Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

The Mayor leads the mob forward through the archway. Several timid soccer moms in the group make idle chitchat that I won’t bore you with, all about how completely terrified they are to be here. The door slams shut behind them and locks itself. More lightning flashes, and more thunder crashes. Mos Def, still the Token Black Scaredy Cat, goes, “Oh, da-yum!” Which, I’ll admit, was good for a chuckle, even if he is just pretending to be Richard Pryor.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Never invite Urkel along on your lynching.

The Mayor is visibly scared, but leads the mob forward. As they pass through a hallway, doors slam shut all around them. Yeah. Gotta say, this is about as scary as the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Oh my god… there’s a… breeze!!

Then another door swings open, leading into a great big ballroom. Get used to this room, because this is where the entirety of the rest of the “film” will take place. Now, apparently, the big ballroom is in color, whereas the preceding scenes were all in black and white, but with the crappy downloaded copy I have, I didn’t really notice at first. I mostly blame this on the fact that the ballroom scenes are filmed with the blue Battlefield Earth filter. Unfortunately, this just brings to mind the discarded original concept for the intro to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which in turn was a goof on The Wizard of Oz.

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Sheeplike, the entire mob obediently walks inside the ballroom. Someone should have told Michael and Company that “mobs” aren’t usually renowned for their obedience, or moving around in a calm and orderly fashion.

Hey, there’s our old friend the raven, now perched up on a balcony railing. At least, I assume it’s the same raven. In a film this obvious, why wouldn’t it be? They enter the room, passing spooo-oooky candelabras and a statue that looks like an old pirate. Another door slams shut, and the raven flies down, cawing past them and scaring the shit out of everyone.

They see a mysterious cloaked figure in the shadows, so of course they walk directly towards it. The Mayor steps quietly towards a darkened doorway. Hmm… it’s pitch black in there, and the soundtrack has become totally silent here. I wonder what’s about to happen next? Yep, lightning crashes loudly, revealing a skull-faced figure in a black cloak. Everyone jumps, and I have to admit, that was a pretty good jump-in-your-seat scare. Don’t expect any more of those, though.

The black-cloaked, skull-faced figure steps forward. Either it’s the grim reaper (quick, get him to play Battleship!), or Skeletor really did survive the ending of Masters of the Universe. Skull Face steps towards the Mayor, then reveals that the skull face is just a mask. He lowers the mask, revealing the face of Michael Jackson. Ahhhhhhhhhhh! If anything, that’s even scarier, but everyone in the mob visibly relaxes.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Oddly enough, the skull mask is more tan.

Michael playfully utters this movie’s catchphrase, “Did I scare you?” The Scaredy-Cat Soccer Moms nod in the affirmative, while all the little kids eagerly point out that it’s “him”. A “him” that shall remain nameless for the entirety of the video. So, I’ll just have to assume Michael is playing himself here, and giving us a peek into a possible future where he moves to Romania. (Actually, the closing credits identify him as “The Maestro”, which sounds like a rejected Doctor Who villain, so there’s no way I’m going along with a name that stupid.)

Mayor Ebert is defiant, however, and angrily spits through his prosthetic teeth that he wasn’t scared. Michael does his best to play the mischievous horror host here (trying—and failing—to emulate his “Thriller” guest rapper Vincent Price), and simply jokes that he’ll have to try harder next time. You know, unlike some singer-turned-actors (looking at you, Madonna), Michael doesn’t completely humiliate himself when he’s onscreen. He does have a natural charm. Or, at least, he did have a natural charm when he played the Scarecrow almost twenty years before this. Seeing a guy pushing middle age and still acting like a shy, precocious teen is a bit unnerving.

Anyway, the Mayor has confrontational dialogue with Michael, while Michael tosses off his black cloak to reveal—oh, no—a puffy white shirt, which I swear was like his superhero costume at the time. Didn’t he wear this exact same outfit in videos for “Black or White”, “Come Together”, “Dirty Diana”, etc? Let us consult Moonwalker. Umm… yep.

