Review — Michael Jackson’s Ghosts

Afrovisualism
5 min readNov 9, 2019

Michael Jackson’s short film “Ghosts” was written by Mick Garris and Stephen King, directed by Stan Winston, choreographed by Lavelle Smith Jr. and Travis Payne, and produced by Michael Jackson

The 40-minute short film was officially released in 1996 on VHS, as the most expensive music video ever made, topping near $15 million.

The production

Ghosts film originally began production in 1993 under the title “Is It Scary?” and was meant to be the theme song for a comedy sitcom version of the Adams Family called the Adams Family Values.

The 1993 allegations halted production and Paramount Pictures who produced the Adams family removed Michael from the Adams Family project.

In 1996, production resumed with a new title called Ghosts, reusing a few shots from the original production, while also including more scenes, dialogue, special effects, and dance numbers. This final version was completed in six weeks during the summer of 1996.

MJ plays 5 different characters: The Maestro, Mayor, Skeleton, Super Ghoul, and Ghoul Mayor.

Director, Stan Winston had recently created Stan Winston Digital, his computer graphics division of Stan Winston studio, a never before seen digital effects created for this film.

4 out of the 5 characters Michael spent hours of prosthetic makeup being placed on.

A bust of his face and skull were created for his transformation into the CGI skeleton. Motion capture was used to capture his dance movements.

For the dancers, they had similar makeup applied to look like ghouls, and a green screen was used to capture them defying gravity on the walls.

The film.

The story of the film goes like this, the Mayor of Normal Valley (played by
Michael Jackson) leads a mob of townspeople to the Maestro’s mansion to rid him out of town deeming him as a ‘freak’.

As they enter the Maestro’s mansion he performs an array of tricks starling the townspeople and the mayor. After the Maestro continues displaying
his magic he progressively wins over the townspeople and frightens the mayor.

The songs.

Is It Scary and Ghosts were released on the album Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory In The Mix (1997) and 2Bad was released on the album HIStory: Past, Present, and Future Book 1 (1997).

In the film, we get different mixes of these songs showcasing the breadth of New Jack Swing production styles from Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.

Long-time MJ biographer Joseph Vogel describes these songs as “Gothic Funk”, a combination of MJ’s interests in the Gothic themes and mixture of genres within the sounds funk, industrial and disco music.

The dance.

In this film we see Michael dancing for more frequent periods of time showcasing moves that have never been seen before. Sweeping, stomps, grimaces, as Michael’s idol dancer, Fred Astaire complimented him after his record-breaking success Thriller in 1983 as an ‘angry dancer…’ clearly in contrast to the bubbliness of Thriller with lighter steps, here in Ghosts, we get a more emotive approach.

Michael.

Michael’s appearances in this film not only showcases his acting range but showcases his attention to detail in the movie-making process.

His hand was in every part of the film despite the setbacks in his personal life. When the film title changed from Is It Scary to Ghosts, the direction took a more of an autobiographical turn.

Ghosts was Michael’s most emotive film yet, not only as a predecessor to Thriller but in his own words to be better than Thriller.

The disclaimer we see before Thriller shows that Michael is not only a fan of the horror genre but in Ghosts, we see how he is in touch with his own hauntology — by playing against himself and his celebrity.

The tension between the Maestro and the Mayor is no coincidence that Michael is mirroring his own life. The Maestro is Michael, the mansion is Neverland, and the mayor has an uncanny physical resemblance to Sheriff Clarence Strider, the first official in the Emmitt Till case who learned of his death insisted his body was an 18-year-old man, instead of a 14-year-old boy.

The Maestro is a magical musical character living in a large mansion, in a position of power and influence over the mayor who wants him out of town.

In the scenes where the maestro becomes a skeleton begins to dance and later possesses the mayor’s body and starts to dance has a haunting allure to it. We see Michael portrayed as a skeleton and as a mayor. As the audience, we know it’s him. It is in both of these instances we see Michael not as himself but the embodiment of the fear that surrounds him.

Michael is parodying his own image while also personifying the villain.

Lyrically, in the song 2Bad, he says “You aimin’ just for me, you are disgusting me, just want your cut from me.” In Ghosts he says, “Got a knife in back shot an arrow in me, tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?” In Is It Scary, he says “am I amusing you, just confusing you, am I the beast you visualized?”

In all of these songs, he is directly confronting someone, most likely Tom Sneddon and the media for attacking him and uprooting his life by portraying him as a freak, and this film is taking those perceptions and turning it into a horror film.

We see Michael using this film as a form of protest against the allegations. Ghosts was not officially released in the US but in Europe and overseas because of this.

Since the release of the Ghosts film, and his albums Blood On the Dance Floor, HIStory, and Invincible, his popularity still remained consistent worldwide but particularly less favorable in the US.

During the final year of the This Is It concert rehearsals before his death, he mentioned to his nephew Taj Jackson of 3T that he wanted to get back into filmmaking. It is evident that after many years in the studio, he still had much more to offer musically and visually.

Ghosts has every right to exist in the canon of black horror and as a nostalgic view of Michael’s artistic future that could’ve been much more.

An extension of Thriller, this project should not be overlooked because it speaks to Michael’s experiences and creative genius.

Read more about the creative process behind Ghosts here.

Watch the full film here.

Watch the behind the scenes here.

Watch the original version here.

Follow @afrovisualism here.

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Afrovisualism

The originator of Black Aesthetic Continual Theory. Crate-digging for samples & links. Moodboarding on the decks. https://www.instagram.com/afrovisualism/