The Project That Brought Stephen King And A Music Icon Together

Michael Jackson, the late "King of Pop," was hardly a stranger to legendary collaborations. Most notably, there's the 1983 music video for "Thriller" directed by John Landis — which remains the only music video ever to be inducted into the United States National Film Registry. Forever changing the visual landscape of what a music video can be, "Michael Jackson's Thriller" famously mined from groundbreaking horror motifs of the time to, well, thrill audiences. Inspired by Landis' film "An American Werewolf in London," Jackson also employed special effects creator Rick Baker to oversee his initial monstrous transformation into a terrifying were-cat. 

Of course, "Thriller" has endured as one of the most famous facets of pop culture to this very day. But what if we told you that Michael Jackson tackled another project in the same vein over a decade later — one that he thought would potentially overshadow the success of "Thriller" altogether? Featuring stellar collaborators (yes, including Stephen King), innovative special effects, and three of the iconic pop star's then-recently released songs ("2Bad, "Is It Scary?" and "Ghosts"), "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" was positioned to be a cultural epic. But by this time, public opinion surrounding Jackson began to sour — with threads of this very controversy enmeshed in the fabric of the extended music video itself.

So, why doesn't anyone remember "Michael Jackson's Ghosts"? And what brought this massive project about in the first place?

The forgotten music video epic

"Michael Jackson's Ghosts" originally began production in 1993, slated to be released alongside the family-friendly flick "The Addams Family Values." However, this deal eventually dissolved due to apparent contract disputes. Subsequently, director Mick Garris — who frequently collaborates with Stephen King adapting his horror stories for the screen — was called upon to direct the "IT" miniseries. As a result, Stan Winston — who at that point was solely on-board to do special effects make-up — was enlisted as the new director. However, the short film's premise has been presented as an equal opportunity invention by all of these creators, with Jackson, King, Garris and Winston all sharing a story credit.

Finally shot in 1996, the short film was released the also same year. Theatrically, it screened before prints of another Stephen King adaptation, "Thinner," directed by Tom Holland. Weirdly, though, this only ever happened abroad — meaning that the American market was all but missing out on what Winston has since dubbed "the most expensive music video ever made." The entire ordeal cost about $15 million, all of which reportedly came out of Jackson's own pocket.

In 1997, "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" premiered out of competition at the 50th Cannes Film Festival. Until Pharrell released the 24-hour music video for "Happy" in 2013, it held the title of longest music video ever. Featuring three songs from Jackson's 1995 album "HIStory" and the 1997 remix album "Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix," the project was nothing if not totally ambitious. So why hasn't it made the impact that other Michael Jackson music videos have in the broader cultural landscape?

An uncomfortable metaphor for Jackson's troubling tabloid status

Unfortunately, there's a pretty clear thread connecting "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" to the skeletons in Michael Jackson's closet. In 1993, Jackson was accused of child molestation by a 13-year-old boy and his father. Jackson was eventually acquitted due to a lack of evidence, but this didn't necessarily dissuade the court of public opinion. In fact, much of "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" can be seen as the pop star's response to this very incident. In the lyrics for "2Bad," the most extended of the three songs utilized in the film, the listener can hear an enraged Jackson countering the allegations against him:

"What do you want from me? /Tired of you haunting me, yeah yeah /You're aiming just for me /You are disgustin' me /You got blood lust for me /But too bad, too bad"

Similarly, the film's very fabric alludes to the details of the case. Following the stuffy, intolerant mayor of "Normal Ville" (played by Jackson in intense prosthetic make-up), the townspeople storm the Haunted Mansion-esque abode occupied by a fantastical version of Jackson for fear that he's corrupting their children. The parents are seen as ignorant lackeys of authority figures, while the mayor seems to singularly hate Jackson because he's a "freak." The only ones who see Jackson for the truly magical being he's presented as are the town's kids — who, creepily, are only played by young boys. Evidently, no little girls are intoxicated by Jackson's whimsical spirit. The child actors are even fed lines about the secrecy inherent to adult/minor relationships.

"Show them the neat stuff you did for us!" One kid giddily implores Jackson, only for his big brother to shoot him a dirty look. "Shut up," he barks while hitting his kid brother upside the head. "That was supposed to be a secret."

After challenging the mayor to a "scare-off" — meaning that whoever gets scared first is run out of town — Jackson once again directs a discrete question of affirmation to the young boys:

"Don't you kids enjoy it when I do my little ... you know?"

The puzzling cultural obscurity of Michael Jackson's Ghosts

As a piece of pop culture history, "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" is a fascinating relic. The only thing eerier than Jackson's heavy prosthetic make-up, the then-groundbreaking motion capture effects, and uncanny dance moves is the singer's own pockmarked reputation. Again, the legendary pop star was never convicted of child molestation — but the real-life pain that these trials caused, for Jackson and the prosecuting families alike, remains totally palpable.

Angry, upsetting, and almost totally forgotten, "Michael Jackson's Ghosts" might not ever reach the point of gaining a cultural reevaluation. Sure, the involvement of horror maestro Stephen King, "Hocus Pocus" writer Mick Garris, and Stan Winston — the special effects legend behind "The Thing," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Jurassic Park — seemed nothing short of promising. But the reality is that the film's fate has been sealed, forever interred in the cob-webbed crypt for forgotten relics of pop culture's past. Let's face it, this extended music video won't be the next addition to the National Film Registry.

But hey, why don't you take a gamble and watch the epic music video and make up your own mind. Also, if you want the legacy of "Thriller" tainted for you alongside this nasty spoonful of medicine, you can read about Landis' own immoral controversy that neglected the well-being of children to a tragic result. Wow, who knew Hollywood could be so full of controversy! Oh, wait, that's right — literally everyone