Michael Jackson's PTSD Archetypes (Health Series)

THURSDAY NIGHT IS HEALTH CARE CHANGE NIGHT, a weekly Health Care Series (cross-posted at Daily Kos)

A radical change in the social infrastructure of any society must be preceded or accompanied by a change in its consciousness. This week, I will talk about PTSD symbolism in Michael Jackson's music videos as it relates to America's changing collective awareness. Next week, I will discuss our "Thursday Night is Health Care Change Night" panel at Netroots Nation on organizing as a means of healing PTSD.

I particularly want to discuss Jackson's frequent invocation of two powerful archetypes central both to the experience of PTSD, and to the evolution or maintenance of empire: playful Hermes, puer aeternus, child genius, trickster, thief, messenger, god of healing, the lyre and all that is liminal; and the more menacing Dionysius, lychenthrope, trickster, Lord of the Animals, Beast Within.

I waited out most of the 1980s in Japan, and had not seen any of Jackson's videos before his death. I am prone to obsession with symbolic content. Before leaving for Japan, I watched An American Werewolf in London at least 20 times. Once I belatedly started watching Jackson's videos, I could not stop. They were filled with archetypal content.

Apparently, Michael Jackson was also obsessed with An American Werewolf in London because he hired John Landis to direct Thriller.  Images from American Werewolf, West Side Story and occasionally, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show saturated his music videos. All three of these classics invoked the terrifying myth of Dionysius, the Beast Within.

But first a word about Jackson's dancing and its relationship to Hermes, the light-footed, the eternal child. We are told in the Odyssey that while still an infant, Hermes invented the lyre out of tortoise shell and mastered it. He also stole 365 head of cattle (one for each day of the year) belonging to his dominant brother, Apollo, by driving them backward so their hoof-prints would appear to be traveling in the opposite direction, and would thus prevent their steps from being tracked. He turned time backward. Apollo caught up with him despite his strategem, but their father Zeus was so delighted with Hermes' cleverness that he made him the messenger of all the gods, enabling him to travel between Mt. Olympus, the Underworld, and Mankind.

Apollo, the Sun God, is a symbol of consciousness and Empire. It is not by accident that we named our space capsules, icons of our military-industrial complex, after him. A herma, on the other hand, was a phallic pile of stones used to demarcate boundaries in ancient Greece. Hermes moved between boundaries. He altered the boundaries themselves, tricking people. He was a beautiful boy who never grew old, male and yet not male (the term hermaphrodite comes to mind), inhabiting the world of the liminal, the still unconscious. Hermes brings us dreams and makes us think they are real. He makes the liminal conscious. He changes what we believe we know about our collective world.

Hermes had wings on his feet. Michael Jackson had wings on his feet as well. And he tricked us. It was impossible to tell if he was going backward or forward. He often wore sequined socks, buckles or other foot paraphernalia to accentuate the winged movements of his feet. He told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that he was Peter Pan, another flying manifestation of the puer aeternus and he lived on a ranch called Neverland.

Hermes Winged Feet

Sometimes it seemed in Jackson's videos as well as his life as if clever, funny Hermes was in danger of being devoured by Dionysius, God of wine, bringer of violence, the Beast within.

An American Werewolf in London is about two nice Jewish American college boys, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, travelling in Wales, land of phallic stone markers (although in Wales they were cairns rather than hermas and they were maintained by druids). Jack and David are dropped off by a sheepherder (God) who tells them to stick to the road and keep off the moors (remain faithful to their own people and tradition; mind their boundaries.). They grow hungry and stop, on the eve of a full moon at a Pub called "The Slaughtered Lamb." Like Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Jack asks, "Where's the Lamb?"  Inside, the patrons are holding an anti-Seder (the ritual Passover service and meal held on a night of the full moon) to ward off the angel of death. They serve no food, tell bigoted jokes, and kick the strangers, Jack and David, out of the pub when asked why there is a pentacle on the wall. They are the Germans who did not know about death camps. The boys lose the road and are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed but David survives with a lupine case of PTSD complicated by historical trauma, racial memory of genocide past.

David meets and falls in love with Alex, a beautiful gentile nurse, while he is in the hospital. (Unbeknownst to David, Alex chased the other nurses away when they were inspecting his circumcised penis as he lay in a coma). Upon regaining consciousness, David begins to suffer from terrible nightmares about undead Nazi monsters invading his home and murdering his family. Jack appears to him in varying stages of decay, warning him that he must kill himself. David will turn into a wolf at the next full moon, go on rampages, and kill many people. David ignores Jack because he is in love with the gentile nurse. He turns into a wolf on the full moon, goes on several rampages (including one in the subway) and kills lots of people. Like a PTSD sufferer, he cannot remember his rampages although he is visited at night by his victims with their gaping flesh hanging from their bodies. Finally, he wreaks mayhem in a porn theater, tears through Picadilly circus biting people and, runs into a blind alley. Alex finds him, trying to calm him. He snarls and the police shoot him down.

David's Nightmares

In the days of the Greeks and Romans, hordes of liminal people (such as women and slaves) would gather in the forests drinking wine and other mind-altering substances, listening to drums and dancing themselves into a trance. Wild same- and opposite-sex orgies ensued, followed upon occasion by sacrifice, dismemberment and cannibalism. The Romans eventually tried to outlaw the cult without success. The purveyors of frequent gladiator matches, crucifixion and public lion-mauling were not disturbed by human sacrifice which they deemed necessary to uphold the Empire. Rather, they felt it essential to end the cult because women served as officers, which was not allowed in patriarchal Rome. Dionysius is the antithesis of meaning. Dionysius upholds empire by destroying meaning and inspiring horror.

Many years later, in the decades immediately preceding the Nazis, the cult became active again in Germany. Throngs of people went into the forests to bang on drums and dance in ecstatic worship of Wotan, god of violence and war. The German pagan revival was seen as an antidote to the pernicious influence of Judaism on German Religion. Even Jung wrote an uncharacteristically anti-semitic paean glorifying the implicit violence of the cult of Wotan. It was a way to exorcise the Semites from their midst...

Michael Jackson often wore costuming reminiscent of the kaisers, or else donned a nazi-like armband minus the swastika. The armband did not signify his acceptance of Nazi ideals. Rather, it marked him as a sacrifice to their voracious Dionysian god. Onstage Jackson reveled in every image abhorrent to the Nazis...the black minstel, the gypsy, the homosexual and every form of miscegenation. James Baldwin wrote:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.

He was called a "performer in whiteface."

In American Werewolf, David spent an inordinate amount of time looking in mirrors trying to detect wolfish signs in his face. Jackson complained about wanting to rid himself of his violent father's nose. Through vitilaigo and plastic surgery, Dionysius was transforming his face. Like David, he coupled with the dermatology nurse who was treating his inner wolf.  

In Thriller Jackson, like David, transmogrified into a wolf. But while the American Werewolf audience understood David was a lychenthrope, Jackson played Hermes-like tricks. First he was and then he wasn't in movies inside of dreams.

My favorite Jackson video, the one that for me best exemplifies his symbolic genius, is Bad. He plays a beautiful Hermes-like black boy named Daryl. It's the end of the semester and he's traveling home to the ghetto from his all-white private high school. All the way home he is eyed lasciviously by a vaguely disturbing young man whom he tries to ignore.  When he arrives home, his three close friends tease him about his school and his gentle demeanor. The four stop bickering to go for a walk.  A depraved drug dealer(an anti-Astaire with a clumsy cane) approaches them, wipes the snot from his nose, and asks if they're looking for someone. He moves aside his coat suggestively, allowing them a provocative view of his crotch in tight jeans, sandwiched between a pistol and his fist-encased cane. They leave.

Perhaps in response to the unwanted invitation, Daryl's friends tell him it's time to go out to hunt for victims. They respond to homosexual advances through a Dionysian act. When he refuses the largest and most menacing of his friends grabs him by the lapels, and shoves him against a wall, calling him a sissy, a memory of his father from childhood that he sometimes discussed in interviews. Daryl gets mad and challenges them all, saying "I'll show you who's bad!"

There are no undead in this video although all subway scenes are eerily reminiscent of American Werewolf in London; Daryl never becomes a werewolf or morphs back and forth between a man and a minion of the underworld.

The youths go down into the empty subway, scene of a terrifying mauling in Landis' film, and accost a helpless old man. Daryl shoves him out of the way, yelling at him to run. His friends grow angry but it's time for music. Daryl's going to demonstrate what it means to be "bad."

A lost boys gang ala West Side Story (except for the fact that it is multi-racial) suddenly emerges from behind pillars and Daryl is transformed. Gone are the short hair and sweatshirt. He is wearing tight black leather Hermes regalia from head to toe adorned with various chains and buckles. The buckles on his boots look like wings and his round collar accentuates his delicate neck. His face is emblazoned with colorful make-up. He looks like a beautiful woman, or an exceptionally lovely, vulnerable and tastefully covered Frank N Furter. (If you are unfamiliar with Furter and his subjects, please see the clip from The Rocky Horror Picture Show below.)

Jackson rolls up his sleeves, shaking. Steam spurts out of a vent and he whips his head around nervously, hair flying behind him. For Frank N. Furter, all other living creatures exist for his own gratification. While Dr. Furter dines on Meatloaf (the actor, not the dish) Jackson offers himself. He outrageously proclaims, "Your butt is mine," incorporates snot-wiping into his dance, and celebrates his badness while employing the most amazing footwork and hypermasculine pelvic thrusts. The inevitable conclusion of his flamboyent display is his own destruction. He will be sacrificed for the act of self-celebration.

Except he's not. His friend violently grabs his arm, pulling him, out of anger, into an accidental embrace. He recognizes, for one brief moment, his own desire. Miraculously, he offers his hand, accepting both Daryl's ambiguous sexuality and his own appetite, and then walks away. Daryl is transformed into his ordinary self. He is left alone in the deserted station sans leather, sans gang and sans werewolf, a healed human being.

The conclusion of Bad is the world as Jackson wished it could be...a world in which both father and empire accepted his feminine self; a world in which Dionysius would be prevented from dismembering his psyche, assasinating his character, and eventually, snuffing out his life.

Michael Jackson was Hermes stalked by Dionysius, moving the boundaries of the liminal through art. I do not know what his personal sexuality was, and it doesn't even matter. He forced a consciousness on America that the co-existence of races can be seductive, and that the black man and the homosexual man, can be deeply desirable to individuals of any race or gender. The many fans who accosted him on stage, crying, fainting, kissing and embracing him are proof.

It was inevitable that Michael Jackson would be dismembered and devoured.

Frank N. Furter: Sweet Transvestite

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