Ghostbusting Lovecraft

Ghostbusters is the best comedy ever made about the limits of the Lovecraftian worldview.

The movie’s back in theaters for its 30th anniversary, and Steph and Dan and I went to see it last weekend.  It’s perfectly structured.  Desire lines are clear scene by scene.  Act breaks are sharp and propulsive.  Every payoff is set up early in the film, including Mr. Stay-Puft.  The film even bothers to make sure we know why ghosts are appearing at this particular point in human history—the dead rise as Gozer approaches.

I remembered this movie being funny, but a lot of lines that skipped over my head when I was a kid bit deep this time—Tully’s “You’re the Ghostbusters?  Who does your taxes?”  (Honestly, everything Rick Moranis says or does on screen is hilarious.)  Young Max also didn’t appreciate the sheer amount of damage the Ghostbusters do to the hotel in their first outing.  I got the joke of Slimer dodging neutron beams, sure; I didn’t have the running cost-of-repair tally in the back of my head.  The cake they blow up used to be a prop; now I know that cake.  I’ve been to weddings with that cake.  Its explosion is a lot more than an excuse to shower people with frosting.  It’s a wonderful, visceral, hilarious film, with a great soundtrack, and y’all should go see it in theaters while you have the chance.

But, leaving the theater, all three of us kept saying one word in particular: heart.  We all mentioned how much heart the movie had, how modern films we’d seen recently seemed heartless by comparison.  But what is this strange, ephemeral “heart”?  The Potter Stewart test is, as always, unsatisfying—we know it when we see it, sure, but what is it that we’re seeing?  Why does Winston’s “I love this town!” at the end strike home, even though the question of whether he loves this town or not is never raised in the movie before this moment?

As usual, I’m kicking about a theory.

Ghostbusters is obviously taking the piss out of horror in general.  But while the busters’ typical enemies are ghosts of the Poltergeist persuasion, the Big Bad of the movie, a formless alien god from Before Time summoned by a mad cultist-cum-art deco architect, is basically Lovecraftian.  From Gozer’s perspective—or the perspective of the Gozer cultist—human beings are small mammals clustered close to the firelight of their pathetic “reason,” etc. etc. etc.  Standard Lovecraftian spiel.  The skyscraper (and by extension New York and all human civilization) is the illusion.  Scratch its skin and you’ll find a heartless alien reality beneath.

But Gozer loses.  And the shape and consequences of his loss undercut the Lovecraftian dichotomy between apparent reality and actual horrifying reality.  In Ghostbusters that horrorscape isn’t the truth either—it’s a mistaken interpretation of an underlying world that’s gross, evolving, playful, social, compassionate, and way more interesting than the dry surface layer.

Bear with me here.  We first meet Venkman as he’s conducting a fake test of psychic ability as an excuse to hit on a co-ed.  Venkman subjects two students, a young man and woman, to the old “tell me what picture’s on this card that you can’t see” test.  Each wrong guess earns the guesser a shock.  Venkman indiscriminately shocks the male student, even when he guesses right, and never shocks the female student, who guesses wrong every time—then he flatters the girl by talking up her extensive psychic gifts, and parlays that into a date.  Reprehensible, sure, but more to the point, reprehensible in a particularly Lovecraftian way.  The test is an illusion.  The guy administering the test doesn’t believe it has any value.  He’s out for his own advantage, or even just for his own amusement, and his motives are opaque to his victims.  The students are flattered or hurt according to his whim, but the world in which they think they’re living—the world in which the test is valid—is an utter fabrication.  That’s their circle of firelight.  Their very belief in the test protects Venkman, who has ultimate authority so long as they keep playing.  This opening scene’s a joking restatement of the Lovecraftian (and Gozerian) horror worldview.

But ultimately, the Lovecraftian dichotomy is shallow and unsatisfying.  We find Venkman’s advances on the female student pathetic, not rakishly transgressive.  Thank God, Ray pulls Venkman out of this little game and drags him into the real world, in this case the NY Public Library, which for all its neoclassical solidity is being disrupted by a ghost who scatters the imposed order of the card catalog and sprays slime all over the nice dry paper.  The ghost is an antic element breaking open this Big Bloodless System.  This sequence also demonstrates how incompetent Venkman is in situations where he doesn’t have complete control—he condescends to the librarian who discovered the ghost, and utterly fails in his attempt to communicate with the spirit itself—but he does at least learn that there’s a gross, consequential world out there beyond pointless gamesmanship.

Right after this peek under the covers, we see Venkman caught in a higher-stakes version of the bloodless cruelty game he played on the students—and in this case he’s the victim, having been bureaucratically outflanked.  His funding’s cut, and he’s thrown out on the street.  Again, we see a basically Lovecraftian situation, where the weaker party’s illusions of fairness or rule-following have no bearing on actual outcomes.  But, as a result of their recent experience, Venkman and Ray decide that rather than remaining in the winner-loser world they know, they’ll push one level down—into the gross uncertainty of the ghosts.

This pattern of opting out of traditional dichotomies and spaces repeats throughout the film, and each successful opt-out requires the Ghostbusters to embrace discomfort, awkwardness, and play.  When the Ghostbusters buy the firehouse, Venkman’s attempt to negotiate the agent into a lower price is undercut by Ray’s pure enthusiasm for the building.  Ghostbusting takes a lot of visual cues from plumbing and firefighting, dirty jobs that deal with gross systems beneath built reality that folks generally try to deny exist—but when the Ghostbusters are called to a high-class hotel, they go in through the front entrance, rather than the tradesman’s door, even though they look ridiculous on the red carpet in their jumpsuits.  Each of the three initial Ghostbusters has a wall of doctorates, but even when they have enough success to wear suits and ties, they keep the jumpsuits and rubber gloves.  When EPA Guy storms the firehouse to shut off the ghost trap with an electrician and a police officer in tow, what could have been a traditional Ghostbusters vs. Authority conflict becomes a three-way negotiation between EPA Guy, Electrician and Cop, and Ghostbusters, with the Electrician and Cop represented as distinct from either party, and the Ghostbusters appealing not to the professional class (EPA guy) with whom they share more common background, but to the working-class folks (cop & electrician) with whom they’ve come to have more in common.  When the Ghostbusters get arrested, rather than playing up the “emasculated middle class dudes in prison” trope, the film shows us prisoners gathering around Egon’s blueprints, genuinely interested in the story being told.  On a practical level, even the ghosts themselves, the movie’s core, are neither physical nor ethereal—they’re a slimy in-between.

Then, at the end of the movie, the Ghostbusters are subjected to another version of Venkman’s test.  Gozer, the Big Bad, asks them to choose the form of their destruction: another game that exists purely for Gozer’s amusement.  They try to refrain from choosing at all, but they can’t—inaction is not an option.  Fighting Gozer in his chosen form—Mr. Stay-Puft (a brand icon! talk about bloodless symbols against which we play a game we can’t win!)—doesn’t help them, because their resistance is part of the game of their destruction.  Instead they need to attack the game directly, by destroying the system from which Gozer derives his power—in the process making themselves radically vulnerable, in this case to Egon’s prediction of the “very bad” consequences of stream-crossing.

We can chart this same evolving relationship with the world through Venkman’s three instances of personal contact with authority—first, when he buys into the academic system, he’s powerless against the Provost.  Second, when he  meets EPA Guy, he doesn’t play into the game, so he has a little power, but rather than transcending (or undercutting) the game he fights it—leading to the catastrophic release of the ghosts later.  Finally, when the Ghostbusters meet the mayor, Venkman’s ready to deal, and more importantly, to play.  He doesn’t impress on the mayor the futility of his (the mayor’s) position, or play for advantage.  He offers the mayor an opportunity.  Hell, he does more than offer the mayor an opportunity—he offers Lenny an opportunity, addressing the mayor by his first name, as a human being rather than an official.

This, then, is the world-view Ghostbusters offers in place of the Cthonic duality.  As in Lovecraft we have a surface world of institutions, with a horror zone beneath—which, if you read human history, is not far from the truth.  Many bodies lie buried beneath our marble facades.  But if you press through the marble and the rot—which takes work, humility, courage, and a sense of humor—you’ll be able to connect with living breathing human beings.

It’s no accident, then, that the film progresses from shots of New York architecture to shots of New York people.  We grow from the opening shot of the New York Public Library to the closing shot of the Ghostbusters emerging into a joyful crowd meant, I think, to represent all New Yorkers (whether or not the casting directors accomplished that is another question entirely).  To be even more specific—that opening shot pans down from the New York Public Library’s unpainted neoclassical facade to focus on a stone lion—a powerful symbol, yes, and ominous, but also sort of quirky and weird.  What does the lion have to do with ghosts?  Until, at the Act III transition, we see a stone hellhound, shot to echo the lion, break open to reveal the actual squicky fleshy hellhound beneath.  There’s our Lovecraftian transition.  Exterior appearances of classical strength and power hide horribly squamous realities.  But, in the film’s resolution, the hellhounds break open again, with exactly the same special effect no less, to reveal Dana and Tully—breathing human beings beneath the squamous stuff that ate them.

As per usual, I don’t claim there are no grounds on which one could take this film to task.  (Gozer’s initial appearance plays right into the “Horror is Androgyny” trope, for example.)  But it does chart a path from professional denial of (and even participation in) the horrors and weirdnesses of civilization, toward comprehension and defeat of those same forces—passing through the facade city of everyday life and the horror city of Lovecraftian panic to discover the human city beneath.

“I love this town” indeed.

21 Responses to “Ghostbusting Lovecraft”

  1. Paul Weimer

    with the Electrician and Cop represented as distinct from either party, and the Ghostbusters appealing not to the professional class (EPA guy) with whom they share more common background, but to the working-class folks (cop & electrician) with whom they’ve come to have more in common.

    Yeah! That is class-crossing of the first order. You’re right. The ghostbusters have doctorates, but go for the common man.

    And Winston himself is working class.

    • max

      Yes! I really want to come up with a Winston-centric reading of the film, because his role is structurally weird—comes in at the beginning of Act III, nevertheless very protagonisty, and ends up being the big triumphant arm-raiser at the end. Pretty juicy stuff.

  2. philgonzales

    Thanks for this! When asked how I was first introduced to the works of Lovecraft, I always point to Ghostbusters. It’s essentially a retelling of The Dunwich Horror (team of academics unite to send a horror unleashed by a mad sorcerer back to whatever reality it escaped from) with a modern bent. It’s barely “supernatural” in the strictest sense and they are *obviously* not fighting “ghosts.” Tell me Slimer isn’t some sort of renegade shoggoth.

    But, more than the trappings of the plot, Ghostbusters introduced me to the Book of Arcane Lore with Tobin’s Spirit Guide and Spate’s Catalog. It also demonstrated the power of unexplained references to a larger mythos: slors, McKetrick supplicants, the rectification of the Vuldrini? Who were these people? Who was Ivo Shandor? I wanted to know more. But, that was all we were given.

    I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was Lovecraft, until I was a little older and discovered his writings. But, Ghostbusters primed the pump, as it were. My biggest disappointment with the sequel was how it abandoned that perspective and just went after a . . . painting? I guess? Even the cartoon delved into the GB Mythos.

    So, again, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading it.

    • max

      My pleasure! I see what you mean about extensive and unexplained mythos references. GB manages the extra-impressive feat of doing all that referential worldbuilding without making the viewer’s eyes glaze over—in part that’s because it’s all funny and the viewer rarely needs to 100% understand, but the aggressive pacing and direction also helps.

      I need to go back and watch more of the cartoon, especially since JMS was involved.

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  4. Rob A.

    This is excellent!

  5. XippyXippo

    You had me at “Ghostbusters is the best comedy ever made” and it only got better from there.

  6. Ross

    An excellent essay! I know it’s one of the most annoying things on the internet to link to your own stuff, but heck, you might be interested in something I wrote when Harold Ramis passed away.

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  9. Marshall Hickman

    Don’t know how many folks are familiar with it, but being a bit of a theolo-geek, I’m reminded of the view of “narratives of Apollonian(“surface world of institutions”) or Dionysian (“gross systems beneath built reality”) violence” as “mistaken interpretation[s] of an underlying world that’s… evolving, playful, social, compassionate” opposed to the “ontology of peace” that the Radical Orthodoxy theologians or David Bentley Hart like to talk about. (Had to take out “gross” from “gross, evolving, playful, social, compassionate”, but the rest works pretty well. (As far as evolving, in “The Beauty of the Infinite” Hart talks about the underlying peace “inspiring endless departures and returns, and of calling for repetition and variation”)

    • max

      Interesting! I’m not familiar with Radical Orthodoxy or with David Bentley Hart. Should I start with “The Beauty of the Infinite,” or is there a better attack vector? You hit the nail on the head when you diagnose my Surface / Lovecraft dichotomy as basically Apollonian / Dionysian, though I wasn’t thinking in those terms at first.

