Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is so closely associated with Halloween that it can be easy to overlook the fact that it’s also the most influential music video ever made, for a host of reasons only partly related to its spooky subject matter.
For starters, it’s the most popular, critically acclaimed music video in history, one whose fame helped push the album it was a part of, 1982’s Thriller, to become the highest-selling album in music history, with some estimates claiming over 100 million copies sold worldwide. (For context, The Eagles’ hugely popular 1976 Greatest Hits album, which recently surpassed Thriller for album sales in the US, has only sold 51 million copies worldwide.)
It was legendarily scandalous, with a now-famous disclaimer that it “in no way endorses a belief in the occult” feeding into the era’s titillating frenzy over Satanic Panic. Its multi-layered storyline was destined to tease the squeamish: The narrative played with horror movie tropes, framing a vintage movie about a teenage were-person (Jackson) unexpectedly terrorizing his date (model Ola Ray), within a modern story about a teenage zombie also terrorizing his date — along with a grave-fresh dancing zombie uprising.
“Thriller” expanded the boundaries for music videos, single-handedly transforming what was then a new and oft-maligned genre that killed the radio star into a cultural phenomenon and an art form in its own right. Public demand to watch “Thriller” outside of its TV airings created a video-rental boom. And crucially, its popularity pushed FM radio stations and MTV to give equal time to black entertainers alongside white artists, on what had been until then tacitly segregated outlets.
And all of this was exactly according to plan. In his 1988 memoir Moonwalk, Jackson discussed how he had conceived of each of the three short films that were produced to accompany Thriller — the music videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” — to be genre-advancing, innovative, and inventive. “I wanted to be a pioneer in this relatively new medium and make the best short music movies we could make,” Jackson wrote. “On the set I explained that we were doing a film and that was how I approached it.”
To that end, Jackson recruited filmmaker John Landis, then famed for Blues Brothers and Animal House, to direct “Thriller.” Landis was fresh off of making American Werewolf in London, the film that established the “horror-comedy” as a galvanizing force within the horror genre. Jackson wanted to hire Landis because the concept of the “Thriller” music video also involved a were-transformation, and because Landis’s darkly comedic touch matched the comical pastiche of serious horror that Jackson was aiming for.
When the production budget ran over double the original proposal — “Thriller” ultimately cost $900,000, then an unprecedented cost for a music video — Jackson found an ingenious way to make up the difference: He hired a second film crew to document the production as it was happening, and convinced MTV and Showtime to pay to license The Making of Thriller, which ultimately premiered after the music video and (as Jackson reported in Moonwalk) sold a million copies all by itself. It was the first time a documentary film had ever been made about a music video, and it further legitimized the work Jackson was doing.
And then, of course, there was the impact of the video, released exclusively on MTV on December 2, 1983. Jackson reported in Moonwalk that the video and its title song, released as a single in February 1984, drove 14 million additional sales of Thriller in the first six months after their release.
Ultimately, the monumental success of the album Thriller — nominated for 12 Grammys and winning a record-breaking eight — made Jackson an unstoppable force who had to be taken seriously. “There were times during the Thriller project when I would get emotional or upset because I couldn’t get the people working with me to see what I was,” Jackson wrote in Moonwalk. But after “Thriller,” which would go on to become the first-ever music video added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, his creative genius spoke for itself.
There’s a lot to unpack in the video’s 14-minute runtime. Its iconic choreography, horror narrative, dazzling costumes, and effects have all been the focus of decades of pop culture writing. But here are some facts you may have missed amid all the hype, analysis, and dance-offs.
“Thriller” started out as something of an afterthought
While Epic Records was certainly thrilled (sorry) with the landmark success of Thriller after the hit singles “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were released, the label viewed the album’s title track as something of a novelty and had no plans to release it as a single.
It wasn’t until the album started to fall on the charts in 1983, months after its November 1982 release, that promoter Frank DiLeo assuaged Jackson’s angst over declining sales by encouraging him to make a third video to join the other two. “Thriller” was considered an easy lift due to the content. “All you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary,” DiLeo recalled saying to Jackson in a 2010 Vanity Fair profile of Jackson and the film.
And it almost didn’t see the light of day, thanks to Jackson’s religion
At the time he was making Thriller, Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness who would carry books about his and other religions around with him on set. After production wrapped on “Thriller,” as explained by Jackson’s longtime lawyer John Branca to Vanity Fair, Jackson started to panic because members of his church had told him the song promoted demonology.
Afraid the church was going to excommunicate him, Jackson begged Landis to have the film destroyed. Instead, Branca convinced him to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to distance it from his own personal beliefs. “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult,” the title card read.
Ultimately, the disclaimer just added to the hype around the video and became an accidental stroke of marketing genius, even though it was only created to assuage Jackson himself.
Michael Jackson does not transform into a werewolf. No, really.
Jackson undergoes two memorable transformations in the film: first as a were-creature and later a zombie. In the first scene, he transforms into what most people typically assume is a werewolf. This makes sense, given that he’s shown reacting to the full moon right before he changes.
In fact, Jackson’s transformation isn’t into a werewolf, but into a were-cat. The look was created by Rick Baker, fresh from winning the first Oscar given out for Best Makeup for his work on Landis’s American Werewolf.
