No Mere Mortal Can Resist

Every October, Michael Jackson’s Thriller resurrects itself. Thriller’s sensory aspects transport and captivate us time and time again, making our hair stand on end even though we know we’ve heard the track before. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Hallowe’en is days away, which means I’ve had one particular track on repeat: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Due to my strong personal convictions, I think this is one of the best tracks ever recorded, both as a standalone work of art and as a Hallowe’en staple. As I was listening for the umpteenth time, I decided I wanted to pay tribute to the masterful storytelling MJ demonstrates in the title track of his 1982 album.

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Photo: BlogTO

I personally feel that everything about this song is unparalleled, for one key reason: “Thriller” weaves a scary story solely through audio (we’ll get to the video later). Visuals are a key element of our imagination, but “Thriller” harnesses the many possibilities of sound to prompt our own dreadful visions. How else does Jackson (along with producer Quincy Jones, songwriter Rod Temperton, and actor Vincent Price) use terror to allure us every time? Let’s break it down.

Sound & Senses

From the outset, the track’s many layers pull us into the King of Pop’s rich paranormal world. A coffin* opens. Wind blows and thunder crashes. A wolf howls in the distance. Footsteps fall …

The various sounds trigger our own associations based on what we’ve experienced and imagined in the past – each of us responds to these prompts in some way, with fear, amusement, or something else.

The soundscape is the backbone of the track. Sound effects support it throughout, littering the immersive narrative with sensory stimuli. The interlude in which Vincent Price reads a spoken word “rap” is overlaid with organ music, amplifying his deadly drawl. Evil laughter swiftly ends the song, and we hear the supposed coffin (or door) slam shut. All of these sounds combine to create a tapestry of horror, transporting us unwittingly into a haunted space of our own design.

* To me it sounds quite heavy, like a coffin being opened from within. But to you it may sound differently, like a creaky door. That’s what’s so wonderful about the track: we’re the ones building the setting based on the audio prompts we’re given.

Writing 

Rod Temperton’s lyrics strike listeners with vivid imagery that resurrects all manner of horrific creatures to shock you. I don’t know about you, but the diction makes me feel transported to a graveyard setting or similar. Such exacting language, written in the 2nd person point of view, situates us directly in the setting (“you try to scream … / you start to freeze …). We are the potential victim navigating the frightening landscape as we listen along.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom

Voice & Performance

As Jackson performs the lyrics, he dances around (no pun intended) the actual identity of the monsters of whose malice he warns. In doing so, he dwells in the fear of the unknown. We “hear a creature creeping up behind” but we don’t see it, just like we don’t see anything when listening to the track. We are just as blind and helpless as Jackson tells us we are, left to picture the lyrical demons in our own minds.

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Vincent Price. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Jackson was threatening us with the imminent presence of evil, Vincent Price’s deadly voice is practically condemning. His chilling delivery does something Jackson’s higher-pitched voice could never achieve: it scares us senseless. If you didn’t think Price’s voice was sinister enough in speech, his diabolical laughter seals the entire track. The illusion is so carefully constructed that we are well and truly immersed – I still get chills.

Visuals

As much as I’ve praised “Thriller” the song for its auditory accomplishments, it would be a cardinal sin to overlook the 14-minute epic that serves as the music video. My mother reminisced that the 1983 premiere on MTV was such a big event that people skipped classes to watch it. It provides a visual narrative sequence with a surprising levity which somewhat offsets the audio, as well as the iconic “Thriller” choreography. However, you could argue that watching the short film detracts from the sonic experience I’ve just described – it’s a real treat to listen to the disembodied sounds/music and picture our own mélange of ghoulish chaos and fear. After all, seeing the video means that the darkness of the unknown is now illustrated, losing some of its mystique. But the music video is a spectacle in itself and deserves to be recognized.

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Michael Jackson’s iconic music video for Thriller is timelessly entertaining. Photo: Giphy

Whether you choose to watch the video or listen to the track, you’re guaranteed an interpretative masterpiece. But I stand by my veneration for the song in particular and its talents in transporting listeners without the need for visuals. Jackson’s “Thriller” isn’t just spectacular; it’s interactive. It’s both a trick of the mind and a treat to listen to. And that’s why it will thrill us for years to come.

And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the Thriller

Frankenstein; or the Modern Myth

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in popular culture for two centuries. As a story about stories, how does it capture audiences even now, and what does it tell us about literary tradition?

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been haunting our cultural imagination for 200 years now. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you know the story. You’ve encountered it in some way, shape, or form. Even as early as 5 years after its initial publication in 1818, the novel was adapted into a stage play. And ever since, it’s been twisted and translated, parodied and paid homage to in countless books, films, TV shows, plays, video games, memes, t-shirts, and has even entered into our lexicon (who hasn’t used “Franken” as a prefix, stitching it onto other words like some linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster?). Frankenstein’s monster remains an enduring cultural touchstone. So why do we keep adapting this strange tale, dreamed up in the mind of a teenage girl? Why is Frankenstein such an enduring story? How does it still resonate?

