Are You Scared Yet?
Willa: So a recent article, “Who Is Peter Pan,” in The New York Review of Books mentions Michael Jackson’s identification with Peter Pan, and it rather nonchalantly drops this little bombshell:
Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.
Joie, I know I should be thrilled that people are finally coming to their senses, and I am. But I have to admit, I’ve been storming around ever since I read that, muttering to anyone who will listen about the fickleness of public opinion. When he died, the overwhelming “consensus” was that he was guilty. If he wasn’t guilty of molestation exactly, though most people thought he was, he was suspiciously weird and almost certainly guilty of something. Now, three years later, “the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.” Why the change? No significant new evidence has emerged. There is no logical reason for people to have changed their minds, but they have. Millions of people have changed their minds. Why?
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, but I understand exactly why you’re upset about it. It’s very distressing to know that this beautiful man, who only ever had love in his heart and compassion for his fellow man, was so tortured and ridiculed and falsely accused during his life. But now, in death, so many of those who were doing the maligning seem to have changed their tune. Now, when it’s much too late.
Willa: I know. I just keep feeling this deep regret that the change couldn’t have come about while he was still alive. But the most vexing part of all this is that it couldn’t have, because his death is what triggered the change. There’s no logical reason for public opinion to shift just now. People aren’t changing their minds because of startling new evidence. The only difference between now and three years ago is that he’s gone. He had to die before public sentiment could change. And for me, one of the most distressing aspects of all this is that he knew it – he knew he had to die before people’s attitudes would change. He told us so in Ghosts.
Ghosts is such a fascinating short film in so many ways. In M Poetica I said it was like a seminar on art theory, and it is. We could use it as a springboard to get into some really fascinating theory, like Lewis Hyde’s ideas about trickster figures, or Elaine Scarry’s ideas about the body, or Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the power of the grotesque to disrupt and defy authoritarian power structures. That’s one of the core ideas of Ghosts. We could spend months just talking about this one short film.
But we can also look at Ghosts as an artistic response to the 1993 allegations and scandal, and that’s the approach I wanted to take this week. There is so much in Ghosts that directly corresponds to what happened in 1993, and the media firestorm that followed.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. Both the song and the short film are virtually all about the events surrounding the extortion attempt of 1993, and it’s not even hidden; it’s all right there on the surface. All anyone has to do is simply pay close attention, starting with the three songs he chose to spotlight in the short film itself – “Is It Scary,” “Ghosts,” and “2Bad.”
Willa: It’s true – all three of those songs deal very explicitly with the 1993 allegations – and the plot of Ghosts reinforces that. It opens with a mob of angry villagers invading the home of an artist, a Maestro. He’s become friends with some of the village children and has been telling them ghost stories, and the villagers think that’s inappropriate. As one mom from the village tells him, “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable.”
And of course, that precisely parallels what was happening in real life: he was an artist who developed close friendships with children, and a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And they responded by obtaining a search warrant and invading his home.
Joie: You know, Willa, it really is very difficult to watch Ghosts and not see the parallels to his real life. If you had been paying attention to what was going on in his life at all – and let’s face it, the world couldn’t help but pay attention because the news media was obsessed with “the scandal” – you don’t have to wonder where he got his inspiration for the storyline. It mirrors exactly what happened to him, and I think it’s wonderful that he chose to channel his frustrations in such a creative way. And I think that says a lot about his character that he was willing to put his personal pain on display in order to try and educate the rest of us.
Willa: I agree, Joie. I think he was working through a lot of emotions as he created and developed this film. But he was also helping us as an audience work through our emotions as well. As an artist deeply committed to social change, he didn’t just express his feelings through his work. He was also very interested in how his work influenced us as an audience and how it helped us work through our feelings – how it evoked and redirected our emotions and altered our perceptions, as we talked about in the on-screen audience posts a couple weeks ago. And the way he approaches that in Ghosts is fascinating.
When the villagers invade the Maestro’s home, the first thing he does is appear to them in a frightening mask: instead of seeing his face, the villagers see a skull. They gasp and retreat from him in horror. But as soon as they back off, he drops the mask and reveals it’s just a disguise. The villagers then breathe a sigh of relief, start to relax, and reapproach him in a more friendly way.
