The Michael Jackson Séance

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Without equal, Michael Jackson remains the oddest figure in all of pop culture. Inciting the screaming and fainting we see in every generation of fandom, from Beatlemania to One Direction, albeit with an oddly asexual tone, the undying worship of Jackson loyalists is closer to religious fervour. It’s not surprising that such a noted oddball loner, who spent decades being hounded and pilloried by the press, would attract a dutiful following of fans, often seeing themselves as fellow outsiders. To them, he was more than a man, making his sudden death especially hard to take. It’s this blind veneration and bewildered sense of grief which Sky’s Michael Jackson: The Live Séance exploited to its fullest, and cruellest, airing on November 6th 2009, less than six months after he died.

But who was up to the monumental task of bringing Jackson back from the dead? For one whose life and works were tainted with the accusation of misdeeds, it was only right for the burden to fall on a man not-long ousted from the show that made him, and in publicly humiliating fashion, Derek Acorah. But with Derek came an inherent problem. In his long history of séances and ghost hunts, without fail, Derek always got possessed. Yet each ghost, from angry 16th century rapists haunting the gallows to tiny Victorian urchins who’d drowned in coal, spoke in the same voice; that of a fifty-something man from Liverpool. Most Haunted‘s viewers knew Derek couldn’t do accents, which is fine when it’s a nondescript ghoul wandering the cellar of an old pub, but with Michael Jackson, surely he couldn’t get away with that? Would he do a “hee-hee,” a “chamone,” or flawlessly moonwalk himself into one of his weekly psychic seizures? This was the question foremost in my mind when I originally watched live almost a decade ago.

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Like FA Cup final day, such event television needs build-up, and kicked off with an hour-long pre-show, Michael Jackson: The Search for his Spirit. Hosted by June Sarpong MBE, who should be stripped of her title for this, like Savile, it’s a journey through MJ’s various old haunts, no pun intended, in an attempt to find his ghost, and to establish his own fascination with the supernatural. In order to track down the spirit of Michael, June must first talk to his “inner circle of close friends.” The great forgotten piece of MJ lore is his fascinating collection of proxies; the people who claimed to be his personal something — astrologer, zookeeper, yo-yo teacher — who appeared in various media over the years, in lieu of the man himself. A great example is Louis Theroux’s Michael doc, during which he never meets him, but is led on a merry chase by Jackson’s ‘personal magician,’ Majestik Magnificent. More than his music, Michael’s greatest gift to us was the parade of joyless eccentrics trying to get the rub from their famous alleged-mate, with each “very close friend” like the Molly Sugden’s Bridesmaid sketches from Little Britain.

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There are plenty of Very Close Friends here, each seeming like a comedy character, like the journalist with Timmy Mallett glasses who describes Michael’s eternal quest for knowledge, which saw him hanging with “spiritual advisors like Uri Geller.” Apparently, he loved playing with Ouija boards at Neverland Ranch, and once talked to the ghost of Liberace. Another friend shows a video of Michael’s ghost walking the halls of his old mansion, which June tells us was later found to be the shadow of a cameraman.

Accompanying June through all this is “one of America’s most well-known psychic mediums,” which must be a dying business, as he’s got a whopping 134 Twitter followers, and one of the only Google hits alleges he’s a scammer selling a smoothie with an ‘ancient Aboriginal recipe’ that claims to cure bad eyesight. The pair hit various venues in the search for MJ’s spectre; the theatre where the Jackson Five got their first big break; the sets for the Thriller video; the Beverly Hills house he lived for 5 months before he died, and presumably where Dr. Conrad Murray used to hold his penis.

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Incidentally, “…cos this is Thriller!”? I can’t be the first to point out that he’s got his genres wrong. It’s clearly a horror. A thriller is, like, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, while his Thriller is all zombies and shit. Anyway, June meets Ola Ray, the girlfriend from the video, who suggests Michael’s ghost jacks up the volume on her car stereo when his music comes on. They head to the Thriller movie theatre, where a ghosthunter knocks on the wall so a ghost will do the ‘shave and a haircut, two bits’ thing from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? before trying to pick up MJ’s voice on a Ghost Box. A device that randomly scans through radio stations and static, it’s an incredible example of confirmation bias in action, as random words from talk radio are interpreted as messages from Michael — “Autoglass repair, Autoglass replace? What does he mean?!” Left shaking in fear with all this dark energy and “meddling with the occult,” a fearful June Sarpong MBE puts a stop to it.

