With Halloween/Reformation Day almost here, what better time to revisit Michael Jackson’s 1996 little-seen opus Ghosts? Conceived as a Thriller-style mini-movie (or maxi-video), the 40-minute “horror” piece never really saw the light of day, and remains unavailable on DVD. Thank God for youtube! Thank God also for Nathan Rabin of The A/V Club, who just published a masterful look at this HIStory-era curio, in an excerpt from his terrific new book, My Year of Flops. If you’ve never seen Ghosts, I commend it to you for three reasons: 1. It’s Michael Jackson 2. The Stan Winston-effects are really something to see and 3. The song “Ghosts” is one of his greatest paranoia anthems, sadly relegated to 1997’s (excellent) Blood On The Dance Floor EP. That said, don’t get your expectations too high. It’s so strange and leaden that you may not be able to watch all the way through (I pity you). I’ve included a bunch of Rabin’s comments, many of which are highly illuminating:
By removing his skin, Jackson’s ghoulish pied piper does what the famously self-loathing singer seemed to have spent his entire adult life trying to do.
By 1996, Jackson wrestled constantly with the ghost of his early glory, success, and beauty. What do you do for an encore when you release the world’s most successful album and become the world’s most famous man? So it seems foolhardy to burden “Ghosts” with a conceit and makeup design that shamelessly recycles Thriller. There’s even a ghoul in a red leather jacket that seems like a counterproductive homage to Jackson’s greatest music-video triumph. Instead of reminding audiences of Jackson’s past, it just ends up underlining how far he’s fallen.
In his public appearances, Jackson was often reduced to playing a spacy, distracted Peter Pan, but in his songs and dancing, he could be angry, sexual, paranoid, and filled with rage. He could be a man instead of an overgrown boy. As a human being, Jackson was never particularly convincing, in movies or in life. Yet as a dancing skeleton, he seems to have achieved a strange state of Zen. An icon who desperately wanted to slip out of his skin and become anyone else seems weirdly at home playing a terrifying beastie with no complicated skin to slip out of.
Though the screenplay is credited to Stan Winston and Mick Garris (who share story credits with Jackson and Stephen King) the film really seems to have been written by Jackson’s wounded inner child. Actually, everything in Jackson’s career seems to have originated deep within his wounded inner child, who called all the shots; the sad, self-destructive, confused adult couldn’t complete. It was Jackson’s blessing and curse to finally get revenge for childhood slights through adult self-mythologizing; it’s all too easy to imagine The Mayor’s lines in the mouths of Jackson’s older brothers, or neighborhood bullies, during his traumatic Jackson 5 days.
What might have seemed innocent in the recent aftermath of Thriller seemed self-indulgent and morbid in ways Jackson and his collaborators never envisioned.
“Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” feels like an emotional autobiography as well, a phantasmagorical glimpse into the subjective experience of a man who always felt like an outsider, even in his own skin.
If you’d rather not wade through all 40 minutes, here’s the 4 minute video for “Ghosts”: