Note: What follows is a lengthy essay about the importance of architecture in the Ghostbusters movies. Where possible, I’ve included supporting clips from both movies, in the event you’re not familiar with the films, especially the seriously underrated sequel.
Early in Ghostbusters, Peter, Ray and Egon learn that Columbia University’s Board of Regents has terminated their grant because, according to the WASPY Dean Yeager, the Ghostbusters’ “theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, [their] methods are sloppy and [their] conclusions are highly questionable.”
To this Peter Venkman responds, simply, “I see.” The flatness of his face, the look of complete resignation, tells you he’s heard this all before, and the scene ends moments later.
Outcasts from the start, the Ghostbusters are discredited by their peers and doubted even by their first customer, the lovely Dana Barrett. They can only secure start-up funding for their business by mortgaging Ray’s childhood home. The fact that no one believes in the Ghostbusters is treated, by them, as incidental; their confidence as a group rarely flags, and there are few moments of hesitation among the three once they decide to become professional paranormal investigators and eliminators. Rather, the Ghostbusters embrace their outsider status, and gladly appeal to New York’s crazies and paranoids. Their slogan is, “We’re ready to believe you.”
The Ghostbusters’ quest is not for recognition, but simply for the right to exist, to be weird, to have different theories and succeed. Standing in their way are several forces of the “establishment” – from Dean Yeager, to Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Mayor – who repeatedly try to shut the Ghostbusters down. This battle against the establishment, so central to the Ghostbusters’ story, is reflected throughout the film by architectural setting.
The Ghostbusters’ first major success occurs at the Sedgwick Hotel (modeled after the Algonquin in New York), the kind of old money, hoity-toity clubhouse in which the Ghostbusters would never ordinarily be welcome. Barging into the lobby wearing khaki jumpsuits and their enormous proton packs, the Ghostbusters seem to have been beamed in from outer space. (Moments after their entrance, a guest asks: “What are you, some kind of cosmonaut?”) The Ghostbusters lay waste to the Sedgwick in the process of capturing Slimer, the nasty “free-floating vapor” that haunts the hotel, torching hallways and demolishing an ornate ballroom. They take real joy in their recklessness – notice how they pause an extra moment to really trash the ballroom up before they haul in Slimer. It is their little bit of revenge, and they’re being paid – handsomely, we learn – to exact it.
Given their position as outsiders, it should come as no surprise that the Ghostbusters’ biggest supernatural nemesis, Zuul, would choose as its home Dana Barrett’s penthouse apartment on Central Park West. Could there be a place more forbidding to a group of outcast scientists? Poring over the building’s blueprints and schematics, the Ghostbusters determine that “the whole building is a superconductive antenna that was designed and built expressly for the purpose of pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence…” The architecture of the wealthy is, in this instance, a vehicle for the world’s destruction, and the Ghostbusters are only be able to stop Zuul by totaling the building.
While many of the previous films produced by the crew responsible for Ghostbusters (director Ivan Reitman, writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) had strong anti-establishment undercurrents, the generational concern with enfranchisement had both matured and taken on more pressing urgency by the time Ghostbusters came out in 1984. Emerging from the 1960s and 70s into the 1980s, the Free Love generation (of which the Ghostbusters, like their real-life counterparts, were members) was suddenly expected to go straight and get a job, or risk disenfranchisement. In somewhat reductive terms, the choices were to sell out, like Walter Peck (who, notably, is a contemporary of the Ghostbusters, which explains why Peter Venkman is so rankled by Peck’s authoritarian routine), or work outside the system. The film’s anti-establishment undercurrent also explains Ghostbusters’ massive popularity at the time – it spoke to a central crisis of identity being experienced by many young adults, and provided the ghosts and action that thrilled their young children. In this way, Ghostbusters had a strange, broad appeal. It was also funny as hell, which didn’t hurt.
The Ghostbusters’ choices are not without consequences, though, and we see, five years later in Ghostbusters II, that the boys have been pushed to the margins. You can’t just blow up a luxury apartment building on Central Park West. Sued out of existence “by every state, county and city agency in New York,” the Ghostbusters toil in semi-obscurity – Ray and Winston work birthday parties for crowds of “ungrateful little yuppie larva,” Egon performs strange mood experiments in a lab, and Peter hosts a third-rate local TV show.
The Ghostbusters’ path to reformation begins, unsurprisingly, with the destruction of another architectural symbol of the establishment. After an arrest for performing an unlicensed experiment that resulted in a city-wide blackout, the Ghostbusters find themselves in court, facing serious jail time. As Judge Wexler (nickname: The Hammer) hands down a fiery sentence, ghosts visit the courtroom and the Ghostbusters are once again called to duty. The battle between Ghostbusters and ghosts is split into three brief segments. In the first, the Ghostbusters shoot beams from their proton packs haphazardly, rusty after years away from the job. The shots send the ghosts out of the courtroom, and then there is a pause. The Ghostbusters stand in silence. The camera pulls back and we see that they’ve torched the courtroom. Peter, Ray and Egon look at one another, and they begin to laugh. We see that this – not simply capturing ghosts, but doing so in their particular way – is what’s most fulfilling for these men. The battle concludes in the third segment with the ghosts’ capture and the Ghostbusters’ simple declaration: “We’re back.”
While we continue to see the Ghostbusters destroy symbols of wealth and power throughout the second film, the Ghostbusters’ engagement with architectural symbols becomes more nuanced in the sequel, as populist architecture and infrastructure come to play a larger role. Ghostbusters II is characterized by a somber mood; it’s the end of the 1980s, and New Yorkers are bitter and self-interested and, worse, resigned to being so. Mayor Lenny sums up the collective mindset: “Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s god-given right.” This shared misery, it turns out, has profound implications: a river of psycho-reactive slime, which feeds off of “bad vibes,” has formed under the city, running through an abandoned subway line, straight to the Museum (unnamed, but a clear stand-in for the Metropolitan Museum of Art), where Dana Barrett works and the film’s main villain, a 14th-century Carpathian warlord named Vigo, resides.
While the relation between good and evil and architecture was made fairly explicit in the first film (architecture of the wealthy = vehicle for the world’s destruction), this relationship is made more complex in the second film. A subway tunnel and an art museum are now vehicles for the world’s end. But there is nothing implicitly evil or exclusionary about the subway or the Museum – both are open to all. These architectural symbols are transformed by New Yorkers’ poisonous mood; by the end of the decade, greed and disenfranchisement are so rampant that even ostensible symbols of good have turned evil. The Ghostbusters’ misgivings about the 1980s, expressed in the first film, are realized in the second.
In the final third of the film, as Vigo makes his bid for world domination, the Museum is covered in a thick shell of slime. The Ghostbusters stand outside the Museum and blast ineffectually at the shell, only to realize that the power of the slime is too strong for them alone. It is at this point that the Ghostbusters turn to an incorruptible public symbol of good – the Statue of Liberty. The Ghostbusters hose the inside of the Statue with positively charged slime (so it responds to good energy instead of bad) and begin pumping Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love,” turning the Statue of Liberty into a walking, swinging symbol of good capable of breaking the Museum’s shell. (The scene in the Statue of Liberty also shows that the Ghostbusters haven’t abandoned their anti-establishment position; they’re sure to stomp a police cruiser on their way to the Museum.) The Statue of Liberty, both as an architectural symbol and as a tool for the Ghostbusters, provides the film’s first glimmer of hope. Architecture can offer hope and redemption, both to people and to a city.
It was recently announced that a third Ghostbusters is in the works. Details are sketchy so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few all-glass condos on the receiving end of a blast from a proton pack.