If you’re all alone, pick up the phone… Reassessing Ghostbusters

It is difficult to critique that which you love but here we are with The Ghostbusters films.  The American Film Institute lists the first film as the 28th funniest film in its 100 Years… 100 Laughs.  Then again, it lists MASH at number seven…

The plots are simple.  Three guys work out how to capture (‘bust’) ghosts which are haunting New York City.  They discover that the number of ghosts is rising rapidly, signalling some kind of cataclysmic or apocalyptic event: the return of an ancient deity, Gozer the Gozerian.  Several years later, their popularity has waned but soon picks up again when it is discovered that all the negative emotions of New York City are congealing into a supernatural goo that will trigger some kind of cataclysmic or apocalyptic event: the return of an ancient wizard, Vigo the Carpathian.

In order to make the plots simple, the film leverages our assumptions about the world.  Ghosts are bad, Ghostbusters are good.

But are the ghosts bad?  We see at several points across the films that the ghosts appear to be sentient.  The ghost in the library seeks quiet while she reads, for example.  Slimer drives a bus.  What causes the ghosts to be bad (for the most part) is not their activity but the reaction of living people towards them.  The adverts made by the Ghostbusters play on this point:

Are you troubled by strange noises in the night? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? Have you or your family actually seen a spook, specter or ghost? If the answer is yes, then don’t wait another minute. Just pick up the phone and call the professionals — Ghostbusters.

Notice that there’s nothing about the ghosts actually doing anything in particular beyond the strange noises.  Instead, the reason a person would call the Ghostbusters is that  they are troubled by the existence of ghosts in their community.  Do you experience feelings of dread?  Have you seen them?  In the Ghostbusters’ world, the problem is not that the ghosts actually do anything particularly awful.  The problem is that ghosts exist.

Although the Ghostbusters have the trappings of a pest control service, the ‘pests’ they are trying to ‘control’ are sentient beings who cause offence merely by being inconvenient.  What is unusual is that the language of both the Ghostbusters and the supernatural creatures they are ‘controlling’ describes the process in legal terms.  While explaining how the ‘storage facility’ works, Ray describes the ghosts as being ‘incarcerated’.  When searching for the Gatekeeper, Vinz Clortho tells a horse that the ‘prisoners’ will be released.  Even the word ‘bust’ sounds like something police do with regards to drugs, weapons, and other illicit substances.

From an ethical point of view, these seem like the correct terms to use.  The Ghostbusters are curtailing the freedoms of creatures who show rationality and — depending on how you understand the concept — the ghosts might be creatures with rights.

Perhaps more worrying is the idea that the services provided by the Ghostbusters (deciding which rational entities have a right to ‘life’ and a right to freedom) is deemed a response to a gap in the market.  It’s not an institution of the State which makes these fundamental decisions; it’s an economic function decided by the capacity of people to pay for the service.  Imagine that, instead of ghosts, the subject of the problems was, say, Norwegians.

Are you troubled by strange noises from your neighbours? Do you experience feelings of dread in your apartment building or street? Have you or your family actually seen a Norwegian? If the answer is yes, then don’t wait another minute. Just pick up the phone and call the professionals — Norwegianbusters.

Indeed, the idea that the Ghostbusters’ business should be regulated in any way is seen as bureaucratic meddling, as seen in the character of Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, and the police officer and legal system at the start of Ghostbusters 2.  Instead of holding the Ghostbusters responsible for storing a potentially dangerous piece of equipment in the middle of New York (seriously, what would happen if there were a black out… such as the one they caused in Ghostbusters 2?), Peck is ridiculed for doing his job.  If somebody set up a business for the purpose of harassing Norwegians, people would (correctly) want some State oversight to shut it down.  For some reason, setting up a business to detain and incarcerate ghosts is fine and the pencil pushers should just leave them alone.

Where things become a bit more exciting is the films’ exploration of possession.  In Ghostbusters, the demigods Zuul and Vinz Clortho possess the bodies of Dana and Louis.  In Ghostbusters 2, Vigo seeks to possess the body of the infant Oscar.  In these instances, the spooks are violating (or are seeking to violate) what we might consider to be a natural right of Dana, Louis, and Oscar: bodily integrity.  The question is whether Dana, Louis, and Oscar’s bodily integrity rights trump what we might consider to be the right to ‘life’ of Zuul, Vinz Clortho, and Vigo.

