Michael Jackson’s Thriller
as revived from Heather Elle’s childhood
MTV presented Michael Jackson with the Video Vanguard Award in 1988, four years after his most iconic video ever. “Thriller” was nominated for six VMAs, winning three of them, in 1984. In 1991, the Video Vanguard Award was renamed in Michael’s honor because his music videos had already become that influential. In 2009, “Thriller” even became the first music video to be added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It is that big a deal. No matter how many more amazing videos he made, “Thriller” is regarded as perhaps his most important contribution to the visual art of selling music. He elevated the music video in ways no one else ever had.
And, like us, Michael Jackson loved scary movies.
“Thriller” is sort of MJ’s love letter to scary movies (even if he did not write the song himself). He tapped AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON director, John Landis, for the video. Complete with makeup and effects by the legendary Rick Baker and a “rap” by Vincent Price, “Michael Jackson’s Thriller” tells the simple story of a boy and a girl trapped inside a scary movie within a scary movie. Michael dances with the undead in this epic short film and more or less terrorizes his would-be girlfriend. Ironically, the premise in the beginning seems to be that Michael wants to protect his girl because she’s scared. Suspension of disbelief, people. Suspension of disbelief.
Growing up in the ’80s, I was a child obsessed with Michael Jackson. I cried when my dad would not let me stand in a never-ending line to meet him at Walt Disney World in 1984, and I cried when my brother erased Michael’s teeth on the poster above my bed. I grew up unaware that “Thriller” was as game-changing as it was. To me, it was not spectacular; it was just the reason that Michael Jackson was obviously a god. Over time, it became ubiquitous, but it has never lost its charm. (I would inevitably learn that Michael Jackson was also a very flawed and very mortal human being.)
All over the world, flash mobs and even Philippine prison inmates have recreated this video. My alma mater produced their own version, starring Mike the Tiger as ’80s Michael Jackson and the Tiger Girls dance team as his undead backup dancers. Pop artists, too, pay homage with choreography and concepts. And every October, you can count on Party City commercials, advertising Halloween costumes, using the iconic song and zombie dance moves.
“Michael Jackson’s Thriller” might not be the scariest short film, but it is among the most historic. If a pop icon loves what we love so much that he pays tribute in such a huge way, we owe it to him to recognize his contribution to not only music but also film, and ironically-because he was a Jehovah’s Witness-to Halloween. No Halloween season since has passed without this song and this video airing somewhere. Three decades (and counting) later, “Thriller” has never felt old or irrelevant.