Ghostbusters, The Atlantic, paranormal civil liberties, and remembering Harold Ramis

Like many comedy fans—or even anyone with a passing awareness of the past four decades of popular culture—I was saddened to learn of the passing of actor, writer and director Harold Ramis. I love Caddyshack, SCTV, and Groundhog Day, and I was fortunate to be steeped in all of the brilliance he had a hand in when I was growing up. (Thanks, Mom.) My perspective was quite certainly molded in part by his, and Ramis was largely responsible for inventing the modern comedy film as we know it today.

I talked with writer Matthew Phelan, whose fake Atlantic profile of the Ghostbusters is one of the most brilliant pieces of pop culture writing I have encountered in years. Phelan’s piece, which appeared in The Awl last December, imagines ghost containment from a civil libertarian perspective. It is based on a fake Atlantic cover that shows during a montage illustrating the teams’ ascent in popularity during the second act of the film. Ghostbusters is my favorite of Ramis’ films, and it finds itself on heavy rotation in our house as it is also a favorite of my daughter’s. 

I came across the fake profile by doing a search for “Ghostbusters Atlantic cover.” I had recently watched the movie and the passing illustration, which is on the screen for no more than a few seconds, struck me. The title, “The Politics of the Next Dimension: Do Ghosts Have Civil Rights?” touches on the most politically relevant and overlooked part of the film. Before I had seen Phelan’s essay I had known that the filmmakers had cut pieces of the script that suggested showing the inside of the containment unit out of fear that viewers would feel badly for ghosts that were imprisoned there. There has been a lot of conversation about how the sum of all of the messages in the film make it libertarian in spirit, but there is also this overlooked piece of the story about due process and what are the ghosts are put through by being imprisoned indefinitely.

As he touches on in his interview, his intention was to treat the source material as seriously and believably as Ramis and Aykroyd do in their script. It is meticulously written, and every character it touches on not indigenous to the film is based in our reality. It shows an incredible amount of affection for both the film and magazine on Phelan’s part.

In addition to his piece, we talked about Ramis, Phelan’s fascination with the Ghostbusters’ realistic roots, and the role popular culture plays in our collective understanding of politics and current events.

How are you feeling about the loss of Harold Ramis? 

I can say that—probably unsurprisingly—Harold Ramis was my favorite and the one whom I identified with most. His passing really caught me by surprise. Tragic as it is, the sheer volume of heartfelt remembrances online has been just magical really; all these compilations of favorite scenes from his films and performances has felt like one of those raucous wakes where everyone has some off-color, hilarious story about the deceased. This matters so little, given how small potatoes I am, but I hope his family and friends are coping well.

I just think the piece you wrote for The Awl is brilliant. I am interested to know more about how that one cover, which has spoken to me in passing recently, moved you to write this piece.

There are a handful of things.

On the most selfish—maybe selfish is not the right word—but on a very specific personal level what happened was I had a book deal fall through in October and I was incredibly bummed out about it. Ghostbusters was on Netflix Instant and I re-watched it maybe 5 times. As an effort to distract myself I thought, “I need a win.” I need something that I can do that maximizes all of my specific, unique abilities. I have done cartooning work in the past and I knew I could do this cartoon from the cover as if it were the sister drawing that would go inside the magazine. I was a chemical engineer and I knew from listening to the science fiction gobbledegook in the script that I could nail that and figure out ways to tie it to quantum physics. There were a lot of things like that. I needed something.

On a separate level, I am also a huge fan of the movie. I watched Ghostbusters, its sequel and the cartoon repeatedly. It was one of my first Halloween costumes. My dad, who is also an engineer, made both me and my younger brother homemade Ghostbusters costumers when we were around 5 years old. It is definitely something I have a lot of affection and nostalgia for.

And I spent the last 5 or 6 years living in New York. I think having spent time in New York and seeing the movie as an adult, I have come to appreciate how much the location is a character in a movie and I appreciate the effort they put into placing this absurd, high concept narrative into the real New York of the early 1980s. In that sense, attempting to reproduce that as faithfully as possible was an homage and labor of love that I could get into.

Aside from its appreciation for its location, what else stuck out to you about the movie when you watched it as an adult that was not evident when you were a young fan?

