The Ghostbusters theme song might claim that they "ain't afraid of no ghost," but their clients sure are quaking in their boots. Our question is, "Why?" Besides the Gozer and its Terror Dogs, most of the ghosts are pretty harmless. More than anything they just seem to be nuisances that disrupt the order of things.
Oh, wait... that's it. Throughout, the movie shows us images of the supernatural world disrupting the world of the living.
In a whip-smart online article, "Overthinking Ghostbusters," Adam Bertocci points out how this motif of order vs. chaos pops up even in the very first scene.
Where do we start? A library, where every book is carefully alphabetized and cataloged, that is until the ghost of a disgruntled former librarian shows up. Books being reshuffled, ectoplasm dripping from the shelves, and cards of the card catalog erupting into a chaotic cloud—all these images come together to show the supernatural shaking up of the orderly world of the living.
These kinds of images keep popping up all through the movie. There's Slimer wolfing down gourmet food at a stuffy hotel, and the Ghostbuster's totally trashing the place to catch him. Then we've got the explosion that rips open the firehouse, a symbol of the order the Ghostbusters have tried to impose.
After this, things are so totally nuts, with ghouls crashing taxi cabs, monsters disrupting the subway, and police cars (symbols of order) being sucked into cracks in the Earth. Order has broken down and it's up to the GB's to restore balance.
There's no real debate that the biggest image of the supernatural world shaking up the world of the living is a huge portal into another dimension that's created by Gozer and its pet terror dogs. Being the Destructor, Gozer's whole purpose is to pop by the mortal plane every so often and cause as much damage as possible. Gozer is a god of chaos and therefore inherently represents all the supernatural havoc that the movie has been teasing at this entire time.
One of most memorable images of Gozer's destructiveness is probably when, in the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Destructor crushes a church. Venkman even gets upset about this, saying that nobody crushes a church in his town. The church is just another symbol of order that's being squashed by the supernatural.
What probably makes the church's destruction the most disturbing is that as a symbol of organized religion, the church represents a human understanding of the supernatural. Followers think they've got the great beyond all figured out, but the Bible doesn't say anything about giant marshmallow men turning churches into pancakes.
Let's take a second to address the question that's burning in everybody's mind: why a marshmallow man? Well, all through the movie there's a theme of the money-grubbing commercialism of the modern world. The Ghostbusters, themselves, are a for-profit organization, complete with their own cheesy commercial.
When Egon tells us that the Ivo Shandor's cult of Gozer decided that;
EGON: Society was too sick to survive
We figure one of the main things those Gozer-lovers were sick of is modern society's love affair with money and material things. This makes it kind of ironic that Gozer ends up becoming the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a corporate mascot, in order to destroy the world.
In a way, though, it seems totally symbolic of how society is destroying itself with commercialism. Part of Gozer's deal is that humans choose the form of their own destruction, after all. It's both hilarious and heartbreaking the way Ray feels betrayed by the mascot that comforted him as a child at summer camp as he roasted marshmallows.
Could this be symbolic of the way the corporate powers are betraying consumers by hoarding wealth? Yeah, maybe. Or it could just be showing how marshmallows are sick of being skewered and roasted alive.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Peter, Ray, and Egon are out of work college professors with an obsession with the paranormal.
Pete comes up with the idea that they start their own Ghostbusting service.
Ray has some practical concerns, like where they'll get the cash from.
Peter coaxes Ray into mortgaging his house to raise the dough.
And they're off! The Ghostbusters buy a HQ, a car, and make a commercial.
They make new friends like Dana Barrett and Janine the secretary, and face lots of ghostly enemies… though their worst enemy so far turns out to be EPA Agent Walter Peck.
As Dana and Louis are possessed, the Ghostbusters detect that a huge psychokinetic event is on the horizon.
Peck turns off the containment unit causing a massive explosion and releasing all the ghosts the guys have caught.
After a night in jail, the Ghostbusters convince the mayor to let them go defeat Gozer.
The boys parade across the city with a police escort.
In the final showdown, the guys escape certain death and zap Gozer back into its own dimension.
The Ghostbusters return to the streets of NYC, where they're loved by the adoring crowds.
WINSTON: I love this town!
Winston says this in one of movie's last lines—this even though he's just spent a New York evening battling a demonic marshmallow man and is still doused in demon marshmallow goop.
The truth is that in 1984, when Ghostbusters first hit the screens, most Americans probably wouldn't have been all that surprised to hear that NYC was full ghosts and demons. It was common knowledge that New York was a total horror show, filthy and infested with crime.
Though Middle America's Big-Apple-phobia was a little overblown, there was no doubt that the city was suffering. The economic hardship of the 70's had hit NYC hard, and it really had gone downhill.
When Egon describes the downtown neighborhood where Ghostbusters HQ is located as "like a demilitarized zone" it's probably not all that much of an exaggeration. Certain neighborhoods were seriously rundown and decaying, and the city had definitely earned its reputation for urban blight.
So if NYC was such a hole, why did Ivan Reitman push Aykroyd and Ramis to set the movie there? A recent Vanity Fair article quoted the director/producer as saying "I wanted the film to be… my New York movie."
Apparently, it didn't take much convincing. In the same article, Aykroyd says, "It's the greatest city in the world, an architectural masterpiece. [...] energy central for human behavior."
Seems like to the dudes behind Ghostbusters, New York was still an awesome town, and the movie works as a valentine to the city. Tons of NYC landmarks are used as locations in the film. The NY Public Library, Columbia University, Rockefeller Center, Columbus Circle, Central Park, Tavern on the Green, and the towering, upscale apartment buildings of the Upper West Side. Some say Ghostbusters was one of the first movies in the 80's to say that it was okay to like New York again.
Even though the filmmakers chose NYC because they had a total crush on it, the movie doesn't hesitate to nod toward the bad stuff about the city and use it to the film's advantage.
Egon tells us that Ivo Shandor's Gozer cult had decided that, "society was too sick to survive," and to most Americans NYC was a symbol of society's sickness. With an underworld of crime, drugs, and violence happening alongside the decadent excesses of Wall Street, the Big Apple represented all that was rotten in the USA.
In the end, though, the movie shows New York united against its common enemy, with tons of New Yorkers chanting for their chosen heroes, the Ghostbusters. As Ghostbusters emerge triumphant after banishing Gozer, we don't see a New York divided and fighting against itself. We see a NYC united and celebrating its survival.
With Winston's great big declaration of love for NYC at the end, it's like the movie is saying, "Yeah, the City has some giant marshmallow-man-sized problems, but it's still an amazing place to be."
Ghostbusters is a mainstream blockbuster, and like most of its block-busting brethren the movie isn't exactly experimental when it comes to its narrative technique. Our A plot follows the Ghostbusters on their journey from broke academics, to celebrity paranormal exterminators, to public enemies, to saviors of the city (and maybe the world) when they defeat the evil god, Gozer.
Then we've got the B plot of Venkman trying to date Dana, which ultimately gets woven into the A plot when Dana is possessed by Zuul, the terror dog servant of Gozer. The whole thing end tidily with the defeat of the monster, and Venkman and Dana sealing the deal with a kiss.
So, yeah, nothing revolutionary here, but why mess with perfection?
Ghostbusters isn't just a comedy; it's the comedy of the 1980's. Reitman, Aykroyd, Ramis, and the great Bill Murray were at the height of their comic powers when the movie was made, and pretty much every scene has a laugh or two... or three.
Part of what makes the comedy in Ghostbusters so timeless is that it's rooted in character. There're a million good examples, like cold, scientific Egon telling Janine that he collects
EGON:Spores, mold, and fungus
the huckster scientist Peter telling the library guy,
PETER: Back off, man. I'm a scientist.
or the overly enthusiastic Ray getting excited about
RAY: biggest interdimensional crossrip since the Tunguska blast of 1909!
Okay, even little kids probably aren't going to pee in their pants while watching Ghostbusters. The ghouls, ghosts, gods, and terror dogs are all more funny than scary: pants-peeing is more likely to come from laughing too hard with a full bladder (because you're too into the movie to excuse yourself).
Still, we plunk this down in the horror genre because all the creepy creatures are totally from that world. What's cool about Ghostbusters is the way it puts genres in a blender: borrowing elements from classic horror but playing them for laughs. The best example is probably that fact that the big boss evil monster at the end comes in the form of a giant marshmallow. Come on. That's brilliant. A marshmallow.
The mad geniuses that created Ghostbusters weren't satisfied with only throwing two genres into the their moviemaking blender. Not only is this a comedy-horror; it's a comedy-horror-adventure.
Check out our entry on the Hero's Journey for all the deets, but the movie follows all the classic patterns of the heroes going off on an epic quest to slay the big bad monster. Here, of course, instead of traveling to some exotic foreign land, they stay right at home in New York. But by the time the city fills with ghosts and a portal opens to a hellish alternate dimension, NYC is about as exotic as it gets.
The movie is about some guys that bust ghosts. What more do you want from us?
Okay, okay... if you insist on knowing more, we can dig up a little deeper for you. Like for example that one of Aykroyd's main inspirations for the movie was the old horror comedies that he used to watch when he was a kid. Yep, Ghostbusters definitely didn't invent the genre. Tons of famous comedians used to make movies that mixed wacky high-jinx with a monster or two.
Let's see, there was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. There was The Ghost Breakers, in which Bob Hope investigates a haunted castle in Cuba. And of course there was Spook Busters, in which the Bowery Boys start an exterminating service and get tied up in a supposedly haunted house.
Wait a sec: Ghost Breakers? Spook Busters? Put those together and you get...
Also, did anybody else notice how the premise of Spook Busters sounds a lot like the premise to Ghostbusters with the whole exterminator/ghostly thing? None of this is an accident. Aykroyd deliberately set out to update the genre that he loved as a kid, so the title of the movie is a nod and homage to all the movies he loved.
Apparently, the dudes in the Ghostbusters creative team weren't the only ones who dug the title. They found after they were already deep into filming that there'd been a very short-lived TV show called "The Ghost Busters" back in the 70's in which two guys hunted ghosties with their pet gorilla.
There was threatened legal action, but eventually the studio guys made it go away. After Ghostbusters was a hit, the bizarro world "Ghost Busters" came out with a cartoon version of the old show.
So Ghostbusters titled its cartoon show "The Real Ghostbusters" so nobody would get confused… and probably to point out how lame the other show was.
The hero kills the monster and gets the girl. Heard that ending before? Yeah, us too. The myth of Perseus, Dracula, Iron Man—there are a billion ancient legends, books, comic books, and movies that all use the exact same ending as Ghostbusters.
In Ghostbusters, our heroes are Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore who defeat the evil Gozer, a Sumerian god bent on destroying New York just for the fun of it.
Not all of the Ghostbusters get the same girl as a reward for their heroics (because 4 guys + 1 girl might earn something worse than a PG rating). Instead, the honor goes to our main Ghostbuster, Venkman, who carries away the beautiful Dana Barrett in his arms after rescuing her from the clutches of Gozer.
Plot guru Christopher Booker would tell you that this ending falls into the classic pattern of Overcoming the Monster, and Ghostbusters proves there's nothing necessarily wrong with riffing on an old thing.
We've got ghosts and demon gods, but none of them are too scary. We've got some sexual situations, but nothing even approaching softcore. We've got a few wordy durds, but "mother puss-sucker" is probably the worst of the bunch.
Who you gonna call for family friendly entertainment?