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Michael Jackson’s Contribution to Horror in Pop Culture

Yesterday the news quickly circulated around the Internet, television and other forms of media that Michael Jackson, talented musician and tortured personal figure, had passed away. The final chapter has yet to be written on his life as the complete autopsy results will not be known for several weeks while toxicology tests are performed, but while the debate has only just begun on how to view this curious pop star and icon, some mention must be made of his unique contribution to horror in popular culture.

Jackson’s record breaking album Thriller was propelled to the top of the charts not only through the music it included which touched struck the right chord in the culture of the 1980s, but also through the music video he produced in connection with the album’s title song. As the story goes, the pop star was an avid fan of An American Werewolf in London (1981), and he contacted John Landis, the film’s director, about the possibility of directing a music video for his song. Landis was not interested in being involved in standard music video’s, but once Jackson described his vision for a mini-horror movie, Landis signed onto the project. The result revolutionized music videos as the Jackson-Landis Thriller (1983) collaboration combined a hit song with dance choreography, all within the framework of a combined werewolf and zombie horror story. When the makeup effects of Rick Baker, and the “rap” of Vincent Price were added to the mix, the result became a pop culture phenomenon.

This was not the only time Jackson brought his love for horror to music video/short films. In 1997 he worked with special effects wizard Stan Winston who served as director of another horror musical in the form of Ghosts. This second project has not received nearly the attention of Thriller apparently due to controversy surrounding Jackson’s personal life which dovetails with the short film. As Winston describes the topic through writer Jody Duncan in The Winston Effect: The Art and History of Stan Winston Studio (Titan Books, 2006):

While making Ghosts, Winston never imagined the darker meaning the film’s storyline would take on later, after rumors arose regarding Jackson’s alleged inappropriate relationships with young boys. “In Ghosts, kids love to visit this very strange character who lives in a haunted house because they get to play with the ghosts there. But the parents think the guy is a creep, and don’t want him playing with their kids anymore. So, of course, when people saw this, they said: ‘Aha, there it is! You see? There’s Michael Jackson, the creepy guy in the house on the hill!’ But this story was written before any accusations against Michael ever came out. And I know that none of that double-meaning stuff was intended, because I wrote a lot of it!

Intended or not, the sobering parallels between the film’s storyline and the allegations about Jackson’s private life contribute to Ghosts getting only a very limited release. “The Winston Curse strikes again – and this time, I brought down Michael Jackson! So that’s my glorious directing career. I’ve destroyed three production companies and an entire human being.

“I’m still proud of the way Ghosts turned out, tough. And I really enjoyed making the film with Michael. He was a complete professional throughout the process – the consummate performer.”

Jackson had an evident love for horror, so much so that he felt compelled to not only produce two horror musicals, but also to do so at the risk of misperception by those who felt it might be incompatible with his religious faith at the time as indicated by the disclaimer included at the beginning of Thriller. Whatever the verdict of history on this compex and conflicted performer and human being, there is no doubt that he also made an important contribution to horror in popular culture, combining horror with music in ways that may have opened the door for similar expressions of horror musicals in adaptations of Young Frankenstein and Evil Dead.

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