In 1983, Michael Jackson released one of the most acclaimed music videos of all time. Co-written and directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London), with special effects by Rick Baker (The Howling, Gremlins 2) and a guest appearance by the voice of Vincent Price, Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller" became legendary. So what could the King of Pop ever do to top it?
How about a 40-minute-long short film/music video co-written by Stephen King and directed by special effects legend Stan Winston, utilizing cutting-edge effects such as early-era CGI and motion capture technology to create a moonwalking Michael Jackson skeleton? The film tells the story of the "Maestro" (played by Michael Jackson), who faces a torch-wielding mob seeking to kick him out of "Normalville" because they think he's a threat to the local children - a plot that has uncomfortable echoes of real-life scandals. One of the most expensive music videos ever made, Michael Jackson's Ghosts suffered from a troubled production and ultimately fell into obscurity, so many have not seen in its entirety.
In 1993, Michael Jackson was working on a spooky short film to coincide with the release of the Addams Family Values movie that year. Called Is It Scary, the film would have been 12-15 minutes long and was going to tie in with the song of the same name on the soundtrack of the movie. However, behind-the-scenes contract disputes meant the song didn't make it onto the soundtrack. Some believe allegations leveled against Jackson at the time also played a role.
The short film remained unfinished for three years until Jackson revived it as Ghosts.
Back in 1993, Stephen King wrote the first version of the short film that became Michael Jackson's Ghosts. He worked on it with Mick Garris, writer of movies like Hocus Pocus and frequent collaborator on many film adaptations of King's stories. The idea was that Garris would direct the video, but by the time filming started back up in 1996, Garris was busy with a television mini-series based on King's The Shining.
While the allegations brought against Michael Jackson in 1993 reportedly shut down production of Is It Scary, they may have also proved instrumental in getting the final version made. According to Mike Smallcombe, author of the book Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson, "In the light of the events of 1993, which stopped production of the original in the first place, finishing Ghosts became even more important to Michael."
The storyline of the short film already involved a mob of angry townspeople persecuting an outsider character for being "weird" and "different," but the revised version added a new role, the Mayor, who led the torch-and-pitchfork mob. This character may have been modeled on Tom Sneddon, the Santa Barbara district attorney who prosecuted Michael Jackson in 1993 and again in 2005.
Mick Garris was unable to resume directing duties on Michael Jackson's Ghosts when filming picked back up in 1996, so he recommended special effects legend Stan Winston for the job. In addition to creating special effects for some of the most famous movie franchises of the 1980s (The Terminator, Aliens, Predator), Winston had some previous directing experience, notably the 1988 film Pumpkinhead.
Jackson and Winston also already knew each other. As Jackson said in a making-of documentary on VH1, "I've known Stan Winston since I was 16 years old." In 1978, Stan Winston had done special effects for The Wiz, a Wizard of Oz adaptation in which Michael Jackson played the Scarecrow.