The Master’s thesis entitled Being a Michael Jackson Pilgrim: dedicated to a never-ending journey by University of Groningen student Fardo Eringa deals with an exceptionally intriguing phenomenon: ‘Michaeling’. This term refers to fans following in Michael Jackson’s footsteps through a pilgrimage that brings them closer in spirit to their idol. Is this a new religious phenomenon?
Fardo Eringa wrote her thesis for her Master’s degree programme in Religion and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen's Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, where she graduated cum laude on 9 October. According to Eringa, ‘Michaeling’ is a typical example of the various forms that religion can take in our modern, post-secular society. And there is no doubt that this is a genuine pilgrimage, a spiritual experience of the kind that we associate primarily with the Middle Ages. For her research, Eringa studied the experiences of eleven pilgrims, and the Michael Jackson shrine in Germany.
The modern pilgrims visit various places that are somehow linked to Michael Jackson. Examples include Neverland, Michael's Star of Fame, the King of Pop’s grave in Forest Lawn, and his home town of Gary in Indiana. But the pilgrimage might also involve eating in restaurants that Michael Jackson used to frequent. The pilgrims often complete their pilgrimage with a viewing of the film This Is It or a visit to an exhibition of clothing or other personal effects that belonged to Michael Jackson. The fans also try to live up to the messages in Michael Jackson's music. Important sources of inspiration in this context include the songs ‘Heal the World’, ‘Man in the Mirror’ and ‘We Are the World’.
‘Michaeling’ originally began as a mourning process, but also as a way to honour Michael Jackson, says Eringa. Fans, considered it the perfect way to thank Michael Jackson for everything he had done for the world. The fans Eringa spoke to told her that they only saw the light after Michael’s death – it was only then that ‘the real Michael Jackson’ was revealed to them. It was this revelation that drove the fans to find out more about his music and his humanitarian activities. Eringa thinks that the sustained media focus on Jackson’s death and legacy certainly played an important role in this ‘awakening’ of his fans.
In addition to his career as a singer/dancer, Michael Jackson is also known for his charity work. During his lifetime he donated an estimated $ 300 million to good causes, with a special focus on children, nature and animals. According to his fans, Michael Jackson’s core message was to ‘Heal the World’ through love. Do his followers interpret this as a divine message?
Eringa: ‘Some fans indeed mention the fact that Michael Jackson can be seen as a new Messiah, sent by God to show people “what is really important”, namely love. Michael Jackson is placed by his fans within a very broad spiritual context. The followers I spoke to call themselves spiritual, but they are reluctant to commit to a specific religion. What is remarkable is that most of these fans express very Christian ideas. For his followers, Michael Jackson acts as a kind of mediator, clarifying their prior religious allegiance. It is as if Michael Jackson helps them to transition from theory to religious practice. They integrate Michael Jackson into their belief system, where he comes to play a key role as a spiritual guide, offering his fans concrete guidelines for distinguishing good and evil and giving shape to their lives. His followers believe that Michael Jackson was severely persecuted and that he suffered tremendously as a result. However, this did not stop him from fighting for his ideals and for his fans, which makes him a true martyr in their eyes.’
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