It seems hard to believe that we are about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest albums of all time – and the undisputed best-selling. Thriller has shifted over 70 million copies since it was released on November 30, 1982. It’s iconic title song and video remains the most iconic and influential music video in history. It broke viewing records when it was aired on December 2, 1983, and then smashed sales records when it was released on home video. The climactic zombie dance routine is endlessly imitated and even Jackson’s red leather jacket remains instantly recognisable almost forty years later. So why on Earth would the star be so desperate to have it destroyed, especially when the whole thing was his idea in the first place?
Thriller was released as the seventh and final single from the album of the same name and Jackson had one objective only.
He wanted to restore the album to its Number One spot on the charts and he decided an attention-grabbing video would do the trick. A huge fan of the horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London, he approached its director John Landis.
The rest is history – except it almost wasn’t. Two weeks before the short film’s debut, Jackson demanded it was destroyed, for deeply personal reasons, and he went to extraordinary lengths to try and do so.
Everyone involved in the project immediately agreed that the negatives needed to be protected, so they were taken from the labs and locked securely away in Branca’s office to prevent Jackson from taking matters into his own hands.
When he discovered what had been done, the distraught star locked himself in his bedroom. He was dedicated to his church – famously even going doorstepping in a hat and fake mustache to canvas for new converts – but he also loved the Thriller video he had helped create.
Eventually, Jackson’s security chief, Bill Bray, called Landis worried about his charge who hadn’t eaten for days. The director described the sad and broken man he found when he arrived at Jackson’s Encino estate, Hayvenhurst House.
Landis said: “Bill and I kicked in the door, knocked it down, and Michael was lying there. He said, ‘I feel so bad.’ I said, ‘Michael, have you eaten?’ He hadn’t eaten. It was weird. I just said, ‘Look, I want you to see a doctor right now.’ ”
The following day, Landis went back to see the star to tell him they had not destroyed the negatives for Thriller. He was nervous about how The King of Pop would react but described how MJ simply said: “I’m sorry, John. I’m embarrassed.”
Landis added: “I said, Michael, I wouldn’t let it be destroyed. He went, ‘Really? Because I think it’s really good.’ I go, ‘Michael, it’s great and you’re great.'”
Extraordinarily, two weeks later a star-studded Los Angeles premiere at Crest Theater included Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, and Eddie Murphy. Michael himself hid in the projectionist’s room and would not come out.
As for his mixed feelings about Thriller, a compromise was reached and a special disclaimer was added at the start of the film: “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”