”STEPHEN?…Stephen King?…This is…ummm…Michael? Michael Jackson?” The voice is high, anxious, hopeful, excited, elfin. ”I’m, oh my God, I am such a fan!”
I assure him that the feeling’s mutual, but what I’m mostly feeling is flummoxed. It’s 1993, I’m on the set of the Stand miniseries, and out of the blue someone’s handed me a phone with the self-anointed King of Pop on the other end of the line. What he wants, it develops, is for me to write the scariest, the absolute SCARIEST, music video ever, called Ghosts. It will be like the old Frankenstein movies, he explains, only scarier! TERRIFYING! ”Stephen,” he says, ”we must do this. We’re going to shock the world.”
I gave it my best try, not because it was Michael Jackson and not because I thought we were going to shock the world, but because I’m always interested in trying something new, and for me, writing a minimusical would be new. The core story he described to me that day was about a mob of angry townspeople — buttoned-down suburbanites, not torch-carrying peasants — who want the ”weirdo” who lives in the nearby castle to leave town. Because, they say, he’s a bad influence on their children. I associated that with the view parents held toward rock & roll when I was growing up, and still held toward the odder artists of the breed, like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson (who in 1995 would release an album called Smells Like Children). I didn’t know that rumors about Jackson and child abuse had begun to circulate, but probably would have pressed ahead even if I had. When you’re famous, everybody accuses you of everything, from petty theft to the murder of John Lennon.
The film shot for three weeks, then shut down for three years. I may once have known why, but if so, I no longer remember. My old pal (and Stand director) Mick Garris did the initial filming. One day during preproduction, I was in on a conference call about the choreography, and Michael fell asleep. On another occasion, he called my wife, wanting the phone number for wherever I was that day. She gave it to him. Michael called back five minutes later, on the verge of tears. He hadn’t had a pencil, he said, so he’d tried to write the number on the carpet with his finger, and he couldn’t read it. My wife gave him the number again. Michael thanked her profusely…but never called me.
Filming on the Michael Jackson Ghosts video recommenced as abruptly as it had stopped. Mick remembers getting a call from Michael in 1996: ”Mick, it’s gonna happen! We gotta believe it’s gonna happen!” It did, but without Mick behind the camera. He was working on the miniseries version of The Shining by then, and Stan Winston took over the directing chores. The story had wandered a far distance from my original script, but that hardly matters. What does matter is that the video contains some of the best, most inspired dancing of Jackson’s career. If you look at it, I think you’ll see why Fred Astaire called Jackson ”a helluva mover.” You’ll also see Jackson’s sadness and almost painful desire to please. Yes, I am strange, his eyes say, but I am doing the best I can, and I want to make you happy. Is that so bad?
This is a sadness that’s all too common in people who possess talent in amounts so great it has become a burden instead of a blessing. Despite being extraordinarily beautiful (although he had probably already begun the elective surgeries that would ruin those amazing looks), Jackson was painfully shy, and difficult (sometimes impossible) to talk to, but watching that old video still makes me happy…and no, that’s not bad.
It’s worth noting that he was never convicted of anything in criminal court, and when I asked Mick — who hung out with Michael occasionally — he was emphatic in his belief that Michael Jackson was indeed innocent of the abuse allegations. In the court of public opinion, however, he was found guilty of Weirdness in the First Degree, and ended up secluded in one haunted castle after another. Finally, he died in one. Strange man. Lost man. And not unique in his passing. Like James Dean, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, and a dozen others we could name, he just left the building far too soon.
Because, man oh man, that guy could dance.