In the early 1980s Dan Aykroyd read an article about quantum physics and parapsychology in the American Society of Psychical Research Journal and then watched 1950s classic ghost comedies like the 1951 movie Ghost Chasers. This gave him the idea to reinvent the ghost comedy including the context of contemporary scientific research in physics and parapsychology. This ultimately would become the 1984 beloved classic horror-comedy film Ghostbusters. And with that, Aykroyd efficiently neutered the horror of the paranormal by using science to make it manageable and transmuting it to comedy.
This movie is an unsocialized adolescent male nerd’s fever dream. Our protagonists are all nerds with multiple PhDs and employed by Columbia University in New York City. When their fortune turns to failure and they’re fired by Columbia just when they’re on the verge of a breakthrough, they start up a Ghostbusting venture.
Egon Spengler, played by Harold Ramis, with multiple advanced degrees including parapsychology and nuclear engineering, is easily the biggest brain of the operation. He’s a pure science cultist, stating at one point that his hobby is collecting “spores, molds, and fungus.” Ray Stantz, portrayed by Dan Aykroid, is an expert in paranormal history and metallurgy and has a child-like enthusiasm about his work. These two characters invent the scientific tools used to capture and store nuisance ghosts. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, has PhDs in both parapsychology and psychology. A would-be charming lecher, he depends on Egon and Ray to explain the necessary science and seems to be more interested in using rigged studies of paranormal phenomena like ESP to seduce attractive female students.
Egon and Ray developed the tech behind the PKE Meter (PKE = psychokinetic energy), the Proton Pack (the backpack equipment that generates the “streams” of protons and nuclear energy they use to capture ghosts), the Trap and the storage facilities. Egon was the one who warned against crossing the streams. “Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” Ray followed with, “Total protonic reversal.”
They fail. They try again. They develop better technology and begin to succeed at trapping and storing various types of ghosts. They grow in fame and fortune. And then are met with comical bureaucratic resistance.
At the climax of the movie, Egon saves the day (and Earth from domination by an evil demon from another dimension) by evoking theoretical physics. “I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways. We could reverse the particle flow through the gate. We’ll cross the streams.” Then there’s the comedic discussion of how likely they are to live through the attempt—which Egon admits is only a slight chance, but it’s their only hope to defeat Gozer (transformed into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.).
Part of the comedy of the 1984 film is the cheesy hand-wavey nature of the science that’s employed. But in the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters remake, director Paul Feig wanted the science to feel more legitimate, so he employed physicists from MIT and the DOE, Drs. James Maxwell and Lindley Winslow, to bring not only their expertise, but also their leftover lab junk to the screenplay and the set, respectively.
Winslow theorized that the ghosts in Ghostbusters are made up of neutrinos because “they go through anything.” Maxwell, a particle physicist, is responsible for re-inventing the proton pack. Instead of using the cyclotron described in the 1984 film, Maxwell theorized the 2016 Ghostbusters would use a synchotron, a circular particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider. Operating incredibly high magnetic fields on this scale would require cryogenic temperatures so the updated proton pack would require something like liquid helium as a coolant. The main obstacle in bringing such a device to reality would be fitting the tech into a backpack compact and light enough to actually wear. Winslow made sure that the equations on Erin Gilbert’s (Kristen Wiig) whiteboard were real and accurate. Textbooks and other props in Gilbert’s office were rented from another female physicist’s office because Feig (the director) liked how her office looked.
Like the original Ghostbusters, the reboot features three scientists. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) are particle physicists interested in the paranormal. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) is an engineering physicist. As the movie begins, Erin is working toward tenure at Columbia, which is ultimately refused, effectively resulting in her being fired (an homage to the 1984 film). Abbey and Jillian are working in the basement of the Higgins Institute of Science in NYC. While the storyline is quite different from the first movie, the reboot still uses science to explain and defeat paranormal phenomena. Just like in the first movie, there are harrowing moments, but as their knowledge grows and their experimental devices become more effective, they are capable of defeating not only ghosts, but erstwhile gods.
While the original 1984 movie was a box office hit and one of the most successful comedies of that year, the 2016 reboot didn’t fare as well. They are both highly entertaining movies in my opinion--they simply employ comedy of different flavors. While the 1984 movie made a lot of childish jokes at women’s expense and employed a lot of goofy slapstick comedy and hyperbolic humor, the 2016 reboot acknowledged that, replied to it, and had its own flavor of quirky characterization that feels fresh and timely by comparison, especially to a more progressive or educated audience. Regardless of those elements, the concept was the same—use science to bring the inscrutable to light, defeat the paranormal bad guy, and make it funny.