Michael Jackson and Stephen King’s ‘Ghosts’ Is the Weirdest Horror Movie You’ve Never Seen
“You know the one where Michael Jackson dresses up as an old white guy and dances in a haunted house?” is a thing I’ve said to countless people about the short film Ghosts. But every time I mention this Michael Jackson and Stephen King collaboration, no one knows what I’m talking about.
That’s right, the King of Pop and the Master of Horror made a short film together in 1996. While the film may have 14 million views on YouTube, I’ve only met one other person who can slightly recall the movie. And even if you have seen it, I doubt you remember just how bizarre it is. In honor of Halloween, I’m revisiting this 15-year-old movie to figure out why it’s been forgotten.
The 40-minute short film / long-form music video finds Jackson playing both the Maestro, the owner of a haunted manor, and the Mayor, an older white man intent on kicking the Maestro out of town. Beyond Jackson and King, the film also had a few other well known names behind the camera: Oscar-winning special effects artist Stan Winston (T2: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park) directed and co-wrote the short along with Jackson, King, and Hocus Pocus scribe Mick Garris; Titanic cinematographer Russell Carpenter lent his eye to Ghosts; makeup artist Mike Smithson (Avatar) turned Jackson into a white man and a whole series of ghosts and demons; and rapper-actor Yasin Bey (A.K.A. Mos Def) had a small supporting role. Even more shocking, Ghosts screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, a year after it was released in front of prints of Tom Holland’s Thinner. With the names involved, its dated visual effects ,and bad acting, Ghosts had all the makings of a cult hit in the vein of Jackson’s other beloved short film, Captain E.O. So what happened?
For one, Ghosts is insanely weird. After Jackson’s Maestro locks the Mayor and a group of angry, torch-wielding townsfolk in his mansion, he subjects them to a series of freakish horrors. First he pulls the skin off of his face:
Then he casually dislocates his jaw, which is housing a monster tongue:
Not weird enough? “Ok, lemme just do a quick skin peel,” Michael Jackson thought to himself before doing this:
And I still haven’t addressed the fact that Jackson is wearing a body suit and white-skinned make-up as the crotchety Mayor:
How could anyone forget that? The image of a white, wrinkled face sported by the King of Pop certainly never left my memory after I first saw Ghosts on MTV one Halloween. Looking back at Jackson’s career and the release of the short, the reason why Ghosts likely didn’t register in our collective pop culture consciousness becomes clear: It was released after Jackson settled the 1993 child abuse allegations made against him. After the investigation was closed in ’94, the singer’s career and public image took a severe dive, followed by his short marriage and divorce from Lisa Marie Presley.
In 1996, Jackson released his ninth studio album, HIStory, which went on to earn five Grammy nominations and one win. HIStory was an unusual album for Jackson, marking the first time the singer released rage-filled music, a defensive reaction to the court case and surrounding media frenzy. Ghosts, comprised of three songs from HIStory and the remix album, Blood on the Dance Floor, was the same thing: A theatrical response to the allegations made against him.
The film wastes no time alluding to Jackson’s real-life controversy. In the opening, the townsfolk approach the Mastro’s mansion, a Halloween-like version of Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Three young boys come to the Maestro’s defense as the Mayor prepares to oust him from the town. One says, “He hasn’t hurt anybody. Couldn’t we just go?” Then another boy whacks him on the head and says, “It’s your fault, jerk. Couldn’t you just keep your mouth shut?” It’s brief, but it’s clearly a reference to Jackson’s behavior with young boys.
The music numbers also allude to Jackson’s response to the lawsuit. During the song “2 Bad,” the Maestro and his dancers point at the townsfolk in an accusatory manner as he sings the lyrics “Creepin’ from a dusty hole // Tales of what somebody told // What do you want from me? // Tired of you haunting me.” He rips off his skin to dance as a CGI skeleton, as if exposing himself to more inspection. Ghosts is certainly not just another fun CGI genre short film like Captain E.O.; it’s Jackson’s plea for innocence and cry for vindication disguised as a Halloween movie for kids.
Later, the Mayor taunts the Maestro, calling him “weird” and “freaky boy.” Here, the Mayor is both the singer’s accusers (and perhaps a reference to Evan Chandler, the father who accused Jackson of sexually assaulting his son in 1993), and a commentary on Jackson’s inner demons. The pop star could’ve gotten any white actor to play the Mayor, and probably saved loads on the special effects budget, but there’s a reason he casts himself as the defiant white man. In many ways, Ghosts feels like Jackson role-playing his own discomforts and anxieties over his desires and identities. In the short film he gets to be the valiant, white male hero (this may be a hint of commentary on Jackson’s changing skin color), the misunderstood, reclusive artist, and, most unsettling, the childlike version of Michael Jackson who seeks the friendship of young boys.
While rewatching the short, I couldn’t help but notice the cast of young actors. The only kinds in this short are young boys; girls are nowhere to be seen. And while there are fathers present in the mob of angry parents, the sheepish, fearful mothers are the only ones who get screen time. By the end of the movie, Jackson’s Maestro wins over the admiration of the mothers an the affection of the young boys, and scares the Mayor into jumping out of a window. Is this Jackson’s alternative fantasy ending to the allegations? In his world, he convinces mothers he’s innocent, wins over the kids, and gets rid of the accusatory fathers.
Ghosts is a bit unsettling to watch with that context in mind. Maybe that’s why no one remembers it, or perhaps audiences weren’t quite ready for a Jackson comeback at the time. That could be the reason it was never released in theaters. But outside of the darker history surrounding it, Ghosts is still a delightfully odd piece of pop culture trash to marvel at. You can’t help but wonder how — and why — a thing like this got made.
At the very least, it did give us a moonwalking Michael Jackson skeleton.
Watch the full short film below.