The Thriller Diaries
June 24, 2010 7:42 AM   Subscribe

The Thriller Diaries: Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” remains the most popular music video of all time: a 14-minute horror spoof that changed the business. Behind the scenes it gave its star a temporary home with director John Landis, sparked a near romance with actress Ola Ray, and revealed how damaged the young pop idol already was.
posted by reenum (33 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
"To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them."

It was also the last time Michael could be viewed as relatively normal.
posted by bwg at 8:06 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


At the time, Jackson was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who obeyed his religion’s mandate to spread the faith by knocking on doors in his neighborhood, wearing a crude disguise of mustache and glasses.

Wow... there's something I didn't know.
“You have to remember, back in those days none of us realized quite what home video was going to become,” says Folsey. “The studios treated it pretty much the way they treated television in the 50s and 60s, with total disdain. They had no idea that the home-video business was going to save Hollywood—it never crossed their minds.”

Sounds awfully familiar!
posted by codacorolla at 8:11 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


This was the very first thing I ever videotaped. I still have that VHS cassette. The label says "Thriller," with little index numbers marking where it started (000) and ended on the tape. I believe that The Beastmaster is right after it.
posted by adipocere at 8:19 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is there any legitimate evidence or speculation that Jackson was autistic?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:43 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


wow. Just wow.

What a horribly sad and weirdly talented creature this Michael Jackson was. What the hell could have been if he had given himself a break once in a while or been permitted to. What the hell he could have been if his father hadn't utterly destroyed his psyche.

jeez.
posted by grubi at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is there any legitimate evidence or speculation that Jackson was autistic?

Considering his childhood, it'd be remarkable if he didn't have some social difficulties: we don't become social unless we're socialised, and his upbringing was fraught with social isolation. When getting beaten into dancing and door-to-dooring strangers are your main interactions with people, you're not exactly getting a regular social education.

So on the Occam's Razor principle, I'd say any evidence would be problematic at best: there were good reasons other than autism to account for his oddities. He might have been autistic as well as emotionally damaged, of course, but it seems an unnecessary elaboration.

I don't know if people have posted these before, but a couple of interesting articles on Jackson: Hilton Als in the New York Review, and Jay Smooth's vlog obituary.
posted by Kit W at 9:20 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I knew a lot of the stuff in this article but dang: Marlon Brando came to give him acting advice? For a music video? Serious business!
posted by padraigin at 9:23 AM on June 24, 2010


What the hell could have been if he had given himself a break once in a while or been permitted to. What the hell he could have been if his father hadn't utterly destroyed his psyche.

I'm not so sure. Real acts of artistic genius seem to become possible in response to tragic or problematic situations. Now whether this is a reaction to external environment, or a natural outgrowth of the eccentricities of the genius, who can say? But it seems like artists don't generally spend much "happy" time for normative definitions of "happy."
posted by Phyltre at 9:25 AM on June 24, 2010


I'm not so sure. Real acts of artistic genius seem to become possible in response to tragic or problematic situations. Now whether this is a reaction to external environment, or a natural outgrowth of the eccentricities of the genius, who can say? But it seems like artists don't generally spend much "happy" time for normative definitions of "happy."

I've never been comfortable with that as a definition. To begin with, nobody gets through life without some pain; if someone has the artistic gift to make their inner lives interesting to strangers then their pain looks vivid to us, and often it comes out in their art because art is about communicating your experience and some of their experiences are painful. But that doesn't mean the pain created the art; you can just as easily say that the art expresses the pain, but the genius came first. Jackson's life was particularly painful, but that doesn't necessarily mean it created his art. His brothers suffered too, but none of them were as successful as him.

After all, plenty of people suffer terrible, anguishing lives and never create anything of genius. I think it might well be that an artistic gift gives someone something to hold on to, a little spark that sees them through the dark times, that enables them to survive long enough to speak in a way people can hear. But who knows? There may be geniuses who were snuffed out by suffering. If there were, we'll never get to hear what they might have had to say if they'd had happy lives.

