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An American werewolf in Neverland

Michael Jackson ruins his legacy with each passing day
/ Source: contributor

My sister Janice has this memory of the night the “Thriller” video premiered on MTV. “Thriller” — the 13-minute Michael Jackson moviette, directed by John Landis, that changed the nature of music videos. The one that made a decent pop song seem better than it was.

Janice and our older sister, Sheryl, watched, jaws agape, as the story unfolded — an innocent date gone horribly awry: Exiting a werewolf flick, a young couple walks home (through the woods, of course). The girl clings nervously to the boy (Jackson), who delights in playing off her nerves. Suddenly they’re surrounded by the funky living dead. Turning to Jackson, the girl sees that … Oh no! He’s a zombie, too!

The music starts, and the rotting horde pops, locks and rolls its way after the screaming girl, all under the middle-eight narration of horror-movie staple Vincent Price.

The video ends and my sisters shriek with delight. Like me, they love the Jackson 5 of our childhood, though by this time they are more metalheads than pop connoisseurs. Still, they agree: The “Thriller” video is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. They babble about the make-up and costumes, the dancing, Vincent Price and the “the funk of 40,000 years.”

They get about one minute into their review when our father, previously silent on the couch nursing one of his regular cluster migraines, starts to shout. Something about stupid million-dollar videos and idiot pop stars and shut the hell up! Shut the hell up!

Twenty-two years later, Janice can’t hear “Thriller,” or see or talk about the video, without remembering our father’s absurd outburst. This is her memory. I wasn’t there. But I didn’t need to be.

Michael Jackson, with his nonstop freak show, has damaged my best memories of him all by his own dang self, without the help of our cranky dad.

Aside from that memory, Janice made it through the “Thriller” incident unscathed. She likes to e-mail Michael Jackson jokes. The last one featured an image-manipulated Jackson, sinus cavity exposed, choosing from a selection of noses, deciding on the right one to wear to court. I opened it once and deleted it.

Once upon a time ...Janice thinks this stuff is funny, but it creeps me out — no more so, however, than current unaltered photos of Jackson, his pasty, mutilated face pulled death-mask tight.

I’m pissed at Michael. Not for maybe/maybe not being a pedophile (though don’t get me wrong: If he is, that’s bad). I’m angry for selfish reasons.

He’s shredded childhood memories. The “Jackson 5” cartoon, kicking butt on those wimpy Osmonds' own Saturday-morning show. My respect and awe for a boy who could moonwalk, move and make music like no living being. Make me, a punk-rock adolescent, respect disco with “Off the Wall.”

The Michael Jackson story is so totally American. This is what happens when you have so much money that people let you do whatever the hell you want. Like fat, sweaty, drug-addled Elvis, dead on the toilet. Genius gone to pot. Except when Presley was Jackson’s age, he’d been dead five years.

After “Thriller,” when Jackson’s fey oddness began to emerge, I felt something terrible was bound to befall him, some early death or dark fate. He seemed too innocent, too sexless, to survive. Spared an early death, however, Jackson now meets his terrible fate in court, brought on by either genuine guilt or a blind faith that makes him unable to remove himself from danger’s path. He’s fourth-stage Howard Hughes without the refrigerated urine.

The more oft-used metaphor for Michael Jackson is the car wreck from which we can’t look away. News Web sites give the Jackson case top billing, and real life grinds to a crawl as we rubberneck the latest court proceedings.

A friend of mine — a journalist in Iraq covering what one might consider “real news” — tells me these ephemera have caught even his attention. Hey, who doesn’t love a scary movie? Jackson is our werewolf, transforming with Lon Chaney precision before our eyes. An innocent kid gone horribly awry.

Michael Jackson is so far out of our range of experience, so weird, so unfathomable, it’s impossible to wrap your mind around him. The only thing left to do is either ignore him or relate to yourself trying to relate to him.

Fans' fond memoriesAs for those fans who wait outside the courthouse every day screaming their support, rabidly defending him even when he dangles a baby over a balcony, making his most mediocre musical efforts sell platinum … well, ya got me.

I’m not a psychiatrist or a sociologist or an anthropologist. The most I can figure about the Jackson fanatics is they’re trying to protect their own precious memories at all costs — their inner Michael, to bust a cliché. An adorable little boy with an Afro, dancing in perfect rhythm with his older brothers, singing adult love songs with absolute sincerity. Or the brilliant young man breaking from the tyrannical rule of his father and record executives to make a mark with his own musical genius. Or Captain Eo. Or the Scarecrow in “The Wiz.” Or whatever version of Michael Jackson you find most human.

Transformation has always been a major theme for this embattled cipher now closing in on 50. He changes his face, his fashion, his dance moves. He attempted to make the world see him as “The King of Pop” by marrying The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s daughter, Lisa Presley.

According to a Playboy interview with director Kevin Smith, Jackson wanted to play a guy who turns into a car driven by a kid. So entranced with his version of reality, he can’t fathom how creepy that sounds.

The only change Jackson refuses to make is that from boy to man. He built Neverland, a live-in theme park with exotic animals and a wine cellar, to maintain this perverted stasis by infringing on the childhood of others. I’d feel bad for him if I weren’t so angry.

As Jackson, pressed into servitude at a tender age, can attest, you only get so many good childhood memories. Why’d he have to go wreck mine?

Helen Popkin lives in New York and is a regular contributor to