I'm the Devil, and I'm Here to Write the Devil's Newsletter

hello there / ghosts / art vs. artist

Hello and welcome to the first installment of the Depressive Ghoul newsletter. If you've received this you either patronized my online store at some point or you have a friend or relative who thinks it's funny to sign you up for weird mailing lists without ever telling you (Confidential to Jim: Do you still get pamphlets from that medication that treats vaginal dryness?).

I want to use this space to try and manipulate you all into spending more money on my website (duh), but I also wanted to share more of my art and writing that I think you might enjoy based on your interest in my work. So there'll be a discount code for the website a little further down, but there's also a comic strip, some more art, and an essay about a Haunted Movie. Think of me as the Crypt Keeper, but with worse jokes and esoteric articles instead of bitterly ironic morality plays.

And if this isn't your thing, no problem. There's an easy unsubscribe link at the bottom that you can use to never hear from me again. Unless I get bored and I see a commercial for a new vaginal dryness medication, in which case all bets are off.

Now take it away, Charlie.

I was recently surprised to discover Ghosts, a movie I'd somehow never seen despite it being a collaboration between Stephen King and special effects legend Stan Winston. "Wow, why have I never heard of," I thought, and then the thought ended awkwardly right there on a preposition because I realized that this movie was Michael Jackson's Ghosts, sort-of-released in 1996 not only as Michael’s attempt to revive his career after an allegation of child molestation, but also as his ill-advised artistic response to that allegation.

Lately I've been obsessed with what I've been calling the Haunted Movie. Not a literally haunted movie, like the videotape from The Ring, and not a haunted house movie (Though some haunted house movies can also be Haunted), a Haunted Movie is a fictional film that's completely inextricable from the real-life suffering most infamously associated with it. You cannot watch one of these films without being acutely aware of the wailing specter of actual human pain seeping into the room with you through the screen and hanging out and eating popcorn next to you there until the credits roll. Michael Jackson's Ghosts (Which you can watch here, for now, until the Jackson estate has it taken down) is the epitome of the Haunted Movie.

Ghosts started production in 1993 under the original title Is It Scary? (Yeah it really is, but not for the reasons anyone who made it might have been thinking), from an idea Michael conceived with Stephen King, later expanded into a screenplay by Mick Garris. It was initially intended as a promotional video for the Addams Family sequel, but Paramount either didn't want to pay all those cast members their requested fees to appear or they all got understandably squeamish as more and more Michael news came out that year, so sadly we will never get to experience the queasy thrill of watching Christopher Lloyd dance a babushka with a flop-sweating child predator.

Also in 1993, Evan Chandler, a dentist and screenwriter, accused Jackson of molesting his 13-year old son Jordan during what sounds like the same kind of whirlwind courtship ritual that Michael's other accusers described in the recent Leaving Neverland documentary (Lavish gifts, trips to fancy hotels, playing parents against one another, etc.). The case was eventually settled out of court, with Michael's lawyers using a secretly taped phone conversation with Chandler - in which he sounded less than ethical about his legal strategy, though he contends the tape was selectively edited - to muddy the waters just enough to avoid an actual trial. Michael never had to sit in a courtroom that year, but he did lose his Pepsi sponsorship and the revenue from a string of cancelled tour dates, not to mention the $25 million settlement he ended up paying the Chandlers. He needed a comeback, and he figured his best bet was another horror music video in the vein of Thriller, his biggest hit.

Michael invested a staggering $15 million of his own money to move things along, Stan Winston stepped in as director, and the project finally went into production in 1996. It was never officially released, other than playing before Stephen King's Thinner in some European theaters. In the years following, for reasons that are very extremely obvious, Stan and Steve and pretty much everyone else associated with/implicated in this thing would do their best to distance themselves from it.

Ghosts opens in the town of Normal Valley, which is immediately just overwhelmingly suspect (like what is Michael's character's name gonna be, Innocent P. Notaperv?). We meet the Mayor, played by Michael wearing a full Klump of prosthetic makeup, as he leads an angry mob up a hill to an ominous-looking mansion. Everyone's mad because local young boys (Oh no) have been spending a lot of unsupervised time (Come on, no) with an adult-aged reclusive magician and entertainer (Are you kidding me) whose name is Maestro (Of course it is) and is also played by Michael. The Mayor and some of the assembled parents tell Maestro to pack up his Elephant Man bones and leave town, so of course, it falls on the children to speak up and defend their friend. 

"Why can't we just leave him alone? He hasn't hurt anybody," is an actual line of dialogue that an actual child was actually solicited to say on-camera, pleading with the mob in a lunatic meta-textual defense of pedophilic grooming practices. And yikes, yeah, that sounds pretty bad, I agree, but just wait because there's another child actor there too and he also has something to say.

