Michael Jackson has died, like Jill already pointed out. This is a continuation of my thoughts from that discussion about the influence and tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life. Hopefully (and with your help) with all the necessary nuance.
I feel like this is a good day to watch Thriller again, don’t you?
I have been thinking and reading about abuse a LOT lately, because of events that have been happening very close to home. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but read this short, musical film as a narrative about abuse, and the ways that abuse perpetuates itself.
It’s also a parody and homage to horror movies, of course. It came out days before my eighth birthday and was probably one of my own first exposures to horror — to a truly scary scenario beyond children’s stories. My little sister, who was five at the time, was inordinately terrified of the whole thing, especially Vincent Price’s monologue, but I made her listen to it over and over again. I usually told her when the scary part was (mostly) over. But there’s the rub, right?
It’s never over in this video. The terror keeps returning. You think Michael’s the nice boy of his childhood career and of Off the Wall. Then he says “I’m not like other guys” and turns into a monster. Then wait, it’s not real! Everything’s back to normal. He’s teasing, being nice, telling her he’s going to protect her. Then the darkness comes again, in the form of inescapable darkness that “though you fight to stay alive” always creeps in, and he becomes a monster for the second time. Then oh, it’s just a dream! He’s nice! But the last shot of the video lets you know that actually no, he’s still a monster. She’s not crazy; she’s not dreaming. It could happen again.
It wasn’t until ten years later that Jackson started talking about his own physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, about how it was so bad that he’d get sick and start to vomit at the sight of his father later in life. So many, maybe most survivors of abuse can recognize the pattern of alternating “nice, friendly comforter” and “violent monster” that permeate the Thriller video. I recognize my own father’s terrifying outbursts of rage in it too.
The theme much stronger in that video than in most horror films. Jackson, abused throughout his childhood with fists and belts and taunts and deliberately-inflicted fear, steps into the role of abuser. In the fictional universe of the video, he’s compelled, without real choice. He tries to warn Ola Ray to get away; he tries to flee the undead and becomes possessed. “No mere mortal can resist the evil of the Thriller.” I don’t think I’m just reading all of this in, and I’m sure it’s been written about before. (But I couldn’t find any sources offhand.)
This is our third post about Michael Jackson. Some of you might be wondering why. He’s a pop-star, quite possibly an abuser himself. He’s a guy (or is he?) There’s so much media noise about him that people are forgetting about other issues — Michael Sanford, what’s happening in Iran. I don’t want any of that to be forgotten either, or a myriad of other smaller, lost issues. Today is also the Trans Day of Action here in New York City — please go and read that link!!
That said, I’m moved to write about Michael Jackson at this moment because he meant a lot in my life, and in Jill’s life too, and in many people’s lives. Why did we all watch the Thriller video over and over again? Why did I identify with Michael Jackson’s character?
Even at the age of eight, I had begun to believe that I was a monster too. That there was something horrible inside me that would mean I needed to be shot with a silver bullet or decapitated. My feelings had to do with a lot of things: family dynamics, pressure to perform, to be different, to be good. The fact that I had to move through the world as a mixed-race child. My troubled gender, and the trouble it put me in with my father and others. I think I recognized MJ as someone who was trying to deal with mixed-up feelings about race and gender too, and feelings of monstrousness. Maybe it was just in that one video, which was the title track of the best-selling album of all time, but it’s a crucial point in his story. In a smaller way, in mine too. In many people’s.
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