      • Marshall Hickman

        The “Beauty of the Infinite” is probably the most relevant, but it’s also a very dificult read, even for many theologians. Hart has a vocabulary like Gene Wolfe’s, and it shows. I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about a starting point; I started in on “Beauty of the Infinite”, realized it was over my head, and kind of went looking for what I needed to understand it. Sort of went in a wierd inefficient order. I should also mention that Hart is Orthodox, and a Classical theist, and is therefore going to be different from, say, Tillich. (That’s another reason I’m not sure where the best starting point would be; I could recognize the bits that were related to Classical ideas and figure out other bits from them, look at the unfamiliar Continental ideas with those insights, go back and repeat. And that’s an awkward way to aproach it. Still, you’re familiar with Continental Philosophy, so it should be somewhat familiar territory) Still it’s brilliant and worth a read. I know his ideas of violent vs. peaceful ontologies were influenced by Radical Orthodoxy, and that John Milbank kind of kicked off Radical Orthodoxy with his “Theology and Social Theory” but I’m only familiar with the broader strokes of their thought.

  10. a name

    Consider that at the time this movie was made, the “androgynous” look was common in pop music. Grace Jones, David Bowie. Gozer basically looks like one of these pop stars, all the way down to the styled hair. As an adult I have thought this was intentional, meant to create a humorous parallel between the androgynous pop look and androgyne or “hermaphrodite” gods in ancient mythology. This would be more indicative of deity than inhumanity, but perhaps it would not be a choice that would have been made today to avoid offense.

    • max

      That’s a very good point! I like that even pre-Stay Puft, Gozer assumes a form that’s not mythologically divine or demonic, but rather appropriates local pop tropes meant to inspire awe—which then the Bustes puncture (“Aim for the flat top!”). One more example of the importance of historical context for reading a text…

  11. Dr. H. Wednesday

    I’d opine that Drs. Venkman, Stantz and Spengler were never suited for the ivory tower to begin with. We can speculate on the reasons, but it’s evident they don’t have much affinity for that subculture. Venkman regards parapsychology as a scam, while Stantz seems to regard it primarily as a satisfying hobby. Spengler takes a rigorously scientific approach, but his introversion renders him indifferent to his social surroundings.

    But of course the idea that scientists would have more affinity with the cultural elite, than with the hoi polloi, is a stereotype; specifically, one which states that intelligent people not only are destined to rise through the social hierarchy, but that they desire to do so. In reality, you will find a good percentage of ‘thought workers’ care nothing for increased status– though often accede to it, as a condition of pursuit of their desired vocation –and many others who actively disdain association with higher levels of status and power.

    I believe that’s what’s happening here. Our protagonists install themselves at a university because it is where they are ‘supposed to be’ (not to get metatextual, here); once evicted from university, they are obliged to develop a contingency which allows each individual to pursue his agenda– i.e. they assure their funding continues. I feel that’s overlooked from our perspective as audience, that the ‘Ghostbusters’ business is simply a means to several ends: Spengler may continue gathering data on the paranormal, Stantz gets to run around chasing floaty things, and Venkman avoids getting a real job. (g)

    • Auros

      You can see the disdain of high-quality knowledge workers towards the structures of power in the distinction between professors and administrators in academia (much to the detriment of the professors, who are increasingly being de-professionalized, reduced to adjuncts with contingent employment), coders and project managers in the software world, quant analysts and suits in the finance world… In some ways Ghostbusters is a wish-fulfillment fantasy: physical reality visits disaster upon the traditional power structure, which is based only on social structures built by its elite; the nerds who have traditionally been manipulated by the elites through a system that persuades the general masses to trust authority rather than intelligence, get the chance to save everyone.

      To a certain extent, that’s also the story of our political reality today: Environmental scientists are ringing the alarm bells, trying to warn us that our traditional authorities are driving us to disaster, under the influence of wealthy cultists who worship at the altar of the Black God, Carbon.

  12. Cambias

    You can sort of see Ghostbusters as the inflection point where pop culture caught up with the ongoing Lovecraftization which had been working in horror and fantasy for half a century by that point.

    It’s almost a perfect intermediate case: the title references ghosts (traditional ghost story) but the heroes have technological paraphernalia (a la the Crookes Tube in HPL’s “The Shunned House”) and the power behind the ghosts isn’t Satan but an extradimensional Elder God.

    I call it the inflection point because it seems to have come right at the moment where the Lovecraftian concepts were new and interesting to the larger audience, but fifty years of weird fiction had primed the pump just enough so that viewers didn’t come away thinking “what’s all that stuff they’re saying?”

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG had come out only three years earlier. The stars were right, so to speak.

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