"I'm Terrified Beyond the Capacity for Rational Thought"


There are scarier things on this earth than a man's ability to overanalyze a movie.

Cinema is a nostalgic art form, forever reaching back to literature, theatre, and, more often than not, other movies. The traditions that Ghostbusters upholds are as old as the human impulse for storytelling. Especially the stories told late at night.

Implicit in Ghostbusters' functionality as a tale of quests and heroes is a commitment to a genre—and while it incorporates elements of sci-fi and fantasy, the focus on spooks, specters and ghosts clearly places it on the horror shelf. Like other oft-ghettoized genres, horror lets artists explore the human psyche from a perspective outside the everyday—a way to look at 'what is' from a platform of 'what is not'. It's an emotional laboratory in which creators experiment, and ask questions. Dramas and romances illuminate reality. Genre fiction, by contrast, is the province of ideas.

Horror forces us to confront the most primal of emotions. It's our pathway to our fears, to that secret place we dare not share; it is our connection to our base and instinctual nature of self-preservation. Yet it's not all animal instinct. The fear triggers of fiction are a sign of the times, a marker of the morals and concerns of the age. There are worse ways to learn about a society than to figure out what they're afraid of; after all, fear has motivated quite a bit in this world.

Somehow, we have to learn to cope. If religion was developed to help man explain the world around him, perhaps horror was meant to illuminate the jagged landscape within. Indeed, the first tales of supernatural menace arose in religious folklore, the sagas of gods and monsters predating monsters alone. With the eighteenth century came the Gothic novel and the birth of horror as we know it. Even the early classics of the genre spoke to the dangers of their day. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a cautionary tale of the Industrial Revolution. Edgar Allan Poe's romantic tales of the macabre documented the inadequacy of the intellect in a grotesque universe. Bram Stoker's Dracula was a metaphor for the Victorian dread of female sexuality and corruption. (Stoker, as we'll discuss elsewhere, proved a significant influence on Ghostbusters.)

Cinema's take on horror took some time to mature past creature features and Universal monster franchises, but eventually found footing as the voice of social concern. The tensions of the Atomic Age found expression in grim sci-fi shockers; the atmospheric dread of the Cold War made perfect fodder for films about alien invasion. Then a new generation—raised on portentous black-and-white morality movies and code-flouting EC Comics—grew up, and began crafting cinema of their own. The horror movies of the 1970s looked inward, reflecting a grimmer social vision: Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre preyed on post-Vietnam paranoia, the culture of atrocities and the rotting of American family values, while George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead critiqued the frighteningly unstable consumerist mob mentality.

Somewhere in all this, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg began exploring fear through the lens of body modification. In both Shivers and Rabid, science's corruption of the body leads to infection, sexual deviancy and both physical and social decay. Cronenberg's right-hand man on both films was producer Ivan Reitman.

This, as they say, is where we came in.

"She Barks, She Drools"

Any discussion of Ghostbusters' place in the horror tradition must begin with The Exorcist, the phenomenally successful 1973 William Friedkin film based on William Peter Blatty's best-selling 1971 novel. Though it rarely indulges in direct parody, Ghostbusters borrows without qualms; indeed, given The Exorcist's impact on the cultural landscape, it'd have been difficult not to.

Framegrab not from 'Ghostbusters'

The broad strokes of the plot are easily spotted. A university and a haunted home. A demon dredged up from the Middle East going after an innocent woman. The struggle for legitimacy by the only people who can do anything about it, the fights waged against bureaucracy and the tyranny of small ideas. Just swap exorcists for exterminators.

Naturally the possession scenes push the joke furthest. Zuul's lovely singing voice in Dana's body recalls the distinctive rasp of Pazuzu within Regan MacNeil, and of course the famous scene of Regan floating above her bed takes its knocks only moments later. Furthermore, as trivia buffs are quick to note, the early graffito "Venkman burn in hell" was meant to be "Venkman sucks cocks in hell", in tribute to an equally famous Regan line.

It's okay as far as it goes, but these are but amusing trifles, shout-outs for the savvy. (A subtler such gag appears when the Ghostbusters approach Dana's ruined apartment; among the detritus in the haunted hallway is, inexplicably, a kid's tricycle, a possible nod to Richard Donner's The Omen or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.) This may be a film populated by Saturday Night Live and SCTV alumni, but television sketch parody it is not. What's significant is not that Ghostbusters parodies The Exorcist but how it twists the film in doing so.

The hero of the 1973 film was a man of faith; in 1984, the path is scientific and the motivation is making a buck. Merrin and Karras confront a floating Regan on a mission to save her life; Venkman's plan for his evening was to get laid. The central themes of The Exorcist are guilt, doubt, and the fear of a meaningless world—in the '80s, Ghostbusters ain't 'fraid of no existential crisis. Its characters are more concerned with not accidentally destroying the universe than contemplating whether it's worth saving.

No job is too big, no fee is too big

Indeed, the most significant links between Ghostbusters and The Exorcist may be the least obvious. Both Friedkin and Blatty subscribed to "the Domino Theory of Reality"; scene after scene passes with nary a flicker of the supernatural, lulling the unsuspecting patron into a detailed domestic portrait of the MacNeil household. The pace makes Ghostbusters' baby steps look breakneck, with the result that we come to know and care about Regan and her family before the plunge into hell—the ultimate slow burn. As Friedkin notes, "The film had to be a totally realistic view of inexplicable events. It had to be absolutely flawless in its presentation of real people against real backgrounds."

Even more subtle is the way that both films corrupt the image of their people and backgrounds. Both films carry the same slight purple cast, and for the same reasons, an understated but inexplicable weirdness pervading each shot. But Ghostbusters widens its frame, opting for the 2.35:1 aspect ratio over The Exorcist's 1.85:1. For all its baroque horrors from worlds beyond, Friedkin's film was a personal story. Ghostbusters leans epic.

There is no Regan, only Pazusu

"There's Gonna Be Some Real Trouble In This Apartment, I Think"

If Ghostbusters is a horror movie (and I know that's a pretty big "if"), then the question to ask of it is: what are we afraid of?

The great cliché of analyzing horror fiction is to suggest the universal fear of death. But Ghostbusters casts that aside; not until Gozer do the antagonists threaten humanity with anything more harmful than wayward slime, and indeed half the time the Ghostbusters are more likely to cause destruction than anyone. What's more, the film also spurns any reading of the afterlife as a source of misery or torment. There are few lost souls doomed to walk the earth, no damned creatures enduring hellfire; in fact, most of the ghosts seem to be having a high old time.

But, then, what do we mean by 'ghosts', anyway? Gozer's army is not limited to ghosts, in the sense of souls of the dead; the film depicts a whole range of spectral visions, from those clearly stemming from a former human identity (the library ghost, the dream ghost) to the outright fantastic (the creature that rises from the subway). John Belushi jokes aside, is Slimer the ghost of any specific person? If so, was that person green and where did their legs go?

A terrifying reminder of human mortality

No, the generation of the Me Decade wasn't too worried about mortality or the reminders thereof. This is a film about a culture that claims to know better than the ancients. People don't call the Ghostbusters because the ghosts are dangerous—they call because the ghosts are pestilential. Ghosts are the ultimate undesirables; from the cheesy commercial to Venkman's comic admission at the elevator, our heroes are exterminators, hunting down a larger breed of cockroach. The spectral invasion is, in the end, one big NIMBY problem.

This reduction of otherworldly horror to the level of nuisance is nothing new. Oscar Wilde was making similar cracks in his first published story, 1887's The Canterville Ghost; one can almost imagine Bill Murray in the role of the father, responding to the ominous clanks of phantom chains by suggesting Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator.

In Ghostbusters, what's threatened is not life but a way of living it. The film's use of iconic New York locations, tony neighborhoods and genteel victims places under fire the most enviable lifestyles of the age. In typical Harold Ramis anarchy, the higher rungs of the social ladder take the hit, as all the power and all the wealth in the world cannot help the upper classes deal with their own vermin. The ghosts aren't camping out in rickety Victorian mansions or corrupting sweet little girls in Georgetown; they're targeting the dreams of a 1984 America that votes its aspirations and enjoys Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in syndication. Dana doesn't live in the corner penthouse of Spook Central; Spook Central is a corner penthouse.

The American blindness, or at least relative indifference, to class consciousness would prove a fixture in the '80s; Reaganomics ruled and Michael Douglas would enter misremembered movie quote history with "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." It's no wonder the public realizes that the end of the world may be nigh. Social upheaval is unthinkable.

"Does That Make Any Sense To You?"

Indeed, impugning our sense of natural order is Gozer's way of hitting us where it hurts. Favoring the typically Dionysian value of chaos, Gozer cripples the structure of civilized living before going for the jugular. (Her history and homeland imply an overlap with the monster-summoning Babylonian goddess of chaos, Tiamat; the 2009 video game reveals that the two were enemies at war. Professional jealousy, presumably.)

The first supernatural act in the movie is to move a couple of books out of order; the second, more hostile, is the outpouring of the cards from the catalog, the ultimate in fussy regulation and organization reduced to shambles in seconds. Knowledge upended, facts all over the floor—this reading, no pun intended, shines new light on why the film's first target is an elderly librarian, rather than the typical horror movie hot babe: the ghosts aren't after our women, they're after our assumptions. As Jordan Stokes of points out, "we are sometimes aware—and are usually frightened by—the boundaries and limits of conscious thought. This is what these scenes in Ghostbusters access: not the Freudian Subconscious, but the Lacanian Real." (No studyin'.)

The disruption of the order of things

Similarly, in a fascinating analysis for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Chiranjit Goswami writes, "an institution dedicated to the collection and organization of knowledge" is forced "into complete disarray. The ensuing mystical mayhem is… particularly problematic for scientists, who pride themselves on explaining the world through logic and reason." Goswami's thesis is that the film is about, in essence, a nerdy desire for organization and how it fights back when threatened: "Though ordinarily thought to be in opposition, the institutions of science and religion allow their crusaders and practitioners to make sense of the surrounding world through diverging methods, and thus essentially seek to create order out of chaos. Ghostbusters attempts to humorously explore just how exactly these traditional systems might react when confronting entities that undermine the fundamental principles of both institutions."

This tension between order and chaos quickly falls in line with the other dichotomies explored in the movie, and much of it is easy to spot, though the "symmetrical book-stacking" incident deserves special mention: in the randomness of the ghost's wake is found a stretch of order, the sort of underlying pattern that teases the chaos theoreticians in the crowd. Stantz cites a similar incident during "the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947"; Venkman's unimpressed rejoinder chastises Stantz not only for his enthusiasm over the pile, but for trying to reconcile it into something logical. Only human beings would stack books like that.

Once the Ghostbusters get their act together, science in hand (and on back), their first enemy, Slimer, is pure id, all appetite and attitude. The hotel manager's embarrassment at failing his guests is near-palpable, and he'll "pay anything" to keep that pesky little spook from ruining the Eastside Theatre Guild's painstakingly-planned Midnight Buffet. Comically, almost iatrogenically, the neophyte Ghostbusters do more damage that night than their prey.

Following the "Magic" montage, marked by all manner of disruption, the Ghostbusters and government unite for an organized advance on Central Park West. The enemy there will shift the playing field of the order-chaos dynamic; the stakes now are not the rules of polite society, but the basic foundations of knowledge and understanding.

This sort of thing's happened in horror before.

"No! It Can't Be!"

If Ghostbusters can be said to conform to any one horror tradition, it's the work of H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction established a cold and near-nihilistic universe, fundamentally harsh and alien, in which humans and humanity are insignificant and terrifyingly mortal. The recurring Lovecraftian protagonist is a rational man born of rational times who, in the search for order, learns things that should never be learned. Our scientific thirsts and advances, Lovecraft warns, will inexorably lead us toward knowledge that we may be psychologically unable to withstand.

What has been seen cannot be unseen

Lovecraft's readings of Western civilization's decadence and impending decay place him in agreement with Ivo Shandor's view of society as "too sick to survive". His politics and his pessimism were in part by informed by the controversial historian Oswald Spengler, whose achievements include the cheerful two-volume The Decline of the West and inspiring the name of a certain fictional parapsychologist.

As befits the film's method of slowly unfolding its themes, even the crowning Lovecraftian moments of the film come only after careful buildup. Dana's discovery of the hidden dimension in her refrigerator is Lovecraft-lite: she experiences a vision beyond her ability to comprehend or even to adequately describe, to which the only viable human responses are fear and insanity. The leisurely construction of the Gozer mythos, hinting at established scholarship and primary source texts, reflects the carefully-crafted world-building of Lovecraft's fiction. Indeed, Lovecraft's interconnected universe and unwavering commitment to his bleak visions grant Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth such verisimilitude that one is forgiven for thinking the Necronomicon a real book, presumably from the same publisher as Tobin's Spirit Guide.

A student of the classics

Ghostbusters doesn't announce any debt to Lovecraft, but the little touches are there throughout. For one thing, the author's creatures seem to secrete an awful lot of slime. Even the film's nomenclature is disconcertingly Lovecraftian; names like Gozer, Zuul and Volguus Zildrohar boast the same sort of ancient, non-Occidental credibility as Azathoth and Y'golonac. When Vinz Clortho describes the giant Sloar feeding upon "many Shubs", the educated filmgoer might well consider if he refers to the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath.

It would take the animated series to give Lovecraft a direct nod; a second-season episode features a decidedly Lovecraftian demonic entity deemed more powerful than Gozer, and even name-checks the author and his associates. The episode's title: "The Collect Call of Cathulhu"—apparently even the most monstrous of supernatural dreads pales in comparison to the human fear of lawsuits.

Lovecraft's relentless maltheism is more than borne out by Gozer, a god whose view of non-gods proves uncharitable. Like many of the author's malevolent deities, the Traveler is a multi-dimensional being infringing on our world, and her disparagement of humans as "subcreatures" reinforces the Lovecraftian perception of the human race's impotence and irrelevance.

Nonetheless, Gozer seems to have some use for humankind, if only as necessary tools to hasten their own destruction; why else would a subcreature be granted the sacred task of choosing the form of the Destructor? This crucial moment is the apex of not only the film's comic thrust, but its Lovecraftian themes.

The quintessentially Lovecraftian evil comes in the form of an eldritch abomination, brought forth from some unknown and perhaps unknowable beyond to dispense madness, despair and hysteria. The very existence of the oft-indescribable creature shatters all preconceived notions of the universe, affronting the basic tenets of man's rational and emotional understanding of his world. It is an unspeakable evil of incomprehensible size, an embodiment of all that is—in a word—wrong.

And such is the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

A horror beyond comprehension

Spengler's response to the approaching behemoth—"I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought"—is as concise a summation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror as one could ask for. Stantz's blithering regression is another common reaction. And of course it makes for great comedy. Lovecraft himself notes in his essay "Spiritual Horror in Literature" that there's a place for the "whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author's knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural"; Ghostbusters' genius in mixing horror with humor is in knowing that the wink is the last element to add.

Yet Mr. Stay-Puft is more than a shout-out to any particular body of work. The very act of forcing the victims to "choose the form of the Destructor" makes clear the purpose of horror fiction: to make real our inner turmoils, and give voice to what we cannot express. Mr. Stay-Puft is the literal manifestation of our innermost fears—or, at least, Stantz's.

Lovecraft's famous opening to "Spiritual Horror in Literature" says it all: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Venkman urges his cohorts to clear their heads, to think of nothing, but Stantz dares not glimpse whatever nameless and repressed darkness may lurk in his subconscious. Instead, he retreats to the known, his personal and beloved known, to a structured time of order and safety. And when he tries to explain it afterwards, it seems a nice enough idea. But eldritch abominations have a way of refuting the rational. "The symbolic representation of a thing is independent of the thing-in-itself," Stokes reminds us. "The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is frightening precisely because the representation is so inadequate to that which it represents." That inadequacy was pretty much what Stantz was going for, for all the good it did him. Another crushing loss for the best-laid plans.

And there you have the film's critique of its times: overt consumerism twinned with bleak nihilism, sent to destroy us all.

"Call It Fate, Call It Luck, Call It Karma"

In keeping with the filmmakers' "Domino Theory of Reality", the concept of fate enters the film as it wraps up all its threads for the climax. Everything plays as though it was building toward Mr. Stay-Puft all along, and for good reason: it was.

"Call it fate… I believe we were destined to get thrown out of this dump," Venkman pronounces near the start of the film, and with that, the Ghostbusters are born; while Stantz moans, he accepts his fate, and only from that comes progress. A similar situation unfolds when Spengler proposes to cross the streams; Venkman embraces inevitable death and leads the team into the abyss. From the jaws of defeat is snatched victory. Stantz's mistake in summoning Mr. Stay-Puft was trying to hide from the horror; the Ghostbusters' success only comes from confronting it face-to-face.

Ghostbusters explicitly twins fear with fate as Vinz Clortho's promises and Shandor's long-awaited machinations come to fruition. A Book of Revelations prophecy is not only quoted, but comes uncomfortably close to the truth. In a micro-example of the power of prediction, Venkman and Spengler warn Peck what will happen if the protection grid is shut off, but he ignores their warning, and all that was feared comes true. "These things are real," Zeddemore emphasizes to the Mayor afterwards: how comic, absurd, tragic and true that this conversation is still being had in times when zombies drive cabs and the walls of the 53rd Precinct bleed.

'Deal with reality' may well be the film's message, domino-based reality or otherwise. Time and again something strange crops up, and the characters who act in accordance are rewarded, while those that refuse the call are made to suffer. Cassandra would approve. In this sense, Ghostbusters departs from Lovecraft; he considered the human race doomed, his characters' destiny inescapable, his cruel or uncaring antagonists too vast even to comprehend, much less combat. Ghostbusters rejects this nihilism in favor of pragmatism and good old-fashioned American enterprise: in the land of the free, destiny is in the hands of the individual. When the Ghostbusters promise that they're "ready to believe you," they help their client navigate the expanded reality of modern life, and to deal with it via the service economy. Horror began as the vastness of what was out there, in the night, in the realm of gods; now it's in your home, and you'd probably like to get rid of it.

The Reagan years' solution to horror

"See You On The Other Side, Ray"

Scholars date the formal establishment of horror as a literary genre to 1764 with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. The horror comedy, inevitably, soon followed, with no less a luminary than Jane Austen leading the charge: the Gothic parody Northanger Abbey, first sold for publication in 1803, was not only her first completed novel but the precursor of the comic backlash against one too many gloomy castles and moonlit nights. Our impulses to laugh run as deeply as our need to be scared. We cackle like twits during a scary movie, as a nervous defense mechanism; when something startles us, we laugh at ourselves for falling for a cheap trick. We whoop at the grisly deaths of poorly-written characters, for there but for the grace of the director go we.

Ghostbusters fits firmly into an established cinematic tradition of ghost-hunting comedies. Indeed, in a moment found in the script but not the film, Joe Franklin says that the Ghostbusters name reminds him of Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers; Stantz points out that, in addition, "Olsen and Johnson did one called Ghost Catchers and the Bowery Boys did Ghost Chasers, Hold That Ghost, Spooks Run Wild, Spook Busters, and Spook Chasers."

The king of nostalgia

But it goes further than what's mentioned in this excised exchange. The Ghost Breakers was remade with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff, wherein Martin murmurs, "I'm a ghost buster, so watch it, buster." Later, of course, some other comedians picked up on the term… in 1975, for the short-lived Filmation children's television show The Ghost Busters, starring Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker of F-Troop as a pair of paranormal investigators who went around zapping ghosts with the aid of their lovable gorilla.

It goes on. Mickey Mouse and friends got in on the act in the 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts, setting up shop as the Ajax Ghost Exterminators; "I ain't scared of no ghosts," claimed Goofy. Abbott and Costello spent a chunk of the forties and fifties meeting Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and the Mummy, among others. It goes on.

As Dan Aykroyd told Don Shay in (and about) Making Ghostbusters, "Ghostbusters, I think, has its basic roots in American humor and American film… everyone did a ghost picture. I thought it would be great to write one for this decade, updating the form by using the concepts of science and technology." With those concepts comes efficiency, and what sets the Ghostbusters apart from their comic predecessors is that they actually get the job done. Ghostbusters dispenses with the humor of their heroes' incompetence after their first bust. (Well, mostly.) And so the filmmakers can raise the stakes on the scary stuff, because our heroes "can handle it, we can take it."

For a good horror comedy must be good horror as well as good comedy, with the jokes in concert with and not at the expense of the plot; only lesser films forget that there is no levity without seriousness. This is true of any genre-mixing comedy, of course: we laugh at Who Framed Roger Rabbit's comic antics and cod-noir Chinatown parody, but damned if we don't root for the toons along the way. Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove works because the sharp satire comes on the heels of an all-too-dramatic cautionary tale; it's said that Kubrick never even told co-star Slim Pickens that he was making a comedy.

Horror comedy allows roller-coaster thrills and chills while still promising that everything will be all right. Ghostbusters simply takes this pleasant reward to new heights by beefing up the good guys' arsenal. Those relieved to see Dracula crumble into dust or Pazuzu banished will take comfort in the Ghostbusters' offer to deliver that same joy with one phone call. The rules have changed: here are men bringing us a quantum leap closer to conquering our fears, and they take Visa.

Ghostbusters opened against Gremlins. It was a good summer for horror comedies in a bad time for horror movies.

Both films would land in 1984's top ten domestic grosses. No 'straight' horror movie would join them. Indeed, the last movie in the genre to crack the top ten was 1982's Poltergeist, with the strength of Steven Spielberg behind it. The supernatural didn't have a super-hit left, unless it was wrapped up in another, more appealing genre; after Ghostbusters, ghosts wouldn't do so well again until Ghost.

The landscape had changed. 1980s horror saw the rise of the slasher franchise: eight Friday the 13th movies, four Halloween sequels and the first five looks at A Nightmare on Elm Street. There were supernatural elements, to be certain, but blades and blood won focus over ghouls and ghosts.

Taking these trends together, we find a nation willing to laugh at demons from beyond but terrified of the world next door. Horror had come home. The great evil dwelt not in a Gothic manor or a secluded graveyard, but in our own neighborhoods. Viewed in this context, Ghostbusters seems tragic; society, innovation and entrepreneurship will see mankind save its world from mighty gods, only to go home and take a machete to the face. Was this why we beat the evil empire? To rule as a superpower that couldn't get its own house in order? Where was the true horror, anyway?

Supernatural scares had occasional post-'80s resurgences, of course. Two big splashes came under a newer, rawer aesthetic, the faux-documentary breakout hits The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and, a decade later, Paranormal Activity. Universal updated its creaky old creature features to recast The Mummy and Van Helsing as profitable actioners. But the march of reliable bloodbaths never relented; indeed, when genre legend Wes Craven skewered the classic clichés with the self-aware Scream saga, it only whetted the audience's appetite for slasher cinema, innovative or otherwise. The 2000s saw the rise of the 'torture porn' movement, as films-cum-franchises like Saw and Hostel popularized a new virtuosity of cinematic sadism. Then came a spate of reboots of… the 1980s slashers. Between 2007 and 2010, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street were all remade, and none were improved upon. Horrifying indeed.

Yet even as pure supernatural horror flailed, from those ashes rose a diverse buffet of horror-hybrid properties. The Twilight romances, in print and on film, catalyzed seemingly infinite vampire projects exploring beyond Transylvania. The Swedish tale of innocence lost Let the Right One In captured the imagination of the film festival circuit; on television, Alan Ball's True Blood offered a sweeping saga in the Southern Gothic tradition. While vampires lashed out for the heart, the decade's other favorite go-to ghouls—zombies—went for the funny bone. In 2004, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead turned 'zom-com' into a household word, and five years later, Seth Graeme-Smith's novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ushered the musical trend of mashup into the literary world. The intervening years gave ample employment to shambling creatures in search of brains, and Ruben Fleischer's 2009 film Zombieland tackled the post-apocalyptic landscape with just the appropriate sense of world-weariness. An extended cameo from a certain actor known for world-weary roles sealed the deal, and there's a sense of cosmic rightness when the characters congregate in—spoiler alert—Bill Murray's house, twenty-five years after Ghostbusters, blasting the soundtrack and watching the damned movie. "Oh, this is so exciting, you're about to learn who you're gonna call," Jesse Eisenberg murmurs reverently to perplexed Abigail Breslin, bursting with passion to pass on the flame. Generations later, there's still no better horror comedy to turn to, even when you're in one.

We're through the looking glass now

Perhaps Ghostbusters' place as a horror movie was to plant a conquering flag, to cast an eye over the spiritual turmoil in The Exorcist's wake and say, yeah, we've moved past that. Fifteen years later, The Blair Witch Project would stoke the fires of speculative horror—but the major supernatural splash of that year was the psychological thriller The Sixth Sense. The decade that kicked off with Ghost ended with another melding of the paranormal and the personal. Indeed, both Ghost and The Sixth Sense end with the dead accepting their fate and moving on to a new afterlife, reflecting, perhaps, a mankind coming to transcend its fear of death, and just getting worried about the possibility that it might be hastened via some grisly surprise. (The old Woody Allen joke puts it best: "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens.")

And there stands Ghostbusters. Not yet the master of two worlds. A comedy built on the foundations of horror by striking down the very fears it features. A summation of, perhaps an answer to the horror of the past, yet with nothing to say for the future. Ghostbusters II found the characters victims of their own success, who beat all the ghosts and then lost their livelihoods owing to a lack of ghosts. The enemy they faced was not some foreign threat from other dimensions, but the anger and rot of New York at the end of the 1980s. The city that never slept had caused its own nightmares, and the menace was internal.

That's the hidden irony of Ghostbusters. Maybe the real horror is not having enough out there to fear.





BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)

Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.

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