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Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in promotional material for Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Frankenstein, we think of shambling insensate monsters, of the mad scientist in his darkened lab, hunched over a slab of corpse fragments. We think lightning and stitched skin and a mob of pitchforks and torches. But all these images were borne out of the afterlives of Shelley’s novel. Why, then, does the novel lend itself to this kind of modern myth-making?

Well, if we go back to the novel itself, which is often lost among these countless iterations and adaptations, it becomes clear that this is a story about stories. Shelley built her novel on a sturdy foundation of Milton and Shakespeare, science and philosophy and art. It’s a story that speaks through stories about the way stories shape us. It’s no surprise, then, that Frankenstein’s monster, after being abandoned by his creator, learns about the world through books:

I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings . . . I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none.

The creature finds solace in reading, but also comes to better understand himself and the world around him.

Stories allow us to experience and understand things that are unfamiliar to us. Shelley’s novel does exactly that. Instead of painting the creature as a one-dimensional monster, the novel invites us to sympathize with him, despite his bitter cruelty and horrific violence. The monster only becomes monstrous, after all, because of the terrible things done to him.

Why do we keep coming back to Frankenstein? In a world that wants to fit people into black-and-white categories, to distinguish between good and evil, Frankenstein resists easy interpretation. It wallows in seams and ambiguity and gray areas. The book is disturbing, as any good horror fiction should be. But it’s also suffused with loss, desire, grief, and love. No matter how far its offspring stray, Frankenstein continues to resonate because it speaks to our human impulse to create and find some kind of connection through the stories we tell each other.

At the Movies, Music is the New Sports

The recent proliferation of superhero movies leaves us with specific associations regarding blockbusters. Sports films had their heyday in the 1990s, but does the imminent release of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman signal a resurgence of music biopics?

By Serena Ypelaar

Is there a sports team that everybody likes? No way.

Are there bands/musicians that (nearly) everybody likes? I think so!

Why am I asking these questions? Mainly to posit a recent theory of mine that music biopics are the future of the film industry. The upcoming release of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), in which Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen, and Rocketman (2019), starring Taron Egerton as Elton John, got me thinking about the marketability of popular cinema genres these days.

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Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Photo: YouTube

Ever since the Harry Potter films were finished (which in my completely unbiased opinion set the standard for franchise/adaptation blockbusters), I’ve felt like there haven’t been as many blockbusters that don’t wear thin. The creative industry of Hollywood seems increasingly stale with its endless superhero reboots. I feel sorry for the dead horse that is the Marvel franchise – it’s taken so many beatings over the last few years (Infinity War is aptly named). Just when you think nobody wants another superhero flick, people still flock to the theatres without fail.

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Marvel keeps making the movies because people keep watching. Movies are creative, but they also have to sell, which is where formulas come in. With the ever-pressing need to make more high-grossing films, it looks like we might be in for an oncoming surge in music biopics.

Why do I think music flicks are so universally marketable compared to, say, sports? Well, for starters, I know from experience that sports are highly emotional, and at times, controversial.

  1. Not everyone likes sports. Nearly everyone likes music of some kind (correct me if I’m wrong).
  2. Of those who do like sports, they have a team/athlete they love, and teams/athletes they HATE. Just look around during the World Cup or the NHL – people are at each other’s throats over sports teams.
  3. The competitive nature of sports (win/draw/lose) is much different than the non-discrete, creative nature of music – it’s possible to like many genres without needing to “beat” others (award shows aside).
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Sports disagreements can loom large; there’s a deep sense of loyalty to one’s team that doesn’t hold as much emotional tension in music preferences. Unless you are Nickelback. Photo: Gifer

Maybe my evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a certain type of community that comes from music. There are songs that seem exempt from hatred, and it’s this phenomenon that I think makes music flicks much more viable than sport flicks. Not that there can’t be good sport films, but in terms of mass marketing, making a film about a timeless and popular band has a higher chance of box office success than a movie about a given sport, team, or athlete who has a smaller group of fans.

For instance: one of the most timeless songs of the twenty-first century so far is The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”. I’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in my generation who couldn’t/wouldn’t belt out the lyrics at a moment’s notice (COMIN’ OUT OF MY CAGE AND I’VE BEEN DOING JUST FINE) upon hearing the opening chords. I wholeheartedly expect a Killers biopic in thirty years’ time titled Mr. Brightside, because what better way to bring in the masses than by using a tune that’s instantly recognizable and which personifies the band itself?

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Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis… Photo: WeHeartIt

It certainly seems to be the strategy that the teams behind Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have employed. Based on the widespread popularity of both these musical acts, I almost wonder if the storyline even needs to be stellar, as long as the cast puts on a good show musically (just ask Mamma Mia!). The film industry is under pressure to deliver some fresh takes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t draw upon timeless old classics in a new light. After all, classics are guaranteed popularity.

Perhaps, based on the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, music flicks will take off – I certainly wouldn’t mind. May they pack a more satisfying punch than the exhausted superheroes can muster.