It’s very interesting what’s just happened, both dramatically and psychologically. The villagers have invaded his home, which is a very aggressive act, but he immediately flips that dynamic so they are the ones feeling threatened – not him – and then he removes that threat, so they actually feel kind of grateful to him. Importantly, the villagers have invaded his home because they see him as a kind of monster – the kind who would hurt children – and he responds by appearing to them as a monster. So through the mask he evokes the precise emotions they already feel about him. But then he reveals it’s just an illusion: he’s not a monster. So there’s a very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that functions on several different levels.
Joie: Hmm. I never really examined that before, but you’re right. The villagers have invaded his home – they are the ones who are threatening him. But even before they actually enter the house, they are made to feel very frightened and apprehensive. They haven’t even met him yet, but they already feel afraid of him; it’s all in their minds!
Willa: Exactly, and he reflects those emotions back at them through the mask, but then undoes them in a way. So through the mask, he encourages the villagers to vent their emotions and then subtly reconfigures those emotions.
The Maestro and the villagers begin to talk, and as they talk the Mayor gradually builds a case against the Maestro. He says, “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you telling them ghost stories.” He then becomes more aggressive, saying, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” He even begins to threaten the Maestro, saying, “Back to the circus, you freak. And do yourself a favor, OK? Don’t force us get rough with you because we will, if we have to.” Finally, he gives him an ultimatum, saying, “Are you going to leave, or am I going to have to hurt you?”
Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa, particularly in terms of the language he uses in the dialogue between the Mayor and the Maestro. As you pointed out, the Mayor’s words are very specific. “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids.” And, of course, that was always the main accusation leveled against Michael himself – he wasn’t “normal.” He was called “weird” and “strange.” Many people thought of him as a “freak.” So, it’s very telling that these are the words Michael would choose to use for this particular exchange. It makes me think of Joe Vogel’s article, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” which we talked about back in November, where Joe referred to all of those hurtful words as “slurs.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie, and I think you’re right. I think he chose those words very deliberately. As you say, they are exactly the words that were used against him so often in the later years of his life. So what’s happening on screen is precisely reflecting what’s happening to him in real life off screen. Just as the mask reflected the villagers’ emotions back at them, his word choices reflect our emotions back at us.
Importantly, the Maestro responds to this aggression exactly as he did before, only more intensely this time: he distorts his face beyond recognition and then rips it off altogether, so once again his face appears as just a skull. Once again the villagers retreat from him in terror, just as they did before. And once again, as soon as they back off, he restores his face and reveals it’s just an illusion, exactly as he did before. So once again there’s that very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that gives vent to the villagers’ emotions by evoking their fears and reflecting them back at them, and then resolving those fears by showing it’s just an illusion.
Joie: The message here is very clear, I think. He’s pointing out the parallels between the Maestro character and his own personal life. So, by showing that it’s just an illusion, as you say, he’s telling us very clearly that all the perceived “weirdness” surrounding his personal life is also just an illusion, and what we – the public and the media – think we see, isn’t actually the real story.
Willa: I think so too, though there’s also a lot going on psychologically as well. We see that when he repeats that same up-and-down movement of crisis and release a third time. It’s even more extreme this time – instead of his face becoming a skull, his entire body becomes a skeleton – but the villagers reactions are rather different this time around, so there’s been a psychological shift. They’re surprised but they aren’t terrified, and they don’t retreat this time. They stay and watch what he has to show them, and when the skeleton begins to dance, they smile and enjoy his performance. In other words, they aren’t having such a fearful response to the “strange” and the “weird” as they were before. They’re still wary, but they’re becoming a little more accepting of difference.
And then he repeats this up-and-down pattern of crisis and release a fourth and final time, and this is the most intense of all: he destroys himself. He asks them, “So, do you still want me to go?” Many of the villagers, the children especially, shake their heads no, but the Mayor affirms, “Yes! Yes!” So the Maestro says, “Fine. I’ll go.” He drops down and smashes his hands into the floor, then his arms, and then his face. His nose drops off, his entire face disintegrates, his body turns to dust, and an unearthly wind blows it away.
