(Extra)curricular: When Suddenly Everyone Knows “Thriller”

“I just intended to do a good, fun short film, not to purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad. I want to do what’s right. I would never do anything like that again.”
 — Michael Jackson when discussing the John Landis directed “Thriller”

There’s a scene in the 2004 romantic comedy “13 Going On 30” where the protagonist Jenna Rink, a 13 year old girl magically occupying the body of her adult self, saves an event hosted by her employer Poise fashion magazine by initiating a massive group performance of Michael Peters choreography from Michael Jackson’s hit music video “Thriller”. In that moment 74 people from different walks of life and backgrounds experience a group psychosis and suddenly all happen to know the entirety of a complexly choreographed dance well enough to join together in a group and execute it flawlessly. The dance ends and everyone is elated, in a state of shock from what has transpired and then the film moves on, following Jenna through the rest of her story and we never know what happens to these party goers after this seemingly supernatural occurrence. These characters never get names because they are merely props in Jenna’s narrative. They are lost to us for the remainder of the films 98 minutes.

I believe that if we were allowed to see these characters further, we would find that their lives have been permanently altered by the events of the “Poise Incident”. They start find it impossible to explain what they’ve been through to those closest to them and begin to grow more distant, retreat inward. Their relationships dissolve as their focus on daily life diminishes, jobs are lost, and many attempt to recreate the feeling of that moment by putting themselves in more positions where the phenomena might occur. They descend into late nights spent drinking at other parties searching for a spark that would light the fuse once again and allow them to transcend their mundane existence. Slowly as they realize they are unable to force that connective moment, they become desperate and begin to attend any social event where dancing is a possibility. Weddings, bar-mitzvahs, high school proms, children’s body movement classes. No where is safe from the incursion of these lost men and women.

During their search for this perpetually unachievable connection, occasionally their paths would cross and they would form support groups focused on discussing what they had been through. Some groups would turn to thrill seeking, concocting near death scenarios to push their psyches to the limit hoping this would bring about another “Poise Incident”. Other groups would console each other in VFW halls and reminisce about that fateful night over stale coffee in the glow of dim indifferent florescent lights. For some this shared lamentation was enough to achieve at least some sort of conciliation from the pain of normality. But still, many never recovered. Meanwhile, Jenna Rink had since moved on to a happy life married to Matty Flamhaff completely unaware of the chaos she had caused. That was until the “Poise 74”, as they would later be called, became violent.

In the spring of 2006 25 people were found dead in a shipping warehouse on the south side of Chicago, 6 of which were original attendees of the Poise party. Law enforcement would later find that the deceased were members of a religious group called Followers of Vitus, a religious cult dedicated to choreomania and all dancing phenomena. It later became clear that the members of Vitus had been living in the warehouse for sometime in unsafe conditions and had ingested fatal doses of strychnine that was being used as a pesticide. More incidents began to occur over the course of 2006 and 2007, all connected to the attendees of the Poise magazine party. In February 2008 a large contingent of the “Poise 74” assaulted a small television studio in Lansing, Michigan and staged a live dance in, all the while holding the employees hostage. For four days they occupied the studio, inviting anyone who supported them to come and dance to a loop of “Thriller”. Sermons were given to all those involved by members of the original “Poise 74” relating Jenna Rink to biblical saints, Razzle candies were distributed as communion. A spokesperson from the group would make hourly announcements to be broadcast nationwide, demanding that Jenna Rink travel to Lansing to bless them once again. Crowds rushed to the studio from the surrounding towns, some pilgrimaging from as far as Ontario to take part in hysteria. Authorities struggled to control the chaos, but the crowds overwhelmed the local police pressing in towards the studio, trampling several people in the process. The dancers refused any food or water that was offered them, and the music was never turned off at any time. 91 hours into the seizure the participants began to collapse from exhaustion. When paramedics attempted to take life saving measures they were barred from entering the building by improvised blockades built from chairs and filing cabinets. All those involved continued to dance until they died from a combination of starvation and dehydration, or cardiac arrest.

The case of the “Poise 74” and their actions would confound sociologist and theologists alike for decades. Many would compare this madness to the Dancing Plague that took place in Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Neither Jenna Rink nor Matthew Flamhaff would ever comment on what transpired.