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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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