Ghosts and Some Questionable Family Values

Willa:  Happy Holidays!  As many of you know, Joie and I started this blog more than four years ago as a place to have in-depth discussions about “Michael Jackson, his art, and social change.” It’s been fascinating talking with you all about these ideas – I have learned so much the past four years. Michael Jackson’s full body of work – his music, dancing, lyrics and poetry, his concerts, short films and other visual art, his creative process and innovative production methods, his public persona, his costumes, his face and body, and above all his overarching aesthetic and deeply held beliefs about social justice and the power of art to bring about change – these are all so rich in meaning it really does take a village to even begin to grasp it all, and I sincerely appreciate everything you all have shared.

About a year ago Joie decided to devote herself fully to a new career, and since then she hasn’t been participating here at the blog. I’m very excited for her but I miss her terribly. To be honest, my first impulse was to retire this space, but Joie convinced me to keep it going. However, I’ve really struggled since she left, as many of you have probably noticed. I’ve been joined by some wonderful guests this year – Raven Woods, Eleanor Bowman, Joe Vogel, Nina Fonoroff, D.B. Anderson, Marie Plasse, Toni Bowers – and I deeply appreciate their involvement and support. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. However, this blog was conceived as a partnership, and it works best when there are two of us fully committed to it, week after week, post after post. And I’m starting to realize that I just don’t enjoy doing it on my own. Running the blog with Joie was a blast. Doing it by myself is not.

After a year of feeling kind of lost and overwhelmed, I decided I really need another partner to keep this blog vibrant and functioning well. So I asked Lisha McDuff if she would be willing to take that on, and I’m so grateful and happy that she has agreed. As many of you know from past conversations, Lisha is extremely knowledgeable about music and the entertainment industry in general, and about Michael Jackson in particular. She’s a classically trained musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and major touring productions like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. Three years ago she decided to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and go back to school, and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director.

Lisha, thank you so much for joining me! I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And how fun that you’ve been working with Susan on Michael Jackson! What could be better than that?

Lisha:  No kidding! Talk about some serious brain power. Susan Fast is everything a popular music scholar should be, in my opinion.

Willa:  Oh, I agree! I love her work. She blows me away with her insights and depth of knowledge time after time. You’re both so knowledgeable about music and have such fascinating ideas – how wonderful that you’re working together! I know how busy you are right now, so I felt kind of guilty even asking, but I am so excited and relieved and happy to have you here as my new writing and blogging partner. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart for accepting.

Lisha:  Honestly, I’m thrilled you asked, Willa. I have gained so much from your work, especially your conversations with Joie and all the other amazing contributors here. Every post has been like a roller-coaster ride for me, so I’m excited for the opportunity to participate on a regular basis. Before we get started though, there is something I’d really like to say: I miss Joie’s contributions terribly as well! I’m sure we all do.

Willa:  Oh, I miss her every post. But we keep in touch and she seems really happy in her new career, so I think it’s been a good move for her. And maybe we can convince her to come join us sometimes …

Lisha:  I certainly hope so!

Willa:  So today we’re going to look at the evolution of the 40-minute short film, Ghosts. Lisha, this all began when you found a clip of an early version of Ghosts, which was filmed in 1993. Here’s a link:

Thank you so much for sharing this! You’ve been trying to track this down for quite a while, right?

Lisha:  Yes, I have been curious about this early footage for years now. I’d heard rumblings about it and I’d seen a few screenshots here and there, but I never had any luck in finding a way to view it. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it had been posted to YouTube.

Willa:  Oh, it’s fascinating! I was so excited when you told me you’d found it. There are quite a few demos available of Michael Jackson’s songs where we can see how his ideas progressed, but it’s rare to have a demo version, as it were, of one of his videos. And how wonderful that it’s Ghosts, which is so complex. It’s so interesting to have this opportunity to peek inside his thought process as he was developing it.

Lisha:  Definitely. And after speculating about it for so long, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally get to see it.

Willa:  It really is! So as I understand it, this early version was shot in 1993 as a promo piece for the feature-length film, Addams Family Values. But work on it abruptly stopped when the Chandler scandal broke and Paramount decided they no longer wanted Michael Jackson’s help promoting their film. Then the project resumed in 1996 as a stand-alone project, separate from Addams Family Values. Is that right?

Lisha:  Yes, according to an interview with the original director, Mick Garris, that’s exactly what happened. A couple of weeks into the shoot, false claims generated by Evan Chandler began circulating in the media and, sadly, the project had to be scrapped. When the work finally resumed, Garris was no longer available so Stan Winston was asked to direct the final version.

At the time, few had any way of knowing it was Evan Chandler who should have been under investigation and Michael Jackson who needed police protection from him. Neither the police nor the press seemed interested in investigating that possibility. As a result, the damages sustained by Michael Jackson were very, very high – personally, professionally, and financially.

Viewing this early version of Ghosts, I began to realize I had assumed this was going to be some sort of cameo appearance for Michael Jackson in Addams Family Values. Now I am thinking it was intended as a Michael Jackson short film that would double as cross-promotion for the motion picture. If true, it’s an interesting idea from an artistic and marketing point of view. I can’t really think of a parallel move, but surely someone else has done this.

Willa, can you think of another music video that has also served as cross-promotion for a major motion picture or entertainment product like this?

Willa:  Hmmm … Now that you mention it, no I can’t. I know there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between movies and popular songs before. Just look at the James Bond movies, which have featured theme songs by Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Adele, and others. And some of the biggest-selling albums of all time have been soundtracks – for The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, Titanic, South Pacific, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, … The list goes on and on. So there’s a long history of the music industry and film industry promoting one another. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of another case where a music video has been created to promote a film.

Lisha:  Those are all great examples, and you’re right there has always been a strong synergy between music and film. Popular songs are often featured in motion pictures, and movie songs frequently become hits. Many don’t realize the musical short is as old as sound-film and television itself. They were produced and widely distributed long before MTV.

But for some reason I just can’t think of another music video that includes characters from another current movie or project. The only Ghosts/Addams Family comparison I can come up with is the Black or White short film, which ends with a clip of The Simpsons.

Willa:  Yes, but I think that Simpsons clip is there for thematic reasons, not to promote the show. What I mean is, I think it’s significant that Black or White begins and ends with a white boy (Macauley Culkin and Bart Simpson) dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, and then rebelling against his father when he tries to shut the music down.

Lisha:  That’s true. Although The Simpsons are funny-looking lemon-yellow cartoon characters, their language and behavior codes white. That’s an important point that Susan Fast makes in her book on the Dangerous album – that the Black or White short film is literally framed by whiteness.

And I totally agree that The Simpsons clip in Black or White functions independently of any possible marketing strategy. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing its promotional value, which would have given the series massive global exposure via a Michael Jackson short film. Now I’m curious as to whether or not that ending was monetized in some way.

Willa:  That’s an interesting question. I have no idea. Michael Jackson did participate in a Simpsons episode, though that wasn’t confirmed until years later, but I don’t think he was paid for it.

Lisha:  I wouldn’t know, but there are some interesting possibilities there, for sure.