Having failed to locate a translucent Michael scoffing a big bowl of M&Ms like Slimer, a last-ditch effort sees them visit the theatre where his head caught fire while shooting a Pepsi ad. A man who’s presumably contractually obligated to be captioned as “founder of LifeGem” shows up with what looks like an envelope of pubes, but turns out to be a frazzled lock of Michael’s hair that was burned off that day. The psychic clutches the hair to aid his channelling of Michael, leading to the moment we’ve been promised from the beginning, “the most shocking evidence yet that Michael’s spirit does live on.” This turns out to be a static squeak on a tape recorder that most of them didn’t even hear on the first play, but once the psychic says it’s an MJ-like whimper of “Mich-ael” they’re all hearing it, because that’s how EVP works.

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Though he didn’t show himself for June’s magic box, it’s time for the main event, with Derek having a “humble expectancy” regarding whether or not he’d contact MJ. There had been televised attempts to reach dead celebrities before, most notably with 2003’s The Spirit of Diana, where Princess Di shared the news she volunteered looking after children in Heaven, though the actual séance scenes were cut for UK viewing due to broadcast regulations at the time. Even WWE wrestler Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart once talked to his dead relatives through a television psychic, who incredibly knew the details of his brother Owen’s death, which happened via an accident on live TV.

The Michael Jackson séance, however, would be live, held in the Irish house he made his home for a few months near the end. Of all Michael’s best friends, the bestest friend of all is rightfully on hand for his resurrection, in the form of David Gest, whose first action is to tell June “you have the most beautiful lips and the prettiest white teeth I’ve ever seen in my life.” David’s a firm believer in the paranormal, and tells us he always has little people onstage with him, because, like leprechauns, they bring good luck. We’re here, he says, not to sort out legal troubles about Michael’s death, but to confirm that he’s in heaven and “feelin’ great.” Indeed, he posits MJ’s up there singing with the Temptations and dancing with Sammy Davis Jr. But how do the Jacksons feel about the séance? Michael’s Mum’s not too thrilled, says David, though Tito wished him “good luck!

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The Molly Sugden’s Bridesmaid theme continues, with the show functioning as a tourist video for the town they’re in, like a blue plaque on a toilet wall proclaiming ‘Robin Askwith did a piss here in 1972’. Video packages play up how much he loved the place, with his ‘best mates’ saying he’d still be alive if he’d never left, while an aghast June breaks the shocking news that Michael once went to the KFC. They interview locals; the landlord who watched him dancing in the garden; the manager of a bowling alley who kept Michael’s bowling shoes as an extremely normal memento. CCTV footage of Michael’s visit there is the most paranormal thing we’ll see all night, as a pale, behatted wraith, pencil-thin and dressed in black, flits past the camera like a glitch, a shadowman made real.

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The séance is held around a big wooden table in the room where Michael wrote his last album, in which Derek tells us Michael helpfully left all his thought-patterns. In classic Derek-speak, the big man’s hopeful, feeling “quite a powerful force of residual energy” and a constant build-up of energy from “fresh spirit entry.” Joining Derek at the table are a hat, supposedly worn by Michael, and four superfans.

My earlier remarks about die-hard Jackson fans are massively in evidence in the selection of the lucky four. Rachael has been struggling with Michael’s death, and feels he used his spiritual influence to bring her here tonight. Darren’s a tribute artist, as is Glenn, who’s adopted the surname Jackson, and works as “the #1 Michael Jackson impersonator,” which must be the most overused label in all of cruise ship/nightclub entertainment. Darren has at least put the effort in, with a laborious face-painting process to bring out the contours of Michael’s Child Catcher nose and a £1500 wig of oily curls. Fourth fan, Michael Lewis, clad in a Jackson-style military jacket and single glove, speaks from Jed Maxwell’s bedroom about the “religious experience” of once touching MJ’s hand outside a hotel, and tells us that when Michael died, a part of him died too. Immediately it’s clear that these are people who should never have been allowed on television.

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Each are deeply entrenched in grief, and shell-shocked at the sudden loss of their central figure. They’re all in agreement that, even in death, Michael’s music; his special connection to them, is the only thing that’s kept them going, through the emptiness of a life where all they had was him. And now he’s gone. But there’s hope, in the form of Derek Acorah, and with obvious desperation in their eyes, they’ve been given a chance — the last chance — to personally meet with their idol. I’m sure they’ve got the same questions as me. Will Derek do the voice? If he gets possessed by MJ, will Joe Jackson rush in and start putting the boots in for one final kicking? Might he even leave some physical evidence behind, like ectoplasm all over a VHS cover of Home Alone?

There’s exciting news, as Derek’s little African boy-ghost spirit guide, Sam, tells him Michael is near. “Good enough for me!” says June Sarpong MBE. As we must when conducting a séance, Derek begins with spiritual protection, and as they join hands, his incantation underlines what a terrible performer he is, stumbling and bumbling his way through run-on sentences littered with his weird psychic-speak about ‘spirit-people’, invoking protection against “…any negative force or energy that would like to come here, to… erm, dishevel or cause any problems to our wanting a connection with Michael Jackson, erm, our true friend.” Now protected, Derek turns his attentions to the hat, getting a psychic image of it soaring through the air before crashing down like a falling star. He invites them to touch the sacred relic, “it’s amazing,” they say, “it’s got a presence… you can feel Michael’s energy.” But Derek gets spiritual head-pain just from looking at it, due to residual energy “caught within the vibrations of this hat.” The whole way through, the brim of the hat is being gently caressed by the sequinned hand of Michael Lewis.

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We come back from an ad break to be told something big happened while we were away, and awkwardly pause on a frozen still of Derek’s face, with a brief cutaway to a VT production clock. Finally, we learn that during the break, Michael got in contact, and see a silent Derek listening to him (or listening to Sam who’s passing on Michael’s messages, however this bollocks is supposed to work). Then Derek brings us to a crucial point. “He doesn’t feel he can adapt himself to what I call channelling his spirit self…” To translate this from psychic guff-speak into English, ‘I won’t be doing the voice.’

For me, this is devastating, but at least our star will be putting in an appearance, as “…however, he’s arranged himself here.” Michael, says Derek, has a lot to say, and wants to talk uninterrupted. Racheal beams a huge grin, gazing at the empty space beside her, as though she sees him stood there, covering her mouth in wonder as Derek passes on a message of thanks to each of them for attending. Then, for the first time since his death, Michael Jackson speaks.

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If you’ve seen Derek before, you’ll know how this works, with his eyes closed as though listening to Michael, who’s new at the whole ghost thing. “Keep helping him, Sam” says Derek, amid lots of silent pausing and “yes, yes okay,” like watching someone take a phonecall. Then, in Derek’s droning Liverpool accent, Michael finally comes through. “Samuel and lovely Crystal are together again, they collected me… Verna collected me.” For context, Verna was Michael’s auntie, and Samuel and Crystal his grandparents. Like all of us, he apparently called his grandparents by their first names, luckily for Derek, as a generic ‘grandpa and grandma’ might have looked like he wasn’t really getting legit info from a ghost.

While Michael’s… troubles haven’t been alluded to, besides a brief, single mention of ‘allegations,’ from the afterlife, he’s fuming. “Oh, I wish, my friends, that these tabloids, that these journalists, they tell lies upon lies upon lies…” Racheal, mascara running, nods emphatically, as Michael fires off a rant about where he’s buried, “why am I not as I wished to lie alongside Marilyn? I suppose it’s of no consequence now…” though stopping short of adding “as I am definitely attracted to adult women.”

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Soon, a sweaty Derek starts to throw himself into it, and actually is doing a bit of a voice — about 15% of an American accent — which leads to the only part of this anyone remembers, with a half-hearted, scouse “Will someone say hello to Quincy Jones for me?” What’s forgotten in the melee is Derek’s subsequent finger-point across the table to a British fan dressed as 80’s MJ in white-blackface, demanding again “you see Quincy, you say hello, please,” as the deeply bamboozled man replies with a faltering “Hello, Quincy?

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But then comes the reason why we’re here, where the guests can talk directly to their idol, starting with grieving superfan, Michael Lewis. The sheer oddness of the meeting almost defies description, with Michael Jackson inhabiting the body of a middle-aged, white Liverpudlian, addressing Lewis as “my good friend,” and both in their own way pretending to be MJ. Perhaps the only comparable example is some of the method-acting weirdness in Netflix’s Jim Carrey documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, where Andy Kaufman’s real-life family work through their grief by talking to Jim-as-Andy, as though their dead brother has come back to visit.

Irregardless of the ludicrous visual, Lewis is deeply emotional on ‘meeting’ his idol, bursting into tears as Derek-Michael tells him they have “the same sensitivity.” Lewis sobs so hard he can’t even speak, as he’s told, over and over, that their friendship “will never ever diminish.” Racheal, too, is in tears, as over the sound of Lewis’ crying, Michael thanks him; “thank you for your love,” and “thank you for constantly thinking about me,” thus validating a lifetime of obsessive fandom. This weird therapy role-play harks back to Steve Coogan in The Day Today, punching a carpet representing the mother who abandoned him. Unable to ask any questions of his hero, Lewis can only wail in his presence, under reassurances of “bless you, bless you, bless you,” from Derek-Michael, who’s otherwise at a loss. The final exchange between a sobbing Michael Lewis and a now-whispering Derek Acorah masquerading as Michael Jackson is one of the strangest and worst things that has ever been broadcast.

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Lewis: “Michael, I love you so much. Do you realise how much I love you, Michael?

Derek-Michael: “I feel… I feel for your sincerity of love. It is paramount to me to receive that love. I love you also.

Lewis: “I love you more, Michael.

Derek-Michael: “My spiritual brother, I will look out for you [over the sound of increased sobbing], don’t be saddened of heart any more. No more, no longer! There is no need. Me and my eye of love, dance, sound [Lewis begins crying so hard, he buckles; Derek lays a hand on his head like you would a wild horse]. Calm, calm my friend, calm, calm, calm.

The room fills with the hitching breath and horrible sobbing of Michael Lewis, and we cut back to June and David Gest. Even though Derek wasn’t doing a voice, the markedly un-Jackson lexicon is unmistakeable. For some reason, Michael choose to speak his final Earthly words in Derek’s trademark overly-syllabled, faux-medieval dialect; a result of a career spent getting possessed by old monks. Throughout the whole exchange, a look of visible dread grows in Derek’s eyes, having signed on for a light-entertainment show where he could drop a few references to Motown and go home, but finding himself undead counsellor in an emotional disaster zone way beyond the pay-grade of he or Sam.

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We return from a break to the image of a very wet and sweaty Derek holding the sequinned hand of Darren. He asks Michael “what’s his most favourite live performance?” but Derek’s never good with specific details, and after ten seconds of silence, tells the group “he’s backed off a bit, hasn’t he?” eventually offering a vague story about a race course. For impersonator Glenn, he’s got an inspirational message. “You’re 80% there,” says Derek, “but he wants you to get to 90%” Famous perfectionist Michael Jackson, there.

With time running out, Michael passes on some final messages from beyond the veil, with instructions for his mother Catherine regarding his kids, “please, mother, please, mother, make sure that they are cared for… mother’s love, mother’s love, please!” Finally, Derek closes down the séance, lest Michael escape from the TV like Pipes from Ghostwatch and start taking all our children to Disneyland. Derek seems exhausted now, instructing Michael to “please go on your journey back to your lovely realm,” and telling the higher power to send everyone off “totally feeling exhilarated with full of energy (sic).” As Michael departs, the fans are left reeling, each declared by their personal Jesus to be his new, good, life-long friend. Racheal, who’s been open-mouthed and crying throughout, describes through a trembling voice how she was hugged by Michael’s spirit, while Michael Lewis seems completely broken. We end on a final message from Derek, for those who may feel sceptical. “They can feel sceptical,” he says.

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Michael Jackson: The Live Séance pulled in 600,000 viewers, received a vicious critical drubbing, and was voted the worst program of the year by a Yahoo poll. Nine years on, Darren still works as an MJ impersonator, while Glenn dropped both the tribute act and the Jackson, returning to his given surname to perform as a magician. Michael Lewis, whose very inclusion functioned as a damning indictment of reality show casting, returned to screens the following year in the “let’s laugh at the mentally ill” section of X-Factor, performing a Michael Jackson tribute, after his ‘God’ Michael told him he needed to show the world his talent. Laughed at by the crowd as the judges put their fingers in their ears, he was booed offstage with chants of “Off! Off! Off!” He returned the following year as ‘himself’ for another round of ‘tantrumming nutter’ laffs. And as for Michael Jackson, just as Derek said, he’s happy and dancing with his family in Heaven… what’s that, Sam? He’s where? For doing what?!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on November 30, 2018.

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