"My uncle thought he was St. Jerome," Alice confesses, establishing a family history of mental incompetence. But the film's first nod to religion also sets up an important theme. Organized religion may take its time to enter the forefront in Ghostbusters, but from the very beginning, the movie presents characters whose conceptions of the universe are challenged or overturned, who confront the vanishing boundary between belief on faith and incontrovertible proof. Okay, so The Last Temptation of Christ it ain't, and the intellectual and spiritual riches the film offers include neither the nature of the cosmos nor the face of God—just the face of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
Regardless, the innocent mention of St. Jerome prefigures a host of theological readings, whether explicit or implied. And the script rewards those who do their homework; former seminary student Dan Aykroyd no doubt knew the name of the patron saint of librarians. This doesn't mean that the film posits a literal connection between Alice's uncle's issues and her chosen profession. Nor is it an endorsement of destiny, or even Catholicism. It's merely saying, hey, you know what… maybe there's something to all this.
"Do You Believe in God?"
Belief is a funny thing.
It's completely acceptable to believe in God, particularly one espoused by one of the dominant major faiths, but tell someone you believe in ghosts, and you risk a funny look. Unless you report feeling the spirit of your dear departed mother with you, in which case, the kindhearted will humor you. There are levels of acceptability for this sort of thing, and the paranormal has given way to the personal.
Angels in America isn't just a Tony Kushner play; belief in angels, guardian or otherwise, has surged in these United States. Demons, by contrast, enjoy no such boost. New Age practices like crystal healing and astral projection are ridiculed while holistic medicine and meditation enjoy an uptick. Ufology's reputation remains poor. Fairies don't get the press they used to.
Strangely, this brings us to an argument oft employed by militant atheists, denouncing all faith as superstition to be lumped in with leprechauns and fairy tales. The distinction is a modern convention, dividing our minds between the part that knows not to believe in the supernatural and the part that wants to.
The line wasn't always so clear. Faith and folklore once dwelt side by side. Ghosts and monsters and demons spawned from our spiritual heritage; spirits from planes beyond used to traffic on Earth, it was written. Mary was visited by an angel. Zeus copulated with an Aetolian princess. Jewish legend speaks of dybbuks escaped from Gehenna. As the famous line from the Cornish Litany had it: "From ghoulies and ghosties / and long-leggedy beasties / and things that go bump in the night / Good Lord deliver us!" (The liturgical precursor to "Who ya gonna call?!", no doubt.) What is mythology, in the colloquial sense of the term, but religion no longer in practice? What, besides the gulf of history, separates the lost cult of Gozer worshippers from the Judeo-Christians next door?
Sometimes it's hard to be a believer in the real world. In Ghostbusters' most obvious cinematic parent, The Exorcist, the subject of exorcism is first breached not by a priest but a physician: "It's been pretty much discarded these days, except by the Catholics, who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment." He presses the distressed Chris MacNeil to seek an exorcist for Regan, but when she asks Father Karras how a person might find one, he responds, "Well, the first thing I'd do is put them into a time machine and send them back to the sixteenth century." Both the film and the novel address the heartbreak of breaking through the church bureaucracy before an exorcism is finally approved. So much for faith conquering all.
Ghostbusters takes place in such times, where the religious and the rational must be reconciled. Its 1984 is a time where a Christian may take communion and know it a wafer, an age of cultural Christians and secular Jews, of a fuzzier God than a bearded man in the sky, of the inner life over almighty dogma—a time of what Stephen Jay Gould would later call "nonoverlapping magisteria."
And then a god descends to Earth, and the walls come tumbling down.
"I Believe That Everything Happens For a Reason"
It begins not with God, but with ideas.
"Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma," Venkman famously singsongs, "I believe that we were destined to get thrown out of this dump." Leaving aside his reduction of an Indian spiritual concept to a casual Westernism, one might note here his trust in an ordered universe. His belief in fate, and his acceptance thereof, is the first insight into any of the protagonists' spiritual lives, aside from an image of an unidentified miter-clad fellow on the laboratory wall.