Of the people I know who have seen it a lot as a kid, almost everyone appreciates Bill Murray’s scenery chewing, semidetached comedic presence in the movie. He is sort of an ideal audience surrogate because it is almost like he is half in the movie. Part of his brain is watching everything going on from the outside, whereas both Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the script and it is clear that they are truly invested in all of the architecture of the narrative. All of the science and pseudoscience that they talk about, and all of the occult things that they have put in the movie need to be airtight and believable so that someone can bounce off the walls. That someone is Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman.

And Akroyd believes some of this stuff, right? He has some interest in this world.

Dan Akroyd’s family has some sort of history with the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle era of spiritualists and he has talked about it in interviews. It is a little ridiculous, but it is charming.

I feel like the effort that they put into that script is very under-appreciated. With my article, I was trying to be faithful to what they did, to the magic they made while writing that script. They took as much vaguely scientific material as possible and they built that world. An example that immediately comes to mind happens after they close the portal on top of Dana’s apartment building. Ray is walking off with Rick Moranis’ character. Ray tells him that he is a very lucky man and that he is one of the few people who has lived through witnessing the biggest inter dimensional cross-rip since the Tunguska event. It is a real, unexplained event that happened in the Nineteen Aughts in Russia, and there is no real understanding of what it was. It was this contentious, bizarre explosive thing. People don’t know if it was a meteor or an explosion and the idea that Ray Stanz already has a personal opinion on this and that it was a similar event to what happened at the climax of the movie is very funny. It is a great joke, but it is a throw away joke because it is going to sail over the head of the majority of the audience. That is something I love about the movie more as an adult.

In writing this piece you are essentially saying that the script is airtight enough that when put into the context of the actual reality it is written around, it is possible to write a believable Atlantic style article about the events that occur in the film.

I thank you for saying that. I have been reticent about saying this part publicly too much but I enjoy the whole thing from the perspective of teasing the Atlantic. Take the piece about the theme song for example.

“Last month, they serendipitously acquired their own theme song, ‘Ghostbusters,’ a Billboard-charting R&B single by Ray Parker Jr., whose previous hit ‘The Other Woman,’ coincidentally, also had supernatural elements. Occasionally, when the song is playing, the Ghostbusters will walk with a peculiar strut that looks bound to hyperextend their knees or trip passers-by.”

Basically, the idea is that the journalist reporting this is so focused on problematizing the ghostbusting enterprise that he occasionally over does it in silly ways. Obviously, I do agree with the thrust of the problematizing, but I just thought that it was worth doing for comedic value and as a way of being true to the Atlantic‘s voice.

It would have been a really interesting, weird change for the movie had they shown the inside of the containment unit. When it is just that magazine cover—the caricatures and a cartoony ghost being chased—it reads like a joke and even if you notice it you laugh at it because it is the sort of a question the Atlantic would ask as opposed to considering some of the more alarming aspects of what catching ghosts and trapping them indefinitely means.

What is interesting to me as an adult is that outside of the time Peter and Ray spend drinking outside of the library, no one spends any time thinking about the philosophical or existential implication of the actual existence of ghosts. This significant discovery doesn’t change anybody’s lives, apparently, except for a handful of extras carrying signs at the end of the movie. Nobody’s life is changed outside of capitalizing on it and turning it into a business. I agree that the universe is airtight and this is absolutely exactly the sort of question the Atlantic would ask, but at the same time the existence of that passing cover is the only time the this otherwise relatively realistic film about ghosts asks deeper questions about what any of this means for humanity. Perhaps had Ghostbusters lived in the age of HBO and AMC dramas it could have gone down that road.

Also—as tired as it has become—I am still fascinated by the fact that everyone who made that movie is more or less a Hollywood liberal, though the sum of the messages teeter between libertarian and fascist.

I am fraught and troubled by the bizarre libertarian undercurrent to the movie.

You have a background in writing about environmentalism, no?

Yeah, I did a few years of science reporting and then I did a science comic for a children’s magazine. It is honestly the reason I studied engineering. I had planned on being a journalist before going to college and I read a lot of Noam Chomsky type stuff and got pretty disillusioned with the ability of journalism to do anything. So I thought if I were to do a hard science major maybe I could get a job doing some alternative energy research and really feel like I am making a difference. Or at the very least I will have a strong enough science background to do the sort of reporting that needs to be done.

