For our next film club on Friday, October 29, at 7:30 pm ET (4:30 pm PT), the Daily Poster team will be discussing the political ramifications of the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters, both in honor of Halloween and the release of a new Ghostbusters film next month.
Ghostbusters is a beloved classic because it deftly intertwined screwball comedy and supernatural horror. But it also reflected the trend at the time of inserting right-wing economic themes into seemingly apolitical products like movies and TV shows — a development that still reverberates today. After all, Ghostbusters is all about a wildly incompetent municipal government forced to rely on for-profit corporate mercenaries to protect the city from a ghost invasion, and then those mercenaries must save the city after a heavy-handed EPA official creates a disaster.
To prepare for the discussion, Daily Poster subscribers get an exclusive excerpt about Ghostbusters from my 2011 book, Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. Check it out below, then get psyched for the discussion!
HOW TO WATCH THE FILM: We will not be watching the film during the live chat — we will be discussing it. Ghostbusters can be rented through a variety of digital streaming services, not to mention is likely available to borrow from your local library.
The event is exclusively for Daily Poster subscribers, who get to watch the broadcast live, ask questions in real time, and can watch a replay after the event.
Here’s the except from Back to Our Future, which describes the way Ghostbusters echoed right-wing economic talking points of the time and helped set the stage for the antigovernment fervor still plaguing the country:
Outlaws With Morals
In The Ghostbusters series of 1984 and 1989, we see the government both unable to deal with a problem and then actually creating an even wider one.
New York, the largest city in America, is under increasingly violent assault by interdimensional terrorists. These ghouls and goblins periodically bust out of their sleeper cells to read library books, fry eggs on apartment counters, fly around hotel ballrooms, turn unsuspecting tax accountants into canine gargoyles, and kidnap helpless infants. This seems to be either (A) of only minimal concern to the police and the military or (B) of mild concern to them, but far beyond their capacity to handle.
Enter a for-profit corporation called The Ghostbusters, swaggering through Gotham with “positron colliders” and “unlicensed nuclear accelerators” on their backs. With their own Ray Parker, Jr., theme song, this merry band’s motto is appropriately swashbuckling. As Peter Venkman says at one point, “Shit happens, someone has to deal with it, and who you gonna call?”
The Ghostbusters not only exhibit zero respect for laws or property, but are openly proud of their business model as hard-charging war profiteers. We learn this early on: Ecto-1, their ambulance-turned-rescue-vehicle, has a flashing sign on it that says FOR HIRE, and after the Ghostbusters trash multiple floors of a historic hotel to capture a blob-like apparition, audiences guffaw as the foursome threatens to release the terrorist back into the hotel unless their absurdly inflated bill is paid in full.
Initially left to do as they please and unencumbered by the rules and regulations that hamstring public institutions, the Ghostbusters become rich and famous as protectors of a society whose government has failed in even its most modest security charge. Real problems only arise when the big bad government tries to put them out of business.
Two-thirds of the way through the first Ghostbusters film, a mid-level Environmental Protection Agency official named Walter Peck, whom one Ghostbuster had previously insulted, reappears with a court order, an armed police officer, and a union hard hat to shut the Ghostbusters down. Peck isn’t motivated by any public-policy concern. He’s the bitter pencil-pushing Lilliputian unduly abusing his power (and it’s no accident that he’s from a tree-hugging liberal agency, ordering around a representative from organized labor and enforcing his will with the threat of police force). When he follows through with his effort to arrest the Ghostbusters and turn off their ghost incarceration machine—the equivalent of releasing all convicted terrorists into Times Square—a nuclear explosion ensues, the ghosts declare World War III, and a metaphysical ayatollah named Zuul triumphantly waltzes into Manhattan and imposes a paranormal caliphate under the sugary white thumb of a Stay Puft™ Marshmallow Man.
It’s a similar story in Ghostbusters II. An obsequiously conniving bureaucrat in New York’s municipal government has our heroes locked up in a psychiatric ward for trying to blow the whistle on the second coming of Zuul. This time it’s a seventeenth-century Carpathian warlock called Vigo, who has come back from the dead after being “poisoned, stabbed, shot, hung, stretched, disemboweled, drawn, and quartered.”
