Nineteen eighty-four’s Ghostbusters’ success was achieved through several near-perfect moves. With flawless casting, performances, and script, the paranormal comedy blossomed into a global success. Success, however, was contingent on the paranormal interest and appetite of moviegoers. Luckily for Ghostbusters, the film was in the wheelhouse of a generation of watchers reared on the paranormal. Tutored by Leonard Nimoy’s iconic In Search Of, teens and adults flocked to the theater well-versed in cornerstone phenomena ESP, Tunguska Blast, Bigfoot, and the Amityville haunting. Taking the supernatural seriously and using pseudoscientific jargon was contingent to In Search Of and Ghostbusters. Both the television program and film showed, with sincerity, the trajectory of paranormalism from parlor seances into a global phenomenon.
The 1980s were packed with horror-comedy. From the dark, deadpan of An American Werewolf in London (1981) to the gothic, absurd of Beetlejuice (1988), the decade was ripe for clever, ingenious, or cheesy horror-comedy. The decade’s interest and appetite for the supernatural meant paranormal devotee Dan Aykroyd would get a chance to apply an authentic strangeness, in the form of Ghostbusters. Aykroyd’s personal and familial paranormal bona fides are well established — with his father, a paranormal researcher, while his family played frequent host to spiritualists in Canada. This comprehensive understanding of the paranormal is reflected in the Ghostbusters script. Co-written with the late Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters allowed Aykroyd to show off his paranormal chops. During the weeks of furious rewrites, Aykroyd’s contribution was described in Vanity Fair as the “paranormal-activities expert, providing official (and official-sounding) jargon.” The film, however well-constructed, could have missed the mark with audiences. Except, by the time the film opened in theaters, a generation of children and teens, mostly, and adults were awash in paranormal culture.
While narrative programs like Dark Shadows and Kolchak wandered through the television sets of Americans, it was the “non-fiction” program In Search Of which set, and remains, the standard of paranormal investigation documentaries. Hosted by Leonard Nimoy, the syndicated series ran for six seasons and covered the complete spectrum of paranormal, strange, or inexplicable stories. With documentary-style narrations, field-recreations, and interviews, the show established an earnest authenticity in a field derided and mocked by skeptics. As In Search Of credits roll, a voiceover certifies, “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producers’ purpose is to suggest some possible explanation, but not necessarily the only ones to the mysteries we will examine.” Inculcated by the strange and paranormal world by In Search Of, fans were perfectly prepared when Ghostbusters hit the big screen.
Inspired by an article conjecting on the possibility of capturing a ghost, Aykroyd’s initial draft of Ghostbusters was one chock-a-block with fantasy. Seeking to root the film in a contemporary world, director Ivan Reitman nudged Aykroyd away from the completely wild. As Reitman told Vanity Fair, “If we could just play this thing realistically from the beginning, we’d believe that the Marshmallow Man could exist by the end of the film.” Sincerity, in effect, makes the rest of the film possible. Rather than debunk or deride the paranormal, the film’s treatment of ghosts and ESP were played straight and “realistic.” Time after time, Ghostbusters creatures, apparitions, and investigations take turns between menace and comedic, but always with the tiniest of toe holds in paranormal lore. References to the Tunguska Incident, the mysterious 1908 blast that flattened 80 million trees in Siberia, is woven into the ghost hunting lingo alongside ectoplasm, psychokinesis, and spirit possession. Even Bill Murray’s establishing scene as Peter Venkman, cad, and questionable scientist, used actual psychic testing Zener Cards to create paranormal credibility. Ernie Hudson’s character, Winston Zeddemore, is asked in the film, “Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis.” The laundry list of paranormal phenomena run past Zeddemore cements the film’s quirky authenticity and sincerity, making it immediately recognizable to fans of In Search Of.
Watching In Search Of on over-the-air television when viewing choices were limited meant a steady, reliable stream of dramatizations and strange tales straight into the living room. The hunt for Bigfoot is spiked with eerie and grotesque disembodied howls and growls. UFOs menaced remote farms accompanied by a synth score, and earthquakes took on paranormal qualities mixed with stock footage of frightened animals. The show’s popularity can be gauged by its lasting cultural impact on viewers of a certain age, its longevity in syndication, and a recent attempt to revive it on the History Channel. In Search Of existed in a period when, as described on We Are the Mutants, “there was a tremendous amount of this kind of sober, measured (or wild-eyed tabloid!) analysis of the paranormal on bookstore shelves, in the checkout aisles at supermarkets, and on television airwaves.” The considered and reasoned exploration of the paranormal found in In Search Of and Ghostbusters shares elements found in Andrea Molle and Christopher Bader’s “‘Paranormal Science’ from America to Italy: A Case of Cultural Homogenization.”
According to the authors, three factors, “increased use of scientific language and jargon by paranormal enthusiasts; the democratization of paranormal investigation; and the increased availability of paranormal experiences,” changed how the paranormal was shared and enjoyed in the 21st century. While focused on the glut of paranormal or fantastic programming on cable television, domestically and internationally, and the shift to the amateur as the expert, Molle and Bader’s idea of jargon and democratization of paranormal investigations can be traced back to the 1970s and reflected in Ghostbusters. The language and jargon of the paranormal were accessible to a host of viewers, the tools commonplace, and the locations known far-and-wide because of In Search Of‘s broad reach and longevity. Paranormal jargon threads between the film and television show, but the fictitious and “non-fiction” investigations also rely on then-contemporary tools and equipment that laypeople and academics might have used.
Of the many paranormal episodes of In Search Of, it is the installment devoted to ghosts and the work of poltergeist researcher and paranormal luminary Hans Holzer which signal the cultural link between the television show and Ghostbusters. In his episode Holzer, another of Aykroyd’s admitted inspirations, sees him wandering reportedly haunted houses, sometimes alongside a psychic, but always with a tape recorder tucked under his arm. Similarly, Aykroyd’s Stantz and Ramis’ Egon Spengler are armed with scientific calculators, cameras, and a Panasonic camcorder. Consumer-level tools in the hands of “scientists” like the fictional Ghostbusters, and Holzer, lend authenticity to the jargon and the more fanciful gear like proton packs and PKE meters. The accessibility of fictionalized paranormal research is realized by the blue-collar character of Winston Zeddemore, who injects an open-minded pragmatism into the story. Zeddemore’s layperson addition to the team of scientists shows how technology democratized the paranormal quest when at the climax, he declares, “We have the tools, and we have the talent.” The slow democratization of the paranormal sciences through technology was not all that new. However, it did have to take some turns through academia and paranormal gatekeepers first. In the late 19th and early 20th century, newly found communication or audio recording methods turned fantastic into a potential reality, exciting inventors and nouveau riche who sought methods to speak to or record ghostly entities. Photography produced similar early leveling in paranormal research, particularly with ectoplasmic image capturing. The use of chemical, mechanical, or electronic devices to search for ghosts was a culturally significant shift from the traditional search and communications method through human mediums.
Victorian-era mediums were gatekeepers of supernatural communications, and any research into the field had to go through the spirit mediums first. Paranormal investigation or communication could only be had via psychically attuned humans- like the Fox Sisters of western New York and French-born psychic Eva Carrière. When technology intruded into the intimate world of mediumship, the balance began to shift from the spiritualistic to the scientific. At the turn of the 20th-century, universities and colleges around the globe took parapsychology seriously. This new kind of empirical rigor was exemplified by influential psychologist and philosopher William James’ efforts at Harvard University to analyze and quantify, if possible, the paranormal. Even with this kind of endorsement, as the new century progressed with wars, pandemics, and economic collapses interrupting, the paranormal took a backseat. After decades-long simmer, paranormal research intensely reemerged in the 1970s, with scientists in a secondary role to amateurs and television producers. In Search Of‘s documentarian style brought the esoteric to whole new audiences, while Ghostbusters drew many of the same devotees without mocking the paranormal.
Perhaps this is why young adults reared on In Search Of could easily connect with Ghostbusters on several cultural levels. Appreciation for the television show hinged not only on its eerie recreations but also on Nimoy’s deadpan examination of terrifying subjects and how it treated easily maligned subjects with respect. With haunting qualities and unflinching sincerity, In Search Of embedded the paranormal into the consciousness of a generation of Americans. Similarly, Ghostbusters took strangeness seriously too. Instead of mocking the paranormal to energize the comedy, the film leaned on human failings, weakness, attraction, or raw fear for laughs. Without the earnest and over the top nods to the paranormal, Ghostbusters might have never found its way into the hearts of as many supernatural speculators who view Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of as their spirit guide.