Why Ghostbusters is like a primer for ghost hunting

In 1984, the creators of Caddyshack and Stripes brought into the world a new comedy movie about ghosts, and it went on to become the biggest comedy film of the 1980s.  But where did it come from?  Where did all those terms for ghosts and the equipment come from, and why are they at least somewhat similar to actual paranormal investigators’ gear?

The answer is surprisingly simple: Dan Aykroyd, co-author of the script, is a paranormal enthusiast in real life. In fact, he and his father have had brushes with the supernatural.  Aykroyd initially intended the movie to be about a small group that busts ghosts in other dimensions and travels through time.  But a lot of the tech in the movie, and the terms used, came from his own knowledge of paranormal investigations.

Take, for example, the PKE meter.  The abbreviation stands for Psycho Kinetic Energy, and the device is designed to pick up on the energy of ghosts.  It’s very similar to an EMF meter, which detects shifts in electro-magnetic fields.  Both the fictional and real devices are used in a similar manner.  The ghost hunter uses the meter to record a baseline reading for a room, then takes various readings to try to determine if there are discrepancies.  It’s not dissimilar to Dr. Spengler scanning through the hotel looking for Slimer.  The PKE meter is also similar to thermal detectors used by ghost hunters to measure changes in temperature in a room to find cold spots left by ghosts.

In the movie, ghosts are on occasion given classifications.  Slimer, for example, is a Class Five full roaming vapor (a real nasty one).  Real ghost hunters also use a classification system, though it’s a bit more complex.  While the film, now approaching it’s thirtieth anniversary, was no doubt partially an inspiration for such classification systems, there were similar systems in place as far back as the early 1900s.  The American Spiritualism movement of the late 19th and early 20th century had plenty of “systems” for categorizing spirits, and introduced terms like “poltergeist” and “phantasm” to the public.

The movie mentions two fictional works, Spates Catalog and Tobin’s Spirit Guide.  Much like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon or Howard’s Nameless Cults, these two works have been reproduced in pseudo versions (plus RPG versions), but in a sense they were based on the works of Spiritualists such as Allen Kardec (author of several works including The Spirits Book),  Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and of course, the works of Alestair Crowley.

Now let’s talk about the seminal Ghostbuster tool, the proton pack.  The concept is that the packs are miniature nuclear accelerators, basically a very tiny version of the Large Hadron Collider, and they fire streams of protons from the “wand”.  This, too, is based on actual paranormal principals: ghosts are a form of energy, it’s speculated, and produce negative charges (thus the spikes on EMF detectors).  Hit them with a large positive charge and you should, basically, cancel them out.  In the film, this kind of holds them in place and lets the guys maneuver them into place to be trapped, but in reality, it would likely disrupt and potentially completely disperse a ghost.

On that note, there’s the traps and the containment system (which blows up when it’s shut off).  Both apparently use a similar proton system, but they use a “laser containment grid” to hold the negatively charged ghosts.  Since no one has ever “caught” a ghost, there’s no way to be sure this sort of thing would work, but the fundamentals are, again, in line with real paranormal science principles.

And finally, how can we not discuss one of the most famous parts of the film (no, not Staypuft): slime.  Slime took America by storm in the mid-80s, much to the horror of parents everywhere as their carpets and furniture became stained with the stuff.  It plays a much bigger role in the sequel, but “He slimed me” is still a classic, well known line.  The slime is supposed to be ectoplasm, and believe it or not, it’s a real thing (or at least, a real parapsychology term).  The term has been around for a long time (there’s another use for it regarding cells, but we’re talking the ghostly form).  Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to ectoplasm as, “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes.”  Sound familiar?

In fact, certain Spiritualists claimed to be able to produce ectoplasm from their own bodies.  Mediums would spew the weird, sticky white stuff from various orifices during seances.  Many of these were eventually debunked, but there were many that were not, and the idea behind ectoplasm endured.

You may have noticed that several times during this post I’ve mentioned Spiritualism.  Here’s were it all comes full circle – Dan Aykroyd is (or was at the time anyway) a devout believer in Spiritualism, as was his family.  Many of the concepts he used in the movie came from those beliefs, and Spiritualism was one of the founding principles of modern ghost hunting.

So the next time you watch Ghostbusters, enjoy the fact that the film you’re watching isn’t as much a fantasy as it might seem.


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