In both blockbusters, when all hell inevitably breaks loose, who rides in to save the day? Not the city police force. Not the Pentagon. Not the Department of Homeland Security. Not the president or any politician.
The private corporation, of course. Told by his hysterical staff and pants-pissing law enforcement officials of ensuing chaos and imminent apocalypse, New York’s mayor declares that the government is basically useless.
“We’ve got no choice,” he says. “Call the Ghostbusters.”
In the first movie, the Ghostbusters are let out of prison and subserviently escorted by a military entourage to Zuul’s front door. In Ghostbusters II, the mercenaries are expeditiously released from their detention cells, then permitted to literally commandeer (and happily destroy) the most famous public symbol of the American government, the Statue of Liberty, driving it into downtown Manhattan for their final confrontation with Vigo.
Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II were the second and seventh top-grossing films of their years. And through such aggressive cross-promotion, these characters, stories and themes reached Jordanesque cultural saturation in the 1980s. I’d bet there’s not a single American older than 15 and younger than 80 who hasn’t heard of at least one of these movies, and I’d bet a plurality could give you a direct quote from them on command — like, “Yes, it’s true, this man has no dick.”
This might explain why these productions are being resurrected and remade now — and, more important, why their themes infuse our worldview, and why their story lines have made the jump from fiction to reality. While the 1980s plots’ ability to continue drawing audience share is certainly impressive, the real story is how the eighties’ antigovernment mnemonic now dominates every aspect of life, not just the ones shown on television.
What, for instance, to make of popular reticence when it comes to the wholesale outsourcing of public security services?
Halliburton, which broadcasts commercials about the services it has taken over from the government, has become a household name for its blatant profiteering in Iraq. Same thing for the private security firm Blackwater, the security contractor that routinely made headlines for alleged violent atrocities in America’s war zones. Back home, state governments hire out more and more incarceration services to private prison firms, at ever more exorbitant prices.
This has been a radical and rapid change. If, in the 1980s, you said that at some point in the future hundreds of thousands of for-profit contractors would be fighting our foreign wars, that a large portion of America’s prisons would be run by corporations, that much of our municipal infrastructure would be owned by private companies, and that the government would even outsource parts of its disaster relief services, few would have believed you.
As we now know, this RoboCop meets Blade Runner future, while certainly dystopian, wasn’t so distant. It’s the world we now live in. Even more unfathomable, it accelerates with little fanfare or outcry. As Bob Dole might say, “Where’s the outrage?”
Whereas during the Gulf War, there was one contractor for every thirty soldiers, today it’s a one-to-one ratio, as roughly half of all Americans stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan are contractors, and now, when the media publishes embarrassing stories about contractor abuse, the government hires contractors to investigate the contractors.
For all this, there’s minimal public interest, much less backlash, and what little data exists suggests many Americans are just fine with what’s going on. Consider the poll taken just three years after 9/11, a catastrophe laid, in part, at the feet of lax private airport-security screeners. When asked whether government or private security screeners should be responsible for protecting the aviation system, 41 percent of Americans said they either felt more safe with the private screeners or weren’t sure.
This is hardly shocking. Children who looked at movie and TV screens and saw the success of government’s handing over municipal security responsibilities to the Ghostbusters will naturally be less surprised/outraged when, as adults, they look at the same screens and see the government handing over the same responsibilities to the Ghostbusters’ terrorist-fighting colleagues at Blackwater.
The opposite is also true. In part because of what we learned three decades ago, eighties-kids-turned-twenty-first-century adults are more prone to accept or support passionate Tea Party, talk radio, and cable-news screeds against the very concept of government—screeds that, not coincidentally, evoke the questions and imagery still lingering from the 1980s.
I’m not saying that being a fan of Peter Venkman (as I surely am) means you automatically hated the concept of government (which I do not). The human mind is not a vapid DOS prompt waiting to be programmed by pop culture. It is more like a boulder in the middle of a river, anchored but also slowly sculpted over time by a persistent current. In that sense, our expectations of “normal” were shaped by what our broader culture was teaching us, so that by the time all those private military contractors and for-profit prisons and secret Blackwater teams and privatization schemes became real public policy, many of us didn’t even flinch.
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