“We made him into more of a werecat because I just didn’t want to do another werewolf,” Baker told Vulture in 2010. “At first I was thinking [it would be] almost like a black panther thing, but … I ended up putting a longer mane of hair on it and bigger ears.”
In a Guardian interview about the making of the film last year, Landis noted that he’d insisted Jackson’s transformation not be too unattractive. But Baker was amused at how into the idea of turning into the monster M.J. was. “I thought, he’s like a rock star — I don’t think he’s going to want to wear this makeup, but it turned out that’s what he wanted to do more than anything,” Baker said.
Vincent Price’s “rap” had a whole additional verse
Vincent Price’s famous “rap” had a rarely heard middle verse that was cut from the final performance in both the album and the video. Its lyrics — “Thriller” songwriter Rod Temperton allegedly wrote the lines the day of Price’s studio visit as a kind of Edgar Allan Poe pastiche — are arguably even more diabolically gleeful than the first half, and include the immortal lines, “The demons squeal in sheer delight / It’s you they spy, so plump, so right.”
Alas, Price’s meaty delivery of “Can you dig it?” also never made it into the final cut.
Jackson’s pet boa constrictor was an on-set guest
According to multiple accounts, Jackson would bring his pet snake, Muscles, to the set while filming “Thriller.” In a 2016 interview, Quincy Jones, who produced the album, said that Jackson’s menagerie — which also included chimpanzees — was ubiquitous in the studio. “One day I said, ‘Where’s Muscles?’ and we went downstairs and Muscles was in the parrot cage. He had just eaten the parrot and his head got stuck in the bars of the cage.”
“Thriller” has an oblique connection to a famous paranormal hoax
When Jackson and his girlfriend in the film, Ola Ray, exit the theater after the movie-within-a-movie, they’re shown standing in front of a movie poster for a film called Schlock. This is a real movie directed by Landis, who cast his friend, the well-known makeup effects artist John Chambers, in his only credited acting role.
Chambers was a special-effects titan, most famous for crafting the apes in Planet of the Apes. He was also long rumored to have been responsible for a legendary hoax: the Bigfoot captured on camera in a blurry 1967 film known as the Patterson-Gimlin footage. Chambers reportedly always denied the rumor, but it’s worth noting that his protege, Baker, would go on to create a very similar creature when he created the giant puppet Bigfoot in Harry and the Hendersons.
These zombies are living their best afterlives …
Okay, we’re cheating. There’s no cool fact here; we just wanted to point out these hilariously intense members of Michael’s zombie squad. Maybe they’re un-born with it.
… and “Thriller” is living its best post-life
The modern era has given us some “Thriller” side effects that we never could have foreseen, such as:
The origin of popcorn.gif
Vox named the moment when Michael delightedly watches himself onscreen as the #1 reaction GIF of all time, suitable for reacting to basically everything.
Then there’s the sheer memetic quality of Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” dance itself, which has been endlessly mimicked, duplicated, and recreated in nostalgic pop culture moments. Among our favorite moments:
Taika Waititi’s Boy
Before he became a geek favorite for his adorable on-set antics as director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi was a cult fave thanks to a charming cadre of films set in his home country of New Zealand. Among them was Boy (2010), a poignant coming-of-age dramedy about a kid whose obsession with Michael Jackson offers him an escape from dealing with his shiftless father. The movie is great, but the end credits, in which the cast performs a famous Maori anthem to “Thriller” moves, are the best.
“Thriller” flash mobs
Ever since flash mobs started to become a whole thing, crowds around the world have broken out into the video’s iconic creepy-crawly dance. By far the most famous is this viral 2007 Philippine prison dance, featuring hundreds of convicts rocking their orange jumpsuits in style.
Arguably worthy of equal and probably more fame is this truly epic 2009 gathering in Mexico City of 12,937 “Thriller” fans — and that’s just the official tally — to perform the dance routine en masse:
The Indian “Thriller”
Kondaveeti Donga is a 1985 film that gained a second life on the internet around 2007, after its (in)famous “Thriller” parody scene went viral due to a video meme in which it gets a dose of misheard English lyrics. In it, legendary Indian actor Chiranjeevi does a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of the “Thriller” zombie sequence.
The “Thriller” scene from 13 Going on 30
Okay, yes, it’s cheesy and emotionally manipulative, but you can’t help cheering for Jennifer Garner — a 13-year-old hailing from 1984 who’s trapped in a 30-year-old’s body — as she wins over a tough crowd by summoning their collective “Thriller” knowledge, which seems to have been magically encoded in each of their dance-loving genes. All of these people have the soul for getting down, and that’s the magic of rom-coms.
One thing that’s striking about all of these modern moments is how fully global they are. Together, they paint a picture of the album Thriller’s universality. Writing for Vanity Fair in 2010, Nancy Griffin opined, “To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them. Since then, the fragmentation of pop culture has destroyed our sense of collective exhilaration, and I miss that.”
But if anything, the extended life that Thriller, and “Thriller,” have had all over the world suggests that we’re still capable of being brought together and feeling that collective sense of exhilaration. And while it’s true that our interest in “Thriller” peaks annually on Halloween, it’s really just an excuse to celebrate a love that flows year-round. After all, for fans of the King of Pop, every night is a Thriller night.