“People who live with fires think a great deal about what will happen ‘when’....”
-Joan Didion, “Fire Season,” After Henry
On October 29, 2016--ten days before the election--I attended a six-hour film dissection of Ghostbusters. I’d always known there was depth in that movie. I knew amidst the political profiles, good and evil archetypes, and Dana/Peter love story, there was more to it than laughs. I remembered as a child in church during “children’s time” when the pastor asked, “Who do you call when you’re in trouble?” a boy had shouted, “Ghostbusters!” Had I signed up for the class because I knew we were in trouble?
I arrived at Seattle International Film Center early and settled in with my travel mug and journal. An in-my-age-range man sat next to me. He was wearing a long, black coat that floated behind him like a cape, dressy shoes, casual clothes underneath, and a gold watch. One blonde curl fell in his face. We started chatting and said why we were there. He’d gone to film school at Madison (Where I’m from! Something in common!). I shared my interest in film in an attempt to portray myself in an intelligent, available light. For the first two hours of the screening we whispered commentary to only each other. So smart. So hushed. I could already hear the wedding toasts, references to our witty banter in the dark.
At the first break when we went outside and saw each other in the light for the first time, I decided I was still interested in him. But instead of looking interested in me, he looked panicked in the sun. He fumbled with his phone. More news of “the emails” came in. A “big reveal” that should not have swung voters, but did. I remember thinking this was not good. I remember thinking those on the other side would latch onto this. That somehow this “issue” would contribute to sending things the way they were not supposed to go. I thought about why people were so fixated on the emails briefly, as if I’d seen a ghost I doubted was real, during our break. Then the break was over, and I returned to analyzing the doom in Ghostbusters.
By hour three a group of high school students started to contribute to the discussion. The future was stepping up--being intelligent and taking a stand. By hour four the class had spent so much time pausing and analyzing the movie that we had to hit play and plow forward. Less dialogue, more introspection. That’s when I began to see the parallels between ghostbusters of the movie and ghostbusters of the election.
Take the montage to “Saving the Day.” Armed guards pound the streets, smoke billows, and New Yorkers pray. Punk-rockers, priests, and rabbis rally together behind the ghostbusters. Sitting in that dark theater ten days before the 2016 election, I thought these scenes--in their depiction of both fear and unity--were eerily apt. Today they seem almost calm. Because in Ghostbusters, the public was scared, but they were all together. They were on the same side fighting danger.
But in the scene prior to “Saving the Day,” when the ghostbusters get the go-ahead from the mayor (meant to resemble mayor Ed Koch) to take the lead on ghostbusting, the divide in leadership is clear. Take the irate, red-faced, fake-news fueled EPA rep Walter Peck. Peck is boyish and bullish, commanding cops in an earlier scene, “If he does that again, you can shoot him!” And even though Peck is with the EPA--a “man of science”--and the ghostbusters are, at first, portrayed as students of the supernatural, the characters are more than their stereotypes. Half of the ghostbusters are scientists. Ray reprimands Peter for never studying and Egon collects spores, mold, and fungus as a hobby. Even the non-scientist Winston, the newest member of the team who initially stated “if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say,” tells the mayor he’s “seen stuff that will turn you white!” We’re with Winston. We’ve seen ghosts take over refrigerators, gobble hot dogs, drive taxis, and “Ssh” us in libraries. Because we know these ghosts are real, we know Peck is a villain. By the time we’re in the mayor’s office we believe the ghostbusters not because they’re charming and hard-working, but because we’ve seen the ghosts for ourselves.
Even though Ghostbusters has been named one of the “best conservative movies ever made” and celebrates “Reagan-era market conservatism ” and “privatization and profit motives” over “public sector power,” it knows the difference between good and evil. Even though the ghostbusters started out as a for-profit business (“No job is too big. No fee is too big.”), they ultimately work to benefit all people, not just the rich. The ghostbusters are here for all us. Peck is not. So when the mayor points to Peck and says “Get him outta here” and the guards drag him out of the office, it is a kind of justice many of us would wish for for four, long years.
The consequences of that wish never being granted were not fully clear to me that sunny Saturday in October, 2016. But like slime dripping from drawers of a card catalogue, they would reveal themselves to be true.
When the class was over I gave the man in the cape-coat my number and walked up Queen Anne hill into the light. Never mind the possibility of impending doom from “the email issue,” I’d talked to a man! At the crest of the hill, just as clouds parted and the late afternoon sun backlit the Safeway, I sent him the first text. I put him in my phone as “Keymaster.” Two days later I dressed up as Miss Piggy for Halloween, all snout and curls and pearls, trotting around my place of gainful employment with a donut in one satin-gloved hand. Two days after that Keymaster responded to my invite to get a drink by saying that he would be up for “getting together and talking about film.” Making it clear (it seemed) we could meet only as friends: film-focused without boozy flirtation. The next day I had a blind date with a man I would spend the next year and half with. He turned out to be the wrong man, too. But I didn’t know that then.
Over the next four years I would think about how telling Ghostbusters was. We learn this in Ghostbusters II. We see the consequences as the bile and hatred of the country rise to the surface, manifesting in flowing, burping, and gurgling pink slime that seeps out of art museums and gushes into babies’ bath water. These emboldened rivers of hate were led by Vigo, a psychotic, Carpathian autocrat who relied on smoke and mirrors and intimidation through down-cast eyes to rule the “season of evil,” declaring: “What was, will be. What is, will be no more.” In real life, well, you know what happens.
Ray: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling.
Egon: Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston: The dead rising from the grave.
Peter: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.
Have I seen too much Ghostbusters? I think I’ve seen just enough.
This year there is no man in a cape-like coat or satin-gloved hand. There is the pandemic, injustice, unemployment, fires, and so much more. “It will get better,” they said. That’s what they said about the pandemic, too.
It can be hard to know who to believe... which ghosts are real. In the past week two people, when they learned I live in Seattle, told me to “be careful” and that “there’s a lot going on in Seattle.” Is there? I see nice, mask-wearing people. What did these two out-of-state, white men over 50 know about Seattle? What ghosts did they think they had seen?
Maybe you or someone you love chose the wrong person four years ago. I’ve chosen the wrong man a few times myself. But I learned and moved on. Haven't we learned anything? Haven't we seen that those who said they would keep us from trouble harmed us instead? Some of us always knew. Some took a little longer. Some will never know.
“People who live with fires think a great deal about what will happen ‘when.’”
“Who do you call when you’re in trouble?”