Stantz is less convinced of a grand design. "For what purpose?" he asks, and Venkman answers him, and they do in fact go into business for themselves. The Ghostbusters' advertising slogan—"We're ready to believe you"—poses a twist on faith. Science has led society to cast aside belief in the supernatural. Yet here stand professional scientists being open with that very belief, and encouraging others to do the same. Sometimes it takes a push. Notice how Dana second-guesses herself even as she prepares to tell Venkman her story. Note how the hotel manager shamefully confesses that they've been keeping their "disturbances" under wraps. These are not people ready to be believed. (And they saw the commercial, too.)
"Very, Very Strange"
Zuul, we learn, was (is) a demigod worshipped in and around Sumeria eight thousand years ago. "Zuul was the minion of Gozer," Dana muses.
This alone merits discussion. In a few short sentences, the film grants clear religious context to the supernatural phenomena at hand. This is not secular wizardry or a miscellaneous clutch of horrors. The geographical and historical facts distance Dana's case from the plain-vanilla Western traditions she lives amongst, and the inclusion of demigods in the structure marks a clean break from the Abrahamic monotheistic viewpoint.
Dana may not be aware of the significance of all this, but that doesn't change anything; the film's point is that the old traditions are with us whether we hold them or not, part of the city's makeup, locked in the stonework. (For instance, the fabled Marduk and Tiamat would continue their eternal duel in The Real Ghostbusters episode "I Am the City", with Marduk as god of the city—not just Babylon, but the general urban experience.) The streets, the buildings, all those damned statues, are New York's link to its past, the iron scraps of DNA it shares with old gods. Upon learning more of Gozer, Dana asks, "Well, what's he doing in my icebox?", and this may well sum up the film's point about religion as much as anything. A non-believing society—at best one based in lip service—is about to look its wilder psychosocial ancestry in the eye. Our long-forgotten spiritual past is about to infringe upon all our iceboxes.
"You Will Perish in Flame!"
Because Ghostbusters builds its themes slowly, it's easy to miss one of its most crucial and frightening little details. It's a prophecy that very nearly comes true.
Both statement and validation are foreshadowed. Vinz Clortho speaks in prophecies, first to the people (and horse) on the outskirts of Central Park, then to Spengler in the cheerful "Gozer the Traveler" outburst. Lo, his promise to the horse ("our prisoners will be released") comes true; how exactly the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fits into his prediction to Spengler is for the historians to decide. In any event, the message is clear: don't disregard a divination.
And so, the Judgment Day scene. It tackles a religious notion head-on, as close as the film ever comes to tipping its hand on a theme. Furthermore, it's the most illuminating glimpse we get into the characters' faiths: Zeddemore shares his Christianity, whereas Stantz appears agnostic at most. Zeddemore begins his tenure with the Ghostbusters a subscriber to traditional beliefs, but skeptical of his employers' trade ("If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say"); Stantz buys parapsychology but drifts from religion. By the end of the scene both have caught up with each other's ideas a little bit.
Aside from botching the chapter number, Stantz gives a decent enough paraphrase of Revelations 6:12: "And behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became as black as sackcloth, and the moon became as blood." He concludes: "Every ancient religion has its own myth about the end of the world." Zeddemore notes that the myths are on to something if the dead have been rising from the grave. And Stantz can't think of a thing to say.
For this conversation visits upon him the same message of spiritual enlargement the film grants the audience. He has limited his thinking to the narrow window of the scientifically observable—a hard trick indeed considering his unusual field. Now he confronts a wider view, an extension of his continuum of the logical. And this ends his mumbled observations about metallurgy.
There's a greater irony at work than the fact that the scientist will soon meet a god.
By the time Gozer arrives, the Ghostbusters will have survived a great earthquake, and the sun will have been blotted out.
"Tell Everyone to Start Praying"
The questions raised thus far have dealt more with the ideas of religion than the application, the faith rather than the expression. After planting a couple of hints about the major (and presumably final) celebrations of the Vuldronaii and the Meketrex Supplicants, Ghostbusters finally examines religion in practice with the case of Ivo Shandor's secret society.
Spengler offers only one tenet of Shandor's cult—that it felt society "too sick to survive," possibly a nod to the age-old critique of religion as organized fearmongering. His tale of Gozer worshippers conducting world-ending rituals on the roof is disquieting. But what does it mean? Did their services merely consecrate the temple, or did they appreciably hasten Gozer's arrival, or were they just wasting time? Where did all the Gozer worshippers go after Shandor died, or, if the movement lasted to the '80s, how did it affect Central Park West property values?
