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The Spiritualist Origins of Ghostbusters

Communicating with the dead hasn't always been about male bonding.

The Great Kingdom of Aggrieved Man-Children had already risen up against the Lady Ghostbusters long before they’d even donned their proton packs, stridently proclaiming to anyone that would listen that the reboot of the 1984 classic went against all tradition. It’s unclear why this new Ghostbusters—of all possible remakes, of all possible movies to be remade with a female cast—would inspire such overwhelming petulance. After all, what should be obvious to anyone not trapped in his own nostalgia is that communicating with spirits has always been the province of women.

America’s love affair with ghosts began in 1848, when two sisters in upstate New York—Maggie and Kate Fox—claimed that their house had a ghost and that they could communicate with him through a series of rappings. Their ability to talk to spirits quickly grew national attention, launching the movement that became known as Spiritualism. Maggie and Kate’s eldest sister, Leah Fox Underhill, promoted her sisters’ talents before settling in New York City, where she offered to lead séances for the wealthy and influential, helping to ensure the widespread dissemination of Spiritualism. Underhill’s ability to convince influential figures like Horace Greeley and William Lloyd Garrison helped ensure the new religion’s spread: By 1850 there were over a hundred mediums in New York City alone, and within a few years the number of Spiritualists in America reached into the millions. When Maggie confessed that the whole thing had been a hoax, the reaction was so strong she was forced to recant her confession.

Despite the involvement and support of influential men, Spiritualism remained primarily the work of women, and coincided with the first major feminist movement in the United States. As Ann Braude, author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, argues, “Spiritualism became a major—if not the major—vehicle for the spread of women’s rights ideas in mid-century America.” By focusing on direct, personal revelation, Spiritualism obviated the need for a hierarchical, patriarchal church, and as such drew political radicals to its cause, foremost among them women’s rights advocates. “Spiritualism,” a believer named Mary Davis wrote in the 1850s, “has inaugurated the era of women.” In their History of Women’s Suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony single out Spiritualism as “The only religious sect in the world…that has recognized the equality of woman.”

Spiritualism also celebrated precisely those aspects of femininity that the rest of culture was busy pathologizing. Nervousness, erratic behavior, uncontrolled outbursts, flagrant sexuality—doctors and psychiatrists saw these all as symptoms of hysteria, that ever-elusive disease that mostly boiled down to women acting out. But these same unruly behaviors were qualities prized in an excellent medium, and women who exhibited these traits were routinely praised for their psychic sensitivity. Women who might have otherwise been institutionalized found celebrity through Spiritualism instead. In 1866 the Spiritualist periodical The Banner of Light proposed that it was precisely because women were physically weak that their nerves were sensitive and receptive. “Hence sickness, rest, passivity, susceptibility, impressionability, mediumship, communication, revelation!”

The original Ghostbusters made clear from the outset it was having none of this. When they’re called to a ghost sighting at the New York Public Library, one of the first questions Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman asks the elderly librarian who’s witnessed the ghost is, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” It’s more than a lazy joke. Original cast-member Dan Aykroyd has said that “Part of Ghostbusters’ appeal derives from the cold, rational, acceptance-of-the-fantastic-as-routine tone that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and I were able to sustain in the movie.” When men see ghosts, they do so as rational, thoughtful scientists. When women see the same ghosts, they’re hysterical.

Even accounting for the politics of the era, it’s difficult to understate the amount of sexism in the original film. As Andy Hoglund wrote for The Daily Beast, “It is not ghosts that haunt the film’s protagonists; it’s their inability to connect with women.” From the open disdain towards women from Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) to Murray’s predatory behavior (Our first glimpse of him is rigging a Milgram-esque psychology experiment to hook up with an undergraduate), what unites the Ghostbusters is that they’re man-children, alternately befuddled by and contemptuous of women. In the film’s, um, climactic sequence, as the Ghostbusters face the Sumerian god Gozer (who’s taken the form of a naked woman), Murray’s Venkman shouts instructions: “Grab your sticks! Heat ‘em up! Make ‘em hard! Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown…throw it!” Whatever was once subtext is now simply text, as ghostbusting becomes more or less indistinguishable from a rape fantasy.

