Behind the Song: “Thriller,” Michael Jackson

When the late British songwriter Rod Temperton wrote “Starlight’ there was nothing thrilling about it.

In its inception, Michael Jackson’s 1983 blockbuster hit “Thriller,” had a more celestial theme for Temperton, who previously wrote several tracks on Jackson’s fifth album Off the Wall, within its lyrics.

There’s indication
That someone else is standing on the ground
Across the nation
There’s always people trying to pull you down
Now is the time
For us to spend this evening close together
Deep in the night
We’re holding on to someone else’s dream
Girl, can’t you see

We need some starlight, starlight sun
There ain’t no second chance
We got to make it while we can
You’ll need the starlight, some starlight sun
I need you by my side you give me
Starlight, starlight, starlight, yeah

Working on Jackson’s sixth album, producer Quincy Jones liked the arrangement of the song, but “Starlight” just didn’t cut it or match Jackson’s evolving persona. “Midnight Man,” another title Temperton toyed around with, didn’t click, but there was something about “Thriller,” and the track soon shifted from its more cosmic elements to something off a horror movie soundtrack:

“I woke up, and I just said this word—something in my head just said, ‘this is the title,’” said Temperton in an interview in 2018, around the 35th anniversary of the song. “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.’”


It’s close to midnight
Something evil’s lurking from the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart
You try to scream
But terror takes the sound before you make it
You start to freeze
As horror looks you right between your eyes
You’re paralyzed ‘Cause this is thriller
Thriller night
And no one’s gonna save you
From the beast about to strike

“We got Michael to spit it into the microphone a few times and it worked,” said Temperton, who re-wrote the lyrics to “Thriller” within a couple of hours.

Envisioning a more spoken-word sequence, actress Peggy Lipton suggested her friend, horror movie actor Vincent Price, as the master of the “Thriller” ceremony. Writing Price’s part on the way to the studio to record the track, “Thriller” was complete.

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y’alls neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the Hounds of Hell
And rot inside a corpse’s shell

The last of seven singles released off the album, “Thriller” also took new life visually as a mini-movie, partly inspired by the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Werewolf and An American Werewolf in London (1981)—the latter, a film Jackson had watched before hiring director John Landis to help him work out the storyline of the video. Starring Jackson and Ola Ray as his girlfriend, the horror-themed short film moves scene-to-scene from the movie theater date, with scenes shot inside the Palace Theater in Los Angeles, to running out of gas in the woods and into a more zombified performance set in the streets with Jackson dancing and his cast of monsters in ghoulish movie makeup by Rick Baker.

A pop culture phenomenon, “Thriller” shifted how a music video was made, from fashion with Jackson donning the now-iconic red leather jacket, designed by Landis’ wife Deborah Nadoolman, who already worked as a costume designer on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and inspiring more scripted, choreographed videoswith the origination of the “zombie dance,” created by Jackson and choreographer Michael Petersin its aftermath.

“How can you make zombies and monsters dance without it looking comical?” said Jackson, who came to rehearsals in his monster makeup. “I teamed up with Michael Peters, and we imagined how zombies move around by grimacing in the mirror.” 

“Thriller” also shifted the bigger picture of making music videos with its $1 million budget. Running more than 13-minutes, the video doubled the sales of the album upon its release and blew up the airwaves of the then two-year-old MTV when it premiered on December 2, 1983.

Released on VHS, the video alone sold nine million copies and was the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry in 2009.

Moving from the stars to something more sinister in meaning, “Thriller” catapulted Jackson into pop music royalty and has remained an annual Halloween anthem.

Originally released on Nov. 3, 1982, Thriller also went on to become the biggest selling album of all time with 100 million sales worldwide, and the first album to be certified platinum 30 times in the U.S. with an album-worth of hits, including “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and the first collaboration for Jackson with “The Girl Is Mine,” featuring a duet with Paul McCartney.

“I always say you have to leave space for God to walk into the room, and man did he/she ever,” said Jones in a 2016 Library of Congress interview. “Michael, the music, and MTV all took it to the stratosphere. It was the perfect convergence of forces. When ‘Thriller’ came out, it chewed up everything in its way.”

Photos: Epic Records

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