It’s not such a weird question.  In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote an extremely influential paper called A Defense of Abortion which challenged the argument that a foetus being a person entailed that its rights trumped those of the mother.  She gives the example of a violinist:

[N]ow let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

The possession segments of the Ghostbusters films are exploring a similar area but are not exploring the argument.  Now that Zuul and Vinz Clortho are back in the world of the ‘living’, do they have rights?  By the time the Ghostbusters confront the terror dogs, it’s too late to ask the question as Gozer has appeared.  Had they been a few minutes earlier, would it have been ethical for the Ghostbusters to attack them in the same way they attack other supernatural creatures?

It could have played differently in Ghostbusters 2.  In the first film, we discovered that there were secret societies dedicated to reviving ancient evils (the architect of the building was from a society of Gozer worshippers).  When Vigo seeks a host, he conspires with Janosz to abduct Oscar because Janosz is infatuated with Dana.  Janosz even asks Vigo to use his power to make Dana his wife.  Everything’s all very non-consensual but it needn’t have been that way.  Janosz could have put an advert up in the local newspaper for a volunteer parent.  Would that have changed the dimensions of the ethical puzzle?  ‘We understand that everybody’s consenting here, but Vigo is an ancient evil who must not be permitted to return to the world of the living.’  Worse, if the consensual revival had been successful (that is, the Ghostbusters were too late to prevent the possession), what acts would have been permissible?

In the case of Zuul and Vinz Clortho, it looks like Jarvis Thompson’s argument might apply.  The right to life of Zuul and Vinz Clortho do not trump the right of Dana and Louis to their own bodies.  Assuming that the Ghostbusters could have known for sure that Dana and Louis were not consenting to the possession, it seems they could have done something to ‘bust’  the demigods.  In the case of a consenting parent giving up their infant for the revival of Vigo, it doesn’t seem as clear cut.

And then there’s a side issue of whether or not it’s ethical for the Ghostbusters to develop the intellectual property for the business while employed by a university, and then profit from that intellectual property privately…

What is really fun in the films is the exploration of Ockham’s Razor.  In Ghostbusters 2, Egon states that, ‘in science, we always look for the simplest explanation.’  It is odd to think of the Ghostbusters as scientists.  Sure, they have gizmos and gadets, but their use of them seems more akin to the world of wizardry and religion than with science.

There are three skeptics amid the Ghostbusters: Egon (in sheer intellectual terms), Venkman (in cynical terms), and Winston (as a representative of the ‘every man’ perspective).

Yet other characters are figures of derision for their skepticism.  The judge in Ghostbusters 2, for example:

Before we begin this trial I want to one thing very clear. The law does not recognize the existence of ghosts. I don’t believe in them either. Don’t wanna hear a lot of malarkey about goblins and spooks and demons. We’re gonna stick to the facts in this case and leave the ghost stories to the kiddies, understood?

Venkman’s response:

There are some things in this world that go way beyond human understanding. Things that cannot be explained. Things that some don’t even want to know about! That is where we come in.

Peck is also a skeptic:

These men are consummate snowball artists! They use sensitive nerve gases to induce hallucinations. People think they’re seeing ghosts! And they call these bozos, who conveniently show up to deal with the problem with a fake electronic light show!

This aspect of the film accurately depicts the dominant relationship of pop-philosophy and pop-atheism towards Ockham’s Razor: ‘Because I can construct an alternative theory of what occurred and because I think my theory is more simple, then Ockham’s Razor states that my explanation is correct.’

Carl Sagan famously pontificated: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence‘.  What nobody has been able to demonstrate, however, is what constitutes ‘extraordinary’.  From my perspective, the claim ‘Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence’ is itself an extraordinary claim…

The film gives us an interesting response: this sort of skepticism — the sort which refuses to accept the possibility of error — is not really skepticism; it’s dogma.   The judge and Peck are not actually being skeptical, they are merely refusing to engage in the question of evidence.  Similarly, the pop-atheist who stamps their feet and declares empirical evidence as being the only true kind of evidence is not really being skeptical.

Peck shows that more obviously.  He has no evidence that his ‘more simple’ explanation is correct (that it’s a light show and sensitive nerve gasses) but he is willing to provide a ‘full report’ that it is.  For him, the idea of ghosts is more complicated.  From, say, Egon’s perspective, the idea of nerve gasses and light shows which baffle even the fire commissioner (‘that was no light show we saw this morning. I’ve seen every kind of combustion known to man, but this beats the hell out of me’) is more complicated.

Given that Dan Aykroyd is a superstitious nutter, it’s not surprising that this ‘bald naturalism‘ gets a bit of a bashing in the films.  Even so, the film has a point when it shows the difference between skepticism and outright refusal to engage with facts.

Politics and metaphysics, all in a 1980s comedy series.  Hooray.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: