Thriller Thursdays: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

To kick off Thriller Thursdays, what better song than the day’s namesake, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”?

The song is the title track from what I would argue is one of the best albums of the 1980s. It was the last single, released in November 1983. Written by Rod Temperton and produced by Quincy Jones, the song started out with several different titles, including “Starlight”. Quincy didn’t dig that title, so he challenged Temperton to find something else for the title track. Temperton landed upon “Thriller”, and the rest is music history.

I have very vivid memories of this entire album (like riding to kindergarten and singing along to “Human Nature”), but “Thriller” is the most vivid. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ellington, was old, several years past retirement age old. As such, she was not hip to the MTV music scene, so when a kid brought this album for Show and Tell, she didn’t know not to let him play it for a room full of kids who probably couldn’t tie their shoes, much less handle the awesomeness of “Thriller”. As we gathered on the sharing rug, the kid (who had red hair but whose name escapes me entirely) put the tape in the class tape player (normally used for playing story tapes) and pressed “Play”.

What followed was a good six minutes of 20 kids in various states. Some were scared right away. Others were fine until Vincent Price’s creepy voice started telling us that monsters were “closing in to seal our doom”. Still others made it to his maniacal laughter before they burst into hysterical tears. A few of us, myself included, listened with delight and cherished each moment. Even with the class’s reaction, Mrs. Ellington let it play to the end, and I was relieved. (I’m sure she wasn’t, if she got phone calls from angry parents whose kids had nightmares after that.) Those of us who enjoyed the experience, we looked around at each other and smiled because we knew we were kindred spirits.

As a 5-year-old, I probably shouldn’t have liked “Thriller” as much as I did. At the time, I was terrified of lions, to the point that I couldn’t watch the beginning of MGM movies for fear of the lion jumping through the TV. (It took my parents’ letting me watch the opening of Strange Brew with the lion belching to cure me of my fear.) But in every other aspect of my life, I loved monsters, thanks to things like Sesame Street. I loved the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. I stayed up with my mom and watched old monster movies, and we made Halloween a grand affair. “Thriller” was an extension of that love, and when I saw the video it cemented its place in my heart as the penultimate Halloween song.

The video, directed by John Landis, is a masterpiece. The full-length version clocks in at almost 14 minutes, and when I was a kid, it was the best horror movie I’d ever seen. It had everything: monsters, zombies, retro style, Michael Jackson, rad music, and dancing. What more could my little heart ask for? In case you haven’t seen it in a while, here it is for your viewing pleasure.

As with all good things, there are imitators. I’m sure there are others, but this one is my favorite. I give you “Golimar”, an Indian Bollywood send-up of the video, filmed in 1985 for Donga. If you’ve never seen it, please take a few moments to watch the video. It will brighten your day, and the tune will be stuck in your head all week.

“Thriller” is firmly planted in pop culture as one of the iconic songs, dances, and videos from the last 30 years. It epitomizes everything I love about my childhood, especially horror movies. It’s no surprise that this song makes it onto every Halloween playlist I’ve ever made or will ever make.

Stay tuned for one last thrilling post this week, and keep checking back for more Blog-O-Ween fun!

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