Willa:  That’s true. And the draft version of Ghosts does have quite a few references to the Addams Family, like Thing (the disembodied hand) skittering around, and the sudden appearance near the end of the Addams children: Wednesday, Pugsley, and Pubert. They aren’t in the final version. By the way, here’s a link to the final, for comparison purposes:

Lisha:  No matter how often I’ve watched this film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s so brilliant on so many levels. It’s hard to understand some of the reviews that characterize it as a “huge flop.”  

Willa: I think a lot of critics don’t like it because it draws on the aesthetic of the grotesque, which is alien territory to a lot of people. It’s an ancient form that’s disruptive to the status quo, and it makes people feel unsettled and uncomfortable – especially people in power. That’s its function, to unsettle things. But a lot of people don’t like that feeling, and feel threatened by it. And perhaps they should feel threatened. It can be very powerful.

So my sense is that a lot of critics don’t like Ghosts because it’s so different, it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand it – just like a lot of the villagers in Ghosts don’t like the Maestro because he’s so different, he makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand him … at least, not at the beginning. It’s another one of those loop-de-loop situations where Michael Jackson’s art reflects and predicts what will happen in real life. We see that happening over and over again with Michael Jackson, and Ghosts is a great example. He almost seemed to predict the future with that film, in a number of ways.

Lisha: You are so right. Ghosts is a powerful film that both reflects and predicts “what will happen in real life” – eerily so. And your point is well taken about the aesthetic of the grotesque and how fiercely it challenges the status quo. Ghosts is also a brutally honest work of art. Michael Jackson lets us in on the fact he’s known all along what we’ve been saying about his artistry, his face, his weirdness, his childlike innocence. Now that we have this early version available to study, I’m even more fascinated by some of the issues it raises.

Willa:  So am I. And it’s really interesting to compare the two versions to see the development of his ideas. Some changes are obvious, like when the Maestro disappears at the end of the 1993 version. Of course, that version is incomplete, so it could be his return was planned but just wasn’t filmed yet when work was suspended. Still, it’s unsettling to see the Maestro disappear and not come back. At the end of the 1996 version, he definitely returns and is even stronger than before – he’s been accepted by the villagers and it’s the Mayor who’s disappeared.

That brings up another important difference: the actor who plays the Mayor in the original version is not Michael Jackson. The original Mayor does turn up a couple times in the final version though. Here he is at 1:32 minutes, entering the Maestro’s home:

Old Mayor 2

Lisha:  Good eye, Willa! I hadn’t seen that, but you’re right. That cut appears to have been lifted directly from the original.

Willa:  Yes, instead of reshooting everything in 1996, they reused a lot of the footage from 1993 – like this shot of the original Mayor, which you don’t notice if you aren’t looking for him. At least I never noticed him before. A lot of the special effects sequences are the same also.

Lisha:  I have to say, overall, I was surprised by how similar the unfinished rough cut is to the final version directed by Stan Winston. I had imagined there would be more drastic differences, but much of it looks remarkably similar.

Willa: That’s true. There are some significant differences, but the overall structure was pretty much there in 1993, and many of the scenes are very similar, as you say. But even so, sometimes subtle changes shift the feeling of what we’re seeing and how we respond to it. For example, both films feature the “Welcome to Normal Valley” sign in the opening scenes using the exact same footage. But the background music has changed and that affects our emotional response to the sign, even though the visuals are the same.

Lisha:  The musical score in the finished product is very well done, I think. It adds so much to the dramatic impact of the film. I noticed a comment on YouTube claiming the 1993 rough cut has temporary music only, taken from other films. I don’t know if that’s true or not, the music and sound effects are well synchronized already, but it also makes sense. I wouldn’t expect the musical score to be added until after the film editing was complete.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Lisha. I really don’t know how that typically works. For music videos, which were Michael Jackson’s forte and where he served his apprenticeship and learned his craft as a filmmaker, I assume the music would come first. But for a feature-length film, I imagine you’re right and the visuals come first and the music comes later. For something like Ghosts, which lies somewhere between a feature film and a video, I simply don’t know.

Lisha:  I think you’ve got it, Willa. For the musical numbers, the music is produced first and played back at the film shoot so the performers can synchronize their movement with the music. For the dramatic scenes, the music and sound effects are added later, so they can be synchronized to the visuals.

Brad Sundberg just gave an interesting interview where he described working on the Ghosts film shoot. It’s a pretty entertaining story, as is the entire interview. Skip to 1:00:30 for the part about Ghosts and how loud Michael Jackson wanted the playback!

Willa:  That’s funny! Especially his description of their struggles to get enough volume in the huge space they were using for filming. He said they built an “enormous sound system” and had speakers the size of “two refrigerators side by side – two American refrigerators.”

Lisha:  Yes, and don’t confuse those enormous speakers with the size of a small Asian or European refrigerator! Sounds like they were going for the “Are You Nuts!?!” volume levels.

Willa:  Could be! By the way, I noticed Brad mentioned “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” together, and that reminds me of something Debbie Rowe said during the AEG trial. She said that, originally, “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” were one song, but later it was divided and developed into two songs. After she said that, I noticed some interesting connections between them – like they both begin with the lines, “There’s a ghost out in the hall / There’s a ghoul beneath the bed.” They also come one after the other on the Blood on the Dance Floor album, and there’s an interesting parallelism between them in Ghosts. The Maestro turns into a skeleton and dances to “Is It Scary.” Later the skeleton turns into the Monster Maestro, enters the Mayor, and then he dances to “Ghosts” in a way that feels reminiscent of the skeleton dance.

Lisha:  Wow, that’s really interesting. For some reason I don’t remember that from the AEG trial, but now I want to go back and re-read it.  And I think that’s absolutely right, that “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” are just two different versions of the same song. Don’t you think so?

Willa: They are very similar – in fact, I used to get them confused when I’d listen to them on my car stereo. I thought I was just being a scatterbrain, but maybe there’s a reason I confused them! If you’re able to track down Debbie Rowe’s testimony, I’d love to look it over. I know I was really struck by what she said, but I’m just going by memory, and my memory’s not the best …

Lisha:  Gee, I can relate to that! Ok, Willa, here we go – found a link to Rowe’s testimony.

Willa:  Thanks for tracking that down, Lisha. So here’s what Debbie Rowe said:

I remember “Ghost” was split in half, for some reason, or “Do you think it’s scary.” It was originally going to be called “Ghost,” and then it was “Is It Scary.”

That is so interesting.  I’d really like to look into that some more …

Lisha:  I would too.

Willa:  Anyway, like you I love the music in the final version and strongly prefer it to the music in the original – not just Michael Jackson’s songs (of course!) but also the background music, and the feeling it creates.

I also prefer the scenes of the villagers marching toward the Maestro’s mansion in the final film. In the 1993 version, those scenes are in color and the villagers are individualized. We see their faces and hear their voices. The final version uses footage from that same shoot, including some of the exact same scenes, but the film has been rendered black-and-white in the final version, and it’s been edited so it’s much more abstract. We know the townspeople are upset and angry, but for the most part we don’t see their faces or hear their voices except as a murmur behind the music. So what we see in the final version isn’t so much specific people anymore, but more an abstract idea of an angry mob.

