As a child of the 80s, I will never concede that any comedy or science fiction film is better than Ghostbusters, the best movie from 1984, a year that itself was an embarrassment of riches for movie lovers. (I’m not joking, either. Check out this to see for yourself how many iconic films came out that year.) I saw this movie when it came out. I went with my father and my younger brother to the Ritz Theater in downtown Waycross, Georgia, which was a classic movie theater with only one screen that had been around for decades. It was a wonderful place, with the reassuring dingy and lived-in atmosphere that newer places never offer, yet the only specific detail of the place I remember with any clarity was the old glittery red vinyl of the theater seats, the kind of kitsch that wasn’t kitsch in the 60s. I was eight and my brother was five, little knotheaded boys enjoying a movie with their workaday dad in a movie theater that would be converted into a community theater in only a few years, in a downtown that was dwindling but was, for now, still kicking. I remember quite clearly all of us laughing. We laughed a whole lot throughout the movie. But my brother and I were also scared out of our minds. I mean, I am sure I was, because I spent a week sleeping under my parents’ nightstand, my neck crooked at an unhealthy angle.
I think that the horror of Ghostbusters is its true strength, and one that is not often discussed. It is a comedy, and it is unremittingly goofy in so many spots, but I think people neglect the fact that it is also very scary, especially for young children. There are scenes in the film that were traumatic for my little kid self. Consider if you will the scene in which Dana Barrett (a prim and no-nonsense Sigourney Weaver) witnesses eggs frying on her counter top, and then hears a noise coming from her fridge. Fans of the movie are used to the Terror Dog yelling “ZUUL!” by now, and my adult self can laugh at it, especially since the demonic light emanating from its mouth seems, upon closer inspection, to be a 100-watt bulb. But it utterly destroyed all my confidence in reality when I was a kid. What if I opened up the fridge, or the microwave, or the door to the attic, and something was in there? What if things like that could happen? What if you opened the door and another reality was waiting? What if there were things in that dimension, and they were after you? How could you get away from that?
Most people never talk about how scary the concept of the movie was, either. But it is, technically, a movie about the apocalypse. Okay, the form of the Destructor, Mr. Stay-Puft, was one of the biggest laughs that I ever had in a movie theater, but the setup to that moment was not really all that funny, and I don’t think that it was meant to be, either. Look at the scene right before the containment unit is opened up and Hell literally breaks loose, where Stantz (Dan Aykroyd, here playing a geeked-out cherub of a scientist) and Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson, the underrated straight-man/everyman) are returning at night in Ecto-1, while a moody instrumental piece by the legendary Elmer Bernstein lends an uncharacteristic gravity to the scene. Winston casually starts up a conversation about the Bible, prompting Stantz to quote from Revelations.
The exchange ends with what may be the scariest dialogue in the film:
Stantz: Every ancient religion has its own myth about the end of the world.
Zeddemore: Myth? Ray, has it ever occurred to you that maybe the reason we’ve been so busy lately is because the dead have been rising from the grave?
The look on Stantz’ face shows that he never even considered this grim possibility, and he is honestly scared. If you watch this scene again, you will notice that it is played completely straight. There are no jokes, no zingers, no deadpan asides. Stantz has no answer to Zeddemore’s question; he awkwardly puts on the radio and the scene ends. Zeddemore, who is not a scientist, proves nevertheless to be sharp and insightful in a way that the rest of the team is not, and it is he who sells to the viewer the idea of apocalypse, which, ironically, will be unleashed before they get back to the firehouse. In contrast to the more garish jump-scares in the rest of the movie, which were scary yet also mostly funny, as with the Library Ghost in the beginning of the film, this scene crawled under your skin and bothered you for days. It was dead serious. It helped put me under the nightstand.
This isn’t the only serious moment in the film. Later, when the Ghostbusters finally confront the apocalyptic god Gozer, here embodied as a demonic supermodel, sort of like the cracked-out ghostly amalgamation of Grace Jones and Brigitte Nielsen from Rocky 4, there is one of the few lines that Bill Murray delivers absolutely straight. After rallying the Ghostbusters and marching them to a final showdown, Murray’s Venkman, whom we have come to know and love as a slick conman, says, without a glimmer of irony, “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” I knew, as a child, that once Venkman said this, the Ghostbusters weren’t playing around anymore, that even though this was a comedy and was very funny, these dorky weirdos were going to stop this monstrosity or die trying. And when Venkman later tells Stantz that he will see him on the other side as they are crossing the streams, it is clear that they both know that they are going to sacrifice themselves to stop Gozer and save the world. If you didn’t see this movie as a child, you don’t really get the tension of the ending. When you are a kid, you think that these funny guys are going to die, and that will be the end of the movie. It was real the way all things are real when you are a kid. It had emotional weight. I was scared for them.
To me, this is one of the unheralded strengths of the film. It is a comedy, but at its core it has a real, scary concept that seems to borrow from H.P. Lovecraft and the Book of Revelation in equal measure. The plot is fully developed, the characters, while absurd, are nonetheless heroic, and the stakes are nothing less than the world. I actually care about the characters and want them to succeed.
Also, if you are child watching this movie, the underlying appeal of a group of oddball friends creating anti-ghost weapons in their basement and stopping what basically amounts to the Devil does not need to be stated. There is a reason kids taped cardboard boxes to their backs and shot imaginary ghosts under their beds with paper-towel-roll proton guns. Even though the film was scary, the idea that a group of clever people could capture ghosts and effectively put them in jail may be the greatest concept for children that ever could be. It certainly reassured me as a child, even though, for years, I opened the fridge very, very slowly.
Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat