Sep 11, 2012

What can Ghostbusters teach you about writing?

You know how I wrote about writer's block last week? Well, sometimes it gets to me, too. But I got over it.

Ghostbusters is a 1984 film directed by Canadian director Ivan Reitman (b. 1946 in Slovakia) detailing the exploits of four men who've cornered the market on ghost extermination. It ranks 28th on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs, sandwiched between There's Something About Mary and This is Spinal Tap, believe it or not. 

The film was co-written by Harold Ramis, erstwhile joke director on Playboy magazine*, and Dan Aykroyd, whose lifelong interest in the paranormal had an influence on Ghostbusters.
*fun fact: after a round of rejections, the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 was serialized in Playboy.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis star in Ghostbusters as three parapsychologists who are short on money and career opportunities. Having lost their positions at Columbia University, the trio go freelance, enlisting the aid of Winston Zeddmore, which the original script intended as the smartest, most capable person in the team, and Janine Melnitz, a resourceful Brooklyn Heights lady who seems to love the color red.

No, not her. The other one.

What makes the film so enduring is that, underneath all that parody and rapid-fire banter, it advances an unsettling theme which is hard to discuss beyond the bounds of comedy. Ghostbusters says terrible things about us and the kind of society we're building.

Are you ready to proceed?    

Ghost as supernatural rat

The first visual encounter with a ghost sets the ideological tone of the film. The pre-Ghostbusters walk in on a spectral librarian who, I don't know, must work some guilt out of her system by haunting the hoary aisles and shushing the living.

The 'busters are ill-equipped to deal with the apparition and try to grab her, which is a remarkably stupid thing for grown men to do (what the hell did they think would happen?), let alone people with academic credentials, but I guess we all act a bit irrationally in the face of the unknown. Besides, this is a comedy. You're supposed to feel intellectually superior to these people.

When the three men pounce on the librarian — and by "pounce," perhaps I mean "aggressively stumble" — she turns into an ape thing with a face that appears wrapped in mummified afterbirth. She scares the trollologs out of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz.

In Ghostbusters, paranormal phenomena share what I would call a domestic angle of attack. Powers from beyond crack eggshells and fry the eggs on your kitchen counter while they try and open transdimensional portals inside your refrigerator.

Like ants or cockroaches would, if you gave them a chance. We're talking about more than ghosts here; hauntings in the 'buster universe seem to be about the way we ignore each other and would like to discard the past. A ghost provides a link to forgotten facts and people but, in the movie, ghosts are trapped and contained, rather than exorcised. They're pests. Garbage.

This means that bumpers-in-the-night, along with the problems they pose, are never properly dealt with; the Ghostbusters vault at their base of operations is no more than a concentration camp for lost souls. That's kind of... grim.

So ghosts proliferate like a certain urban rodent and no specific ghost is allowed individual development. (Look, Slimer is barely a character.) Spirits are mass, quantity, and an environmental hazard.

Corporate Marketing from Beyond

The whole story moves toward a big finale where the team must defeat an ancient destructive force disguised as a bland corporate mascot and I wonder, what is the message here? Could it be that corporations are emptying us of authentic human memories by substituting their own images of satisfaction? Replacing the individual memory with the mass awareness of empty icons?

In this light, Ray's excuses at the beginning of the Marshmallow Man sequence reveal sinister undertones."I tried to think of the most harmless thing," he says. "Something I love from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us." (Emphases mine.)

You know, if you remove but one letter, the blue band on the Marshmallow Man's sailor cap reads "Stay Put." This resonates oddly — and disturbingly — with Winston Zeddmore telling Janine, "If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say." The individual doesn't count; he or she is directed from the outside and willing to let money define the way they interact with the social group.

Then there's Gozer*, top beastie on the corporate ladder of Preternatural Space. Gozer is whatever it wants to be.
*fun fact: There's no "Gozer" in Sumerian religion.

Gozer arranges a remote takeover of two human beings, Dana Barrett and Louis Tully, who live in a building nicknamed Spook Central. Dana and Louis become vessels for complementary entities, the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper. There's nothing random about the names or the location. Spook Central would fit right in at any modern business district -- though it was designed to work as a supernatural antenna, it isn't visually striking. As for the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, why name them when so many other ghosts go anonymous?

Simple reason. They regulate access to "the boss," the upper echelon of supernatural business. They're not just Gozer's heralds, they're VPs.  

Gozer's first question to Ray, "Are you a god?" is a roundabout way of asking, "What are you doing in my office?"

Ray says no, he's not a god, and the Ghostbusters get blasted with lavender lightning. After a brief tussle, Gozer's material form evaporates and a skybound voice tells the team to choose the form of the destructor.

This is an analog to the illusion of freedom promoted by mass marketing. You can choose from among a variety of poisons, but that's it. Choose and perish.


Please don't get the impression that I'm trying to tear down Ghostbusters. It's a great comedy, a cut above the rest. In fact, thinking about it a little has only made me admire it more. There's a little pearl of resistance and subversion buried in the story, but it's not buried deep. Anyone can find it with a smidgen of effort.

What's more, the subversion is clearly intentional. Every now and then, a comedy comes out which doesn't assume you have the IQ of a flash-frozen turd, and it's a joy to watch.

The Ghostbusters' "proton pack"

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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