Lisha:  That’s a really great point and I think you’re right. Those small details make it a little more vague, which better illustrates the mob mentality that is so central to the story.

Willa:  I think so too. The problem isn’t these specific people so much as the phenomenon of fear and intolerance leading to mob violence, and the final version conveys that much better, I think.

There’s a similar shift in the dialogue. In the draft version, things tend to be spelled out in rather explicit, straightforward terms. But the final tends to be more subtle and more nuanced. For example, in the draft version the villagers begin to chant, “Come out where we can see you. Come out where we can see you.” That’s been dropped in the final. Instead, we simply see them looking for the Maestro. We also see that they’re both eager to find him and kind of fearful about it too. That kind of emotional complexity is conveyed much better in the final, I think.

Lisha:  It is definitely more subtle. In the original, I feel like the demand for the Maestro to leave town is quite explicit.  It’s very clear that the townspeople have entered the Maestro’s mansion for the specific purpose of running him off. In the final version, the mayor similarly states “we want you out of town,” but it’s more vague as to whether or not that is simply his wish or if that is what the townspeople had hoped to achieve by going there.

Willa:  That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – and that’s an important change. Again, it makes the story more subtle and more universal, and also opens it up to multiple interpretations.

There’s a similar shift in the setting, meaning how the Maestro’s mansion is conceptualized and presented. In the original 1993 version, there are several shots of the exterior of the house, like this one, which stays on screen for a fairly long time:

exterior of Maestros house - 1993

Here’s another exterior view, this time from closer in:

exterior of Maestros house 2 - 1993

And here’s another, closer still. If you look closely, you can see the left window in the door has been broken by one of the villagers. We don’t see them engaging in that kind of violence in the final version, though the potential for mob violence is definitely there.

exterior of Maestros house 3 - 1993

Shots like these present the Maestro’s mansion as a specific, physical place. But almost all of these exterior shots have been removed from the final version. Instead, the house is presented in a more abstract way. We only have two brief glimpses of the entire house – one at the beginning behind the title block, and the other 44 seconds in, when lightning illuminates the house for just an instant. So our sense of the Maestro’s house is more impressionistic than in the 1993 version. To me it feels more like a memory or an imagined place than a real place.

This is reinforced by the shot immediately after, at 45 seconds in, of the sign identifying this as Someplace Else – not 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue or Westlake Studios, but Someplace Else.

Lisha:  I think that sign is hilarious: “Someplace Else.”

Willa:  I do too. Here’s a screen capture of it, with a flaming torch passing by:

Someplace Else

The effect of all this is to make the Maestro’s mansion feel more like a mythic space, a space located in our own imaginations, rather than an actual physical place. It’s subtle but very well done, I think.

Lisha:  It reminds me of the jump from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz, signaling the move into the imaginary or mythic realm.

Willa:  Yes, and that jump to color happens in Ghosts also – the film switches from black-and-white to subdued color when we enter “the imaginary or mythic realm” of the Maestro. That’s a great way to put it, Lisha.

It’s in this realm that the Maestro engages and ultimately alters the villager’s hostile feelings toward him, but in unexpected ways: with the help of special effects, he stretches his eyes and mouth to grotesque proportions, or rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull, or pounds himself to dust on the stone floor. For the most part, these scenes are pretty similar in the two versions. In fact, many of the special effects sequences are identical. Interestingly, Stan Winston, who acted as the director in 1996, as you mentioned earlier, was in charge of special effects in 1993, so those sequences are his. He created them.

Lisha:  That would certainly explain why they look so similar!

Willa:  Yes, it does. But again there are some significant changes. Some new special effects sequences have been added in the later version, like the dancing skeleton, and the Monster Maestro, and the huge face filling the doorway. And a few have been deleted, like the one where they can’t get through a locked door, and suddenly one of the villagers starts gagging and coughs up the key.

Lisha:  I noticed another interesting sequence from the early version that was later omitted. It’s the black-out at around 3:50, when the mayor lights some matches to see where they are going. Suddenly we see torches on the wall that begin to fire up on their own, and they appear to be held by human arms coming out the walls. This scene is strikingly similar to one in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a trailer that shows the human wall sconces at about 30 seconds in:

Willa:  I had the exact same feeling! Those light fixtures made of living human arms are very evocative of Cocteau’s film, aren’t they? In fact, I see a lot of connections between Cocteau and Michael Jackson. I wonder why that detail was removed from the final version?

Lisha:  Good question. I see some connections as well and really like the reference.

Willa:  I do too. I also like the fact that when the Maestro first appears in the original, he’s among the villagers – he’s one of them.

Lisha:  I thought that was fascinating – how the Maestro disguises himself among the crowd, hiding in plain sight. It reminds me of how Michael Jackson reportedly went out in public wearing various disguises. I wonder how many people have been standing next to Michael Jackson at some point in their lives and never known it.

Willa:  That’s an interesting connection, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of that. I just like the implication that he is one of the villagers, part of the community, not someone separate.

Lisha:  Yes. And that is really spelled out in the final version where Michael Jackson plays the roles of both the Mayor and the Maestro.

Willa:  Oh interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s true that in some ways he seems more connected to the villagers in the final version. For example, when he begins to interact with the villagers in the 1993 draft version, he seems pretty fearful of them, and hurt – emotionally hurt – by their animosity toward him. And I imagine that’s a pretty accurate reflection of his emotions in 1993, just as the Chandler schemes were unfolding.

Lisha:  I would agree.

Willa:  But his interactions with the villagers in the final version feel different to me. He seems much more comfortable with them, and more confident. It’s like he thoroughly understands the villagers and what motivates them, knows how to change their minds, and that knowledge helps him maintain total control of the situation. He’s the Maestro, and he knows his power. That’s the feeling I get from the final version – not so much in the draft version.

Lisha:  Although in the original, the Maestro displays considerable power over the villagers as well, like when he signals the doors to magically close, preventing his “guests” from leaving the room.

Willa:  That’s true.

Lisha:  But I agree that the power he wields is more apparent in the final version.

Willa:  It seems that way to me, and not just his magic powers but his bearing and facial expressions – his confidence in his abilities as an artist to touch people’s hearts and change their minds.

Another very important “lost” scene is the children’s response after the Maestro turns to dust. In the 1993 draft version, the children immediately rush to him and begin shaping the dust back into human form – creating fingers, making him whole – until he is restored. So in a very literal way, the children re-create him and bring him back to life in the original version.

Lisha:  Their concern, innocence and sheer delight in his imagination and playfulness sparks the power that reanimates the Maestro.

Willa:  That’s a great way to interpret it, Lisha! I really like this sequence, but it isn’t in the final version. Instead, the Maestro is restored to life in a very different way. And actually, while I love the idea of the children bringing him back to life, I think the final version works better.

