Michael Jackson was a shapeshifter, fascinated by musical and visual transformation. Of all his memorable metamorphoses — werewolf, panther, Egyptian mystic — perhaps none was as striking as that in the sequence at the centre of 1997’s Ghosts, in which Jackson’s haunted house trickster faces off against the local town Mayor out to destroy him. It’s a moment straight out of surrealist nightmare: Having taunted the corpulent bureaucrat with a series of increasingly goofy gestures, Jackson’s “Maestro” proceeds to peel his skin back over his head to reveal a demonic, chattering skull, who then holds up the lifeless visage, like some Halloween Michael Jackson death mask, with leering delight. Not quite done, the skeleton Maestro violently smashes his skull to pieces to return to — shamone! — Jackson once more. The permutations of the self are dizzying, to put it lightly, and that’s before the Maestro has bodily invaded his nemesis and forced the white man to perform a possessed dance routine. “Back to the circus, you freak!” the bewildered Mayor gasps, rattled and rhythmically disorientated.
This blowhard, self-appointed moral guardian is also played by Jackson, via a feat of makeup sorcery that renders the wild exchange both a looking glass standoff and a dynamite microcosm of pop culture’s slippery racial terrain. The pointedly loaded scenario is just the apex of Jackson’s amorphous 1990s persona: a transgressive, often combative pop miscreant who sneered at mainstream media from his paradoxical playground of showbiz razzle-dazzle. It was a politically active, racially charged artistic period for Jackson, one which saw him excavating history as cultural throwdown, from the controversially disruptive (and predictably, glibly dismissed) coda to “Black or White” through the anti-police state chants of “They Don’t Care About Us” to his demonic personal war on “Morphine”.
Despite bowing at Cannes, the little-seen Ghosts arrived in the US at a time when Jackson the artist was being dispatched to relative obscurity; the media preferring to see him through the prism of tabloid spectacle. Co-written by Jackson and horror heavyweight Stephen King, and directed by Stan Winston (who’d worked with Jackson way back on 1978’s The Wiz), the short feature — at almost 40 minutes, his longest music film — has never been available on modern home media and officially exists only in truncated music video version online, though it was recently dusted off for some one-off theatrical screenings in conjunction with the posthumous cash-grab compilation, Scream. The film’s marginalisation in the star’s canon is a major oversight: this was Jackson at his most ferociously engaged, operating at the peak of his visual power to attack the institutions within which he’d become increasingly caged. Alas, the media response to Jackson was typical of then-current pitchfork mentality: You’re here to dance for us, freak.
It’s no surprise, then, that the very first image in Jackson’s film is a burning torch, carried aloft by an angry mob from Normal Valley as they march toward the neighbouring Maestro’s manor, an archetypal, creepy residence perched among the fog and gravestones. The patently studio backlot set and its creaky haunted house hearkens back to Ghosts’ conception as a 1993 music video hitched to Addams Family Values; with its gothic pop vibe and ooky, kooky oddball living in a cartoon mansion guarded by a watchful raven1, the premise had seemed — superficially, at least — like a harmless studio tie-in. But the nascent media scandal around Jackson’s first sexual molestation accusation, fueled by a rapacious civil suit, deemed the pop star unsuitable for family-friendly frights, and the fledgling “Ghosts” was ditched from the project (in its place, a misplaced on-screen swipe at Jackson, marring an otherwise wonderfully subversive film.)
The project’s liberation from its original context proved a blessing. Freed from hoary gothic associations, the flaming torch takes on a far more sinister cultural iconography with regard to mid-’90s Jackson, the angry mob of concerned citizens, though of mixed ethnic composition, are at best representative of the old fashioned witch hunt and worst, dangerously close to wearing white robes.2 Ghosts — and it’s no stretch to connect that title to the pejorative spooks — has already broached a troubled national history before the doors to the Maestro’s palace are even flung open, the film segueing Oz-like from Universal horror black and white to the dusty blues of the weirdly antebellum interior… and Jackson’s highwire marriage of the personal and the political.