The villagers are horrified, but for a completely different reason than before: not because they’re scared of him, but because they’ve started to feel a connection to him and are horrified that he’s destroying himself. So their feelings over the course of the film have undergone a complete reversal. He’s left, so he’s done what they said they wanted him to do, what they invaded his home to force him to do. But by this point they no longer want him to leave, and as soon as he’s gone they feel a sense of loss and want him back.
Joie: Just like what we’re seeing now that he’s no longer here with us. Wow. That’s very compelling, Willa. So you believe he understood that both he and his art would only be truly appreciated after his death?
Willa: I do. But I also think there’s more going on than that. I’m still struggling to figure this out and articulate it for myself, but I keep coming back to these lines from “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you? Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize … So tell me Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
You know, after he died, a lot of commentators expressed surprise that there was such an outpouring of grief for him considering all the years of scandal and controversy – of “eccentric oddities,” as Michael Jackson calls them in “Is It Scary.” But I’m starting to believe just the opposite: that the public outpouring of grief wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of “eccentric oddities.” Those eccentric oddities performed a crucial function – they provided a series of mini-dramas of crisis and release – just like that repeated up-and-down movement in Ghosts. As in Ghosts, those eccentric oddities allowed us to vent our emotions about him following the molestation accusations and encouraged us to work through them. So when he died, we’d already dealt with a lot of those negative emotions, and once he was really gone it was revealed to us that those negative emotions were an illusion – as The New York Review of Books article says, “Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent” – and we were brought back to our true feelings, which is how much he meant to us.
Joie: That’s a fascinating take on all this, Willa. I’ve never looked at it in this way before.
Willa: You know, I’m still working my way through this, and I could be completely wrong about this, but it feels to me that something very significant was happening through those “eccentric oddities,” both culturally and psychologically, and I think Ghosts is the key to understanding it. He had a very sophisticated aesthetic – I’m convinced his work functioned at deep psychological levels – and he was dealing with some very difficult issues of group psychology after the 1993 scandal broke. Basically, he was dealing with mass hysteria and the fear of the unfamiliar, just like the Maestro, and he responded in a way that directly addressed that group hysteria.
His response may not seem logical at first, but the subconscious mind isn’t logical – or rather, it has a logic of its own that differs from the logic of the conscious mind – and I believe that, through his “eccentric oddities,” he’s speaking directly to the subconscious mind. As he tells us in Ghosts, those repeated mini-dramas of crisis and release had a very specific psychological effect, and they were deliberately created to produce that psychological effect. In “Is It Scary” he tells us very explicitly what he intends to do: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see” and “If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
Joie: I agree with you about the deliberateness of his art, Willa, and I really do believe the three songs featured in the short film (“Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “2Bad”) were chosen very deliberately. I think you and I could probably spend an entire blog – maybe even two – just talking about those three songs in detail and how they relate both to the film and to what was going on in his life at the time.
You know, since we have been working on this blog, I have come to understand that there really wasn’t much about Michael Jackson’s art that was not done deliberately. He usually had a very calculated reason for everything he did and it just leaves me in awe. Wouldn’t you love to be able to get inside the mind of a truly great artist … just to try to understand their passion and fire for their art? That thought is so fascinating to me for some reason and I would just have loved to talk with him about his art. I can’t believe that so many journalists, like Bashir for instance, wasted the precious time they were granted with him by talking about such trivial things like his skin color and his perceived odd behavior. What a colossal waste of an opportunity!
Willa: Oh I know! That’s what strikes me most about the Bashir documentary as well – that he was given this incredible opportunity and completely squandered it. Imagine if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh for eight months and learn more – maybe not about how to interpret specific works, since artists tend to be very reluctant to limit their work to just one interpretation – but about his worldview and how his art fit within that worldview. What an amazing opportunity that would be. And Bashir was given that opportunity and completely wasted it. And the really sad thing is that Bashir has fed his mind on a diet of scandal for so long he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a bigger world out there. Michael Jackson is wrestling with complex issues of social justice and perception and how we make meaning, as well as art’s ability to profoundly influence how we perceive and make sense of the world, and Bashir spends the entire eight months asking tabloid-type questions. It’s just stunning.
Fortunately, Michael Jackson left a lot of clues to help guide us in developing ways to approach his work and understand his worldview. And as we see in Ghosts, there is so much to discover and explore.