While the children don’t bring him back to life in the final version, they are more vocal about protecting him and more involved in the discussions among the villagers. For example, as everyone is standing at the gate looking in, before they enter the Maestro’s home, one boy says, “Why don’t we just leave him alone?” and another says, “He hasn’t hurt anybody. Can’t we just go?” But then the brother of the second boy blames him, saying, “It’s your fault, jerk. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” None of that is in the original version.

Lisha: This scene really jumped out at me as I rewatched my VCD copy of the film. (YouTube quality doesn’t really do it justice!) In the opening dialogue you described, the mother also whacks her kid on the head and says “you did the right thing.” The dissonance between her whack on the head and her reassurance of the child is confusing and unsettling.

One of the most interesting and important things about Ghosts is how it can be interpreted as an artistic response to the false accusations made against Michael Jackson in 1993. But I wonder if there is any possibility that the original concept for Ghosts predates Evan Chandler’s extortion scheme, given the amount of time it takes to put a film together and the fact that the media construction of  Michael Jackson as a “weirdo” from “Someplace Else” was already firmly in place.

Willa:  That’s a really good question, Lisha. The accusations became public in August but private negotiations had been going on for quite a while before that, so it’s not clear how much Michael Jackson knew before work on Ghosts began. I think Chandler says he first confronted him about his “suspicions” before Memorial Day weekend of 1993, so that would have been in May, probably. Then the phone conversation David Schwartz taped – the one where Evan Chandler says he’s hired a lawyer, “the nastiest son of a bitch I could find,” that “it could be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” and that “everything is going according to a certain plan that isn’t just mine” – that all happened on July 8th, and Michael Jackson was given a copy of the tape soon after. The dental visit where Chandler put Jordan under sedation and asked him questions was July 16th, which is so backwards: the fact that Chandler hired a lawyer before his son had even agreed to the allegations says a lot about where those allegations originated. And then the scandal broke in late August.

Lisha:  You’re so right about the timeline. Both Raymond Chandler and Geraldine Hughes claim that Evan Chandler hired attorney Barry Rothman in June 1993. Just like the Arvizo case, the timeline makes no sense whatsoever.

Willa:  No, it doesn’t – or rather, it makes sense only if you realize that the allegations began with the parents and not with the children. Simply looking at the chronology of events of both cases tells a lot.

Lisha:  It’s shocking, really.

Willa:  It really is. How could the police and the press miss something so obvious?

Lisha:  You got me. Motivated reasoning? That’s my best guess.

Willa:  I think you’re right. But anyway, by the time the scandal became public, Chandler had already been negotiating for weeks, trying to get a $20 million deal in exchange for his silence. So I suspect the way things went is that Michael Jackson was asked to do a song and promotional video for Addams Family Values in early 1993, before there was a problem with the Chandlers. But then things started getting ugly with Evan Chandler – in private – right around the time he started developing the plot and ideas. And then the scandal broke publicly two weeks after they started filming.

Does that sound plausible to you, Lisha, or not really? I honestly don’t know how long it would take for the screenplay and everything to come together once they started working on it. You have a lot more insight into that side of things than I do.

Lisha:  Michael Jackson was certainly aware of what Evan Chandler was up to well before they began filming, so yes, it is definitely plausible. But I also think analyzing the story as a response to negative media portrayals holds up either way – before or after Chandler. 1993 was the year that Michael Jackson began defending himself against all kinds of unfair media characterizations that had turned really mean and nasty. I mean, looking back, how crazy is it that he had to go on primetime television in February of 1993 to tell Oprah he was a gentleman, who suffered from vitiligo, and did not sleep in a hyperbaric chamber? In hindsight, why was that so necessary?

In some ways, it would be interesting if Ghosts was initially conceived before the Chandler extortion plot. What I’m trying to say is, there were already a lot of mean-spirited media portrayals going on before Evan Chandler and Barry Rothman implemented their “plan.” And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason many people fell for the false accusations is that they intersected with the negative media portrayals already in circulation.

Willa:  I agree. By the way, here’s an article by Stephen King, who worked on the Ghosts screenplay, where he describes Michael Jackson’s initial concept for the short film. Interestingly, it seems that King himself interpreted the concept one way before the scandal broke – as a response to anti-Rock & Roll feelings – and another way after the scandal:

The core story he described to me that day was about a mob of angry townspeople – buttoned-down suburbanites, not torch-carrying peasants – who want the “weirdo” who lives in the nearby castle to leave town. Because, they say, he’s a bad influence on their children. I associated that with the view parents held toward rock & roll when I was growing up, and still held toward the odder artists of the breed, like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson (who in 1995 would release an album called Smells Like Children). I didn’t know that rumors about Jackson and child abuse had begun to circulate.

I also thought it was significant that Stephen King says Michael Jackson told him the “core story” before he began writing the screenplay. So the initial concept was definitely Michael Jackson’s. King also says the final screenplay “had wandered a far distance from my original script.” So while Stephen King is generally credited with the story, I think Michael Jackson was at least equally involved, from beginning to end.

Lisha:  That’s an excellent point and just what we needed to know – that the story began with Michael Jackson and evolved over this specific time period.

By the way, I’d like to know how it is that Michael Jackson got constructed as the Rock & Roll “weirdo,” with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson around? That would be really funny if I didn’t sense something so ugly behind it all. At the same time Michael Jackson was pigeonholed as a “pop” artist, and therefore ineligible for the cultural status given to serious rock musicians, he was also the ultimate Rock & Roll “weirdo.” That doesn’t add up.

To my way of thinking, the vilification of Michael Jackson occurred long before Evan Chandler got dollar signs in his eyes. Chandler and Rothman simply capitalized on the hysteria that already existed.

Willa:  I think you’re right.

Lisha: Garris, who initially met Michael Jackson on the set of Thriller, was asked if he thought Michael Jackson was just being playful with all of this “monster” imagery. Ultimately, he didn’t think the response was very funny either:

He was very playful with that image, though as the press got meaner, he was definitely hurt by it, and pulled back and became more reclusive.

Willa:  Yes. And this is kind of off topic, but how interesting that Garris was involved in Thriller, playing the role of one of the zombies, and then ended up as the director for the 1993 filming of Ghosts. That’s amazing! He’s like the Forrest Gump of Michael Jackson videos …

Lisha:  Pretty wild. Small world, isn’t it?

Willa:  It really is. And it’s true the media attacks on Michael Jackson began long before the allegations. Just look at the Leave Me Alone video, which was released in 1989 – four years before the Chandler allegations.

Lisha: I read an interesting article by media scholar John Nguyet Erni, who studied these negative portrayals and argued that “if Michael Jackson’s troubles preceded the scandal, it is critical for us to understand the source of those troubles and their discursive life, especially in the media.” In his May 2009 article published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Erni cites cultural critic Michele Wallace, who questioned the breadth of the Michael Jackson controversy early on. In 1989, Wallace noted the abundance of media criticism directed toward Michael Jackson and pointed out how it totally lacked a focus:

Where does this controversy focus its attention? Is it on his videos, his music, his wealth, his fame, his sexuality, his race, his lifestyle, his aesthetics, his unwillingness to be interviewed, his family, his plastic surgery, his skin lightening, or is it some ineffable combination of any or all of the above?  What, at this moment, at the peak of his career, is he being attacked and criticized [for] on all sides?

These are complicated questions, but it seems obvious that the false allegations provided a target or a resting place for all of these free-floating anxieties.

Willa:  I agree, and how prescient that Wallace was raising these questions in 1989. But as Wallace asks, Why? What gives rise to this criticism? And later, in 1993, what was it exactly that made the public – white Americans, especially – predisposed to believe those allegations, regardless of the evidence? It’s like, once again, the chronology is reversed. Looking back at media coverage of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and 90s, it’s not true that the allegations came out and then people turned against him, though that’s the narrative that’s been repeated over and over about him. Instead, there was significant uneasiness toward him before the scandal, and then the allegations simply validated that unease.

Lisha: You’re right. There is a resilient narrative out there that goes something like: The public greatly admired Michael Jackson’s talent from the time he was a small child. But due to the perils of success, he lost touch with reality and began acting out in tragic ways. Some are still blinded by his celebrity and talent which causes them to irrationally reject all negative information about him, primarily jurors and fans.

Yet there is ample evidence to suggest people wanted to believe just about anything negative about Michael Jackson, regardless of the evidence, especially when it involved a lot of condemnation and ridicule. You know, I think Susan Fast really nailed it when she described the Michael Jackson controversy as “difference that exceeded understanding.”

Willa:  I agree.

Lisha: Willa, in your journal article for Popular Musicology Online, you discuss how Ghosts addresses our fear of difference at the level of “sensation and affect,” a place where unowned cultural biases can overwhelm and distort judgment and sound reasoning:

Drawing on his own case history as a guide, Jackson uses Ghosts to map out an artistic approach for attacking cultural biases not only in an intellectual way but at a deep psychological level – in a place of sensation and affect, a place resistant to evidence and reason, a place where our most primal fears, prejudices, and desires hold sway. Significantly, this is also the place where hysteria arises.

For example, in the 1993 film, Michael Jackson first appears at approximately 6:20, as the mayor and the townspeople are hysterically confronting the Maestro. They claim the Maestro scares their children, but these are the very same children who smile warmly at him, giggle a lot, and are clearly delighted by his antics:

Maestro: Here I am. What do you want?

Mayor:  We want you out of town!  You don’t fit in here!

Townswoman:  You’re not like us!

Maestro:  Why do I have to be?

Townsman:  You’re not like anybody. You’re weird! These kids think you’re scary. (The mayor’s son shrugs his shoulders, as if he has no idea why he is saying this.)

Maestro: I’m scary?  (pauses, looks at the boy) Son, do you think I’m scary?

Mayor’s son:  (shakes his head “no,” but the mayor ventriloquizes his head up and down to indicate “yes”)

Mayor:  You bet you’re scary!  You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town.

Willa:  This is such an important scene, especially when the Mayor grabs the boy’s head and forces him to nod “yes” when he was really nodding “no.” A similar example occurs 1:40 minutes in, when the Mayor’s son tells him, “Daddy, I’m scared.” He replies, “Sure you are. It’s a scary place.” But his son says, “No, I’m scared of them,” and nods toward the villagers with their flaming torches. Then he asks, “What’s going to happen?” That’s what scares him – the villagers’ aggression – not the Maestro.

Lisha:  Yes!  The kids are clearly confused and disturbed by all this hysteria and intolerance.  

Willa:  Exactly. Repeatedly we see that the children respond in a very different way than the adults do – specifically, they’re much more open and welcoming of difference. But the adults don’t seem to realize this. Instead, they project their emotions onto their children, and then use that as justification for their intolerant actions.

That scene you mentioned, Lisha, of the Mayor “ventriloquizing” his son shows this very clearly. The boy isn’t scared of the Maestro – the Mayor is. But he says his son is scared so he can justify his attempts to drive the Maestro from his home. This is all spelled out pretty explicitly in the 1993 version. It’s central to the final version also, but it’s handled more subtly.

Lisha:  Yes, I agree, the psychological projection is depicted even clearer in the earlier version which brings up another point Erni makes in his study of the media scandal. There is language in the illegally leaked copies of Jordan Chandler’s “witness testimony” that exhibits an obvious ventriloquism. Jordan Chandler’s complaint contains a lot of specialized language that a detective or a therapist might use, which is not the language of a young teenager. Erni discusses “the confluent forces that accumulate around the testimony, forces that ventriloquize the teenager’s sexual knowledge and memory, voices that speak for him – and therefore without him.”

Willa: This is such an important point.

Lisha:  It is. And as you mentioned earlier, much of the action and dialogue in Ghosts is so prophetic and insightful.  I mean, isn’t this exactly what happened to Michael Jackson in reality?

Willa: Yes, it is. Ghosts provides such an interesting window into his perceptions of what was happening and why – as well as what was about to happen. He was uncannily accurate in predicting what would happen in the future.

Lisha: When the hysterical mayor cries: “You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town!” it suggests to me that as early as 1993 Michael Jackson knew there were some who literally wanted him gone for no other reason than he was a “weirdo” and not like anyone else. He wouldn’t actually have to leave his home for another 12 years, but in fact, this did happen. You and D.B. Anderson were just discussing this in terms of racial politics:

D.B.: … this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…

Willa:  … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.

D.B.:  Or throw him in jail.

Willa:  Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.

It’s worth giving this some serious thought. Driving Michael Jackson out of his home was precisely what happened as a result of the false allegations – allegations that were originally manufactured by parents, police, therapists, and/or the press, and later ventriloquized through children. I don’t need to remind a Michael Jackson fan that to this day there is not one single instance of a child spontaneously making a criminal accusation against Michael Jackson. Not one. They all follow some kind of bizarre timeline where parents, police, therapists, lawyers, and/or Martin Bashir create a claim – which is later ventriloquized as “witness testimony.”

Willa:  Absolutely. To my mind, the clearest example is the Jason Francia case. His mother goes on a celebrity news show, Hard Copy, and says her son may have been molested by Michael Jackson – and she does this before talking to a guidance counsellor or psychologist about her concerns, or even talking to her son about it. As a mom, that just boggles my mind. Her first step is to say something like that on a nationally broadcast television show before she’s even discussed it with her 12-year-old son? That goes against all my instincts as a mom.

Lisha:  It’s unreal.

Willa:  It really is – just unbelievable. So the police question her son about it and he says no, nothing happened. But they keep pushing him to say something did happen until he finally tells them, “If he really did touch, it was in the arcade.” This is such a clear case of the “ventriloquism” you pointed out in the 1993 version, Lisha. The boy shakes his head no, but the Mayor grabs his head and forces him to nod yes. That’s it exactly – a perfect description of the Chandlers and the Francias.

Lisha:  That gets us into another troubling aspect of the media scandal Erni identified, which is the commodification of “witness testimony.” Accusations against Michael Jackson were bought and sold for years and it was big business. Even today we could debate whether or not there is still a market for accusations against Michael Jackson.