“Why can’t we just leave him alone,” bleats one of the kids in the Mayor’s posse. “He’s a weirdo,” the Mayor shoots back. “There’s no place in this town for weirdoes.” Variations on the sentiment get recycled by the Mayor ad nauseum, until they become clumsy, hateful mantras echoed by the assembled adults. “Show us that neat stuff you did for us,” implores one of the kids, to which another reprimands him: “Shut up, that’s supposed to be a secret.” Dancing the line between canny self-interrogation and the naïve mentality that would land him in later trouble, Jackson appears to explicitly reference his personal legal turmoil, brazenly stepping to the media at their own game. Here, Jackson and King seem perfectly aligned; the latter’s affinity for society’s maligned outsiders mingles with an undercurrent of ambiguous terror: is the Maestro the town’s gentle, misunderstood loner or a real child-murdering clown? (This is It, indeed.)
Far from his traditionally reticent media reputation, Jackson proved willing to engage as an artist — whether his public was receptive or not. Ghosts finds him moving from once petulant exhortations (“Leave Me Alone”) to full-tilt cultural agitation, positioning himself not just as a misunderstood outcast but advocate for the socially dispossessed everywhere. Once he’d faced off with cartoon street toughs in Bad; now, his enemy was an exaggerated caricature of white authority, of normalised attitudes, of oppression and vilification of the other.
As the film unfolds, Jackson summons the ghosts of history in ways both overt and astutely sinister. What begins as an ostensibly silly game — the Maestro dons various novelty store disguises to scare his guests — soon turns treacherous, as Jackson appears to invoke taboo blackface gestures to tease his tormentor, mocking Normal Valley’s desire for “innocuous” entertainment without the associated historical guilt.3 Jackson was well versed in the history and technique of populist song and dance, from Jim Crow to Fred Astaire to James Brown and Bob Fosse, and was arguably aware of the power he wielded in blurring culture’s traditional demarcations. In his elegant work on Jackson, critic Armond White places the singer in the context of the media industrial complex, and suggests that the star even “engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition.” Jackson, White argues had “become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be.”
Ghosts’ shock ’em dead showdown is a world removed from the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jackson’s celebrated 1983 clip for “Thriller”, in which the star performs both prankster and scary movie monster for his preppy date like he’s trying to scare his little sister with a spider. Here, though Jackson is again both villain and nominal hero, the stakes are rooted in the real world circus that the singer’s life had by then become. “Thriller was a joke,” as White explained, “but the sweet boy inside the Halloween mask has stopped playing.”4 It felt like Jackson was waging pitch battle for the soul that had been eroded by his overwhelming celebrity.
In many ways Ghosts feels like a challenge to that more jovial time, when superstar Jackson had reigned, as ubiquitous as gum or television. “Is this scary?!” Jackson’s Maestro goads the unimpressed posse time and again, daring them into cynical complacency. It’s discomfiting viewing: an entertainer tirelessly willing to reshape and remold himself to his audience’s whims, only to met with indifference; as though to say, Yeah, what else ya got? The standoff drives Jackson’s to the ultimate transmogrification, death — or so it seems. In the moment of skeletal abandon, the Maestro — or what’s left of him — proudly displays the Jackson death mask like a ghoulish trophy, offered to his ‘adoring’ public by way of a final sacrifice. Is this what you wanted?
But Jackson was nothing if not a nimble escape artist, and his Houdini-like fascination would never permit him to remain trapped in such mortal circumstance — thus the skull-jester’s stunning explosion and return to the “real” Jackson, a character who seems but one of many Russian dolls nesting to infinity inside his human form. The moment of transference reiterates Jackson’s obsession with moving fluidly between the physical, and evokes the restless, pandimensional spirit manifest in Michael Robinson’s uncanny These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us.
The song that scores Jackson’s initial showdown with the townsfolk isn’t the title track but “2 Bad”, an exhilarating call-and-response jam from the back half of his HIStory record that never got its due. Couched in the braggadocio of sing-song military cadence, the track is a sort-of sequel to “Bad” in which Jackson shuts down the vultures talking trash. “Hell all up in Hollywood,” he snarls, invoking his precarious insider status: in entertainment’s own Normal Valley, you’re only beloved until they tell you otherwise — and if you’re “eccentric”, you’d better be doubly cautious. But the line is multi-tracked to transform a wounded plea into a statement of infectious defiance, and the music performs the rites of exorcism. Like the wake-up call of the apocalyptic “They Don’t Care About Us” or the drugged out perspective of “Morphine” — one of the strangest, boldest tracks Jackson ever laid down — his songs were shooting for catharsis both political and personal, an invitation to dance the demons down.5
More than haunted house routine, Ghosts’ choreography weaves Jackson’s angular ’90s steps into a rich tableau of cultural anxiety, as the Maestro and his otherworldly minions — the forgotten dead of history, in their frayed antebellum threads — dance to prove their legitimacy in the face of a hostile intruders. Jackson and longtime choreographer Travis Payne stage some of his most expressive dancing, an angry, electric carnival that fuses jittery bone-man shapes with the classic precision funk of the performer’s craft. There’s a ferocious urgency to the routine, the way the rag-and-dust dancers, in their demon-face masks, holler and stomp and levitate in formation behind Jackson, like ancient kings and queens returning to inherit their playground from suburbia’s tasteless interlopers. As Jackson commands his horde to terrorise the white bureaucrat, the film achieves its great moment of comical racial usurpation: the possessed Mayor is compelled to perform the Maestro’s dance — a white racist’s worst fears — as he pops and locks awkwardly to the rhythmic crunch of “Ghosts”. The Maestro’s crew encircle and jeer the Mayor in a comedic danse macabre, and the latter is forced to confront his own ugliness. “Who’s scary now?” he croaks, in deranged repetition, to a handheld mirror.
Perhaps the film’s most formally spectacular move is Jackson’s motion-capture incarnation as digital skeleton, realising his elephant man dance-partner with a fully rendered, moonwalking bone man, stripped of his corporeal trappings and boiled down to his essence — the voodoo dance, the death card played to move like there’s no tomorrow. For Jackson, the dance was the key to the self — “Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on,” he wrote6 — and for all his disguises and forms, that movement was all that ultimately remained. The audience may have never got a handle on the ‘real’ Jackson, but his true form — his spirit — was always right there front and centre.
Sadly, few of these notions found their way into the popular narrative around Jackson, who was by that point seen to be either desperately clinging to his Thriller glory days or whining from within the expensive fortress of his own hubris. “Paranoid” was a description increasingly applied to the singer, as though his fears — be they legal, racial or otherwise — were merely the ranting of superstar delusion (Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, was apotheosized for all his rock-n-roll complaining.) As usual, mainstream (white) media weren’t about to give Jackson much credit for his artistry beyond crafting killer tunes for the dancefloor, preferring he shut up and entertain them, like a good circus act.7
Jackson’s perceived personal issues and image were too thorny for most outlets to engage with in any meaningful sense; their public was more likely to gorge on the freakshow, and they duly obliged them. As writer Susan Fast notes, Jackson’s later-career output was “perhaps some of the most substantive music ever to be obliterated by personal scandal.”8 Jackson certainly wasn’t the first musician to inject his public strife into his work, but as a superstar pop artist he was ahead of the curve — speaking from the anointed inner sanctum with the voice of a peripheral outsider.
That much is a shame, because Ghosts contains so much of Jackson’s essential dynamic and craft that it deserves to be more than a footnote in his career. Late in the film, there’s a scene that embodies the tragic contradiction at the core of Jackson’s public performance. After showing the townsfolk all that he’s got — fright masks, facial transformations, gravity defying dance moves — the adults remain unmoved, and a deflated Maestro is again reduced to an unwanted anomaly. Rather than fight, Jackson sacrifices himself to dust, beating his head disturbingly on the marble floor until his features splinter and crumble. Unable to please his audience, he martyrs himself, and in doing so transforms himself into pure energy — much as he did in “Remember the Time” — perhaps to return at another, more receptive point in the future. Reappearing to check on his guests, the Maestro seems once again cheerful, as though he’d resigned himself to his role as the designated entertainer in the cultural machine. His guests, variously perplexed and terrified, don’t know what to make of him anymore.
“But did we have a good time here?” Jackson asks them. For once, it sounds like a threat.