Trauma is as often destructive to art as productive of it. Jackson created some amazing things, yes - but then he went down like a comet. We don't know that he wouldn't have been as gifted if he hadn't suffered, but we can be pretty sure he wouldn't have been as self-destructive. An an artist who's destroying themselves doesn't create anything.

Personally I think the suffering-artist motif is something of a myth, and I'm suspicious of its roots. It seems to carry the assumption that art is something you have to appease the gods for, or appease more ordinary people, by not having both genius and happiness, as if both together is an unfair portion. And it definitely seems to smack of the just world fallacy. I don't like it one bit.

I don't know any geniuses, but I know creative people and people who have suffered. I actually don't think I know anyone who hasn't suffered to some extent - do you? - but I know people who have had particularly dark pasts who are also creative. Their creative moments happen when they're all right; when they lay aside the tragedy and rise above the problems and reach out for something beautiful. I don't think it's because of the suffering that they can create beauty; I think the suffering was something that threatened to kill that beauty, something that beauty had to survive, but something that was always part of them.

In my experience it's the act of reaching above ourselves that creates art, and you don't have to be in the gutter to look at the stars.
posted by Kit W at 9:43 AM on June 24, 2010 [29 favorites]


It always bugged me how the whole middle Vincent Price part of Thriller was such a shameless rip-off of "The Black Widow" from Welcome to My Nightmare.
posted by chococat at 9:49 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're pretty tiny if John Landis can pick you up by the ankles and shake you upside down.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:58 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Landis frequently got him giggling with horseplay, once lifting him up by the ankles and shaking him upside down while Jackson shrieked, “Put me down, you punk!”
Real life truly is always weirder than nearly anything you can imagine.
posted by hermitosis at 9:58 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Real life truly is always weirder than nearly anything you can imagine.

So very, very true.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2010


one day he called the record label’s art department and asked an art director if she could retouch his nose on a famous photo of him as a child. “I want you to slim the wings of my nose,” Jackson told her. “O.K., but why, Michael?” she asked, and tried to reassure him that his face looked fine just the way it was. “I don’t want to look like my father,” Jackson replied. “Every time I look at that photograph I think I look like my father.”

Christ; that's utterly heartbreaking.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:52 AM on June 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


On a chilly autumn night, gaffers rig motion-picture lights around the entrance to the Palace Theatre.

They're Electrics goddamnit. I've never been on a film set that had more than one Gaffer, and if there was a shoot big enough where you needed multiple Gaffers they sure as shit wouldn't be up in lifts hanging lights they'd be running around on walkies ordering people around.

Get your shit together.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:10 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's kind of heartbreaking to read the bits with Ola Ray, who was an absolute knockout (if you're not at work, do a GIS for her Playboy shoot), thinking that she has a chance with Jackson. Even at the time, I remember critics pointing out how many songs on Thriller deal with Jackson being scared of, or threatened by, people in general and women in particular; in the video of the title song, he reacts to imminent intimacy by turning into a monster, twice.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:21 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Joe Jackson needs to be dropped down an elevator shaft.
posted by Scoo at 11:36 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


To begin with, nobody gets through life without some pain

Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
posted by inigo2 at 11:54 AM on June 24, 2010


Joe Jackson needs to be dropped down an elevator shaft.

Twice.

I had gone under the assumption that Michael Jackson was a pederast ever since the 1993 accusation of child abuse, particularly when they resurfaced in 2003, despite the fact that the first case was settled without Jackson's permission and he was found not guilty in the second case. He had many public friendships with very young boys. I had met him several times, in a professional capacity, and he was with young boys whenever we met. I didn't even give it a second thought. The guy was a pederast.

When he died, it occurred to me that this had never been proven, and no additional charges had come forward. Certainly not like in other public cases of pedophilia, when tens or even hundreds of victims come forward. And many of the boys who were friends with him said their was no sexual contact: Macaulay Culkin, Emmanel Lewis, -- even Corey Feldman, who was quite bitter about their friendship, told Marin Cashir that Jackson had never touched him sexually.