And what is the end result of all this? Michael Jackson suffered millions and millions in damages and was driven out of town by the Sheriff. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was the 1990s and 2000s, not the wild west! So it bears repeating: despite being exonerated in a court of law, Michael Jackson was driven out of his own home and out of his community. And not just any home. From what I understand, to call Neverland a home misses the point entirely, according to those lucky enough to have been there.

What D.B. Anderson mentioned in the previous post about cultural dominance is consistent with everything I know about how the social hierarchy works. Cultural dominance (for example white, male, heterosexual positions of power) is often maintained through the most everyday, ordinary things we take for granted. Images in the press or in popular culture often work to solidify (or sometimes challenge) the dominance of one group over another. Oftentimes we so thoroughly accept what the culture considers “normal” that we don’t even think to question our own beliefs about it. It’s simply the way things are.

Willa:  Exactly. It’s so “normal” we can’t even see it, or imagine a different way.

Lisha:  Yes. That’s why interrogating what is “normal” is so crucially important to understanding how society works. I think that’s one reason scholars have been interested in studying Michael Jackson and the way he seems to challenge normativity at every turn. These challenges have intersected with the very mechanisms of control, such as law enforcement and the media, which often speak in one voice when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa:  That’s a really important point, Lisha, and it lies at the heart of Ghosts, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s precisely what this film is about. The residents of Normal Valley feel threatened by the Maestro because, like Michael Jackson, “he seems to challenge normativity at every turn,” as you say. And they respond by trying to reassert their control (over their children, over their town and who is allowed to live there) and reestablish the normalcy that has been disrupted by the Maestro by invading his home and trying to drive him out of town.

And of course, that’s true of Michael Jackson in real life as well, with the police and the media acting like the residents of Normal Valley to maintain the established social order by forcing him out – not just out of Neverland but out of the country.

Lisha:  Well said. As an American citizen, it’s so troubling to me that this happened at all, but especially in my own lifetime.

Michael Jackson posed a threat to normativity that wasn’t just a lofty statement attached to a work of art. It was a very real threat to the established order, and we can find a mountain of evidence to corroborate how the culture worked very hard to contain him.

Willa, you have described Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as a new kind of art – one that isn’t necessarily confined to artwork itself, but art that is also located in our everyday lives through social discourse and other kinds of media we consume:

Through this new kind of art, Jackson captured the cultural narratives that were being imposed on him – narratives of race, of gender, of sexuality, of criminality, of celebrity and monstrous excess – inflated them to grotesque proportions, and then reflected those narratives back at us, forcing us to confront and grapple with them, and maybe reconsider them. This new genre is mediated through the tabloids and celebrity television shows and even the mainstream press, and it includes the many “eccentric oddities” (to borrow a phrase from “Is It Scary”) that came to define Jackson in the public mind.

Willa:  Yes, I strongly believe that. Ghosts functions at several different levels at once. On one level, it is itself a fascinating work of art. But on another level it’s art talking about art – specifically, how art (an expanded definition of art that includes his public persona and the popular press) can bring about social change.

Lisha:  You’ve definitely convinced me.

Willa:  Part of what Michael Jackson was trying to address in his promo piece for Addams Family Values – the work that became Ghosts – were all the suspicions directed at him. Which makes it all the more disappointing what happened after Paramount severed ties with him. Not only did they no longer want him promoting their film, but they added a scene to Addams Family Values that played right into those allegations. Here’s a clip:

So instead of challenging the suspicions and discomfort felt toward him, as Michael Jackson intended, it did just the opposite and reinforced them.

Lisha:  Wow. So there it is – everything we’ve been talking about in one 15-second clip. That gag would have worked just as well in February 1993 – at the time of the Oprah interview and several months before the accusations were made – as it did in November 1993, when Addams Family Values was released.

Willa: Though it definitely gained currency after the allegations became public …

Lisha:  Making it very clear what the public was being cued to do:  be very afraid of Michael Jackson!

Willa:  Yes. It’s shocking to see his message of tolerance supplanted by this …

Lisha:  … a message of total intolerance.

Willa:  Yes, it feels that way to me too.

Well, there’s so much more to talk about with Ghosts, but we should probably wrap it up for today. Again, thank you so much for joining me, Lisha! – both today and in the weeks to come. I am so happy to have you here with me. What a wonderful way to start the new year!

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on December 31, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. It’s wonderful that you have a new partner in Lisha, Willa! Looking forward to some great discussions.

    • Thank you, Susan. I’m so happy to have Lisha with me – I can’t imagine a better “dance partner” to step in.

      Best wishes for the new year.

  2. Willa, Lisha,

    A great 2016 to both of you, its great that you have a new blog partner, Willa. We all certainly need a lot of more enlightenment as to questions of race and gender at all levels and walks of life, there are still far too many primitive biases prevalent.

  3. Dear Willa and Lisha, with your discussion today, you have answered some of my questions of how did all this negative press and hostility toward Michael developed. Your abilities to discuss Michael’s complicated life in a scholarly way is valuable to understanding.

    A heartfelt wish you be blessed this New Year of 2016!
    Gloria

    • Dear Gihan and Gloria. Thank you so much for your encouragement, and for participating here at the blog.

      Wishing you all the best for the new year.

  4. I’m so glad that you are on board Lisha, and that Willa gets to continue doing this blog in a way that is fun and nourishing. I was horrified by the thought that it might end, and deeply relieved it will not.

    What wonderful insights into Ghosts, and thank you so much for pointing out that earlier clip. WOW! I too am struck by how Michael moved from being more anxious in the first video’s interaction with the villagers–more like the young man he plays in the BAD short film– and far more self-possessed in the final version. Thanks, Willa, for pointing out “It’s like he thoroughly understands the villagers and what motivates them, knows how to change their minds, and that knowledge helps him maintain total control of the situation. He’s the Maestro, and he knows his power”.

    For the rest of his life, Michael used that power to touch and name our fears and wounds, and help us move past them.

    This is exactly what I’ve been trying to explore in my work…what were the foundations for his power? How did he develop and use that power? And how can we do it too? Now I want to go back over Ghosts with a fine-toothed comb, trying to touch and name what he was doing and understand how he arrived at that level of confidence. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • “I too am struck by how Michael moved from being more anxious in the first video’s interaction with the villagers – more like the young man he plays in the BAD short film – and far more self-possessed in the final version.”

      Hi Keely. That’s a very interesting analogy. In terms of confidence, I agree that the Maestro as portrayed in the draft version of Ghosts is similar to Daryl in Bad – and if we push that further, the Maestro as portrayed in the final version of Ghosts is similar to Daryl after he transforms into the artist in the color dance sequence in Bad.

  5. Happy New Year Willa and Lisha,

    I’m so glad to hear that you did not retire ‘Dancing with the Elephant’, Willa, that would have been a sad way to start the MJ-Studies year. Lisha, thank-you for citing Michele Wallace’s article from 1989, published in ‘Invisibility Blues’ in 1990, Wallace was right on the mark in every way conceivable. It seems that, just as MJ demonstrates in his ‘Ghosts’ short film, there is just ‘something’ about the Maestro that the townspeople and the mayor don’t like. However, don’t you think it’s interesting that the Mayor (also played by Jackson), has a specific personal dislike of Jackson and it’s almost as though the townspeople are used as a smokescreen to cover it.