The Mayor angrily tells Michael to leave town. He claims to have a “normal town” with “normal people” and “normal kids” (hey, now… kids are people, too!). Which I guess is why they called it “Normal Valley”. They sure did their homework in naming this town, I’ll give them that.

The Mayor says, “We don’t need freaks like you tellin’ ’em ghost stories!” Soooo… that’s what inspired a bloodthirsty, torch-wielding mob to show up on Michael’s front porch? The fact that he’s telling kids ghost stories? Now, unless the telling of these “ghost stories” involves sock puppets placed on unusual appendages (which for Michael is actually pretty likely, truth be told), I don’t know what everyone’s getting in such a lather over. Not that they’re really in much of a lather, to be honest. The Mayor is the only one who actually seems to be angry. It’s like everybody else got pulled into this “bloodthirsty mob” thing out of peer pressure or something.

Michael asks them all if they believe in ghosts, and one boy pipes up that he does. So his mom begins lecturing Michael: “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable!” So, again, it appears the only mortal sin Michael committed is letting kids believe in ghosts. Wow, is that all it was? So what was he on trial for, then? I mean, it’s all so innocent, really.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

“How dare you corrupt Tevin?!”

The younger redheaded kid (the one who couldn’t keep his “mouth shut”) apparently still hasn’t learned his lesson. He blurts out, “Show ’em the neat stuff you did for us!”

Older Brother smacks him again. “Shut up! That’s supposed to be a secret!” And the subtext gets more and more disturbing as we go on. Although, I’d like to note that Michael supposedly did neat stuff “for” the kids, and not neat stuff to them, which is not as bad, I guess. No, I’m wrong. If anything, that’s eleventy billion times more disquieting. Sorry for bringing it up.

Mom slaps Older Brother again. But this time, Mom gets a ghostly slap on her head, represented by a loud bang and whistling noises, and a big blast of air on her head, and her making a face like she just got pounded in the head by Drederick Tatum. This stuns everyone into silence.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

“Don’t you talk back to me, Debbie Rowe!”

Mayor Ebert then speaks directly to Michael: “You’re weird. You’re strange. And I don’t like you.” If anything, this sounds like Michael’s first draft of the speech he would later make about Sony President Tommy Mottola. One wonders if The Maestro is also “a mean” [sic], and “very, very devilish”.

The Mayor says Michael is “scaring these kids! Livin’ up here all alone!” Like a crazy person! Because apparently, nothing scares kids shitless like the bachelor lifestyle. But Michael insists he’s not living there alone. It’s just his roommate has a girlfriend, is all, I’m guessing. He does admit that he likes to scare people, “but it’s just for fun!” Well, fun for him, anyway.

(I do have to take issue with Michael’s insinuation in the making-of documentary that “it’s fun to be scared” like this. Some of us prefer to get our chills from real atmosphere and suspense, not from cheap, flash-bang tactics. Also, a lot of kids really don’t like to be scared.)

Michael then asks the kids, “Don’t you kids, uh, enjoy when I… do my little… you know?” And as he says this, his hands flail about randomly. I haven’t got the slightest clue what his gestures are supposed to mean, and I don’t want to know. Wow. Was Michael just completely oblivious to all the dirty innuendo people would wring out of this?

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Michael does his thing with the thing. Don’t ask.

But both Older Brother and another boy eagerly nod with big smiles on their faces. Speaking of Michael being oblivious, did he not notice that only young boys are defending him here? There’s not one single little girl to be found in the entire crowd. At least in Moonwalker he threw in a token girl to run around shouting his name five million times. Again, how could he not realize how this would come off? (But then again, this is Michael Jackson we’re talking about. The same guy who had no clue how his ringing endorsement of sleeping with young boys would come off in his Martin Bashir interview.)

The Mayor says that the “fun’s over. Back to the circus, you freak!” So, possibly, in this story, Michael is a former circus freak? That would certainly explain a lot of things. I’d assume he was the bearded lady, but there’s no evidence Michael has ever been able to grow facial hair. Perhaps he was Lobster Boy?