So when you look back and see someone like [EPA Agent] Walter Peck get portrayed as a villain in this film… He is this totally hapless bureaucrat representing the government’s interest in doing what should be the right thing for the environment, but is ultimately just getting in the way of these guys doing their work… How do you read that?

It is really fascinating because in terms of the timeline in American political culture that moment in the 80s is the birth of the Republican Party’s culture war strategy. The goal is really to ignite populist rage toward the Democrats by defining them as wealthy, out of touch elites. He is a bureaucrat, but he is also a snob and so it is this slobs versus slobs thing where the small business men are the slobs and this hoity-toity government bureaucrat with a well-manicured beard and a prissy attitude is the snob. It doesn’t necessarily have to be portrayed that way but it is for the expedience of the narrative. It is happening at a time period when that whole thing is starting to occur for the first time and it carries on through to the present day where we are talking about arugula eating, latte sipping, Volvo driving liberals. It’s goofy and weird and disassociated with economic realities with who is elite, who is in power, and who is technically a populist, but I can’t say that it detracts from my appreciation for the movie. The way that I think of it is that if I am ever at a party with someone who reads Reason Magazine, we are going to have something to talk about, something to be mutually affectionate about.

My love for this movie endures despite the fact that the political evidence mounts against it with every viewing. Not only does the message of the movie have something of an archaic conservative leaning, it leans into fascism when the City of New York makes the Ghostbusters in charge of cleaning the mess up. And it is culturally conservative as well. There is not one female character in the movie. Women are either there to be possessed, be a secretaries, or the physical manifestation of a demigod that can express itself as anything, in this case the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

This movie spectacularly fails the Bechdel test. As I was writing the article, I was struggling to find a way to still manage to write this Ghostbusters fan fiction and still manage to pass the Bechdel test, but I couldn’t really reintroduce characters in different ways while respecting the original form.

In your piece you do an amazing job in citing other news sources, and doing so while staying true to what happens in the film while also honoring the voice of those particular sources.

One thing that really helped with that is there are one or two scenes that show up in the deleted scenes of the DVD and that’s where I got some of the quotes for some of those articles. Peter really does refer to himself in one of these scenes as the Chairman of the largest supernatural disposal company or something.

There is a moment in Ghostbusters 2 where they are trying to convince the Mayor’s underling to let them out of some institution to do what they need to do to save the day. In that movie, there is this purple slime running underneath the whole city. In the meeting they are just spitballing New York Post pun-laden potential headlines for what is going to happen. Someone says “Slime Time” or “Slime Square” and everybody is nodding in agreement with that.

Nothing is more enjoyable than making fun of the New York Post.

Your piece stuck out to me because it really changes the way I look at fan fiction. Someone recently asked what the focus of my larger body of writing and I said that I am interested in taking the world at large and making it more understandable by looking at it through the lens of popular culture. I had long known fan fiction as crappy stories people write about their favorite fan universes or erotic stories about their favorite X-Men or whatever but when I saw this it was something I understood immediately.

That is my interest as well. I would love it if some of my creative output didn’t have so much pop culture bleeding into it but I was the kind of kid growing up who would draw my own levels to Super Mario Brothers and I don’t know why I did that. It has just always been there. Did I think I was going to hand them off to game engineers at Nintendo and they would publish them into a video game? That is where I have always been at. In a Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle way, I am too immersed in all of this to pull myself out of it. I often have ideas like this that can’t rise past fan fiction but maybe they can be a high point in the genre.

I heard a piece on NPR about Italian graffiti that portrayed the Pope dressed like a superhero. The artist said something about how superheroes exist in our society and fill the roles that the Greek Gods did in their time and so this wasn’t meant to be offensive. Initially I guffawed and felt it sort of an embarrassing reality, but then I thought about this in particular and realized that pop culture is actually the lens through which I understand this world. I am obsessed with politics generally and so when I talk about it with people who aren’t, the only common ground we have to attempt to talk about the same things is popular culture.

Narrative is the way humans discuss ideas. These are popular narratives. If you and another person appreciate the same pieces of pop culture, you are both passively agreeing that it could happen or it speaks a certain level of truth. By having that as a frame for the debate, you are both ultimately saying that these are things about pop culture that are good and that speak to our underlying human nature or economics or ghosts. I think that in that respect, it is a great shorthand and it is very useful.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.