Tuesday, April 2, 2019
April 2, 2019: 80s Comedies: Ghostbusters
[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. I know you’ll have responses and nominations of your own for this series, so share ‘em for a high-larious weekend post, please!]
On two distinct ways to analyze science and the supernatural in the classic scary comedy.
First things first: Ghostbusters (1984) is a really fun, funny, scary, entirely successful film, full of great performances, great music, and lines and moments that have stuck with me to this day, and that seemed to hit my sons equally hard when we watched it for the first time over this past holiday season. (The less said about Ghostbusters II , the better; I’m not even gonna hyperlink that one.) It’s important, in the course of these kinds of analytical series, not to lose sight of the fact that both comic films and summer blockbusters are designed and intended, first and foremost, to entertain—that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t also be smart or interesting (none of that “It’s not supposed to be Shakespeare” crap here, bud), just that we can’t overlook the qualities that make them fun and make them endure. And Ghostbusters has endured as well as any summer blockbuster I know, and indeed largely created (and certainly popularized) a new genre—the horror comedy—that to my mind has never been done any better than it was done here.
But if you think that means we can’t also analyze Ghostbusters—well, you clearly didn’t read my post on Baywatch! And when we start to turn our analytical attention to the film, it seems to clearly take a side within the longstanding and ongoing debate between science and the supernatural (or spiritual). The film opens with our heroes getting fired from their university research job because of their focus on the supernatural. Its main antagonist (yes, Zuul is the climactic villain, but this guy’s hostility drives much of the film) is William Atherton’s incredibly annoying EPA agent Walter Peck. And when the Ghostbusters convince the Mayor to side with them over that EPA agent, they do so by arguing that what’s going to happen to New York is “a disaster of Biblical proportions… Old Testament, real Wrath of God type stuff.” Just as Weird Tales did in their own era, the film suggests that all our modern science isn’t sufficient to engage with another side of the world, an older and perhaps more primal supernatural side that demands its own understanding—and its own heroes to combat it.
Yet at the same time, the way those heroes combat the supernatural is precisely through science: their energy streams and containment units, all that they had been working on in that university research role and brought with them to their “private sector” alternative. That is, we could read the film’s attitudes as divided not between science and the supernatural, but rather traditional vs. experimental science, cautious and bureaucractic perspectives such as those of staid academics and the buttoned-up EPA vs. the more liberated and forward-thinking ideas of Egon and his partners. Those latter perspectives are certainly willing and able to engage with the world’s oldest and deepest spiritual truths, but they are also much better equipped to come up with modern answers for those supernatural threats. In that way, we could see Ghostbusters as an example of a modern American Gothic—recognizing a world full of darkness and the supernatural, but ready to push back with courage and rationality. Who else you gonna call?!
Next comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?