Then, the Mayor hilariously tries to sound threatening: “Don’t force us to get rough with you!” Hmm. Not so intimidating coming from a character who doesn’t look like he could run up one flight of stairs without having a coronary. And it’s even less intimidating when the character is played by a guy who might just blow away in a strong breeze.

Michael simply laughs this off, then asks if “anybody here like games?” Suddenly, he transforms into a harsh taskmaster headmistress, yelling, “Hell-ooooo! Game time!” He even adds a chop-chop clap of his hands. Look, Michael, if you’re trying to dispel the gay rumors, this isn’t the way to do it.

The two little boys look insanely happy, more eager than ever for the touching that is to come. Michael says the rules of his “game” are simple: “The first person who gets scared has to leave!” Oh. That game. So, I’m to assume no spinning bottles are involved?

But the Mayor says he doesn’t “play games with freaks!” He really should. It can be a lot of fun. Lobster Boy is pretty easy to beat at Jenga, in case you didn’t know. One of the Scaredy-Cat Soccer Moms says she’d be more than happy to leave, but Michael snaps his fingers and shuts her up. Yeah. Perhaps the next time the Mayor rounds up an angry mob, he should leave the people with panic disorders at home.

“Are you gonna leave,” the Mayor says, “or am I gonna have to hurt you?” And yes, it’s just as menacing as the first time he threatened him. Nevertheless, Michael says that if the Mayor is determined to scare him, he has no choice but to scare him right back.

The music turns all suspenseful as Michael prepares to get scary (or scarier). But then all he does is make goofy, cross-eyed faces. Which, frankly, is scary as shit coming from Michael, but there’s a clarinet on the soundtrack, and all the kids giggle, so apparently this is meant to be lighthearted. Among the murmuring in the crowd, we hear two different people ask, “That’s it?” Which, when you hear that, is a pretty good indicator that something else is about to go down.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

If you keep doing that, your face will get stuck that way. Oh wait, too late.

Mayor Ebert yells, “Did you hear what I said? Freaky boy? [!] It’s time for you to go!” How is it that Michael continues to come up with these great nicknames for himself? First “Whacko Jacko”, now “Freaky Boy”. Hey, Mike, is it okay if I use that?

Freaky Boy’s voice suddenly takes on an angry edge, or at least as angry as Michael is capable of mustering forth. He asks, “Is this scary?” He then proceeds to bury his fingers in his mouth and eye sockets, and stretch his entire face apart in an impossible, CGI sorta way. Honestly, could Michael have been any more oblivious to the potential plastic surgery jokes here? He had to have known. So, I might as well oblige him. Cast a glance to your right.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Apparently, going to Dr. Reed Richards for plastic surgery was not such a good idea.

Predictably, everyone screams and craps their pants at this display. His face snaps back to normal. Well, no. Not “normal”, of course. Oh, how I wish we’d hear a pop and suddenly he’d look like the cover of Thriller again. No, his face snaps back to what’s as normal as Michael was capable of looking at the time.

He then begins pulling on his lower lip, which stretches impossibly far, revealing a massive tongue that would make even Gene Simmons jealous. His face snaps back to “normal” again. Then, for his next trick, he proceeds to pull off his entire face [!!], revealing the skull beneath [!!!]. And as if that weren’t batshit enough, he now holds up his own face like a rubber mask.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Well, when the costume shop is all out of Michael Myers masks, I suppose that’ll do in a pinch.

The skull begins cackling, and everyone freaks out and runs for the door. Once their backs are to him, Skull-Face Michael pounds on his own head, smashing his own skull, which reveals… a Normal Michael Head underneath. Wow. That was bizarre. Nowhere near as bizarre as Michael turning into a spaceship, but still pretty trippy.

Anyway, the door shuts on its own, trapping everyone inside. Mos Def actually begins sobbing in fear, which plays a bit more dramatically than I think it was meant to. I think we’re supposed to be laughing here, not feeling bad for the guy, but I can’t help but relate. I’d probably crap my pants, too, if a guy pulled off his own face in front of me.

“Are we going somewhere?” Michael asks. He tells them it’s “too late”, and that they’re now his “guests”. Oh man, hearing Michael Jackson say that would be more than enough to put shivers down anyone’s spine. He then reminds them that he said he wasn’t living here alone.

