In month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at Michael Jackson’s continued influence on, and musical dominance of the Halloween season through his Gothic pop pieces like “Thriller” and “Ghosts” and considers the importance of the genre as a medium for Jackson to respond to his harshest critics even from beyond the grave.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XLVIII (14-12-2019).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 6, no. 2 (2019). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xlviii/.
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Ghosts, ghouls and zombies: Michael Jackson’s indelible Halloween legacy in the wake of a year of controversy.
By Kerry Hennigan
For his fans, of which this writer is one, the legacy of Michael Jackson is part of their daily lives; but during Halloween, it’s an indelible part of the seasonal fun for countless others around the globe. Joe Vogel writes that the Gothic was one of Jackson’s persistent interests. “Not only did he enjoy horror films and books, he studied them – from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock to John Carpenter.” 
Recently Jackson’s children and his nephews, Taj, TJ and Taryll Jackson spoke about Michael’s love of Halloween and going out in costume to Trick or Treat with his family.  We should remember that this was a man who, even in his youth, loved pranks and magic tricks, someone who, when making his film “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” (1996) thought it was fun to portray the kind of scares one might encounter on a family-friendly ghost train ride, or in a Disney haunted mansion (which “Ghosts” resembles in parts).
Despite the Leaving Neverland controversy and negative reporting in the media throughout most of 2019, Michael Jackson, and in particular “Thriller”, continued to dominate Halloween musically and thematically. “Thriller” was the most streamed Halloween song of the season, and the track went to #1 on Amazon’s Top 100 Paid pop songs chart. The Thriller dance was performed by “zombies” at parties and Thrill the World events ranging from Moscow in Russia to Christchurch in New Zealand.
People magazine conceded that “Michael Jackson’s Halloween hit ‘Thriller’ is as popular as ever despite Leaving Neverland fallout.”  Even the often caustic (on the subject of Jackson) Billboard magazine conceded “Halloween Songs Scare Up Chart Gains, Led by Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’” and “Led by Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ Halloween Hits Haunt LyricFind Global Chart”.  While the 2017 cartoon feature “Michael Jackson’s Halloween” did not receive an airing this year, there is certainly hope for its return to TV screens around Halloween once the cloud of misinformation about the pop icon has cleared.
The seasonal popularity of “Thriller” and other tracks doesn’t represent a disconnect between the claims of Jackson’s accusers and his artistry in the minds of the masses, though some media commentators appear to think it does. Rather I believe it to be an indicator of a growing public awareness of how he, and now his legacy, have been railroaded by those who have something to gain from disgracing the pop culture icon.
In the 1990s and beyond, the Gothic pop genre provided Jackson with an avenue to respond to the accusations and many absurdities published about him – misconceptions fostered by an industry that thrives on what it conceives to be “weird” (the fall-out from having previously been promoted as “wonderful”) and plays up all the artist’s actual or perceived idiosyncrasies in order to sell copies of newspapers or magazines or, in the digital age, gather web clicks.
I agree with Vogel when he says that Jackson saw horror as a way to explore our most primal fears. The dialogue spoken by the Mayor of Normal Valley to Jackson’s Maestro in the “Ghosts” short film reflects the slurs liberally hurled at Jackson in real life. The Mayor refers to the Maestro as “weird” and tells him to get “back to the circus, you freak.” Sadly, given the continued media obsession with its negative narrative on Jackson, “Ghosts” continues to stand as an allegory of the artist’s life even after his death.
Jackson was fully aware of the “eccentric oddity” he was/is perceived to be by his detractors. He knew his daring to be different was the stuff of their nightmares; he was not afraid to artistically play on those fears. Of “Ghosts” one critic wrote: “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.” 
The songs from “Ghosts” were released on the albums HIStory (1995) and Blood on the Dance Floor (1997), postdating the period some critics insist on calling the peak of Jackson’s career. I beg to differ. The way an artist responds to his trials and tribulations – and his harshest critics – is a fair measure of his ability to communicate his feelings on such matters to his audience. Interviews get forgotten, are selectively edited or twisted to suit an adverse editorial narrative. Jackson’s music, at its most autobiographical, gets straight to the heart of the matter.
In the wake of failed attempts to “mute” Michael Jackson post Leaving Neverland, the Invincible album track “Threatened”, another in the Gothic pop genre, (released 2001) plays like a final, triumphant response to his critics, then and now:
Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me 
 Vogel, Joseph. Man in the Music. The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. August 2019 edition https://www.amazon.com/Man-Music-Joseph-Vogel/dp/0525566570
 Associated Press. Published electronically on Twitter 27 Oct 2019 https://twitter.com/APEntertainment/status/1188225411517472771
 People magazine. Published electronically 30 Oct 2019 https://people.com/music/michael-jackson-thriller-popular-despite-leaving-neverland-fallout/
 Billboard magazine. Published electronically 8 Nov 2019 https://www.billboard.com/amp/articles/business/chart-beat/8543055/halloween-songs-chart-gains-michael-jackson-thriller
 Billboard magazine. Published electronically 11 Oct 2019 https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/8532806/michael-jackson-thriller-halloween-songs-lyricfind-chart
 Rabin, Nathan “Spooktastic Case File #174: “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” on AV Club at https://film.avclub.com/spooktastic-case-file-174-michael-jackson-s-ghosts-1798222303
 Jackson, Michael; Jerkins, Rodney; Jerkins, Fred III; Daniels, LaShawn “Threatened” Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc https://open.spotify.com/track/6zD1z7vVrq3fYEuDDr2Fxi
Merx, Karin, and Elizabeth Amisu. ‘Episode 18 – Halloween Special: ‘Ghosts” Podcast, Michael Jackson’s Dream Lives On: An Academic Conversation3, no. 2 (2016). Published electronically 30/10/16. https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/halloween/.
Vogel, Joseph. “’Am I the Beast you Visualized?’: the cultural abuse of Michael Jackson” in Michael Jackson and the Reinvention of Pop, Blakevision Books 2017 originally published online at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/michael-jackson-trial-_b_1068750
“Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” full version https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2scdw8
“The Making of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EFkqn2TwIw
Artwork: Photo montage “Are you scared yet?” compiled by Kerry Hennigan. No infringement of photographic copyright is intended in this not-for-profit educational exercise.