Michael Jackson’s Ghosts

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[More MJ: Derek Acorah’s Live Michael Jackson Seance]

A recent story in the Hollywood Reporter about Bryan Singer’s toxic sets on the X-Men movies opened with a brief anecdote, meant to demonstrate the general disarray of production. In it, Michael Jackson showed up at the studio, to pitch himself for the role of Professor X; an old, bald white man, who’d eventually be played by Patrick Stewart. Initially this seemed so wacky to me as to be unbelievable, but in the context of Jackson’s life and career, it’s decidedly standard behaviour.

Though history will remember Jackson as a singer/beast, he kicked off a limited acting career with a genuinely brilliant and star-making performance as the Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz. Following world domination in the intervening years, 1986 saw him lead as the titular Captain EO in something which truly sounds like some absolute bollocks I’ve invented just to fill my word-count; a 3D sci-fi short played in Disney theme parks, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, exec produced by George Lucas, and written by a man called Rusty Lemorande. Following that, his outside acting jobs were limited to cameos; shown in video call as Agent M in Men in Black II, and the famous guest spot in The Simpsons, which has since been pulled by Disney+ for reasons of being a massive paed.

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His later choices for roles followed the same eccentric line as his Wacko Jacko persona — or as Joe Jackson amusingly misremembered in his Louis Theroux interview, “Jacko Wacko” — and before the Professor X incident, he’d attempted to grind down George Lucas in a bid to play Jar Jar Binks, for which he wanted to forgo computer graphics and wear prosthetic make-up. His final acting role would be an appearance in 2004 film Miss Castaway and the Island Girls, one of Eric Roberts’ 594 credits (at time of writing), in a role explained by the wiki page thusly:

An R2D2-like droid projects an image of agent M.J. (Jackson) who has been assigned by the Vatican to manipulate the castaways for the Vatican’s own purposes.”

Through the King of Pop era, the videos for Jackson’s singles had become increasingly cinematic, with Bad and Thriller expanding into short films, directed respectively by Martin Scorsese and John Landis, and the video for 1987’s Liberian Girl featuring an enormous number of celebrity cameos which read like a Peter Kay routine about 80’s America, including Weird Al, Dan Aykroyd, Brigitte Nielsen, Corey Feldman, David Copperfield, Blossom, Don King, and Steve Guttenberg. The feature-length Moonwalker was released in 1988, a wild collage of long-form music videos which ended with MJ turning into a spaceship to shoot Joe Pesci, and by 1992, the promo for Remember The Time was a 9 minute epic starring Eddie Murphy. But the following year, the first round of child abuse allegations hit, permanently tainting Jackson’s image to a large portion of the general public.

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So then, the perfect time to take his biggest hit, Thriller, and go one better, with another scary short on a much grander scale. Running over three times Thriller‘s length, it would be titled Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, and as I’ve since discovered, now that he’s dead, googling for ‘Michael Jackson ghosts’ is a wild ride. Like the greats — Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau — he’d be doing it himself, co-producing, co-writing, and paying the entire $15m budget out of his own pocket. MJ’s much-mooted love of horror always feels weird to me. I simply cannot picture Michael Jackson — at least the persona of Michael Jackson as presented to the public — being able to sit through a horror film without launching his popcorn into the air in fright at the first sight of the THX logo.

We’re supposed to believe this man-child character; sensitive, effete, otherworldly, exchanging teasing barbs of “doo-doo head” with his posse of young ‘playmates’; spent his down-time sticking on laser discs of The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre? But then, as we came to learn, the persona and the real Jackson were some lengths apart, and it’s in this knowledge which Ghosts’ only scares are to be had. Besides, horror comes in many forms, and for MJ, this was the fully on-brand family-friendly horror of theme park terrors, with spooky cobwebs and skellingtons, and saying the word “boo!

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Ghosts started life in 1993, as an unfinished promo for Addams Family Values, titled Is It Scary?, but after getting dropped from the soundtrack altogether — supposedly for contract reasons unrelated to his scandals — it lay dormant until 1996. Revived as its own thing, it was expanded into a 39 minute short with a six week shoot, where the word ‘video’ was banned on set, because they were making a ‘short film’. Ghosts did have decent horror pedigree, with a story credit for Jackson himself, along with Stephen King and Mick Garris, a screenplay by Garris and Stan Winston, and with Winston directing.

Before we get into the actual film, it’s important to remember the context of Jackson’s reputation at the time. Through his career, there were three rounds of child abuse accusations; Jordan Chandler in August 1993; in 2003, following the Martin Bashir interview; and with 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland. While the loyal fans are Jacko till they die, for most people, and certainly for the media, Neverland was the definitive destruction of his legacy, and at this point he’s effectively (and literally, with Disney+, multiple radio stations, and Mohammed Al Fayed’s giant statue) been cancelled. But in 1993, criminal charges were never filed, and his career continued unabated, with the furore merely adding to his already rock-solid rep as the World’s Strangest Man.

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By this point, the years long back-and-forth with the press over their constant intrusion and portrayal of him as a lunatic who sleeps in an oxygen tent and pals around with a chimpanzee had begun to infect his music. Tired of being a punchline, in the mid-90s, he came out swinging, with sweet lil’ Michael even dropping an f-bomb while duetting with sister Janet in 1995 single Scream, an angry rebuke to the tabloids, where he warns “stop fucking with me!” While Ghosts, released a year later, is a horror movie on the surface, unashamedly, this is MJ in full fightback mode against all the shit-talkers, doubters and prodding media. As we’ve seen with Yewtree and massive chunks of old British telly, in retrospect, it’s impossible not to view the film differently, with every line; every look; now loaded with horrible double meaning, and interpretable as the words of a predator hiding in plain sight.

We open in black and white, 1930’s Universal Monsters style, as lightning crashes over a graveyard, where a large gothic house looms in the background. A signpost — topped by a cawing raven — reads WELCOME TO NORMAL VALLEY, a place for NICE REGULAR PEOPLE, as an angry mob marches into frame with flaming torches, towards, what we now realise, is the home of Michael Jackson. “Why don’t we just leave him alone? He hasn’t hurt anybody,” asks a kid. Any kid in a Jackson production, of course, is always smarter and wiser than those stupid grown-ups. The mayor; the old white man leading the mob; sneers “he’s a weirdo. There’s no place in this town for weirdos.” And dear reader, have you spotted the subtle allegory at play?

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Once inside, the film switches to colour, ala The Wizard of Oz, and it’s your classic PG haunted house, all cobwebs, cavernous ceilings, and shards of moonlight bleeding through arched windows. The doors magically slam shut, locking everyone inside, as a robed figure in a skull mask emerges from the shadows. “Did I scare ya?” he asks, revealing himself to be Michael Jackson, although he’s not playing himself, but a character called The Maestro. Immediately, it’s unsettling seeing Jackson in character (or perhaps ‘out of character’), with the speech rhythms and confidence of a regular human, after years as the evasive wraith, with a medical mask and Mickey Mouse voice.

The entirety of Ghosts‘ dialogue is the mayor telling MJ he’s a weirdo who needs to leave town, calling him “freaky boy” and relentlessly hammering the point home with lines like “you’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you,” and “back to the circus, you freak!” The parents are afraid of the Maestro, though he’s just Michael Jackson in a puffy pirate shirt, and the mayor lays into him — “We have a nice, normal town, normal people, normal kids, we don’t need freaks like you telling ghost stories.” But it’s never clear exactly what the Maestro’s been up to. Telling ghost stories? Doing magic tricks? He doesn’t even own any furniture. One kid suggests Maestro shows the mayor “the neat stuff you did for us,” before his brother slaps him round the head; “that’s supposed to be a secret!” Yeah, that’s not aged well. When the mother lightly slaps the lad for hitting his brother (the second time this happens, a mere five minutes in), she gets cuffed round the ear by a ghostly wind, signalling to the audience that adults are bloody hypocrites.

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Jackson taunts the group by pulling funny faces — “is this scary?” — before yanking his jaw out like in Beetlejuice, pulling the skin right off his head, leaving just a skull, and causing Mos Def — in a small pre-fame role as a nervous nerd — to burst into tears. With a dramatic “meet the family!” doors fly open and fires burst alight, and if Joe Jackson’s about to walk out with a belt in his hand, then they really should be afraid. Terminator 2 style puddles of ectoplasm morph and rise into a backing troupe of ghosts, with a zombified 18th century Venice costume ball aesthetic, and terrific make-up which gives a Disneyland cenobite vibe.

Michael grabs his dick, sending us into a musical number, with horrendously-aged lyrics like “creepin’ from a dusty hole… tales of what somebody told.” It’s a long routine, with minute after minute of the stuffy old mayor adjusting his tie in anger and slow zooms into the amazed faces of open-mouthed children. MJ whips off his entire skin, leaving a dancing skeleton moonwalking around the floor, and while the mob’s chins are hanging, the Scotch Video ads were doing that years ago. The skeleton changes into a giant Michael Jackson, in that Lost Boys vampire make-up which looks like when Bear Grylls got stung by bees, but it’s still less frightening than his 2003 mugshot.

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He possesses the mayor by flying into his mouth, for that thing Hollywood repeatedly insists is hilarious, when a boring ol’ overweight white fella busts some moves. Remember the way they pushed Tom Cruise’s dance from Tropic Thunder as the funniest thing ever, like an office bore making you watch a video on their phone? — “wait, wait, the good bit’s coming up!” It’s more of that, as the mayor shakes his fat tush, moonwalking and really grabbing that penis, with a big close-up of him clutching at the meat. The song’s classic 90’s Jacko, pathologically incapable of work that wasn’t a cack-handed metaphor about fake news, with more prophetic-seeming lyrics, about “a ghoul on the bed.” It ends with the mayor transforming into a big rubber monster, taunting MJ with “who’s scary now? Who’s the freak now, freaky boy? Freak circus freak!

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He pukes up Michael Jackson’s ghost, returning to normal, as a defeated-sounding Jackson tells them, fine, he’ll go. He drops to the ground, smashing the brick with his bare hands, and bashing his own head into the floor. His face breaks and crumbles like stone, for a tragic martyr’s death, with the camera circling his remains from above, composed in an extremely Christ-on-a-cross manner. A coincidence, I’m sure. The rubble of Jackson blows away, to slow-mo reaction shots of all the sad kids; their innocent hero driven to self-destruction by small-minded grown-ups. But as everyone goes to leave, the mayor finds the big double doors filled by an even gianter MJ head, and makes a run for it by jumping through a window to leave a mayor-shaped hole.

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Did I scare ya?” chuckles the Maestro, revealing himself to be alive. By now, the parents are on-side too, realising — after ripping all his skin off and summoning zombie demons to do a scary dance — that he wasn’t a freak at all. Ghosts plays as a flagrant Frankenstein/Edward Scissorhands rip, with Jackson positioning himself as the tortured capital-B Beast in the tower, who only wants to love and entertain the cheel-dren, despite the best efforts of ignorant adults who only see him as a dangerous freak, and want to keep him away from their kids. The symbolism is very subtle. The credits are six minutes long, but with good reason. Opening with shots of Michael in the make-up chair, it’s somewhat of a gotcha, showing the gradual application of latex pieces which transformed him into the mayor. Yes, that old white guy was played by Michael Jackson too, and in a certain order, his full credits for the film read like a potted biography of his life.

Self / Maestro / Mayor / Mayor Ghoul / Skeleton / Super Ghoul

It’s pretty much accepted that Jackson’s plaintive “ee-hee” schtick was a put-on, but it’s surprisingly disquieting, post-Leaving Neverland, to see him using a regular adult voice, as he did when portraying the mayor. Even in behind the scenes footage, casually describing the movie in the mayor’s get-up and deeper tones, it feels like the taking off, rather than wearing of a mask. Obviously Jackson was a performer — and at the height of his powers, undeniably one of the best ever — and the job of an actor is to transform, but it plays oddly against the cultivated Peter Pan persona, with his innocence in many eyes hinging on how meekly he came across. Like the Maestro, Jackson went out of his way to let everyone know they needn’t worry about him corrupting the children, as he was perfectly harmless. He doesn’t even speak like an adult, so how could he think like one, let alone one that’s horny?

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Ghosts ended up forming part of Jackson’s presentation to the Fox executives when selling himself as Professor X, as proof he was capable of playing older white men. In the end, it had a limited theatrical run in a weird-arse double bill with King-adaptation, Thinner, but in no way became the Thriller beater as intended. Interestingly, a workprint of the unfinished 1993 version, Is It Scary, exists today, with a lot of SCENE MISSING cards in place of unfinished effects, and a temp soundtrack of the scores from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Unsurprisingly, given how closely the plot of Ghosts resembles parts of Scissorhands, MJ was a huge fan of the movie. Around 1991, he’d been developing a project with its screenwriter, Caroline Thompson; an adventure musical called MidKnight, where he’d star as shy, gentle man who turned into a brave warrior at the stroke of midnight.

There’s a few differences between Ghosts and Is It Scary?, the main being Jackson doesn’t play the mayor in the latter. With its Addams Family beginnings, there are brief cameos from Lurch, Thing, Wednesday and Pugsley, and all the town’s children are noticeably younger, though it’s still super on-the-nose with the whole Frankenstein angle. At the beginning, when a little boy tells the mayor that he’s scared, it’s not the haunted house that frightens him, but the mob. The Maestro’s much sadder here, played as disappointed rather than mad at the adults, and their loud chants of “come out where we can see you!” Like the paparazzi, are they, Michael mate?

     Mayor: “You’re not like us!

     MJ: “Why do I have to be?

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When he kills himself in this version, the children kneel down to gather up his remains, tearfully pleading “please come back, I wanna see you dance again!” eventually piecing him back together, and resurrecting our lord and saviour, Michael Jackson. They hold his hand, asking if it was “just pretend,” and why can’t the adults realise it was all “just fun,” and man, even in 1993, this was really pushing it. A caption card reading MICHAEL DISAPPEARS leaves the kids all looking skyward, suggesting in the finished version, he would’ve literally ascended to Heaven.

Even in a making of, Jackson seems genuinely pissed at the “fat, grotesque, ridiculous mayor,” who he considers “a creep, he’s really a creep, and I don’t like him.” The character was conceived as representing everything Michael hated about the true monsters — people who don’t get him — “those sort of people… they just don’t see the beauty on the inside of a person.” But the mayor feels like the strawman antagonist in those Christian movies; the evil atheist liberal professor forcing his students to fart on the bible, until one brave, God-fearing teen takes a stand.

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Ghosts‘ persistent framing of Michael Jackson as someone who’s seen as a monster but merely misunderstood sits especially badly now, when it’s widely accepted he got away with some terrible, terrible shit, under the guise being of incapable of hurting children, as he was essentially a child himself, unwittingly trapped inside an adults body, just like the moonwalking mayor. There’s a hugely trippy, psychologically fascinating quality to watching MJ, known for his ever-changing face, wearing a rubber mask and spitting the word ‘freak’ at himself, in what’s likely his real voice. In Ghosts, Jackson set out to make a scary movie, and in that, he did succeed, as 25 years on, it makes for a creepy and thoroughly disconcerting watch, just not for the reasons intended.

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, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on November 13, 2020.

One Response to “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts”

  1. […] best mate — until suggesting MJ go with Martin Bashir instead of Louis Theroux, for a film which ended up sparking another child abuse trial, ending their friendship — Geller’s career has been ludicrously expansive. In truly […]

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