He flourishes broadly with his puffy sleeve. Fireplaces and torches ignite throughout the ballroom, and the wind swirls through the room, causing doors to swing open. Michael says, “Meet the family.” Tito? Jermaine? Is Latoya here? Michael shoots a blue CGI ectoplasmic beam out of his hand. It strikes a fireplace, and out of the roaring fire flies a ghostly blue, ectoplasmic character. The ectoplasmic character then morphs into a ghoul.

Michael shoots more ecto-beams all around the place, and more ghostly people materialize, all of them looking bedraggled, in tattered clothes reminiscent of a Dickens period piece. It’s like Michael has discovered Insta-Jacob Marley technology!

Michael shoots a beam at the wall, causing a distinctly Stargate-like effect on the wall. And then a combination of the T-1000 and the creature from The Abyss steps out of the wall and becomes another Jacob Marley.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

“What up, y’all? Ghost of the Old Man of the Mountain in the hizzzouse!”

Michael is now wearing silver contact lenses, as he stands before the assembled group of ghouls, with beams of energy firing wildly from his hands, and intense bright lights flashing on and off. More ghouls materialize out of thin air, and hover down to the floor on wires. After a moment or two, the massive show of light and sound dies down.

Suddenly, all the little boys look delighted [?]. Older Brother even makes a point of taking his mom’s hand off his shoulder. Which has got to be some deep Freudian symbolic shit, but there are way too many levels of subtext here, and I don’t even want to get into it. I’ll end up digging through Michael Jackson’s psyche for weeks to come.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

So… which one is Tito?

The assembled ghouls all curtsy to the gathered crowd. And then, there’s a tinny drum machine in the background, and Michael spins around. He strikes his classic pose of arms in a V, shirt billowing open, and screaming, “HHHHAAAAAA!” It’s like the one thing you can count on in a Michael Jackson video. It’s like, more overused than that stock footage of the lions forming Voltron. Michael has repeated this more times than you’ve seen that footage of a plaid shirt ripping at the seams to show the green muscles underneath.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

This move never gets old.

And, yep… Michael’s hand goes right to his crotch. Amazing how he goes right for it, every time, huh? That really was an unfortunate habit he got into. He again screams, “HHHAAAAAAAAAAA!” Wow, he’s really got to watch how hard he grabs his crotch. The ghouls walk around menacingly (or at least, as menacing as dance choreography can get), and Michael screams “HHHHHAAAAAAAAAA!” one more time. But certainly, not for the last time.

There’s a moment of silence. The ghouls and the townspeople stare each other down. Finally, all the Ghoul Dancers do a move where they wrap their arms around themselves, with a thunderous noise, releasing clouds of dust. They all brush dust off their shoulders in unison. And then… they all cough in unison. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Coughing as choreography? That’s a new one.

One of the ghouls continues coughing a little too vigorously, so Michael snaps his fingers, again releasing a cloud of dust. Everyone follows suit, releasing more dust, and one of the ghouls even sneezes [!]. Wait, are they actually rehearsing a number for a Nasonex commercial? And every time the ghouls move, they make more noise than ninjas in a kung fu movie.

Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 2 of 3)

Damn, he’s got more dust on him than my copy of Dangerous.

A few dust-creating stomps later, and it seems the actual music has finally arrived. (Right before this, I swear to you, Michael makes a “jacking off” gesture [!].) After one more HHHHAAAAAAA!, the song itself begins.

There’s much preening, and posing, and the ghouls start breathing on the beat. This is “2 Bad”, and it’s mostly an average song. It’s passable enough, but it’s obviously not something that would ever burn up the charts.

And the choreography (done partly by Michael himself) is pretty good, but it pales in comparison to other Jackson videos. Theoretically, the ghouls all have individual personalities, but in practice, there’s really nothing to distinguish them from one another. (With the exception of an obnoxiously cackling jester, whose bells are way over-foleyed. (That’s not a reference to Congressman Mark Foley, by the way, but given the boy-touching motif here, you might have thought so.))

Multi-Part Article: Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997)

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