Not that this disproves anything. But suddenly I though, Jesus, what if the guy really wasn't a pederast? What if he was just a damaged adult who felt he had more in common with boys than with other adults, because he had retreated into his own invented world of children and innocence that he felt had been denied him? What if what we read as the behavior of a child molester was just obliviousness and loneliness and an social immaturity on his part?

Contemplating that is monstrous in its own way, but he's not really the monster in it; certainly not int he way he is in the pederast narrative, in which he preys on children. No, he's more like those monsters that are just freaks of this world, who are only accidentally harmful and are seen as being monsters because they are so alien. His endless plastic surgeries did far more than just eliminate the resemblance to Joe Jackson from his face; they eliminated any semblance of recognizable humanity, as though he was subconsciously recreating himself to look as inhuman as people experience him to be, and perhaps as inhuman as he thought he was. In thriller, we get this Michael Jackson monster, but it's considerably less terrifying than this one. And the seeds of that were already there in the story, with a makeup person joking about how many nosejobs Jackson had already had.

If it were some gothic horror story of a deranged millionaire living in a fantasyland with groups of children while endlessly having his face surgically altered to make him more terrifying, we would not believe it. But this was life, and, as somebody said upthread, life in inevitably weirder than fiction.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:08 PM on June 24, 2010 [36 favorites]


Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Dude! Wrong quote! Obviously should be:

PLASTIC SURGEON: Your ears you keep, and I'll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish, every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out: "Dear God, what is that thing?" will echo in your perfect ears. That is what "to the pain" means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery, forever.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:08 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd always bought the child molestor line, but now I'm reconsidering it. The guy had the world at his fingertips, and I'm not sure how much happiness it could've been said to bring him.

Fuck you Joe Jackson.

Fuck you as much as any parent that deliberately fucks up their family.
posted by codacorolla at 12:56 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unlike forgotten favorites from MTV’s heyday (Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” anyone?)

Bite your tongue, Vanity Fair reporter. Its well known enough still to warrant inclusion as a sight gag as recently as the season 2 opener of Venture Bros.

If you want to talk forgotten videos, let's talk about virtually every video played on the first day of MTV except The Buggles' video.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:11 PM on June 24, 2010


If you want to talk forgotten videos, let's talk about virtually every video played on the first day of MTV except The Buggles' video.

What, really?! David Bowie, The Who, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Cars, Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, Pat Benatar, Styx, Carly Simon, Iron Maiden, REO Speedwagon, and even the Golden Girls theme? I admit it might take a little more knowledge of '70s-'80s pop to know Shoes and April Wine and Rupert Hine and Robin Lane, but I would venture that fewer than five of these artists are total unknowns in the modern age.

[end of derail]

posted by mykescipark at 1:33 PM on June 24, 2010


Landis frequently got him giggling with horseplay, once lifting him up by the ankles and shaking him upside down while Jackson shrieked, “Put me down, you punk!”
Hermitosis, a similar moment is caught on the Making of Thriller VHS (look around 8:10) and it's actually sweetly playful, not weird at all.
posted by soft and hardcore taters at 1:36 PM on June 24, 2010


Personally I think the suffering-artist motif is something of a myth, and I'm suspicious of its roots.

My understanding of it is purely anecdotal. The three arts friends I had in high school said they seemed to have artists' block when they were, say, happily in a relationship and loved their job. But they couldn't stop painting/writing/etc. when there was a breakup or career uncertainty. Looking at their work, it certainly felt different. I'm not trying to assert causation in either direction, but there was a correlation between their emotional state and the overall subjective quality of their work. As I said, however, this is merely anecdata. I can't get into their heads any more than Jackson's.
posted by Phyltre at 1:40 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kit W, didn't realize you were a MeFite. Discovered your blog through Slacktivist (and your novels through your blog, of course). Good to see you here!
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:14 PM on June 24, 2010


What, really?!

I confess to hyperbole, but my point is I think "Hungry Like The Wolf" retains a certain iconic quality. Not at "Thriller" level, but it isn't consigned to the scrapheap of history either.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:46 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unlike forgotten favorites from MTV’s heyday (Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” anyone?)