    • Happy New Year Elizabeth,

      Yes, it seems the Mayor is leading the townspeople in more ways than one. That’s a great observation that they are being used as cover for his personal animosity. The implications of that are frightening, and unfortunately, very familiar.

      I agree with you about Michele Wallace – that’s a great article. I didn’t know until fairly recently that she is the daughter of artist Faith Ringgold! Did you know about this? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/arts/design/faith-ringgolds-america-early-works-and-story-quilts.html?_r=0 (check out Who’s Bad)

      • Hey Lisha,
        And it’s the first working day of the year. Yeah, she is! I actually love quilting as an art form and I really think it hearkens back to the tapestries of old. If you ever get a chance to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, they have some gorgeous ones there. We were so lucky to get permission to publish a picture of Faith’s beautiful quilt on the MJAS, which Michele discusses at the end of her essay. Don’t you just adore ‘Invisibility Blues’? I go back to it time and time again in my research.

        • Quilting, my favorite topic! If you want to see more MJ on quilts, visit my project “Michael Jackson Story Quilt” on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/mjstoryquilt/
          I posted an essay there in the “about” section on why quilting is such a wonderful way to tell a story, and why it is particularly appropriate for telling the story of Michael Jackson.

          • Hi sfaikus,

            Totally blown away by your quilts! How do you do it? The scenes are just beautiful. Can’t imagine how many blissful hours you spend working on this. Would love to know more.

          • Thanks Lisha, I really enjoy working on the MJ quilts, especially when I am trapped inside during the lousy Chicago winter. I wrote an article about the project that was published at LMJ online: http://www.legendarymichaeljackson.nl/michael-jackson-story-quilt-michaels-message-in-fabric-and-felt/

          • Your work is exquisite! Thank you so much Sandra for the article, which I thought was fascinating. I hope I am lucky enough someday to see these on display. Any chance you might consider showing them in Gary?

          • Lisha, I hung the first 3 finished quilts on the fence of the Jackson family home in August 2015 for Michael’s birthday. I plan on doing that again this year, with maybe 5 total.

          • Oh how wonderful! I have to make a point to make it to Gary this year. I’m so happy that these are available for the family to view. That’s got to mean so much to them. Thanks so much for sharing this here.

          • Lisha, unfortunately I haven’t been able to show the quilts to the family. Fans saw them on the fence, but the security people for the family told me to take them down before the family came out to visit. Hopefully I will get to show them to family members some day.

          • Gosh, I would think the family would love these more than anyone. Surely this year it will happen. It is such a beautiful, heartfelt tribute.

          • Thank-you, @Sfaikus. I liked the page and love your viewpoint on it.

        • Thanks for mentioning “Invisibility Blues,” I just ordered a copy thanks to you! It sounds wonderful. I’ve been reading Wallace’s article from the 1989 journal, “Third Text.” And I had forgotten that she mentions the quilt at the end (in fact, I was wondering how I knew about Faith Ringgold’s quilt, lol! The memory is not so good these days.) Do you happen to know about the video that she mentions? Is this it? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvBvCCgE8EQ

          • You’re welcome, Lisha. I go back to it again and again. Maybe you knew about the quilt from @Sfaikus’ site: https://www.facebook.com/mjstoryquilt/ ? It’s amazing you found this video. It’s excellent. I read a little on the lady who posted it, Grace Matthews. Maybe you’d want to do something about the great art that is inspired by MJ’s struggle on DwtE. The art of Constance Pierce and Faith Ringgold would make excellent subject matter.

          • That’s a great suggestion Elizabeth! I’ve been keeping a file on MJ inspired art for a while. In fact, I was just admiring some beautiful collages made by our DWTE contributor Nina Fonoroff. No doubt we could make a whole series of MJ inspired art: visual, fashion, music, short films, etc. We wouldn’t run out of material to cover, that’s for sure.

  6. Willa and Lisha, Happy New Year to you both! Thanks for this great post on the two versions of “Ghosts.” I’m so happy to see that Lisha has joined as Willa’s new blog partner, and I look forward to many more fantastic discussions. Wishing Joie a happy new year as well, and all the best in her new endeavors.

  7. Happy New Year to all and thanks for the warm welcome! I’m looking forward to more great conversations here.

    Willa, you scared us all to death with that casual mention of retiring this space! What would we do without it?

  8. Something interesting I have been noticing for a long time is just how similar the interior design of the Ghosts set was to the Dark Shadows set. This similarity really leaped out at me awhile back when I saw Tim Burton’s updated version of Dark Shadows. Granted, they are both taking place in old, creepy Gothic mansions so there is that similarity, but there does seem to be some obvious parallels, such as the floor design of the main parlor, that are almost too identical in concept to be mere coincidence. I’m guessing that Michael was probably a fan of Dark Shadows (it seems like his cup of tea) and was no doubt familiar with that set design.

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0163057a3500970d-pi

    It is also interesting that the cover image of the Blood On the Dance Floor album features Michael dancing on a very similarly patterned, black and white checked floor. It makes me wonder what the possible thematic connections could be, if any. First, you have the title itself-“Blood On the Dance Floor”-which ties together the idea of dancing and violent death. In the film, he meets his death on that very floor before being resurrected, and although Is It Scary and Ghosts portray the resurrection in different ways, the concept is still the same-the Maestro (i.e, the artist) is first sacrificed on the floor before that resurrection can take place. The endless interpretations and theories possible with these films is truly fascinating.

    One interesting question that has been raised about Ghosts (I can’t remember where I read this, but it was brought up for discussion once on a message board) is why Michael would have permitted the one adult, African American male among the villagers to be portrayed essentially as comic relief. They labeled it as a “Stephen Fetchit” characterization, a stereotype of black males that is often considered offensive (even if, albeit, many black comedians still routinely play this role in film after film). I honestly don’t know. I’ve watched this film a million times, as we all have, and my personal conclusion is that some may be trying to read too much into it. I think the character was simply meant to be a funny (a kind of Eddie Murphy take) and not something to be read into too deeply, but I was wondering if you guys have any opinions on that.

    This discussion also raises some very interesting points regarding the parallels to what was happening to Michael in real life with the media and allegations. I always thought it was extremely courageous (though some might argue extremely foolhardy) to include the dialogue exchange between the kids that includes such references as “you weren’t supposed to tell” and “that’s supposed to be a secret.” As if those phrases were’t ominous enough, we have The Mayor assuring the younger brother that he “did the right thing” by telling. By 1996, Michael would had to have known that these references were bound to raise eyebrows, considering what he had been accused of. Of course, we know that in the film they are referencing The Maestro’s magic tricks, but the ominous double entendre is undeniably there-and seems to be absolutely intentional. That the dialogue is actually referring to something quite innocent-which, of course, can be corrupted by dirty minds-only adds to the many complex facets and layers that this film presents. What I have always loved, and continue to love about Ghosts is Michael’s seeming willingness to strip off the fighting gloves and lay everything on the line. no holds barred. .

