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

How Does History (Literally) Speak to You?

One thing we can’t glean from history prior to the invention of the phonograph is how people’s voices sounded. We may feel a profound connection with historical figures but can never hear how they spoke, a key aspect of their identity and personality. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Historical figures are more than just pictures on a page. They are people who lived and contributed to their communities, and trying to imagine them doing so can be a challenge to historians depending on what evidence remains. We’re always searching for more insight into the key quality that truly brings a historical figures to life: their personality.

Just as we once had no photographs to see what people really looked like, so too did we once lack film evidence that people really lived and spoke in distinctive ways. In trying to get a sense of mannerisms and voice, we first had to rely on audio.

Why do I think voice is such an important aspect of connecting to those who have predeceased us? I’m going to use politicians as my prime example. Many politicians are remembered as great orators whose speeches have moved and influenced societies during major events, from celebrations to declarations of war. I believe our voices carry much emotion, therefore conveying an important aspect of who we are.

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Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowds in Washington, DC. Photo: National Park Service

Think about it: how many times have you seen/met someone, and at first glance expected them to have a specific kind of voice (low, high, quavery, strong, accented)? And then they open their mouths and a completely different voice comes out! It changes your impression of them, doesn’t it? For instance, Daniel Day Lewis speaks in a higher pitch in the film Lincoln (2012), illustrating the surprising truth about former American President Abraham Lincoln’s high, reedy voice. It just goes to show how much the quality of one’s voice defines their presence.

Voices can be commanding or meek; soft or loud; rough or smooth; and all these sensory elements shape and cement identity, especially in public memory.

Take King George VI of Great Britain, and his speech of 3 September 1939 in which he confirms Britain’s involvement in World War II. This is the very same speech featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, as played by Colin Firth – and we can gain such a significant connection when hearing the King’s voice that it’s as if he’s in the room with us (such was the initial reaction to radio). If you listen to the real speech, you can hear George VI’s inflection and get a better impression of his presence, breaking an interpretation barrier that keeps him (and likewise, other historical figures) at a distance from us today.

Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (28 August 1963) be as rousing if we had read it on paper? Dr. King’s delivery of the speech is often remembered as an iconic capstone of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the significance of voice and audio in preserving historical records. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristic drone is recognizable to many of us, and his famous WWII “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (4 June 1940) has also been recreated in recent films such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017).

Charlie Chaplin, a British actor who was primarily known for his silent films, also understood the power of speech and voice in captivating and inspiring audiences. Taking advantage of the emergence of sound in film, his speech in The Great Dictator (1940) subverts Adolf Hitler’s acknowledged oratory skills and uses them for good in his own parody version of a wartime dictator’s speech.

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Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Still further, accents offer a whole different opportunity for biographical interpretation: for example, though former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a Quebecois francophone, he learned English in New Glasgow and therefore spoke with a slight Scottish accent, something I could never learn from merely looking at photographs or silent film clips. Observations were written down, but without audio we can never hear them for ourselves. The first Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s accent is also in question, as he was raised in the Bay of Quinte/Kingston, Ontario, far from Glasgow itself (though the latter was his birthplace). American President John F. Kennedy’s Boston accent also defines his aura in our memories. If we can hear politicians speak, we can further understand their essence as people and their leadership qualities.

Is this post, then, a prolonged lamentation that I’ll never get to hear the voices of so many historical figures who captivate me? I’m not denying it – and I’m arguing that we could all do with taking some time away from our highly absorbing smartphones to be present. Listen to people’s voices, enjoy the timbre and cadence, connect with the emotions that shine through when people speak. We often take it for granted that we’ll get to hear their voices every day, but when they’re gone, all that will be left of them is our memory and the records we’ve kept.