Pulp Appeal: Ghostbusters


When an ancient Lovecraftian-style evil rears its head in New York, who ya gonna call? The Ghostbusters, of course! What, you don’t consider Ghostbusters to reside under the pulp umbrella? I can only assume you skipped over nearly every piece of dialogue relayed by Harold Ramis or Dan Aykroyd. Ramis’ Egon Spengler and Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz are hardcore horror history nerds. They also believe in the paranormal, are swept up in the gathering manifestation of Zuul, the harbinger of Gozer–an ancient evil god once worshipped by the Sumerians–and fight back against the potential world-domination with hand-made nuclear-punk backpacks.

But before all that, they enlist their lecherous cynical compatriot Peter Venkman to be the face, hire on resident everyman Winston Zeddemore to do some of the grunt work, and call on the sarcastic and underpaid Janine Melnitz to do all the thankless but important secretarial work. After being called upon to catch an increasingly large number of ghostly manifestations, their work hits the public consciousness and the tabloids and they are accused of staging the ghost-catching in an elaborate scam. This brings the EPA in and leads to the arrest of the Ghostbusters for multiple violations of safety laws. This allows the minions of Gozer to run free and call forth the god of destruction. Like most movies of the 1980s, and particularly comedy action films, there’s a happy ending wherein the Ghostbusters are heralded as heroes by the citizens of New York, but not before their famous encounter with the gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man drenches the streets in the sticky mixture of sugar and gelatin.

Ghostbusters Logo

Lots of people have co-opted this for supposedly real ghostbusting businesses. There are at least two separate vehicles in my area claiming to do paranormal investigations, and both have this symbol on them.

Per usual, you likely know the story, but how exactly does that connect it to pulp fiction beyond the action driven plot? Well, until the more recent Get Out and Cabin in the Woods, it was about as close to Lovecraft as you were likely to get on film.[1] Need more proof? While the sense of humor sets Ghostbusters apart from the more dour Lovecraft, the basic setups are all there. Consider the following: cults, possessions, alternate dimensions, ancient gods, and regular people in way over their heads. There are even analogs of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.

First, there’s an in-fiction[2] book called Spates Catalog, a magazine compendium containing information about nameless horrors and occult lore. And then there’s Tobin’s Spirit Guide which houses information about ghosts, gods, and spirits across the world, and also mentions an architect, Ivo Shandor, who headed up a cult[3] and conducted rituals to summon nameless horrors and extradimensional demonic forces in an attempt to rid the world of humanity.

This sets up the elements of the plot that are mentioned once and usually forgotten by viewers (or completely missed unless they really pay attention to the details, especially to the prison scene).[4] Shandor’s greatest work was encoding a summoning ritual into city buildings that allowed for the gathering of energy and the eventual call to darkness. This comes to fruition during the events of the film and sets up the main conflict as you see it.[5] Shandor’s ritual brings about the rebirth of the demi-god Zuul, who in turn calls forth a second demi-god, Vinz Clortho, and the match between the two of them breaks a seal between dimensions and sees Gozer the Gozerian return to Earth after an 8000 year banishment by the Sumerian goddess Tiamat.

If it weren’t for the fact this was written by Aykroyd and Ramis, the basic story could be something right out of the 1940s era pulp horror. Maybe not Lovecraft directly, but perhaps Clark Ashton Smith or August Derleth. It helps that Aykroyd is a big believer in the supernatural world and was the main catalyst behind the first draft of the script. If you read about the film’s creation, you’ll come across articles about producer/director Ivan Reitman rejecting Aykroyd’s original script–which truthfully makes even the silly Ghostbusters 2 sound like an Oscar candidate by comparison–and sending Aykroyd and Ramis back to draft the script as you know it.

The Real Ghostbusters cartoon cast

By any objective measures, the cartoon is not good. It doesn’t hold us as well as, say, Scooby-Doo, but it can still be fun to watch from time to time.

At any rate, the existential horror of the unbeatable gods is at root in the background of the Ghostbusters, where even the best that can be done is merely a postponing of the inevitable. This holds true even of its lesser sequel, the spin-off video games, the silly 1980s cartoon, and the far inferior recent live-action version (which has moments of brilliance, but overall falls flat for me, making even Vigo the Carpathian and his weird-ass painting seem like a passable story by comparison). If you delve into the tabletop roleplaying game produced by West End Games in 1986, the darkness of the background behind Ghostbusters is starker and even more obvious.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - Dead Girl

This image haunted my nightmares as a kid. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has mediocre tales of terror, but truly horrifying surrealist art. It’s a shame the reprint of the book has such dull art.

If you haven’t looked at Ghostbusters recently, or have always thought more highly of its comedic chops than its horror bonafides, I definitely encourage you to rewatch it now that you’ve been primed to see beneath the humor. The film can be legitimately terrifying, as in the scene with the librarian ghost. (Pause it just as she screams and tell me she isn’t one of the scariest-looking spirits portrayed in film. It’s like a Stephen Gammell illustration come to life.)

Oh, almost forgot that Ghostbusters hit modern pop culture in 2017 in the latest season of Stranger Things, where Mike (the de facto leader of the group from season 1) and Lucas (the single minority member) both want to be Venkman. Mike assumes Lucas will be Winston just because they’re both black, but Lucas fancies himself the leader of the group and refuses to back down. For my money, Winston is the only one of the four Ghostbusters who’s an admirable person all around. He’s down to Earth, practical, smart without being freakish about it, and, most of all, isn’t a slimy weasel who tries to take advantage of his graduate student subjects or his clients. Yeah, that’s a modern reading of Venkman, but I think you have to admit he’s a creep even by 1980s standards.

[1] Yes, yes, I can hear the film nerds yelling at me from the future. I know Re-Animator came out in 1985, and that there have been other films that take on Lovecraft’s works more or less directly in the last 34 years. I’ve seen most of the ones listed when you do a Google search, but all the ones I watched are seriously terrible and might retroactively make you hate everything Lovecraft ever wrote. Thankfully I’d read widely enough in the Lovecraft canon to realize that none of the movies really groks Lovecraft’s plots.

[2] Much like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, these texts and gods are treated as real in the fiction, but have no basis in reality, except the Sumerian goddess Tiamat, who was also co-opted by Dungeons & Dragons writers to serve as the major evil deity in several campaign settings.

[3] It should be noted that a lot of this is established in the 2009 video game, which is considered to be an official sequel. It’s as close to a Ghostbusters 3 as we’ll likely ever see, especially since Ramis died in 2014 from complications of an autoimmune disease.

[4] Or have watched the films a dozen times or more, played several of the video games, seen every episode of the cartoon, own some of the sourcebooks for the roleplaying game, and teach at the college level where you talk about Ghostbusters when discussing literary analysis. You know, a nerd like me.

[5] If you ever played the old Commodore 64 or Nintendo Entertainment System video games, you no doubt remember Zuul doesn’t appear until enough ghosts make it to the central building. This is because Shandor built a giant antenna to attract enough energy to break the wall between the dimensions. Ray even says as much in the movie.


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2 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Ghostbusters

  1. Reblogged this on Dark Perceptions and commented:

    Don’t think there’s anything pulp about Ghostbusters? Let Cameron convince you otherwise.


  2. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:

    Ghostbusters has deep roots in turn of the 20th Century existential horror.


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