[Content Note: Spoilers ahoy for all three Ghostbusters movies.]
As strange at it may sound, there are some social-justice friendly people out there who don’t like Ghostbusters much. PZ Myers’ biggest complaint was that the movie’s depiction of ghosts was incoherent, and since I didn’t have enough time to grab my pitchfork I had to settle for a nasty comment instead.
The notion of an afterlife in all of the Ghostbuster movies is an incoherent mish-mash contrived entirely to produce weird-looking special effects to be defeated by the heroes. It’s another aspect of the movies that utterly disintegrates if you look at it sideways.
You made the common mistake of thinking the Ghostbusters movies are about ghosts. It’s really about a small team of outcasts and misfits using the tools of science to conquer both human and supernatural foes, and earn recognition and respect from normal people. Fans cite the chemistry between Egon/Ray/Winston/Peter or Abby/Erin/Patty/Julian as the main reason they love the series, not the ghosts. What, exactly, did Gozer do? Why does New York barely get touched in the movies, relative to disaster or superhero films? Rowan is even polite enough to clean up after himself.
Ghostbusters is better compared to Band of Brothers than Captain America.
Not five minutes later, though, an idea erupted out of my skull; Ghostbusters has been covert propaganda aimed at us straight/white/cis muggles since day one, with the goal of making it easier for LGBTQI+ people to come out of the closet and non-whites to better integrate into society.
One of the hallmarks of all three movies in the series has been the importance of the general public to the story. Take the 1984 Ghostbusters, for instance; the founding trio of Egon, Ray, and Peter are both scientific and social outcasts. Egon obsesses over mold and can’t relate to Janine at all; Ray doesn’t even have a hobby outside of paranormal research and sounds like a generic conspiracy theorist. Winston, by virtue of being black, is also a social outcast. All four of their names underscore this by being atypical or vaguely ethnic in some way. By the end of the movie, though, they’ve been featured on countless magazine covers and they can attract a sizeable crowd wherever they appear.
Yet at the start of Ghostbusters II, those cheering crowds have disappeared. They’re back to obscure, social outcasts again. This is a massive plot hole, on the surface, but it serves a purpose: if the public didn’t start off hating them, they couldn’t love and support them by the end of the movie. The sequel really ratchets this up at the end, too, by having the Ghostbusters explicitly call on the public to cheer them on as they ride a symbol of personal freedom.
This really stands out when you start comparing it to other science fiction or superhero films. Captain America doesn’t much care what the public thinks of him; Tony Stark wants to minimize his collateral damage, but that’s for moral and personal reasons. The other Avengers are similar. Superman operates out of a mix of duty and care for the people in his circles; Batman is A-OK if the public hates or ignores him. In all of these movies, the heroes or villains do massive damage to public buildings; compare this with 1984’s Ghostbusters, where the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just crushes a few cars and an earthquake doesn’t harm any of the public.
Once you rethink of those two movies as a parable for coming out, a lot of it clicks into place. The mayor, for instance, is never the bad guy; as someone who’s come into contact with a lot of people, he knows the sheer variety out there and in private at least isn’t going to doubt the quartet. The Ghostbuster’s human opposition comes from people who haven’t had the same experience. Walter Peck, the EPA lawyer from the 1984 original, wants to shut the quartet down because they don’t follow the rules of “the Book.” In the 1989 sequel Jack Hardemeyer, a low-level advisor to the mayor, has them committed to a mental institution for being deviants because he’s worried that if they’re seen with the mayor it’ll ruin his political career. This enrages the mayor when he later learns of it. Their allies, Dana and Louis, are literally demonized in the 1984 movie and it’s only the active intervention of the Ghostbusters that breaks them out of their shells.
In Ghostbusters II, the paranormal is literally fueled by anger and hate. Three of the four are put on trial for doing their job; yes, they also illegally excavated a roadway and Ray kicked out the power grid, but none of that would have happened if they weren’t legally restrained from operating. At the trial they face down a judge who subjects them to an intense hate-filled rant and nearly locks them up, until he’s forced to toss out the previous court order when some ghosts from his past arrive. As mentioned above, they save the day by getting everyone to rid themselves of hate; pay attention to the credits, and you’ll see even Jack Hardemeyer has come around to support their message of love and tolerance.
The 2016 Ghostbusters takes this theme and runs it even further. All the Ghostbusters are women, who even more explicitly struggle to be accepted or treated fairly by the rest of society. There’s a scene where the mayor, his assistant, and two Homeland Security officers openly admit to the existence of ghosts and don’t see a problem with the quartet carrying out their activities… so long as they do it quietly and out of sight. The movie ends with the mayor mumbling something about mass delusions during an interview, in order to uphold the status quo, while later the public offers up giant signs glowing with their support and approval. Jillian is all but explicitly a lesbian. Despite all their setbacks, what really matters is their connection and support for one another.
This sense of universal otherness creates a conflict that defines his character, expressed through his belief in the supernatural. In order to preserve a somewhat peaceful home life, Eduardo [of Extreme Ghostbusters] is effectively in the closet–his belief in the supernatural doesn’t ever come home with him, to the point his family has no idea he even is a Ghostbuster. Rage takes place a fair ways into the series so he’s obviously been keeping things under wraps for a while, but when Egon and Slimer need a couch to surf on for a few days, a problem arises: Eduardo can no longer keep his home and work life separate.
For the first time, those worlds are intersecting and there’s nothing Eduardo can do about it. The elephant in the room is now literally in the room–Egon embodies Eduardo’s belief in the supernatural, a facet of himself he keeps hidden for fear of further alienation and rejection on part of his family–it’s not enough that he has to embrace a culture the others have chosen to reject, but he believes the supernatural as well.
By now, you’ve probably heard that Kate McKinnon’s character in Ghostbusters—the tool-loving, ghostbusting engineer babe Jillian Holtzmann—is the queer action hero of your dreams. But the Holtzmann Is Super Hella Gay narrative misses out on one crucial Ghostbusters detail: THEY’RE ALL QUEER. Sony, no doubt, doesn’t want you to believe there’s anything gay about any of the ghostbusters. Paul Feig could only grin and nod when asked if Holtzmann—who is probably the gayest scientist to walk the earth—is indeed gay. He had to be coy about it because of “dealing with the studios,” but Feig definitely seems to be in on the Gay Holtzmann reality. And maybe, just maybe, Feig and Katie Dippold worked even more queerness into the script that they knew would get by Sony but would catch the eyes of those among us who are seasoned Gay Subtext Detectives.
It’s no wonder Ghostbusters hasn’t done as well in Europe, where they’re more tolerant of LGBTQI+ people for the most part, and China doesn’t want to touch the movie. These movies are propaganda, masquerading as pop entertainment.