyrics based on Poe’s poetry over the closing credits. Producer Pudney said Jackson had talked to Steven Spielberg about the project, who was enthusiastic and suggested several potential directors, including Tim Burton. Pudney also boasted that the movie, in which characters from Poe’s work came back to haunt the author during the last week of his life, would give Jackson a “great death scene.”

Given Poe’s fear of premature burial, it seemed like more than rote recitation of cliché that the writer might’ve been “rolling over in his grave” at the prospect of being portrayed by Jackson. Indeed, the existence of Nightmares was mind-blowing news, even by the (high? low?) standards of tabloid staple “Wacko Jacko”. It was news that lent itself to jokes: Would he instruct "The Tell-Tale Heart" to "just beat it"? Would "The Raven" be replaced by Bubbles the Chimp?

It was also yet another bizarre turn in the trajectory of Poe's pop-culture legacy. First an NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, takes its name from his poem (its raven mascots are named Edgar, Allan, and Poe). Then Poe's great-great nephew, actor-musician Edgar Allan Poe IV, appeared as the ghost of his great-great uncle on the sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Later, a fictionalized Poe was also found sleuthing murders with King of the Wild Frontier Davey Crockett in The Alienist-ish novel Nevermore. But I always understood Jackson’s affinity for Poe, perhaps -- no, definitely -- because I was once a fifth grade kid obsessed with two people: Michael Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe.

Yes, the racial angle of the MJ casting raised questions, among them: How confused would the late playwright August Wilson have been? But, let's be honest -- casting MJ as Poe was not as problematic as, say, casting El DeBarge as Nathaniel Hawthorne. Whether it's because of the skin disease vitiligo, cosmetic bleaching, or a combination of both, Jackson's pallid complexion looks even more Goth than portraits of Poe's pale visage. The issue here is not casting a black man to play a white man; it was casting an alien mannequin drag queen apparently sculpted out of soap to play a white man.

Below the surface, there were connections between the two cultural icons. Both Jackson and Poe are arguably the most popular American export in their respective fields, and major influences on those who followed. Baudelaire was said to make his morning prayers to God and Edgar Allen Poe, and Justin Timberlake and Usher are obviously both Michael Jackson impersonators moonwalking in MJ's fleet footsteps.

There was also symmetry to their scandals. They both have been accused of pedophilia -- at the very least, they shared a penchant for PYTs: Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia, and Jackson has hosted many a sleepover with 13-year-old boys. Thus their respective sexualities have been wildly speculated about. In a posthumous psychoanalysis of Poe, Dr. Maria Bonaparte theorized that Poe was celibate, entertained thoughts of necrophilia, and suffered from a castration complex (her mentor, Dr. Sigmund Freud provided the preface for this study).

Despite vehement assertions to Diane Sawyer, many said the same (well, minus the necrophilia and castration stuff) of Jackson's marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and, later, to his plastic surgeon's nurse, Debbie Rowe, even though they had two children together. (I'd also bet in real-life, that the paternity suit of a certain Billie Jean would’ve been thrown out of court in a hurry.)

Painting by David Gough

They both struggled with financial difficulties despite being among the best at what they did. Many historians say Poe was an opium addict; Jackson revealed he had an addiction to the painkiller Demerol in court papers. They both explored the pull of drugs in their work.

Here's Poe's narrator from "Ligeia," seeing visions of his dead lover: "In the excitement of my opium dream (for I was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug), I would call aloud her name ..."

Here's Jackson, from Blood on the Dance Floor's "Morphine":

"Demerol Demerol Oh God he's taking Demerol

Hee-hee-hee Demerol Demerol Oh my oh God it's Demerol

Hee Oooh"

Then there's the Vincent Price factor. Price, of course, was the on-screen embodiment of Poe's work in such Roger Corman films as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Cask of Amontillado. He also provided the rap and maniacal cackle on the title track of Jackson's Thriller.

But alas, Michael Jackson never ending up playing Poe -- at least not in the movie. Sadly, now the haunted figures have another thing in common. They both died young; Poe was 40, Jackson was 50. They were both emaciated, in debt, their bodies abused by chemicals, forever blessed with talent and haunted by demons.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

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