'Thriller' in New Orleans: Inside the Annual Halloween Flash Mob

On October 31, dozens of people dressed as zombies will pay tribute to Michael Jackson's iconic video.

"Give me your hand," Chrissy says from behind her pickup's steering wheel. When we pause at a stoplight she pulls a bottle from her purse, opens it, and starts dabbing Band-Aid-colored liquid latex on me. She twists a wisp of tissue paper and lays it on the putrid-smelling latex, then dabs more over the paper. My newly rotting flesh will have to dry.

I've just flown in to my former home, New Orleans, and we're driving to Goodwill for zombie costumes, preferably comfortable stuff that we can dance in. This is the third year that Christina Duggar, a 32-year-old grad student, has headed the Thrilla Guerillas, a flash mob that performs Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance on Halloween night. Last year, 57 of us, including Americorps volunteers, Tulane professors, a civil-rights lawyer, and a cook, donned zombie gear and, with a tricycle-mounted mausoleum cobbled together from repurposed building materials and fitted with marine battery-powered speakers, thrilled the French Quarter.

New Orleans is natural "Thriller" territory. There are the above-ground cemeteries, of course, the vampire tours. While historic preservationists fight efforts to make the St. Charles streetcar line handicapped-accessible, homes abandoned after Hurricane Katrina are collapsing into their foundations. The education system remains in a permanent death grin, and headlines in the Times-Picayune reveal that BP's shoddily constructed Deepwater Horizon drilling operation, which spewed nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf, was from the beginning rigged for death.

We Guerillas had practiced together for two months beforehand, watching the 1984 "Thriller" music video, which many of us consider one of our sacred texts. In it Jackson--at the time still reportedly under the thumb of his abusive father—joins a group of escaped zombies, slipping in and out of corpse makeup before his terror-stricken girlfriend. All the while he sings and dances with a fury and passion special to the deeply exploited: another aspect of "Thriller" that New Orleanians get.

We also rely on the dance script developed by Ines Markeljevic, a 29-year-old Toronto-based dance instructor and head of Thrill the World, a movement that aims to break, each October, its previous record for the number of people dancing simultaneously to "Thriller." When I spoke to Markeljevic over the phone, she ticked off the stats: 185 registered events in 23 countries from Brazil to Saudi Arabia.

Not everyone supports the Thrill movement, however. An angry parent once wrote her an e-mail demanding that she stop promoting the work a man who was accused—and then cleared—of being a child molester. Markeljevic was indignant. "It's about dance, it's about community, it's about making a difference," she says. Markeljevic started Thrill Toronto three years before Jackson died. Her YouTube training videos feature a chanted script developed to help dancers remember the menacing but pelvis-centric routines that include the "booty bounce," "shuffle ha" and "hip n' roar" as well as the "jump reach air guitar to the right" sequence.

Last year we performed them all, in several locations, but had to escape from a little real-life mayhem when a motorist and one of our audience members blocking a street got into a near-violent argument. "I was like, alright everybody, Go, go, go," Antoinette Reynolds, a lead ghoul, recalls, "and we ran out into the night." Wrangling zombies isn't easy, especially when the creatures crawling in search of blood have helped themselves to a bit too much sangria from their wheeled cooler, but Antoinette is equal to the task. A self-employed construction worker, she cuts a memorable figure in a picked-out Afro and carpenter pants. "Chrissy wants to be positive and upbeat," she says, "but sometimes you've gotta crack the whip."

Chrissy has purchased a megaphone to help keep everyone together. "I think most flash mobs just kind of pick a spot and they do it and disperse," she sighs. "But our nature in New Orleans is to parade."

Parade we will. The Louisiana coast has its share of real horror, but Sunday night we'll head into the saliva-scented streets to celebrate. We're only mostly dead, after all, and Halloween is, if not a holiday of forgiveness, then one of reconciliation—when it makes sense that a city is both over-preserved and forever rotting, that creative geniuses like Michael Jackson are also troubled, that the living want to be dead, and that the dead want not so much to kill you as to get freaky with you, moving their hips in procreative thrusts and muttering booty bounce together booty bounce step.