Michael Jackson is quite the changeling in Ghosts, his epic video that is filled with irony, spirituality and messages. In his many forms Michael delights in his material fantasies as the children delight in his mischief and magic. But there is a serious message in Ghosts and a lesson for all of us.
The scene opens with a mob marching up the road to an old mansion and we see that they are carrying torches. This is a startling reference to history and to mob mentality and lynching; mobs used to carry torches to lynchings. The Klu Klux Klan marches resemble the march up the hill in Ghosts; watching torches approach from a distance would have struck fear in the hearts of anyone and especially a Black someone. The mob carried out extrajudicial punishments against black people in the form of hangings, burning at the stake and shootings. Their trademark warning was to burn a cross on someone’s lawn or to throw rocks through windows.
The lynch mob of history, devoid of reason and employing a frenzied and militant collective mentality marches to capture an offending Black person, usually male, accused of some crime and supposed guilty. Runaway slaves, Black men accused of touching or even looking at a White woman, or any trumped up offense was used to mete out justice for the perceived wrong. It also was a clear warning message and a social control mechanism that spelled out a clear caution to any other would be offenders who dared to violate the social norms enforced by white America and particularly the South. Eliminating men in the Black culture also had the natural effect of reducing the number of potential births of babies thereby reducing the Black population. The period after the Civil War in America saw the lynchings of more than 5,000 Black people from 1860 to 1890 after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that abolished slavery. Segregation went into effect and every attempt at making lynchings illegal was met with resistance especially by the South.
In Ghosts, the person’s crime (A Black person) is being a “weirdo” and there is no place in “Normal Valley” which as the sign says, is populated “with nice regular people” The villain (Michael) also “lives up here all alone.” Is that a reference to being lonely at the top or being too high up on the social ladder for a Black person? Those Blacks who “did not know their place” in the social hierarchy were called “uppity” and were not tolerated. “Uppity” refers to social status but it’s racially motivated underneath. White society liked to remind them of place and to “take them down a peg or notch” which meant to humble or humiliate the individual. Public floggings or placing someone in the stocks which were wooden yoke-like restraints accomplished this same humiliation. Successful or famous Black men in the sixties would have been prime targets for a kind of social lynching- the message being “don’t get too uppity.” Some claim that this social lynching is still very much alive and operating in culture.
The marching mob is invading “Someplace Else” or another reality which is the target’s own domicile; it is invasive, an invasion of privacy and territory. The authority figure berates where and how he lives. And the simple “You’re weird, you’re strange; you’re a freak and I don’t like you” is supposed to be justification enough to harass this person and run him out of town?
The ring leader (Michael in costume playing the “Mayor”) seems the stereotypical middle aged stodgy, indoctrinated, opinionated and rigid mind-set that doesn’t leave room for what is innovative or different. The sixties generation would have labeled him “the Establishment.” This E-Man does not seem to be able to tolerate diversity or differences or anything that does not fit into his proprietary definition of “normal.” He accuses Michael of “scaring these kids” in their nice normal town with normal people and normal kids. He appears the personification of intolerance and ignorance, unable to assimilate differences that bring a level of discomfort that is, in actuality, veiled fear. Humanity often seeks to destroy that which it does not understand.
There is a brief appearance of a crow and the crow swoops down past the crowd in the grand room. Crows were considered omens and they did not portend kindness or goodness. They were viewed as the harbingers of darkness and evil. Who is the crow warning?
Michael makes numerous attempts at making light of the whole thing indicating that the kids love the games which their eager and smiling faces seem to punctuate. Each attempt at levity brings more anger from the E-Man. He continues his forward assault as Michael tries to diffuse the situation with levity. Instead of seeing the ridiculousness of his position (ironically Michael makes a face which the E-Man calls “ridiculous”) and backing off with his aggression, he begins name-calling Michael with the epithet “freak.” Michael’s ability as a character actor is stunning. The look on Michael’s face tells the complete story. No words needed.
Michael has attempted reconciliation multiple times but is not getting through. He begins to ramp up the conflict by speaking the E’man’s language. (Sometimes people do not hear a peacemaker who is attempting to make peace because their experience and language is familiar only with conflict and war.) Good teachers are sometimes like alarm clocks– irritating and harsh. Harsh is needed sometimes to get attention. Michael then purposefully distorts and disfigures his face. (His face! Which was the biggest point of contention for much of what assailed Michael through his career.) He even goes so far as to remove his face revealing his skull and holds the limp discarded face up for inspection almost saying “OK, here: do you like this better?” He then shatters the illusion of the skull and reclaims his original features.
Throughout this entry into the story and arrival at the core conflict, the crowd that accompanies the ring leader E-Man wavers at times. They try to reverse direction, make excuses, diverge from the E-Man’s objective, declining to participate in violence or real harm. It is clear that some, if not all, regret their participation. Some want to leave and go home. Is this a reference to complicity? To those who did not necessarily participate in lynchings but who were complicit by their lack of intervention or condemnation of it? This is a reference to an act of complicity which does not perpetrate but supports, condones or ignores what is being done to another human. The tag along characters in this story outnumber the most violent member of their mob yet they do nothing to intervene or stop his aggression. They continually look to him for direction and stand behind him throughout. Not one raises an objection to his intrusiveness and aggression toward someone who appears harmless. Is this a Michael reference to the his lynching at the hands of the media mob? And the fact that nobody protested then.
While harmless certainly, Michael has mastered some powerful abilities along his path to spiritual attainment. The setting and action comes out of Western Esotericism with its theosophical and perhaps even Platonic references to a “dark and stormy night” and potentially “the dweller on the threshold” or dark figure who emerges from the shadows in a doorway. Many esoteric traditions have made reference to an initiation by this figure. The dweller on the threshold brings the concept of mirror for the soul to reveal its depth warts and all; and that includes the dark side. Meeting the dweller on the threshold is an invitation to awaken from the slumber of the unawakened and the mundane world and step thorough the doorway and into the spiritual portal and path.
The dweller on the threshold demonstrates for the seeker the dark aspects of his soul as they gather around him. This certainly takes place with the E-Man as the darker aspects in the form of ghouls dance around him preventing his escape.
The spiritual seeker who in his course of study passes through initiations that bestow unusual abilities as he penetrates and interprets the world of spirit, later becomes the adept. The adept can command elements, bring forth matter from the empty ethers and assume a variety of forms with a myriad of powers. In the Hindu tradition an adept can shape shift much like a shaman into a variety of forms or manifestations by using Siddhis or powers which are not sought actively and solely for their use, but are actually side effects a human experiences along the path to enlightenment.
In Ghosts, Michael proves he is powerful and with powers beyond the normal range of human abilities. He is able to command the elements in this short film- the lightening, the sound, the space and he is able to change his size (Madalasa Vidya) and enter the body of another (Parkaya Pravesh) Traveling distances in the blink of an eye (Vayu Gaman.) Michael would have known about the Siddhis because he studied Indian poetry and philosophy and explored the concept of humans flying which is accomplished with the Vaya Gaman Siddhi. These Sidhis or powers are natural side effects in a life of prayer and devotion during human experiences that are dedicated to and found along the path to enlightenment. In the film, Michael is able to command the elements, manifest matter from nothing as Gurus do, and command fire, the lightening, the sound, the wind and the space.
The dance floor in Ghosts is geometric and all manifestation arises from and is based in mathematical formulas and sacred geometry. The floor certainly detracts from the characters and moves the eye away from them. It competes for attention in the film, because it is a prominent feature. Had it been important to showcase the characters in a pure environment, the floor would have been a solid color. The pattern and the floor are significant because Michael certainly had the money to change it to whatever he wanted. Sacred geometry forms the foundation for all life so the geometric floor as the foundation is yet another layer of message.
At some point, the rhythm of the dance changes and his ghostly characters begin dancing on the ceiling. This is a reference to Fred Astaire whom inspired Michael and someone he admired as a talented dancer. Astaire did a seminal piece where he was dancing on the ceiling. The ghouls also circle around Michael and change into floating angels signifying a change in consciousness perhaps? Did you happen to notice how one of them looks amazingly like Prince? And one looks like Michael himself in Dangerous? Did the ghoulish figures drop to the floor because it was important to say that they are not real beings but are just projections of the self onto others?
Does Michael’s suddenly becoming naked and skeletal by removing his flesh as one would remove clothing say, “I can lay bare who I am for you; I am more than flesh? I am a human with flesh and a face and a heart but if you can’t see that, I will be what you see—a figure that is not quite human, not made of flesh and blood and heart?”
The entry into the body of the E-Man through the mouth is significant. The mouth is an important orifice in Tibetan Buddhism and in the Ancient Egyptian alchemical and mystery schools. The mouth is where a shaman may merge with another to cohabitate for shamanic purposes. We see this same feat in Ghosts.
Michael, merged with the E-Man shows him the whimsical side of dance and how he might feel should he loosen his stoicism and enter the dance and the dance of life. As the E-Man resists his own magic and his awakening, Michael’s hand holding the mirror emerges from the E-Mans third chakra. This is a direct message that Michael is the mirror for this man’s projections. He then is treated to a full tour of his nastiness via that mirror by growing more and more grotesque. This is the crescendo and teachable moment.
Michael’s spirit leaves and he bows for his part in the performance. Still the E-Man has no appreciation for the gift he has just been given by the merging and the mirror. He has glimpsed his own soul and has been given an opportunity to change its essential nature.
He apparently still has not learned from the mirror and Guru right in front of him. So when Michael asks “Do you still want me to go?” he foolishly answers “yes.” So Michael changes his atomic structure and crumbles to dust under his own volition. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. Changing one’s atoms is another shamanic trick. He is saying “you see, I crumble under your pressure, your projections. ” Is this also a reference to pieces of the soul crumbling or being eroded by people’s demands and projections?
He then disappears completely, dissolving and blowing away until there is no trace of him and no evidence that he ever existed. The children keep looking back for that trace of his existence and it is gone. The looks on their faces tell what has been lost. There is deep sadness yet the crowd still follows the lead of the E-Man as he rounds them up with his words to leave and they still do not protest, but follow obediently.
Just as he says “I showed that freak” Michael returns larger than life and it is too much for the E-Man who jumps out the second story window.
The conversation that follows references the game that has just been played about what is scary and how people project their own soul shadow onto others. He asks “but did we have fun here?” He is saying it is only a game. Yes, life is a game. Yes, a high game we play.
The loudest message in this video is the mirror because it tells an important truth: What we see as determines what we will see. When we speak of consciousness, we sometimes speak of mirrors. There are two kinds of mirror metaphors for consciousness. One is that the mirror sees exactly what is there. It reflects. It does not describe, define, label, judge. It is present with things exactly as they are. That is the mirror of consciousness spoken of in many works from spiritual teachers. That kind of mirror consciousness is to see God or see as God sees. The moment a label is applied the whole thing unravels and becomes something else. And that something else is from your mind, not from the world.
Ghosts teaches about another mirror of consciousness. It is the mirror that says if you want to know who you are, look around you. It teaches about judgement and making someone “other” for reasons that are not real but are only from the mind that decides. Making “other” is a tribal activity and tribalism serves only to divide peoples and create conflict, violence and wars. When a culture decides someone doesn’t fit, it is engaging in tribalism. That sentiment comes from fear not from love. Love embraces all and makes no distinctions or separations.
Ghosts is both autobiographical and Universal in its message. It is a gift from a brilliant artist and adept teacher. Namaste` Michael.
© 2010 B. Kaufmann
*Note: This has been an examination of the Semiotics of Michael Jackson’s Ghost and is a part of the series in progress: “Michael’s Work.” It is also truly a work in progress and reveals more as it is explored and allowed to simmer. The lyrics from Ghosts are also very revealing in their message and that is for next time.
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