Forgotten by whom? People under the age of 35, I guess, although how can something be forgotten if it's not been seen?

It would have been hard to have been a kid or an adolescent in the 1980s and forget a lot of the videos that mykescipark mentions, as well as many others. I didn't even watch all that much TV in the 1980s (compared to others my age) and I still remember those damn videos.
posted by blucevalo at 5:13 PM on June 24, 2010


Joey Michaels: "What, really?!... I think "Hungry Like The Wolf" retains a certain iconic quality."

Especially when Dutch Wagenbach sang it on The Shield.
posted by bwg at 5:18 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


let's talk about virtually every video played on the first day of MTV except The Buggles' video.

What about "roly poly fish heads?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:36 PM on June 24, 2010


Hi, infinitywaltz! Just joined recently. :-)

My understanding of it is purely anecdotal. The three arts friends I had in high school said they seemed to have artists' block when they were, say, happily in a relationship and loved their job. But they couldn't stop painting/writing/etc. when there was a breakup or career uncertainty. Looking at their work, it certainly felt different. I'm not trying to assert causation in either direction, but there was a correlation between their emotional state and the overall subjective quality of their work. As I said, however, this is merely anecdata. I can't get into their heads any more than Jackson's.


Well, I'd stack anecdata of my own against it, including my own experience: the closer my own life has been to genuine trauma - not just the mundane rubs of existence, but serious problems - the harder it's been for me to write. And of the people I know, the ones with artistic gifts who've suffered serious damage tend to be at their least productive when they're unhappy. So if we're putting anecdata against anecdata, we're going to wind up with a big inconclusive result. :-)

My own belief is that art comes from talent - which Jackson had in wild abundance - and also from health. People who've been down and have had to work really hard to get back up are often healthier than people who've been basically okay, because when you fall apart, sometimes you put yourself back together better than before. There are also people who struggle all the time with their trauma, and for whom the moments of grace where they produce something beautiful might be the only place where they can function - but that doesn't mean they'd lose the grace if they were able to function elsewhere. Julia Cameron, at least, who's extremely popular with artists, argues that the myth of the suffering artist is something we're liable to use to block ourselves because it's scary to accept that we can be happy and productive - and she wrote that after a period of terror that she'd lose her art if she had to lose her drink problem, only to find that she became more productive after she decided to get healthy.

On the subject of Jackson, too ... well, I don't want to dismiss the man's pain, which was intense - but was it really good for his art? His sense of monstrosity is obvious in his work, and in Thriller he managed to make it work brilliantly - but he had some terrific collaborators there who didn't have his horrible background. It was shaped by Jackson's musical genius, but equally by John Landis's humour and resourcefulness and sense of plot, and as far as I know Landis had a perfectly okay childhood.

When he could sing about monstrosity with the enriching influence of a stable collaborator, yes, the video was amazing. But what happened after that? He visited that sense of monstrosity on himself by cutting up his face, which is to say he actively destroyed something beautiful - and artistically his work went into decline. The sense of himself as 'different' got expressed more and more heavy-handedly, and he spun into more and more grandiose videos that came across as the compensatory fantasies of a damaged ego rather than the vital expression of an artist at his peak. They just weren't as good as his early work. That sense of trauma, which created Thriller when expressed obliquely, started to mess up his art as well as his life. He'd managed to keep running ahead of it for years, but in the end he tired and it overtook him, and that was the end of his artistic prime.

So like I say, I'm sceptical of the idea that his pain created his art. I think his pain ate his art.
posted by Kit W at 3:15 AM on June 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


the 1993 accusation of child abuse, particularly when they resurfaced in 2003, despite the fact that the first case was settled without Jackson's permission

Huh? Michael Jackson agreed to pay $15.3 million to settle a civil lawsuit alleging molestation in 1994.
posted by mlis at 9:41 PM on June 25, 2010


Not only did he radiate an epicene glamour that was at once innocent and intensely erotic

Whoa. I was a kid at the time, and it had never occurred to me that anyone found him erotic. I thought that he was always more or less asexual, publicly.
posted by ignignokt at 5:28 AM on July 2, 2010


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