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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’

thriller michael jackson werewolf zombie video john landis
Epic Records/Vestron Music Video

The shadow cast by Michael Jackson’s bizarre personal life and legal troubles may have eclipsed most of his career but it still could not blot out the shining triumph of his song and music video ‘Thriller.’

The surprise blockbuster single, video and album not only drove album sales to record heights but the music video, directed by John Landis, paved a new path for the recording industry. Lavish music videos became a must for every single that wanted to earn a spot on the top of the charts or a place in pop culture’s pantheon. The success of the album and video even created new opportunities for African-American musicians, getting their videos played on MTV and opening doors that were still closed off due to misguided bigotry that permeated the recording industry. As the iconic album reaches its 30th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the scary good song that transformed pop music overnight the way a full moon transforms an ordinary man into a snarling werewolf.

1. The song wasn’t always called ‘Thriller’

michael jackson thriller album
Epic Records

Michael Jackson’s most famous chart topper and music video can produce an eerie chill and goosebumps just by saying its name. An early draft of the song, however, didn’t evoke such imagery.

Songwriter and drummer Rod Templeton was behind such huge Michael Jackson hits as ‘Rock with You’ and ‘Off the Wall.’ When legendary producer Quincy Jones brought Templeton on board to write songs for Jackson’s sixth album, he turned in a song called ‘Starlight.‘ Jones liked the song but thought it needed a new hook and sent the songwriter back to the drawing board. Templeton said he wrote “two or three hundreds titles” but the best was ‘Thriller’ because, “You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts.” Jones liked it so much that he titled the album ‘Thriller’ as well.

2. Background vocals were recorded in a shower stall

Michael Jackson's first solo concert
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Jones’ kicked off the recording of Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album in a Santa Monica studio by announcing, “OK guys, we’re here to save the recording industry.” The crew then spent long hours undertaking this massive responsibility with great care and ingenuity.

The crew used every inch of space they could to record and mix the album. Bruce Swedien, an audio engineer who worked with Jones on the album in 1982, said the album’s distinctive sound came from some creative use of acoustics. Some of the background singers actually recorded their parts in a bathroom shower stall to take advantage of its unique acoustics. He also had Jackson record and then re-record his vocalizations over each other to give Michael’s voice “a unique character.”

3. Jackson wanted Landis to direct the ‘Thriller’ video after seeing ‘An American Werewolf in London’

Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness at the time the video for ‘Thriller’ was made, so he felt it was important to include a personal disclaimer that famously read, “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a deep interest in it.

Jackson was a huge fan of Landis’ ‘An American Werewolf in London,’ the dark comedy-horror starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne. Jackson said in the ‘Making of ‘Thriller” feature that the werewolf movie convinced him that Landis was the man to direct the short film he wanted to do for the ‘Thriller’ single. He also brought the movie’s legendary makeup artist, Rick Baker, on board to create the look of the film’s monsters. Jackson would reteam with Landis in 1991 for his song ‘Black or White.’

4. Jennifer Beals was originally offered the role of Jackson’s girlfriend

Actress and Playboy model Ola Ray scored the role of a lifetime as Michael Jackson’s girlfriend in the ‘Thriller’ video. However, she wasn’t the first actress that casting had in mind.

Jennifer Beals, the star of the hit romantic film ‘Flashdance,’ got the initial offer to play Jackson’s girlfriend but for some reason, she declined it. The part went to Ray instead. Ray said following Jackson’s death that she was grateful for the role and the two remained close friends long after the video shoot ended. He even flew her to Germany so she could accept and keep a film award for the video.

5. Michael’s famous red outfit came from John Landis’ wife

michael jackson zombies thriller red jacket
Epic Records/Vestron Music Video

The dark and creepy sound and look of ‘Thriller’ may have made the song and video an iconic part of entertainment history, but the distinctive look of Jackson’s outfit helped cement its place as a classic.

The famous red costume actually came from Landis’ wife Deborah. She said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that she wanted to make an outfit for Jackson that would make him “absolutely pop off the screen,” especially during the famous dance scene with the dark and dreary zombies. Mrs. Landis also thought the wide shoulders from the “V” design of the jacket “would make Michael more virile.” Deborah only made two of the memorable red V-style jackets. One of them was sold last year at an auction for $1.8 million. She also came up with the iconic look and style for two legendary movie characters — ‘Animal House’ lush Bluto Blutarsky and Indiana Jones.

6. The ‘Making Of ‘Thriller” documentary raised the money to make the actual video

Jackson and Landis had some big ideas for their “short film.” Those ideas, however, would require an unprecedented budget to bring them to life.

The project would not only require extensive makeup and special effects to create the scary look of the monsters, but Landis also insisted that the dancing monsters spend at least 10 days rehearsing their moves. Altogether, Jackson and Landis needed nearly $500,000. CBS/Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff was a staunch supporter of Jackson’s music and even got MTV to retire its racist “no black acts” policy by threatening to pull his other videos unless they played Jackson’s now iconic ‘Billie Jean’ video. However, he was livid when he learned how much money the project would cost.

Landis said his producer George Folsey Jr. came up with the brilliant idea of producing a behind the scenes documentary about their video that they could sell to the networks to pay for the project. MTV and Showtime both bought the rights to air the documentary for $250,000, each giving the ‘Thriller’ production team the money they needed to shoot the actual video.

7. Quincy Jones’ wife helped the ‘Thriller’ team score Vincent Price

The Horror King vincent price
Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images

One of the most memorable moments of both the song and video was horror movie icon Vincent Price’s creepy narration and trademark laughter echoing across the tune’s booming baselines.

Price came on board through Jones’ then-wife, the actress Peggy Lipton (‘Mod Squad,’ ‘Twin Peaks’) since the two were close friends. Price didn’t spend much time in the studio since Jones said he managed to get a perfect take out of the actor with only two recordings. They also didn’t have to spend much money to get Price into the recording studio — the famed horror movie actor only earned anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for his work on the song and the subsequent video, even turning down a chance to earn a portion of its millions in profits. Landis said he talked to Price a year after the video’s massive release and learned he was very upset with the deal he took and that Jackson would not return any of his phone calls.

8. The star-studded audience called for an encore at the video’s premiere

thriller marquee
Epic Records/Vestron Music Video

Jackson and Landis never saw their video as just a music video. They envisioned it as a short film and just like a major motion picture, they wanted to give it a lavish, Hollywood-style premiere.

Landis said the theater was filled with Jackson’s celebrity friends such as Diana Ross, Warren Beatty and Prince and naturally, the video received wild applause and a standing ovation. Then the crowd started chanting “encore” and Landis said he didn’t know how to respond to the request. That’s when Eddie Murphy stood up and screamed,“Show the [expletive] thing again!” So they screened the film a second time to even wilder applause.

9. The ‘Thriller’ video helped to create the video rental business

michael jackson thriller theater ola ray
Epic Records/Vestron Music Video

These days, the home video rental industry may be standing on fewer steady legs than one of the rotting corpses in Jackson’s video. Still, the once burgeoning industry has ‘Thriller’ to thank for the success they had.

The video went into regular rotation on television and MTV showed the clip repeatedly, sometimes at least twice every hour at the height of its popularity. Fans wanted to watch the video in their home, but VHS tapes were expensive to own. So video rental chains started popping up to lend copies of the tape and eventually other movies for a much smaller price. Then, Landis said, a video retailer wanted to sell the video on VHS. Landis didn’t think the deal would be a moneymaker but he gave the plan his blessing. The VHS version sold over a million copies in the US alone.

10. It’s the only music video in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry

michael jackson thriller john landis zombies
Epic Records/Vestron Music Video

Jackson and Landis’ video received numerous honors and broke many records since its release, but they probably paled in comparison when the Library of Congress chose to preserve it in its archives for future generations.

In 2009, The Library’s National Film Registry officially selected the ‘Thriller’ video as one of its inductees along with ‘The Muppet Movie,’ ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘The Mark of Zorro.’ Its inclusion makes it the first music video to be enshrined in the Registry’s archives as a film, the way Jackson and Landis have always considered it to be.

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