One week before Halloween, a zombie horde dozens strong will gather at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and burst into dance.
Two days later, a different horde of zombies will meet at Ferg’s Sports Bar down the road and erupt into a dance of their own.
The zombie hordes will look a lot alike. They’ll dance to the same song — Michael Jackson’s Thriller — and will even include some of the same dancers.
But make no mistake: St. Petersburg’s two zombie hordes are at war.
Ten years after the first mass Thriller dance debuted in St. Petersburg, kicking off a Halloween tradition that’s raised at least $17,000 for charity, organizers are engaged in a simmering feud, trading accusations of deception, intolerance and subterfuge.
On one side: Thrill St. Pete, which has staged mass Thriller dances around the city since 2009, most as a chapter of the Guinness World Record-setting international organization Thrill the World.
On the other: Thrill the Burg, which splintered from Thrill St. Pete last year, taking the backing of Thrill the World with them.
"It got kind of ugly,” said Thrill St. Pete organizer Kate Murphy, adding the split has left them “feeling like we’ve been ostracized and blackballed” from other Thriller dancers around the world.
“I’d like to say no hard feelings,” she said, “but it’s pretty fresh.”
* * *
St. Petersburg’s first mass Thriller dance took place at the Pier in October 2009, months after Michael Jackson’s death.
It was a different time. Jackson’s fraught legal history, including accusations of child sexual abuse, was well known when he died. But that was before this year’s explosive documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two alleged victims came forward with harrowing descriptions of Jackson’s behavior. In the fresh light of the #MeToo movement, the documentary has spawned conversations about Jackson’s place in pop culture in 2019, with some organizations and artists rethinking their celebration of the singer.
But back in 2009, honoring Jackson with a Thriller dance still seemed like harmless fun. Thrill the World, the Canadian organization behind the largest mass Thriller dances, had been staging events since 2006. After Jackson’s death, participation spiked, with an estimated 22,571 zombies dancing at 441 events in 33 countries. They raised $100,000 for more than 80 charities.
"When he passed away, it was front and center,” said Vicki Franklin, who worked for years with Thrill St. Pete and is now a volunteer spokeswoman for Thrill the World international. “Thriller was just beloved by so many people.”
After drawing nearly 200 people for its inaugural event, Thrill St. Pete became one of Thrill the World’s more active chapters. Every year, they adopted a charity like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Pinellas Education Foundation or Creative Clay. In 2017, Crawford said, they raised nearly $6,000 for the Kind Mouse, a St. Petersburg organization that feeds hungry children.
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“It was a mini festival,” said Kind Mouse founder Gina Wilkins. “Vicki went above and beyond the call of duty. She made it so lovely.”
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But planning it every year became “like a full-time job for months before Thrill Night,” said Gemma Fountain, an instructor for St. Petersburg’s first Thriller dance in 2009. On top of that, the group started performing throughout the year.
“People want dancing zombies at Christmas,” Murphy said. “They want dancing zombies at their Christmas in July. We are a dance company all year round.”
That’s all fine with Thrill the World international — unless it conflicts with their main event in October.
And that, last year, is where the problems started.
* * *
Thrill St. Pete initially scheduled its 2018 dance to coincide with a food truck rally Oct. 19, rather than the official Thrill the World date of Oct. 27. They did this, Crawford said, because of the rally’s “downtown location, a huge audience, an opportunity to dance multiple times, and a fun atmosphere.”
When Thrill the World informed Crawford that this was not allowed, she said she continued looking for a place to dance on Oct. 27.
But according to Fountain, Thrill St. Pete’s organizers knew Thrill the World’s rules the whole time.
“Thrill the World is always the Saturday before Halloween — always, always, always," Franklin said. “It wasn’t an ignorant mistake.”
When Thrill St. Pete ultimately booked a Thriller dance on the approved date and time in Pinellas Park, Crawford said Thrill the World would not let them register again.
Crawford blames a disgruntled former member for “spreading rumors, slander and creating chaos” between Thrill St. Pete and Thrill the World. Franklin said Thrill the World simply no longer trusted Thrill St. Pete.
Meanwhile, a conflict was brewing on another front.
During rehearsals, Crawford said one “disgruntled volunteer” asked that a dance instructor step aside, in part because the way she taught Thriller moves was “offensive.” According to Murphy, this instructor is on the autism spectrum.
“This group is about inclusiveness,” Crawford said. “We have other instructors. Dancers can choose the instructor that works best for them.”
Fountain said she doesn’t know anything about the incident. But she said Thrill St. Pete members sent “nasty letters” to Thrill the World and went on social media to disparage those who worked with the international group.
Following last year’s dances, several former volunteers including Fountain and Franklin attempted to re-calcify their connection to Thrill the World by launching their own Thriller group as a legal nonprofit. Thus was born Thrill the Burg.
When Thrill the Burg’s volunteers recruited dancers from Thrill St. Pete’s Facebook group, Crawford said, they were were removed. In March, someone in Florida registered thrillstpete.org; it now redirects to Thrill the Burg’s website. (thrillstpete.com also redirects to Thrill the Burg.)
“They are fooling people by using our web name to direct people to their event," Crawford said. "There is no need to do that. People will go to their event as well as ours.”
Crawford also pointed out that Thrill the Burg’s event pages say their party on Oct. 26 will “celebrate ten years of dancing Thriller in the Burg," even though every dance thus far has been organized by Thrill St. Pete.
“How is a group that formed this year advertising a 10-year anniversary?” Crawford said. “They are using our reputation to build a following.”
Fountain called all of it “a bunch of he-said, she-said schoolyard dynamics that need to be let go.” But she, like others on both sides, isn’t backing down.
“The drama has gotten ridiculous," Fountain said. “It’s stupid, It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s Thriller."
* * *
Even before the rift, the future of St. Petersburg’s Thriller dance was up in the air. Whether due to Michael Jackson fatigue, zombie fatigue or flash mob fatigue, global participation in Thrill the World has dwindled almost every year since 2009, with only 1,802 dancers tallied in 2018.
After some internal debate, Thrill St. Pete elected to keep going, with a month of flash mobs and parties highlighted by their mass Thriller dance on Oct. 24. Thrill the Burg is pressing forward with its Thrill the World-sanctioned festival on Oct. 26, with Franklin expecting at least 100 dancers.
Both sides would rather the focus be on their charitable efforts, not the split.
“Our whole thing is about helping kids, and unity and dance, and the last thing we want is some hard feelings,” Franklin said. “We don’t want anybody to be bothered by this at all."
“This whole situation has divided and hurt many people unnecessarily,” Crawford said. “Why? Power? Posturing? Money? The potential to form a board/not for profit and make money at it?”
Murphy isn’t discouraging Thrill St. Pete’s dancers from participating in Thrill the Burg, and she isn’t closing the door on working with the group.
“But after some of the things that happened last year," Murphy said, "they can do their thing, and we’re going to do our thing. We’ll just leave it at that for now.”
There is hope, one day, for a zombie detente.
Thrill St. Pete
The group will perform several times between 7 and 9 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Makeup artists will be on hand to decorate last-minute dancers; donations suggested. facebook.com/thrillstpete.
Thrill the Burg
The group’s festival is 5 to 9 p.m. Oct. 26 at Ferg’s Sports Bar, 1320 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. The Thriller Dance is scheduled for 6 p.m.; registration closes at 5:45. thrilltheburg.org.