"It's your fault, jerk," this second boy says to the first. "You just couldn't keep your mouth shut." It should be totally clear now what I mean by Haunted Movie, if it wasn’t already. Michael Jackson actually orchestrated a scenario in which children would not only defend his reputation to the world in spite of his crimes, but also implicitly threaten any other children who might have been thinking about coming forward with their own accusations. There's plenty of art out there that's made by shitty people, but it's pretty rare that you find a piece of art that makes you feel complicit in the crimes of the artist as you consume it.

There's a whole "scare-off" contest that comes after that, with Michael leading a dance troupe of ghosts and skeletons through a few songs from the later Michael Jackson albums that you would never play on purpose, but none of that stuff is particularly relevant to the source of this movie's Haunting (Save for maybe the one song where Michael peels off his skin and performs the entire thing as just a skeleton, which ends up being unintentionally creepy because the whole time you're wondering where'd the skin go, what is the skin doing, please tell me it's not behind me, etc.). The zombified dancers and the skull effects and the moldering cobwebby castle, these details end up feeling irrelevant; the focal point of this film's Haunting is those kids delivering that dialogue.

For the Chandler family, the allegations, legal maneuvering, and national infamy had a devastating effect. A year after the settlement, Jordan legally emancipated himself from his parents. When Jackson faced further allegations and a molestation trial in 2005, Jordan fled the country to avoid having to testify. Jordan's mother June did testify at that trial, and told the court she hadn't spoken to her son in over a decade, and that she had never witnessed Michael Jackson molest him. In 2006 Jordan accused his father of a violent assault, but later dropped the charges. In 2009, a few months after Jackson's death, Evan Chandler took his own life.

Sorry about that, I know that’s a giant bummer to read in an article that also prominently features a picture of a ghost pissing his pants, but it feels important for me to note that these are the stakes when we dismiss assault allegations because they’re inconvenient or because the rapist wrote “Billie Jean” or because it’s otherwise too difficult to think about. Not only do the rapists go free, but in some cases, if they have a spare $15 million lying around, they get to film a vanity haunted house musical where they enlist your peers to propagandize a warning against anyone else who’d dare try to ruin the good clean fun at the Maestro’s mansion.

Back on the outskirts of Normal Valley, the songs from Blood on the Dance Floor are over and the ghosts and skeletons have stopped dancing. The Maestro wins the scare-off and the terrified Mayor skips town, leaving a Mayor-shaped hole in the wall on his way out like an institutionally negligent coyote or road runner. The Maestro asks the kids and parents if they had fun, and then when there’s an awkward silence that it’s important to remember they could have chosen to edit out, he has to raise his voice and badger and cajole them into admitting that yeah, they guess they sorta had some fun. It all wraps up when one of the kids (The one who tried to bully the other kid into silence earlier) intimates that he also has a scary Maestro-style magic trick he wants to show everyone, and then we cut to an exterior shot of the castle as everyone playfully screams like this is a fun note to end on and not a tragic dramatization of the abused becoming abusers themselves.

There are lots of reasons why Ghosts wasn't as successful as Thriller, but the one that sticks out to me is that the horror of Thriller plays on a universal fear that your romantic partner might harbor a violent darkness, while the horror of Ghosts is the extremely specific fear that an adult authority figure might interfere with your predilection for hosting unsupervised sleepovers for minors in your giant mansion because you're a beloved but eccentric entertainer and therefore an easy target for extortionists and sensationalist media types. It seems like the latter film would have a much smaller audience, which is a problem if you sunk $15 million of your own money into the thing. 

If you can ignore Michael's HIStory (sorry) of serial molestation, Ghosts is sometimes a pretty decent effort at recreating the old Thriller magic. The production value is insanely high, with sets that look like classic Universal Studios gothic castles and special effects that still hold up really well, and a fun Haunted Mansion sort of vibe to the scares. The problem is, it's impossible to ignore Michael's history of serial molestation, especially when he's enlisting actual children to perform the dialogue that he thinks will exonerate him in the public eye. He's like Dracula forcing Jonathan Harker to write "I'm having a wonderful time in Transylvania" letters home to his friends and family so nobody will get too upset when they haven't seen him in months because he's a human Capri Sun now. Michael famously always saw Peter Pan as his fictional analog, but maybe Dracula, with his fame and flamboyant sartorial choices and unnatural perversion of eternal youth and giant secluded unsupervised mansion, is the more appropriate match. One wonders if this thought ever occurred to Michael as he was vamping around in a black cape in an old castle in the course of making this haunted Haunted film.

And finally, in what I am choosing to interpret as an inspirational living metaphor for my inaugural newsletter, the Corpse Flower at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden is in bloom.

I’ll leave you here now, alone to deal with the smell of putrefaction. Thanks for reading.

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