    • Hi Raven,

      Wow, I never thought about the similarity to Dark Shadows and I was quite the Dark Shadows addict as a kid! I remember watching it religiously in the summertime. It’s a very interesting comparison to the BOTDF cover as well.

      I have thought a lot about the controversial Stepin Fetchit character though. It is an interesting choice. He is going along with the angry mob at the same time he makes it clear he doesn’t want any trouble. It seems that over the years Stepin Fetchit has come to be understood more and more as a subversive trickster working a double parody: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5245089

      And I totally agree with you about the “ominous double entendre.” Even as many times as I have watched the film, it still gets to me, like “No, he didn’t.” Oh yes he did! So defiant, as Willa has pointed out.

      • That was a fascinating read, Lisha. Reading his story is an important reminder of how and why there emerged such a generational divide between African-Americans of the Jim Crow generation vs. those who came of age post Civil Rights and post Black Power Movement. I think it is often easy for the younger and more politically correct to sometimes forget that it was a very different world for African Americans at that time, a world in which simply surviving was tantamount to all else, and where opportunities often had to be seized in whatever form they presented themselves. The Fetchit character as the embodiment of the African trickster figure does make a lot of sense, both from a historical perspective and, for Perry, as a means of gaining a foothold in an industry that was unwilling to give blacks representation other than as comic relief.

    • Hi Raven and Lisha. I’ve repeatedly been struck by that dialogue also – that “you weren’t supposed to tell” and “that’s supposed to be a secret.” As you pointed out, Raven, it does take on a very ominous double meaning within the context of childhood sexual abuse.

      But that’s also a very common motif in children’s literature. Frequently in children’s lit (and in the Disney movies made from them), something magical will happen to children, like an animal will talk to them (Charlotte’s Web, The Mouse and the Motorcycle) or they’ll stumble into a secret world (The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden) or they’ll learn to fly (Peter Pan, Harry Potter) or they’ll have adventures (Mary Poppins, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children) but they must keep it a secret from adults, especially their parents or guardians. On rare occasions a special adult (like Mary Poppins) will be in on the secret, but generally it’s understood that the magic and adventures will be destroyed if adults find out.

      I think the opening dialogue in Ghosts is building on that tradition. Like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, the Maestro was showing the children “magic tricks” but they weren’t supposed to tell because adults would just wreck everything. And that does seem to be the case – once the adults find out, they want to drive the Maestro out of town. But then the Maestro exposes the adults as well as the children to his magic, his art, and all but the Mayor are entranced by it and come to accept him and his world. That’s a very different ending than most children’s stories. Generally, if the children do tell, it’s an indication that they are growing up and entering the adult world, and leaving the world of magic and imagination behind. But something very different happens in Ghosts when those children “tell.”

      btw, there’s an intriguing book I’ve been meaning to read (but haven’t yet) called Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. According to the blurb, it “explor[es] the ways in which childhood folklore and children’s literature tend to overturn, rather than uphold, respectable values.” That sounds like an apt description of Ghosts as well …

      Oh, and I was a big Dark Shadows fan also! That’s an interesting connection.

      • You are absolutely right about the motif of secrecy in children’s stories. In these stories, the magic of childhood and its “secrets” becomes a code of sorts that keeps the adult world fully at bay. Of course, what we see in Ghosts is that these dialogue exchanges are working on several levels, on the one hand invoking that coded world of childhood fantasy, but also (and I believe this was absolutely intentional) making those unmistaken allusions to what Michael had been accused of in real life (which, in turn, is setting the stage for the ultimate confrontation between what we might call “The Artist” or “The Other” vs. “Normal Valley.”

        I believe I have heard of that title, though I have not read it, either. However, its premise doesn’t surprise me at all. I remember as an undergrad taking a course in “Bibliotherapy” and I would say the biggest percentage of the course was dedicated to the study of children’s literature and, particularly, fairy tales, as it is believed that those stories hold the greatest key to our subconscious fears, desires, and impulses-and, of course, from a cultural perspective are absolutely essential for our own mental and spiritual health. I remember feeling very empowered after that course, as it was such an eye opening revelation to realize that fairy tales aren’t “just for kids” and that they have even more to teach us as adults. Michael absolutely understood that power, and we can see how effectively he utilizes it in both of these films, as well as songs like “Scared of the Moon” (which we’ve discussed before) and even short films like Thriller where the fears and fantasies of childhood (the monsters that lurk in the dark, etc) are merged.

        • I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim, whose psycho-analytic study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, and his directorship of a highly-regarded school for emotionally disturbed children, were once lauded as exemplary. Since his death by suicide, he and his theories have been largely discredited – his academic qualifications were in art history, not psychology, and he faked the positive outcomes at his school, where it was revealed that he regularly abused vulnerable students, both emotionally and physically, and sexually harassed female staffers.

          While some of Bettelheim’s theories may have validity, at least one observer has pointed out that as an older, European intellectual, he simply did not understand American children and their culture, just as African American culture, or even mere existence, are often read as “threatening” by whites. Michelle Wallace’s observation is most cogent – Michael Jackson made some white people very uncomfortable, so they attacked him randomly until they found a charge they could run with.

  9. Happy New Year everyone. Just back from holidays to find this lovely surprise. As Willa writes at the end of this blog “What a wonderful way to start the new year” – I can’t agree more. I was horrified to read at the beginning that there was a chance that this fantastic blog would end – like other followers I can’t imagine my MJ life without it!! So thanks so much Lisha for joining Willa, and you Willa for persisting.

    The information in this blog is just mind blowing. I had no idea that there was a ‘pilot’ edition of Ghosts, and am so glad to have now seen it, and to be able to compare it with the final edition which I just love. I found the part in the pilot where the kids put Michael back together again from dust deeply moving, and remember how so very often Michael spoke about children being his reason for living. Although they were used by adults to try to bring about his downfall in real life, I still think that Michael thought of children as his salvation even after all of that horror. I have never felt that he believed the children were responsible, and still had the same deep love for children all over the world.

    Some things that stand out for me from the blog and films are the notion that Ghosts and Is It Scary were all one song, and I must admit that I thought that right from the first hearing they were one song divided up for some reason. I was more confused by the idea that they had been split up than that they belonged together!! I have always enjoyed the mother getting slapped alongside the head in the film, to give her a taste of her own medicine so to speak. I so agree that Michael’s work so often seem to have predicted the future – Ghosts is not the only piece by any means, but the parallels between the failed attempt to drive Michael out of SomePlace Else and the successful attempt to drive him out of Neverland are heartbreaking in retrospect.

    Both versions of the film are very interesting, but I really love the final version and watch it over and over, but would have loved it if the rebuilding of Michael by the children could have found its way into the final one.

    Thanks again for all your hard work everyone in compiling this blog and responding as followers. Wishing you all everything of the best for 2016.

  10. I’m last to this party, but I’m so glad you’re here Lisha! For a moment there, I was afraid you were ending the blog, Willa!

    This was a great discussion. To the question of what are the villagers so afraid of, it becomes increasingly clear over time that it was never anything other than candid assessment by MTV VJ Mark Goodman in 1983:

    “…pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces….”

    Scared to death by black faces.

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