The original Ghostbusters came out back in 1984, as a true product of its time. The Reagan era was just starting to heat up. The recession of the early 1980’s was affecting families across the board, and Times Square had more strippers than a paint store. It was not a time for heroes who were powerful or rich or even expertly skilled. Instead, it was a time for the working class man to stand up and take charge. The Ghostbusters fit the bill perfectly. Blue collar workers just doing an extraordinary job, not with a flashy smile or a giant cape, but with jumpsjuits and an unsure joke, like heroic garbage men. We at The NYRD can only wonder if the newest crop of Ghosbusters will have the same every-man -or every-woman- feel to it.
Dogs and Cats
To understand the true charm of Ghostbusters you need some background on what America was like in 1984. Two years prior, unemployment reached 9.7% nationwide -and as high as 11% in some areas- which is the highest it has ever been. By 1984 it was still hovering around 7.5%, and would not shrink down to less than 6% until 1988. The recession of the early 80’s was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This economic state came about because of a few factors. Many of the newly unemployed were from the production industry, as American producers began moving overseas or just could not compete. The Federal Government also tried to regulate inflation and unemployment through an artificial stop-go monetary policy, but it proved to be unsustainable, and eventually burst. In essence the economic loss was created through a failure of business and government.
Ronald Reagan was serving his first term in office and running for reelection in 1984. The President’s message of American exceptionalism and optimism resonated with voters and he easily defeated his Democratic opponent in a landslide victory. Part of Reagan’s success and part of the tenor of the decade came from the President’s personality. Some would call it arrogance, but for many it was a reassuring feeling that even when times looked bad Americans had the ability to pick themselves and change their circumstance and the world. This was doubly so when it came to the Cold War. America was left fighting an intangible boogeyman, but for maybe the first time in several decades that enemy no longer seemed as unconquerable or scary. American arms and ingenuity showed potential to exterminate the red specter, once and for all.
In the field of science, the United States was proving it could make fantasy seem like reality, with innovations like cell phones and stretchy pants. The shuttle program was still brand new and exciting. Suddenly, the astronauts going into space were no longer military heroes or combat pilots. Instead, the shuttle allowed regular scientists to journey into near Earth orbit to conduct tests and repair satellites. Being an astronaut now meant being a scientist, not a test pilot. The label of scientist itself was beginning to change. No longer did it apply to villains in pulp comics, or that guy in the laboratory with crazy hair. In a small way, scientists and their crazy ideas were becoming something more mainstream.
Crossing the Streams
Ghostbusters drew on everything that the early 1980’s had to offer. Dr. Stanz, Dr. Spengler, and Dr. Venkman were all scientists, originally working at Columbia University, but within the first few frames of the film they find themselves out on the street. Many people in early 80’s, including highly educated and professional workers, similarly, found themselves unemployed and forced to work jobs at lower wages that they were overqualified for. Enter into that mix Winston Zeddemore, who didn’t even believe in ghosts. He was just a man looking for a paycheck, perhaps the most believable motivation in movie history. Nor did the ghost-busting business even bring success to the four men as they were always broke, but like many Americans they pushed on hoping to find a way out of financial crisis.
The group was never portrayed as heroic. They were just regular guys doing a job, and that has always been part of the movie’s charm. The Ghostbusters are more like exterminators than elite commandos. Even the imagery of Ecto-1, the simple uniforms, and the firehouse portray images of the working class. Being a Ghostbuster looks like a job anyone can do. In fact, part of the optimism of the 1980’s was the romance of the working man. People like Bruce Springsteen immortalized the plight of the average Joe who was just doing what he could for a paycheck and his lady. Yes the three main characters were scientists but they didn’t exactly fit any typical scientist mold, except for maybe Egon. Much like NASA, Ghostbusters showed us that scientists are not all alike. Some are weird and straighten their childhood slinkies while others can actually be funny and charming, and they were accomplishing something that even the government couldn’t do.
Reagan was a big proponent of the idea that the “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Nor was big business the solution either. After all, both the factory industry and government regulation had failed to keep the American people out of a recession. Instead, everyday people became the solution to even the biggest problems, including ghosts. The idea of actual and dangerous specters is the type of problem you would almost expect a government agency to handle. Gozer seems like the kind of thing we would need attack helicopters and marines to solve, but in Ghostbusters, the government is part of the problem. Gozer is heralded by an explosion caused by Walter Peck, the EPA representative and most-punchable-character, after he shut down the containment unit. Eventually, even the government of New York has to admit that the Ghostbusters -independent workering men- were more quipped to solve the massive ghost problem than their own agencies. It is the ultimate fulfillment of Reagan’s declaration.
Lastly, it may be a stretch to say that the ghost could literally represent the Soviet Union, but there may be something to the fact that in the 80’s people were tired of feeling afraid of some vague and nebulous specter hanging over them. The ghosts more accurately represent the ever present threat that hung over the Cold War, an intangible spirit that quietly menaced an otherwise peaceful existence. Yet, with the reassuring leadership of Reagan beginning a massive nuclear buildup suddenly defeating the Great Red-Free-Floating-Full-Torso-Vaporous Apparition seemed not only possible but within the realm of accomplishment. After all, what do the Ghostbusters use to defeat ghosts, nuclear power, or more precisely “unlicensed nuclear accelerators,” and of course a good bit of Murray -read American- charisma. In the end of the first movie the Ghostbusters choose the nuclear option to defeat Gozer and in the second movie they choose giant walking symbolism -and American patriotism- to defeat the Eastern European tyrant, Vigo.
Bustin’ Makes Feel Good
These blue collar hero scientists probably could not have existed in cinema even a decade before hand. The Ghostbusters were products of their times, and like any good art that imitates the paranormal-antics of life, they also helped influence it. For many children of the 80’s and 90’s -like those currently employed here at The NYRD- Ghostbusters became a mark of the decade as much as bright colors and big hair. Of course, it is also worth mentioning that the movie would not have been possible without the prior existence of organizations like Saturday Night Live or National Lampoons who perfected the right sort of comedy/interest movie that became so classic in the 1980’s. Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd did not set out to pen an existential and supernatural look at the world around them, but they did nonetheless. They not only managed to make something that was funny but also relatable to the world they inhabited. That is not an easy task for a supernatural comedy about exterminating giant walking marshmallow men, but it worked.
So as we near the opening for the newest Ghostbusters, we here at The NYRD have hope. Much like the original, the new one is emerging after a time of an economic recession rivaled only by the recession that helped herald the 1980’s Ivan Reitman film. Saturday Night Live -though modernized and slicker- still holds the comedic heavy-weight title and it is no coincidence that much of the film’s cast is drawn from its ranks. We doubt that this newest female-led version will be the same as the original male-led movie, but that’s okay. After all, if this new movie hopes to succeed, it will need to be a product of 2016 in much the same way that Ghostbusters translated and epitomized the feel of 1984.