This is a rare pop song with a horror theme. Halloween novelty songs like "Monster Mash
" had been around for a while, but this was the first hit song with year-round appeal containing lyrics about creatures of the night who terrify their victim. At the time, Michael Jackson was one of the least frightening people on Earth, so the video had to sell it. John Landis, who worked on the 1981 movie An American Werewolf In London
, was brought in to direct. Landis had Jackson turn into a Werewolf in the video.
Vincent Price, an actor known for his work on horror films, did the narration at the end of the song, including the evil laugh. Price's rap includes the line "Must stand and face the hounds of hell." This was inspired by the most popular Sherlock Holmes novel to date, The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Sir Henry Baskerville's family is supposedly cursed by a bloodthirsty, demonic hound. Price's personal friends, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who appeared in several horror films with him), starred in a loose 1959 film adaptation of it. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film shot in color.
Price recorded the central spoken section in this sing on his second take, after it had been written by Rod Temperton in the taxi on the way to the studio for the recording session.
The music video is considered the most famous music video of all time, at least by the Library of Congress, which added it to its National Film Registry in 2009, the first music video in their registry.
The video was a cultural milestone, introducing elaborate choreography, costumes and dialogue into the format. It also introduced the concept of the long-form music video, where a mini-movie was made for a song, then edited down for the short version. The long version of "Thriller" runs nearly 14 minutes, but had remarkable longevity, easily racking up over 100 million views when it showed up on YouTube. MTV usually ran the short version, which ran a little under five minutes but still contained about a minute of non-song content in a storyline that omits most of the movie the couple is watching at the beginning.
With its famous graveyard dance, the video started the trend of group dance scenes in pop videos, forcing even non-dancers like Pat Benatar to front a group of dancers in their clips.
The video owes a debt to Alice Cooper, who in 1975 created a movie based on the stage show for his Welcome To My Nightmare
tour. Cooper's production was based on an entire album, but it also used a horror theme and was narrated by Vincent Price.
A British songwriter named Rod Temperton wrote this song. He was the main songwriter in his band Heatwave, which he formed with two Americans. After their song "Boogie Nights
" took off in 1977, Jones asked Temperton to write songs for Jackson, resulting in "Rock With You
" and "Off The Wall
," which became the title track to Jackson's 1979 album. When it came time for Jackson's next album, Temperton again delivered the title track, this time the song "Thriller."
Temperton also wrote two other songs on Thriller
: "The Lady in My Life" and "Baby Be Mine." Those were the only songs on the album that weren't released as singles.
Most homes had VCRs in 1983 and sales of videos were big business. Along with the Jane Fonda workout tapes, you could buy a VHS or beta copy of Michael Jackson's Thriller, which included the full video and also "The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller," a behind the scenes documentary. This tape became the best selling music video at the time, and was later certified by Guinness World Records as the top selling music video of all time, moving nine million units. Part of its appeal was the price, a mere $24.95 at a time when movies on tape cost much more.
The video distribution deal was through a company called Vestron, who approached John Landis about selling the film directly to consumers, which turned out to be very profitable. The timing helped, as the video was released a few weeks before Christmas.
The video won for Best Performance Video, Best Choreography, and Viewers Choice at the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. The show was hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler.
Thriller is by far the best selling album in the world. In the United States, it was overtaken by The Eagles Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, but reclaimed the title after Jackson's death.
This was the last of seven US Top 10 hits from the Thriller album. The first single from the album, "The Girl Is Mine," reached its peak chart position of #2 on January 8, 1983. The song "Thriller" was released over a year later, on January 23, 1984, peaking at #4 on March 3. This lifespan of chart singles from one album was unprecedented, but so was the video for "Thriller." The clip was so effective that after six singles and a year of release, it boosted yet another track from the album into the Top 10. It also brought the album back to #1 on December 24, 1983 - it lost the top spot on September 17 to Synchronicity by The Police. Thriller held the peak position until April 21, 1984, over a year after it first went to #1 on February 26, 1983.
Jackson, who was a Jehova's Witness at the time, insisted on a disclaimer at the beginning of the video reading: "Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult." He asked for the disclaimer after taking criticism from Witness leaders who objected to the zombies and other creatures that violated their beliefs.
The whole Jackson clan was raised as Jehova's Witnesses, but unlike Scientology, celebrities do not get excessive special treatment, and followers were asked not to idolize Jackson, as adulation should be given only to God. After further conflict, Jackson cut ties with the Jehova's Witnesses in 1987.
The video cost about $500,000 to make, and Jackson's record company had intention of paying for it, since the album was on the downswing and they had already financed videos for two of its songs. According to John Landis, Jackson really wanted to turn into a monster, so he offered to pay for the clip himself. Landis took on the project because he saw it as a way to revive the short film genre, which he loved.
Jackson didn't have to pay for the video out of pocket because they made deals with Showtime and MTV to cover the costs. Showtime got to air a one-hour special with the "making of" documentary and the 14-minute film before it was broadcast anywhere else. When MTV heard about this, their executive Bob Pittman decided that losing a Michael Jackson video to Showtime was unacceptable, and paid $250,000 for the exclusive broadcast rights once Showtime's window ended. MTV was founded on the principle of not paying for videos, so Pittman got around this by paying for the documentary, even though the money was really used to pay for the film.
Because of a disagreement over royalties, Vincent Price's rap was not included in the 7" single version of the recording.
Vincent Price, while a guest on the Johnny Carson's Tonight Show
, laughingly stated that when he did the narration for "Thriller" (at the request of Michael Jackson who was a big fan of Price) he had a choice between taking a percentage of the album sales or $20,000. Price was well along in his career, so he took the $20,000. He was good-natured about it when Carson told him he could have made millions off of the royalties due to the vast number of copies sold even at that time. Price laughed heartily and said: "How well I know!"
Before the 14-minute short film of Thriller aired on Showtime or MTV, it was screened at the Metro Crest Theater in Los Angeles. This screening took place on November 14, 1983, in was a gathering of stars, including Diana Ross and Eddie Murphy.
In 2008 Thriller 25, a special 25th anniversary edition of Thriller, was released. The re-recorded album debuted at #2 on the Top Comprehensive Albums chart, where catalog titles mix with current best-sellers. This made it the highest-charting catalog album in the history of the Top Comprehensive Albums survey. Despite selling 166,000 copies in its debut week, it was not eligible for the main album chart as Billboard considered it to be a catalog or oldies album, and Billboard publishes a special chart just for catalog albums.
The version of the song in the video is different from the one on the album, which you need to account for if you're planning to stage a Thriller Dance. On the album, the song begins with a series of spooky sound effects that don't lend themselves to dancing.
Editing the song for the video was a challenge, since producer Quincy Jones wouldn't release the master tapes. In the book I Want My MTV, John Landis explains how they got around this restriction. "The song was five minutes long, and I needed it to be 12 minutes for the video," he said. "So Michael and I went to the recording studio at three in the morning. We walked past the guard - 'Hi, Michael.' 'Hi' - put the tracks in a big suitcase and walked out with them. Then we drove across Hollywood, duped them, and put them back."
When Rod Temperton started writing this song, he called it "Starlight" or "Starlight Love," and one of his early demos its titled "Starlight Sun." Quincy Jones wanted a better title, so Temperton wracked his brain until he settled on "Midnight Man." Then he got a better idea.
"I woke up, and I just said this word," he told The Sunday Telegraph in 2007. "Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller.'"
In the UK this has become something of a chart perennial, regularly charting each year in time for Halloween.
Rod Temperton recalled that when he wrote this song he envisaged "this talking section at the end and didn't know really what we were going to do with it. But one thing I 'd thought about was to have a famous voice in the horror genre to do the vocal. Quincy (Jones, producer)'s wife knew Vincent Price, so Quincy said to me, 'How about if we got Vincent Price?'" (Source Q magazine August 2009).
In the week of Jackson's death, sales of his records soared. In the US, this song was the late singer's best-selling track at 167,000 copies, while the top-selling album was Number Ones at 108,000.
In an interview from the 1980s, published by the News of The World, Jackson revealed that he was considering scrapping the Thriller album before being inspired by watching children play. He said: "Thriller sounded so crap. The mixes sucked. When we listened to the whole album, there were tears... I just cried like a baby. I stormed out of the room and said, 'We're not releasing this'." Jackson added: "One of the maintenance crew in the studio had a bicycle and so I took it and rode up to the schoolyard. I just watched the children play. When I came back I was ready to rule the world. I went into the studio and I turned them songs out."
A black-and-red calfskin jacket worn by Jackson in the song's video was bought by Milton Verret, a Texas commodities trader at an auction in California for $1.8 million in June 2011. Jackson wore the jacket in the scene where a group of zombies rise from their graves and break into a dance routine.
The UPC code on the album cover contained seven digits that were rumored to be Jackson's telephone number. People with that number in many different area codes got swamped with annoying calls.
The female lead in the video is Ola Ray, who was Playboy's Miss June of 1980.
In 2008, this was used in a commercial for Sobe beverages that premiered on the Super Bowl. It showed their lizard mascots dancing to the song with model Naomi Campbell. It wasn't the first time Campbell danced on film to a Michael Jackson song: she appeared in his video for "In The Closet."
There isn't much crossover between Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper, but they have Vincent Price in common. The shock rocker used Price on the introduction to his 1975 song "The Black Widow
," which was a key part of Cooper's subsequent Welcome To My Nightmare
tour. A highly theatrical production, the stage show was made into a movie that year, with Price performing his introduction. In many ways, Welcome To My Nightmare
was an antecedent to "Thriller."
Special makeup effects were created by Rick Baker (who plays the zombie whose arm falls off in the graveyard sequence). Baker was the first Academy Award winner in the Best Make-Up category for his work in An American Werewolf in London (1981).