Monday, June 29, 2009

My Debt to Michael Jackson

Most children of the 80s have been reeling these past few days. I’m no exception.

The Gloved One was not only a modern-day mythological figure to us, he was a constant fixture in our lives. Before the allegations of child molestation, before Bubbles the Chimp, before the skin-bleaching and gobs of cosmetic surgery there was Michael Jackson, Legend and Childhood Hero.

For some of us, the Legend stopped at pop culture icon. My boyfriend, in particular, saw him as this. He dressed up as him one Halloween at least two decades ago, in the legendary black and white Billie Jean getup. I still haven’t seen the photographic evidence of this. I imagine it’s rather hilarious.

I remember Michael Jackson for these reasons and a few more. I owe him for more than just infectious songs, slick dance moves and bizarrely entertaining arcade games. He was a huge part of making me who I am today.

My habit of scaring myself silly goes back years and years. I suppose the origin of this came about in my fourth year, with the first album I ever owned. It was Thriller, and my parents bought it for me. I played it constantly on a little red portable record player I carried everywhere I went throughout the house. I played with the record player mostly in my bedroom, listening to books on mini album starring She-Ra, He-Man or Gremlins characters, but if I had to go downstairs for long periods of time I’d unplug it and cart it along with me. My little red record player predated the iPod nearly twenty years, but it served the same purpose and I loved it with all the ridiculous intensity that I reserve for my digital music today. It was, in a way, a lifeline that has changed form and tweaked function over the years but has never left me.

Thriller was my first glimpse of adult musical taste. I was a hyperactive child, very impressionable, and I had a habit that continues to this day of remembering things and refusing to let them leave the chambers of recent memory. I replay things I hear, over and over, tormenting myself with them until they take on a life of their own.

That album played in my brain long after I would lift the needle, and one song in particular gripped me so hard that I couldn’t get rid of it even when I wanted it to. It was a hip, catchy tune that to most people was simply a cute song with a cute video that played off of the then still somewhat new zombie motif. What it did to my poor, spongelike pre-kindergarten brain is something in itself out of a horror movie.

It grabbed me, invaded like a vengeful ghost and took residence inside my mind, refusing to leave or give me any peace. Even when I unplugged the player and went to bed, even when I left it downstairs and out of sight in an attempt to alleviate the terror, it played on in my head, filling me with nightmares that jolted me awake in the middle of the night, unable to get a grip on myself. I was just a child, new to nightmares and unsure how to handle being so afraid. I just let myself become even more scared by constantly thinking about what it was that frightened me. It’s a habit I continue even now, and over the years have become even somewhat proud of.

I have to say, now that I’ve thought about it, that Jackson was really just the matchmaker between fear and I. Fear came not in his voice, but in a voice that over the years I grew to adore, a voice that belonged to a man I would consider to be one of the greatest assets to horror as a genre we may ever see.

It wasn’t the melody to “Thriller” that scared me, nor was much in it the lyrics. It was there in Vincent Price’s ridiculously terrifying soliloquy, a so-called “rap” that featured references to rotting corpses, tombs, hellhounds and ghouls. It was capped by a laugh that, every single time I heard it, dropped my internal temperature several degrees.

My fear of this man’s voice grew to the point where I would come running, down the stairs or through several rooms if necessary, to lift the record player’s needle before the track could even come on. I would stand there with my hand hovering over it as “The Girl is Mine” finished playing, yanking the needle up and going back to whatever it was I’d been doing. I just couldn’t handle it any longer. It scared me too much, stayed with me too long, invaded my sleep.

Eventually, as I grew older, I began to crave that feeling of terror. I needed it. It motivated me somehow, and I sought it out. I found it for a while in DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Nightmare on My Street,” a song about and featuring Freddy Krueger, a horror movie legend that my parents diligently strove to keep me away from. It was frightening enough, and freaked me out so long as it was on B94’s top eight countdown, but once it was gone its memory didn’t haunt me the way “Thriller” did.

So I returned to the album of my early childhood and fell in love with it, and to this day I listen to its title track once in a while to remind myself of my early frights. Having long ago become enamored with the films of Vincent Price, the soliloquy no longer fills me with cold fear. Instead, it feels humorously comforting, like listening to your grandfather tell a ghost story in front of a fire at a family cookout. It feels warmly familiar, comfortable.

I don’t think I would have gone on to become a person who enjoys being scared, and through that desire a horror writer, without having been jolted by this song on a daily basis. I would have, I believe, gone on to become either someone who writes overly serious literary works or sappy garbage, if I wrote at all, and where is the fun in that?

And now both of the men who introduced me to such delicious fear are gone. While the world mourns Jackson’s passing, all I can think about is that goofy song and the lifelong influence it’s had on me and how grateful I am that it had such a profound impact.

Thank you, Michael Jackson, for the amazing album that was Thriller, and for all of the nightmares it bestowed on my preadolescent brain.

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