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”: