It's close to midnight
And something evil's lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart
This is a writeup about a pop song, written by Rod Temperton, produced by Quincy Jones, and performed by Michael Jackson, released on Jackson's 1982 album of the same name. It's also a writeup about the music video of the same song directed by John Landis, written by Landis and Jackson, and released in 1983.
It's also a writeup about the problem of bad people who make great art.
British songwriter Temperton had written songs for Jackson's "Off the Wall" album in 1979 and conceived of the music for the song first, starting with the bassline, and building into a disco/funk song with a moderate tempo. His first pass at lyrics were much different, and the song was titled "Starlight." Quincy Jones liked the song but wasn't a fan of the title. He felt the song should be the album's title track, and he thought "Starlight" was a weak album title. Temperton came up with a list of possible titles for the song, with Jones eventually settling, reluctantly, on "Thriller."
With the title selected, Temperton wrote the lyrics quickly, focusing on horror films as the theme, complete with spooky sound effects like thunder, creaking doors, and howling dogs. He wanted to end the song with a spoken word sequence, and Jones' wife, Peggy Lipton, suggested it be performed by one of her friends, horror actor Vincent Price. Temperton actually wrote Price's part for the song in a taxi on the day of the recording.
"Thriller" was the seventh and final single off the album, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. After Jackson's death in 2009, the song re-entered the charts and stayed in the top 10 for about three weeks.
The song is, as the youths say, a bop. It's got a fantastic groove and a very danceable beat, and there's something both deeply cool and deeply strange about having one of the biggest pop songs in history focusing on horror movies -- especially with a spoken-word rap at the end featuring one of the biggest horror stars in history. If you've never actually heard this one before, I don't know what to tell you; it's one of the best songs on the biggest-selling pop album of all time, and you've got no real excuse for this one. Hie thee to YouTube and listen to the song already.
Now as good as the song may be, it doesn't start to get really interesting until we get to the music video. The album, remember, had been on the charts for over a year, but was starting to slide down around the middle of 1983, and Jackson wanted the record to stay at the top for as long as possible. Jackson's manager suggested making the album's third music video for the title track, and after Jackson watched "An American Werewolf in London" that summer, he called director John Landis about the possibility of making a video. At the time, film directors did not stoop to making music videos -- on the other hand, Michael Jackson was the biggest star on the planet, and the rules get bent, in more ways than one, for Michael Jackson.
Jackson and Landis decided they wanted to make a short film instead of a video, shot on 35mm film, with the production values you'd get on a feature film. And they figured on a budget of $900,000, which is vastly greater than the costs for most music videos, especially, again, for the seventh single off a declining album. Jackson's record company, Epic Records, said fuck-to-the-no -- they felt "Thriller" had hit its peak already and didn't want to throw more money in trying to buoy it up for its star. They eventually agreed to contribute just $100,000 for the video. Eventually, Showtime ponied up half the budget, and MTV, which had a policy of never financing music videos, decided to pay the rest. MTV got exclusive rights to a "Making Of" documentary, and Showtime got pay-cable rights.
So the video was shot over four days at various locations around Los Angeles. The stars included Jackson and an actress/model named Ola Ray, who played Jackson's unnamed girlfriend, as well as a dozen or so dancers portraying the zombies. In addition to Landis as director, there was also Robert Paynter acting as the director of photography and Rick Baker providing makeup effects -- Paynter had previously worked with Landis on "Trading Places," while Baker had provided makeup on "American Werewolf." Landis' wife, Deborah Nadoolman, designed costumes, including Jackson's iconic red jacket. Michael Peters, who'd worked with Jackson on the "Beat It" video, was the choreographer; he and Jackson worked out the also-iconic zombie dance together.
And two weeks before the premiere, Jackson decided he wanted the negatives destroyed because the church leaders in the Jehovah's Witnesses told him they'd excommunicate him for promoting demonology. The production team hid the negatives until they could convince Jackson to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the video saying it didn't reflect his own personal beliefs.
Night creatures call
And the dead start to walk in their masquerade
There's no escapin' the jaws of the alien this time (they're open wide)
This is the end of your life
So: here's a very brief description of how the video played out:
The video begins with a sequence set in the 1950s, where Jackson and his girlfriend run out of gas while driving, then walk into the woods. Jackson tells his girl, "I'm not like other guys," then transforms into a were-cat and attacks her. But luckily, this is just a scene from a movie that Jackson and his girlfriend are watching. Michael's girl dislikes the violence and leaves the theater, where they are soon attacked by zombies! And then Michael turns into a zombie, too! Then the zombies dance. When his girlfriend wakes up from this nightmare, Jackson comforts her, then turns to the camera, secretly revealing his were-cat eyes...
The entire video was almost 14 minutes long, and you can watch it here. It's less a music video for the song "Thriller," as the song was re-edited and stretched out to serve as the soundtrack for the movie, including some instrumental music by Elmer Bernstein.
Its official premiere was November 14, 1983, at the Crest Theater in L.A., where a private audience, including a number of celebrities, got to watch the film. In fact, they got to watch it twice, thanks to the demands of Eddie Murphy. It made its debut on MTV on December 2, 1983. After every showing of the film, the channel posted when they would air it again. Ratings were basically ten times higher than anticipated for those periods. The videocassette of the video sold a million copies.
And just as Jackson had hoped, sales of the Thriller album went through the roof again -- a million extra copies a week after the film's debut, with total album sales doubling in the weeks and months afterwards, solidly cementing its status as the bestselling album ever.
It also helped cement MTV as a major channel and cultural arbiter -- which is ironic, because in its first few years on the air, MTV really didn't like having to play videos by Black artists, and initially refused to play the "Billie Jean" video. The head of CBS Records had to call them up, threaten to pull all videos by his company's artists, and go public about MTV's racism before the channel would air the video.
The video was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Male Video, and Best Concept video at 1984's MTV Video Music Awards and took home the Moon Man for Viewers Choice, Best Overall Performance and Best Choreography. It also won the Grammy for Best Video Album in 1984 and for Best Video, Long Form in 1985. In 2009, it was the first music video to be selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
So here's what we have: a great little haunted house of a song, a genuinely fun music video that's still influential today, judging by how many YouTube videos there are of people dancing the zombie dance.
And there's a couple little problems with them. The first being that Michael Jackson was accused multiple times -- but never convicted -- of sexual abuse of children, and the second being that John Landis got actor Vic Morrow and two child actors killed on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie" in 1982, mostly because he couldn't be bothered to be concerned about cast and crew safety. And knowing those things is likely to make you think a lot less of Jackson, Landis, and their works.
This happens all too often nowadays, commonly when people re-evaluate their feelings about popular actors, authors, and celebrities when it's eventually revealed they harbored racist, sexist, homophobic, or other hateful beliefs. I can't fault anyone for feeling this way -- there's nothing that can kill the joy you used to get from a piece of entertainment like learning the creator was an abusive creep or a monster.
We continue to debate whether it's possible to separate the art from the artist. I'm not sure anyone knows if it can be done. But no art is absolutely essential. Your life will be no better or worse if you never watch a Woody Allen movie or read a book by Marion Zimmer Bradley or listen to music by Marilyn Manson.
Still, the song is legitimately fun. It's the most successful horror-themed song in history. The video was groundbreaking and influential on a level that guarantees that anyone with an interest in '80s pop music or the history of MTV has seen it several times.
If you want to praise people who aren't Michael Jackson or John Landis, you shouldn't forget Rod Temperton's songwriting, Quincy Jones' endless musical genius, Michael Peters' mesmerizing choreography, or Vincent Price's perfectly macabre rap.
I'm not going to give you a conclusion yay or nay on whether "Thriller" should be lionized or deplored. That's your decision, not mine.
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller