Lasting legacy of 'Thriller': The music, the flash mobs, and the GIFs

Singer Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009) performing on stage, circa 1987. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

One of the most iconic music albums and videos ever made still has fans singing and dancing decades after both took the music world by storm. 

Michael Jackson’s album "Thriller" celebrated its 40th anniversary Thursday and the groundbreaking video turns 39 years old Friday. 

The album debuted on Nov. 30, 1982, and the nine-track masterpiece featured hits like "Billie Jean," "Thriller," "Beat It," and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." 

Nearly a year later on Dec. 2, 1983, Jackson debuted the music video "Thriller" which was historic because it changed how music companies promoted and marketed a musician’s album release, according to Billboard

"The King of Pop" collaborated with legendary producer Quincy Jones for the album which enjoyed massive success, including eight Grammy wins which included album of the year, and 37 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts. The album returned to the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart (dated Dec. 3, 2022) with its 40th-anniversary reissue, according to Billboard

RELATED: Ola Ray on the thrill of working with Michael Jackson in iconic music video

"Thriller" became one of the best-selling albums ever and was certified 34x platinum by the RIAA in 2021, and it was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame and Library of Congress in 2008.

Jones celebrated the album’s anniversary by tweeting Thursday, "Happy 40th Anniversary to Thriller! An absolutely one-of-a-kind album, for an absolutely one-of-a-kind artist. I’ll forever cherish everyone involved in the making of this album & for all-a-y’awl for continuing to rock with the music we made 40 yrs later!"

"Thriller" video debuts

The music video premiered on MTV in 1983. In the video, Jackson and his date, played by actress Ola Ray, are watching a movie. The duo leaves the theater and they take a detour through a graveyard on the way home. "The King of Pop" turned into a monster and then a zombie and performs a classic dance routine with other zombies that rose from the dead. 

"Thriller" was directed by John Landis, who was known for the popular films "Coming to America," (1988) "American Werewolf in London," (1981), and "Twilight Zone: The Movie." (1983). According to Newsweek, the project cost $500,000 to create, and it was the most expensive video ever made at the time.

Rolling Stone noted that CBS Records didn't want to cover the cost of the video, and MTV had a policy of not paying for clips. Jackson and Landis funded their budget for the video by getting MTV and Showtime to pay $250,000 each for the rights to show a 45-minute documentary titled "The Making of Thriller." 

Flash mobs pay tribute to "Thriller" video

An annual tradition among many worldwide is gathering in a random space to perform the "Thriller" zombie dance in a flash mob performance.

The Guinness Book of World Records recorded the largest number of people to take part in the dance. On Aug. 29, 2009, a staggering 13,597 participated in an event organized by the Instituto de la Juventud del Gobierno del Distrito Federal at the Monumento a la Revolucion, in Mexico City, Mexico. 

"Thriller" GIFs

"Thriller's" popularity has even led social media users to create GIFs featuring memorable scenes from the video.

But the King of Pop also inadvertently created one of the most iconic GIFs of all time. Vox named the popcorn-eating scene – known to many by its shorthand, "popcorn.gif – as the best reaction GIF of all time.

Jackson, who died at 50 years old in 2009, has left a legacy that has influenced some of the biggest names in music, including Chris Brown and Ciara. The two entertainers celebrated "Thriller’s" anniversary with a video of them choreographing some of Jackson’s signature moves.

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.