Where does this attitude originate? Aykroyd, the creative force behind the franchise, comes from a family of psychics, and has described himself as “a proud wearer of the Spiritualist badge.” You’d think that he’d know his own history better. But the Ghostbusters franchise borrows far less from the history of Spiritualism than it does films like the 1937 Disney short, Lonesome Ghosts, in which Mickey, Donald and Goofy work as “ghost exterminators,” called to a haunted house by some bored ghosts looking for pranks. As ghost hunters, Mickey and Co. are just a bunch of regular blue-collar Joes, sitting by the phone waiting for another job. Underpaid and underprepared, they luck into heroism.

1984’s Ghostbusters borrows a great deal from this formula, particularly in characterizing ghost hunters as basically blue-collar exterminators who also happen to have PhDs. There is no sense here that ghosts are dead loved ones trying to reach us across the great divide, and there is little in the first two films that fits with traditional conceptions of how spirits look and act. (The iconic green ghost that appears at the Sedgwick Hotel, for example—what is it? The spirit of a dead hotel patron? Or simply a food safety violation to be disposed of?) When the Ghostbusters, in their coveralls, emerge from the hotel proudly holding aloft the trap with their first ghost by its cord, they might just as well be holding a large rat up by its tail. Ghosts are never entities to be communicated with; they are pests to be eliminated.

The generation that grew up with this film has embraced this model: Reality TV shows about ghosts often feature male-dominated ghost-hunting crews, wearing matching t-shirts and brandishing the latest gadgetry—a far cry from the Spiritualists of old. Ghost-hunting has become about male bonding, a thing you do with your buds on the weekend to blow off steam. (When a friend of mine joined a ghost-hunting crew for an outing, they wrapped up an unsuccessful night asking him if he wanted to join them at a strip club.) Which is to say, for better or worse, the original Ghostbusters was a milestone in the history of Spiritualism: It completely altered the way we conceptualize ghosts and our relationship to them. It took a female-dominated field that focused primarily on mourning, communion with the past, and spirituality, and re-conceived it as a masculine pursuit focused on hunting and exterminating. That original strand still exists, of course, but now it exists alongside this other trajectory, and it’s the latter that’s become increasingly ascendant.

The reboot crosses these streams, borrowing the aesthetics of the original (the coveralls, the proton packs, the Ecto-1) while moving away from the exterminator theme. It walks a difficult line, having to stay true to an original that so completely flipped the script on everything that had come before. In director Paul Feig’s new Ghostbusters, the trapping of ghosts is downplayed: The first two ghosts are let go without incident, and the third is only captured because the Ghostbusters realize they’ll need one in captivity to prove to everyone else that ghosts are real. It’s this desire to be believed and taken seriously that drives the new film. The main characters are four women, mostly in STEM fields, who have been ignored or derided for their groundbreaking work. This movie is more about proving oneself than making a go as a business.

With its all-female leads, the new Ghostbusters is more than just a recasting. It’s a repudiation, even as it goes out of its way to please fans of the original with a bevy of cameos and throwbacks. None of this pandering appears to be working, since now the male fans have taken on the part of the hysterics, with their apoplectic, inexplicable rage, their obsessive down-voting of trailers and positive reviews, their constant acting out for attention. For fan-boys, the real problem with the new Ghostbusters is precisely that the film shows women spending time together, pursuing their passions and interests with little regard for what men have to say. It’s why this film—uneven as it is at times—has a distinct and compelling charge, and why the reboot is far more connected to the tradition of Spiritualism than the 1984 original. The new film makes no nod to this grand Spiritualist tradition, but it’s there all the same—lurking underground. This reboot finds its spiritual progenitors not in Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray but in mystics like the Fox Sisters, and the spiritual and political agitators who gained strength in their wake.