The seeds for the Ivo Shandor figure are easily spotted in author Anton LaVey (assumed middle name: Szandor), whose contributions to occultism include The Satanic Bible and founding the Church of Satan. He even had his thoughts on architecture, professing in The Devil's Notebook how the angles of a building might affect the spiritual energy inside. The sexual freedom espoused in LaVey's tracts also fits with the erotic nature of the ghosts in Ghostbusters (as discussed in the 'Gender' chapter of this increasingly overcomplicated project). Championing the individual and the aesthetic, while railing against stupidity, conformity and pretense, LaVeyan Satanism gels nicely with the views voiced by the anti-societal architect of post-war New York.
But LaVey would never qualify as a Gozer worshipper, or indeed anyone's worshipper; his Church was without supernatural ties, its ceremonies intended for metaphorical rather than mystical value, and his Satan was more a name for earthly ideas than a personal devil. Shandor's rituals are all too real and he was no atheist. Nonetheless, the personality factor is hard to resist. (Rumors persist of LaVey's involvement with the 1968 film of Rosemary's Baby—untrue, though it's amusing when one considers the plot. Both the novel and the film concern a building with an unsavory past, with residents hosting rituals of their own. The film pegged this building as the Dakota, on Central Park West.)
Apocalypticism in cults is nothing new, even if the endless promises of the end of the world are so rarely kept. Spoiler alert: It doesn't work in Ghostbusters either. It's worth noting that early drafts of the screenplay showed Shandor, and not the Gozer we know, emerging from the temple. Somewhere along the line, the filmmakers realized that gods pack more of a punch than their followers—at least on the surface level.
Hollywood has an unfortunate tendency to touch on religion only when the plot requires. Clergymen are either goody two-shoes, kind ministers supporting the hero and nuns doing God's work, or the twisted reflection thereof, evil fundamentalists or corrupt priests. The depiction of faith as an organic part of everyday life, without aspirations toward easy symbolism or plot device, doesn't pop up on movie screens too often.
Moments like Zeddemore's Christian identification in the Judgment Day scene are rare. It's not an opportunity to comment on being a Christian. It's just part of his character, and were his beliefs different it would not alter the impending events one bit.
Something similar appears in with the archbishop in the Mayor's office. The Mayor has sought his advice, but "the Church will not take any position on the religious implications of these phenomena." It's an odd thing to say, considering that this is pretty much the exact kind of thing the Church should issue an opinion on. But the archbishop understands the limitations of religious rules in the face of the terrifyingly real. Unlike, say, the decidedly secular Environmental Protection Agency, he does not presume to judge matters above his pay grade, let alone outside his comprehension. He recognizes the gulf between social practice of faith and faith itself: "Personally, Lenny, I think it's a sign from God. But don't quote me on that." A Christian in the real world to a fault.
The Mayor concedes, unenthusiastic to "call a press conference and tell everyone to start praying." Here Zeddemore, the other vocal Christian in the room, intervenes to bear witness: "These things are real." Evidently he's now endorsing the pitch of the "moldy old Babylonian god" coming to Earth.
There's a sign on the Mayor's desk: 'Be Not Afraid'. Is this a nod to Shakespeare's line about greatness, or the Christian sentiment? (Real-life Mayor Ed Koch's similar sign was inspired by a hymn.) Either way, the only choice is to proceed pragmatically. The archbishop does not demur. He's not even needed; we never once cut to him during the "Old Testament Biblical" discussion, where one might think him useful. For here, as His Eminence himself knows, the best thing he can do is just be there, not as spiritual advisor to the Mayor, but as a friend. He even buys Venkman's variant of Pascal's Wager. In Ghostbusters, the little things like how you approach God are irrelevant. Faith is neither a tool nor a salvation. It just is.
In taking a scientific, hands-off approach toward gods past and present, the film invites us to view events with the same objectivity as a non-worshipper; there's a certain sense of 'this really happened' inherent in cinema, where the camera, it is said, never lies. We've seen the path to Gozer's coming, and it had nothing to do with post-war mystic rites or a thousand cultists calling for the end times. It's our actions, not our beliefs, that do our gods' work. For Gozer, the real key was getting someone to construct a roof cap made of a magnesium-tungsten alloy.
"A Disaster of Biblical Proportions"
Religion is society's quest for an earthly vocabulary to express primal questions and desires extending past this ignorant present. These age-old ideas have filtered down through individual cultures to retell the same story in different ways. Despite Zeddemore's doubts that the Gozerian eschatology will go over well with the authorities, this universal resonance is how the designs of a Sumerian (not Babylonian, big difference) god are explained in Judeo-Christian terms the Mayor can understand.
"You can believe Mr. Pecker… or you can accept the fact that this city is headed for a disaster of Biblical proportions," Venkman warns. "What he means is Old Testament Biblical, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff," promises Stantz, "fire and brimstone coming down from the skies." Never mind that Gozer predates the events of the Old Testament by millennia. Stantz has recalled his own pronouncement: here's a comparable ancient religion with a myth about the end of the world.
Yet the key phrase in Venkman's argument is not "Biblical proportions"—it's "you can accept the fact…" As hinted at in the 'Horror' chapter, if there's any kind of moral to Ghostbusters, it's to accept reality, to deal with the dark and frightening things that don't fit into your limited, rational world. Peck refuses to face these truths; that's why he has to make up a story to impugn the Ghostbusters, calling the ghosts "induce[d] hallucinations" and the proton beams "a fake electronic light show"—a particularly pathetic lie from our perspective, as we've seen the truth on camera, far from the reach of any sense or nerve gases.
Whatever Peck's motives, reality is not on his side. The Mayor faces facts, kicks Peck out and gets down to business. It proves the right decision. That's the way of things; that's why the Ghostbusters are able to take on all comers and win. They are ready to believe.
But Peck has already fulfilled his mythological function, in a way. Again, it goes back to prophecy and validation. Venkman asked the bureaucrat, at their first meeting, why he wanted to see the storage facility: "Well, because I'm curious," was Peck's reply. He was warned of the disastrous consequences of tampering with the storage facility, and he paid no attention. Given all the evil that emerges, no wonder that screenwriting consultant Linda Seger deems Peck's subplot analogous to Pandora's Box. (This reading gels suspiciously neatly with feminist criticism of the Pandora myth, given the gendered symbolism of the tale—evil spilling from a womb opened by a weak-willed woman—and Peck's well-established dicklessness.)
Perhaps Peck is simply the tool of larger forces at work; the 2009 video game touches on this explicitly, painting him at first as a Gozer-worshipping conspirator, then merely a puppet.
After all, why shouldn't the spectral antagonists have humans on their sides, even unwitting ones? Who's to say the devil can't find work for idle hands in the EPA? After all, the good guys have crusaders in their corner…
When the Ghostbusters advance on Central Park West, they are greeted by popular support of all stripes, including the religious community: nuns on the church steps, Orthodox Jews in prayer, a gathering of doomsday prophets with suspiciously well-prepared signs. It's a small-c catholic crowd, a fair cross-section of Upper West Side faiths.
In its way, it's a beautiful testament to the notion that all faiths are one, that all the gods of Earth are but different names for the same thing. (So inclusive; Ghostbusters being a comedy, one is reminded of the old jokes about a rabbi, a priest and a minister.) They may hold different opinions about the next world, but they can all agree that this one is probably ending right now.
All are placed under attack in the earthquake. All rejoice when the Ghostbusters emerge from the pit, making a tacit interfaith endorsement of the boys in gray as holy warriors. They wear the mantle of myths from every culture, now, as Campbellian heroes with a thousand faces. As Harold Ramis tells Karina Longworth: "Every film is a projective device, to some extent. It's a Rorschach test. The movies don't change. We bring ourselves to these experiences, and everyone experiences them differently. So the movie's the movie, and most people really like it. I'm sure there were fundamentalists who thought it was the devil's work."
As we read the Ghostbusters as actors in a mythic cycle, it's worthwhile to contemplate their slow march up the stairs. Looming above Central Park, contemptuously dwarfing its neighbors in the wide shots, the Shandor Building seems a mighty mountain reigning over the famously flat Manhattan. Abraham met God on the mountain of Moriah; Moses sealed his covenant at the summit of Mount Sinai. Hindu sages retreat to the Himalayas, where Shiva dwells. The Greek gods lived on Mount Olympus, and in Christianity, a mountain marked the site of Christ's transfiguration and another His ascension. The vertiginous climb represents more than the 'rising action' of the storyline, dutifully pursuing its apex on the tidy little plot triangle; it's the characters' inexorable odyssey toward a transformative spiritual adventure.
"Nobody Steps On a Church in My Town!"
All told, the Ghostbusters handle their first encounter with a god pretty well.
With the film summing up its themes, this is an opportune place to make a definitive statement on the God question, seeing as there's one around. Actually, there might be more than one. The theological implications of the all-important advice "When someone asks you if you're a god, you say 'Yes!'" beg our attention. Funny, sure, but surely vanquishing a god puts the Ghostbusters on some sort of godlike level—right?
Well, what kind of god are we talking about here? The details of the "Choose the form of the Destructor" ritual are murky, but presumably Mr. Stay-Puft has agency in this world that Gozer, in her initial, incorporeal form, does not—otherwise, what's the point. Gozer toys with her assailants, knocking them back with lightning, but what's stopping her from blasting them into oblivion? By all rights, the movie should be over two seconds after she bids them die. Indeed, the fact that the world even exists after the doors open seems to question the god's credentials. We must conclude that although Gozer has entered our world in one sense, the "prehistoric bitch" on the temple steps is an avatar, a limited projection, weak and easily neutronized. "The Traveler has come!" Gozer crows, after Mr. Stay-Puft is summoned; maybe said bitch didn't really count.
Why should it, anyway? Why should a god look human for anyone's convenience besides the effects department? The old trope of the cosmic visitor taking a form the mortal finds comfortable won't wash here; for starters, Gozer doesn't care. It's an egotistical construct to ascribe human characteristics to a god, although, perhaps, a necessary one. Greeks and Romans would burst into flames upon seeing their gods' true form—recall the tragic tale of Semele, mother of Dionysus. The Abrahamic religions call God incomprehensible, blinding to glimpse; the Bhagavad Gita reports that Arjuna didn't react well to the sight of Krishna unleashed. "It's whatever it wants to be," says Spengler of Gozer, but he's really talking about this whole God thing, ever shifting, ever unknowable. Gozer's challenge—"Choose the form of the Destructor!"—is religion all summed up. We cannot see God unbridled; we can only choose our own Destructor's form.
And in the Marshmallow Man we see a god truly walk on Earth.
A god, yes, but a limited god, one that can be set on fire, a Sumerian-confectionery hypostatic union. He is a Marshmallow Man with emphasis on Man, both divine and tasty. Indeed, it is in part his mortality that proves Gozer's undoing; when he explodes, Gozer dissipates. There's ample precedent for this sort of thing. A similar fate befalls Lovecraft's title abomination in "The Call of Cthulhu", for example, exploding head and all. But what of gods worshipped outside fiction? Have the Ghostbusters crucified the mortal half of the Unholy Dichotomy? Are their proton packs Marduk's Four Winds, their beams the strands of his magic net? Have they merely wrestled with an angel, as Jacob did, or wounded a goddess, like Homer's Diomedes? If not, could they?
Perhaps the score is best settled not by examining the conflict, but what it represents. The symbolism of Mr. Stay-Puft stepping on a church, over Venkman's righteous objections, is self-explanatory. But beyond the obvious, this confirmation of the Ghostbusters' place in the holy wars helps the film reconcile its seemingly troubling stance on man versus God. It's really a case of god versus god, with the (reasonably) pleasant Western traditions up against that old-time Sumerian religion, and ghosts and the busters thereof are merely foot soldiers.
This reading resolves in the religious contingent during the triumphant end credits sequence, the victory celebration for the returning crusaders. Venkman receives a priest's blessing before climbing into Ecto-1, and there's a whole line of them in the crowd, making the sign of the cross as our heroes back the car up for the journey home. The ebullient Jewish pack celebrates more festively, craning for a view and waving the Ghostbusters off—best spotted under Bernie Brillstein's credit, an appropriate shout-out for a New York Jew.
And why should faith not be permitted its final say, in these goodbyes? Certainly Ghostbusters makes the most of its religious underpinnings. Grounding its plot in our primal cultural organizing principles enhances its impact, and explicitly linking its stakes to an existing eschatology (Judgment Day) touches a nerve in a way that a generic threat cannot. To the screenplay's additional credit, having the heroes arrive at the foreboding conclusion grants the idea more credibility than if it had come from some mustache-twirling villain, potentially posturing. We believe in Ghostbusters' impending "disaster of Biblical proportions" because the Ghostbusters themselves do.
But the film's take on faith itself seems strangely detached. Ghosts (and gods), it makes clear, do not need to be believed in to exist. There's no evidence that the Ghostbusters' ecumenical support on Central Park West adds anything beyond a morale boost, and Gozer worshippers, it seems, are throughout history rewarded with the short end of the stick. In Ghostbusters, religion is purely sociological and God just another offshoot of parapsychology, to be dealt with on as scientific a set of terms as the periodic table.
This has led some to conclude that Ghostbusters is anti-faith, depicting the death of God by science. (This view is perhaps most concisely expressed in a popular Internet image of unknown origin, depicting the Ghostbusters blasting the floating figure of Christ. Never mind that Jesus of Nazareth did a little freelance exorcist work himself.)
But this reading proves shallow even if all we examine is the mechanics of Gozer's downfall. She is defeated by science, yes. But only because she was constrained by her own religious ritual, bound to join us on our physical plane rather than end our world from the comfort of hers. And what led the scientists to quell Gozer, to turn their proton streams into the sign of the cross?... A leap of faith.
Perhaps clutching at crucifix symbolism is itself a leap (even discussing a film that spoofs The Exorcist). But in any case, the man-versus-God reading ignores not only the film's own evidence, but the past and future work of its writers. Harold Ramis's ever-spiritual Groundhog Day has been embraced by leaders among all faiths, from Buddhism to Judaism to the Jesuits. Dan Aykroyd's most famous movie character before Ghostbusters spoke the classic line "We're on a mission from God," and the man's beliefs in the supernatural and the spiritual are a matter of public record.
Can God build a ghost trap so large that He, Himself, can be trapped in it? Through the eyes of its parapsychologists, Ghostbusters addresses the concerns of a scientific age no closer to figuring it all out. Like a host of other discoveries, proof of the existence of ghosts just raises new questions in place of the old; the once-thought-indivisible atom of faith has been split, only to reveal unforeseen smaller subatomic particles inside, and the discipline's equivalent of quantum mechanics is still lurking in seclusion. Maybe there are no answers. The Ghostbusters are present at the opening of the rather literal doors to new worlds, new dimensions, and none of it answers a damn thing.
On a professional level, the Ghostbusters trade in an informed brand of apatheism; their social bonds are science and business, a secular setup if ever there was one, and their dealings with the supernatural have no bearing on their moral actions or religious viewpoints. Zeddemore's direct encounter with a non-Christian god is unlikely to change his opinion on Jesus' style. When the proton pack goes on, it's shoot first, ask philosophical questions later.
Perhaps it's appropriate that Ghostbusters' last explicit nod to religion comes with the image of the Hare Krishna, dancing and chanting atop a car. He gets a shot all to himself, celebrating his higher consciousness, one and at peace. Yes, the Ghostbusters have ended a period of spiritual turmoil, and ushered in a new harmony. But this guy was already in the zone to begin with.
Indeed, close eyes will note a subtler message about belief in the film's penultimate shot. Among the happy fans chasing Ecto-1 down the street, the careful viewer can spot the doomsday sign crowd—cheering, exultant, but they haven't put their signs down, either. Religion is always with us, for better and for worse, and if it is your way to believe and repent, then you might as well do it. At least next time the world's ending, the cultists will know who to call.
"Everybody's Heard Ghost Stories Around the Campfire"
The religious terrain was shifting before the '80s even began.
The seeds of the 1960s counterculture, promoting the rejection of social norms, grew into new ideas on Eastern religions and alternative viewpoints. The '80s saw the apex of the New Wave movement, culminating in 1987's Harmonic Convergence. Even the unreservedly Christian Ronald Reagan, who shared his faith as openly in speeches as he did behind closed doors, took some flak for his wife's interest in astrology. An odd criticism for a man supported by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.
The 21st-century conflation of Republicanism and religion was still in its infancy, aside from the general platitudes of the decent churchgoing politician. (Indeed, Reagan's habit of ending speeches with "God bless America," while new at the time, would soon become accepted practice to the point of cliché.) Reagan endorsed the Bible and led prayer in the White House, but the Democrat he replaced was hardly irreligious: Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist and Sunday School teacher, was noted for sharing his faith on the campaign trail, praying several times a day and making Christian agape a theme of his term in office. Neither administration drew terribly strong accusations of theocracy.
At any rate, the Moral Majority got their man elected, but not their goals enacted; the Rockefeller Republicans were still in charge, and the religious right was stuck playing second fiddle to their economic counterparts. When the Great Communicator spoke of the nation as "a shining city on a hill," his calculated effect was exceptionalist patriotism, designed to appeal to the full American spectrum, an optimistic, inclusive, unifying spirit crossing all convictions. Never mind that the image, adjective aside, came straight out of the Bible.
History does not remember the 1980s as a spiritual age. When Zeddemore misidentifies Gozer as Babylonian, it's not the first time anyone compared the "greed is good"-era Manhattan to a new Babylon, where the almighty buck drew more worship than the Almighty. As such, Ghostbusters was a film for its times: a secular story for an increasingly secularized culture, aware of our primal needs without advocating any one path, updating the old legends and eschatologies with an Atomic Age bent. It wasn't the first special-effects blockbuster built on such foundations, of course—1978's Superman shoehorned in some overt Christian parallels, and the Star Wars trilogy shortly thereafter was practically a crash course in mythology and world religion. Ghostbusters' servings of pop theology are smaller, but no less carefully considered. Two fictional deities, a thousand Jazz Age cultists and a bunch of Upper West Side rubberneckers may not comprise the most diverse sample of faiths, but the issue could have just as easily been skirted.
Ghostbusters II didn't put out any casting calls for gods, but instead included an element missing from Ghostbusters' survey on faith: morality. The sequel explicitly tied human emotions and behaviors to the city's potential downfall, a judgment day on New Years' Eve. "Vigo wants in on the 21st century," Stantz declares, addressing Millennial panic a decade early, and the wicked are judged and found wanting. Despite Vigo's European roots, we might just call it karma.
Yet the most distressing thing about Vigo's assault may not be his own threats of generic despotism, but the morally and spiritually bankrupt fin-de-vingtième-siècle life he throws into such sharp relief; why save a world not worth saving? Ghostbusters depicts an American society out of touch with its own past, a world that had to be told to believe. Ghostbusters II follows up with people so divorced from their spiritual side that they don't believe in ghosts—despite a well-documented onslaught only five years ago.
"A year from now," Zeddemore observes at the start of the sequel, "those kids won't even remember who we are." It is the lament of a fading legend. Generations X and Y don't participate in organized worship the way their parents and grandparents did; according to the 2011 book The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation, nearly two-thirds of Millennials rarely or never attend religious services, and 70% consider American churches "irrelevant today". Those without faith are not without their place at the table, either. Wired magazine dubbed the rising movement of the 2000s "the New Atheism": "They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil." YouTube teems with amateur videos made by nonbelievers, trumpeting the word of Richard Dawkins; the more playful use the "Religious Views" line on their Facebook profiles to announce their allegiance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Moreover, in more tolerant times, those who do choose a faith are less likely to assert that theirs is the only true path. America hosts not only more open atheists, but more theists who subscribe to no particular creed. (That this can even be confirmed anecdotally, with few raised eyebrows, makes an interesting datum in and of itself.) The 1980s brand of New Age beliefs has lost currency and been replaced: crystals out, indigo children in.
But Ghostbusters' theme of tension between two worlds continues to play out. The reactionary Christian faction of the secularized Me Decade enjoyed a genial relationship with the ultimately mainline Reagan, but George H.W. Bush, a traditional New England Episcopalian, faced difficulty forging alliances with the evangelical movement. In the end, the Moral Majority found little use for him. But the writing was on the wall, and with the Millennium came a resurgence in faith-based politics. The very rise of the term "faith-based politics" proved the point.
A decade of earthly delights and vanities piling up on the bonfire, the 1980s proved the calm before the storm: an age of toxic materialism trumping regrouping religiosity, which would soon demand to be heard.
The inclusionary vision of Ghostbusters remains fiction.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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