The Hidden Specters of Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is supposed to be about ghosts. Thinking back over the film’s 124 minutes, however, I don’t remember seeing very many of them. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen most of the spooks in the script. There’s the Gatekeeper, of course. There’s the Keymaster and Gozer the Gozerian. There are the little Stay-Puft men, indistinguishable from Minions in an alternate movie universe. There’s an old miner and a new Slimer. A few more ghosts ramble around here and there, and some old friends return, living and dead.

There may not be very many ghosts on the screen, but Afterlife is a thoroughly haunted picture. Forget about those old Sumerian demigods, though. This reboot is haunted by two insidious specters that Stantz, Winston, Venkman and the kids could never hope to bust: the ghost of the American century and the ghost of science. When you put them together, Afterlife is something more than a comedy-horror reboot. Afterlife is an tragedy mourning the decline of twentieth century liberalism.

The first ghost is the specter of the American century. Like any ghost, it is difficult to pin down. Don’t seek it in the foreground. Look for it instead in the film’s sensibilities, in the aesthetic choices that shape its sets, costumes, vehicles, and props. Those choices outline a ghost of the American century. It is a warm presence, all golden hour and oversaturation, permeating the film. The prevailing kitsch of this ghostly mirage—the corn fields, main streets, drive-in cafes, grain silos, electric guitars, blue jeans, and other heartland mid-century ephemera—susurrates quietly in the background and tilt-shifts the perspective, rendering the town of Summerville and the surrounding landscape in idyllic miniature.  

Like the seismic charts hanging on the walls of Summerville, we can trace the epicenter of the American century’s ghost to “Spinners,” the drive-in café in the middle of town. This oversaturated temple to the departed teen culture of the 1950s and 1960s is where Finn Wolfhard’s character, Trevor, finds love and gets a job. “Spinners” seems to occupy the vital center of the town’s social life as well. In the “Spinners” scenes there are people everywhere, drivers and pedestrians mingling in conversation, music blaring, peals of laughter, old people and young, pickup trucks and Subarus. Contrast this with the scene at your local Sonic restaurant, where rolled-up windows on idling vehicles enforce the separation of the patrons into family units. One would be hard-pressed to find the sort of inter-class, open social environment thriving at “Spinners” anywhere in the real America.

The Epicenter of Mourning

Follow the tremors of nostalgia outward from Spinners, and you will find the ghost of the American century everywhere. It drifts around the crumbling grain silos outside of town. It haunts the faded Stay-Puft marshmallow advertisement painted on a downtown wall. It inhabits the beautifully maintained 1978 Ford Ranchero GT owned, inexplicably, by one of the teenagers who works at Spinners. It squeaks in the wheels of junky Radio Flyer wagons in the old field outside of the factory. It acts as a preservative in the old half-eaten Crunch Bar young Spengler pulls from the pocket of her grandfather’s Ghostbusters uniform. See it once; see it everywhere. 

Twenty years ago, a ghost of the American century would have looked like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting. All pastiche and cliché, it still would have carried itself with a sort of genteel dignity, a winking self-awareness that connected the living present to the departed past. It was both an aspirational cliché and a self-reflection: a ghost we could all see ourselves becoming someday, if we die righteously. The ghost haunting Summerville, Oklahoma is not as legible.  This is a ghost haunting the post-apocalypse. The element of self-reflection is gone. We are encouraged by light, sound, and decay to situate the town somewhere in the past, but it is unclear where in time its development is supposed to have stopped. Is Summerville stuck in the 1950s? The 1980s? It doesn’t matter. Viewers in 2021 can no longer discern the difference between the two. All of it now is the 1900s, a golden era gone. 

Nostalgia on the Streets

We have a harder time than ever before seeing ourselves in the old American century, but Afterlife wants us to understand that it was a better time. Rusted silos, sagging rooflines, and burnt-out lights on the marquee signs suggest that the town’s best days are gone. Except for flipping burgers, stocking shelves, or policing, it is unclear what anyone in town does for a living. The mine shut down decades ago. The farm infrastructure is old and unused. Spinners, Walmart, and the state are the only going concerns. This, too, is a manifestation of the American ghost. The signal fades.

The ghost of the American century is a specter of history. The second ghost haunting the town of Summerville is the poltergeist of science. You need not seek this spirit lurking in the background, however. It is there, everywhere, in perfect focus, lavished with thought. 

Writers Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman cast these two spirits in opposition to one another. “History is safe,” Paul Rudd—who plays Gary Grooberson, a geologist moonlighting as a summer school teacher to study the seismic anomalies in the area—tells the kids in one scene. “Science is all particle accelerators and hydrogen bombs.” One is boring, in other words; the other is cool. One is quietly dead; the other seems almost alive. 

The Imperium of Gear

Set aside the question of history for a moment. What is science? “Science is punk rock,” Grooberson says. “Science is a safety pin through the nipple of academia.” Punk rock, like science, is an attitude, a set of beliefs. We learn little of the philosophy of science in Afterlife, however. Instead, the ghost of science in Summerville is made of gear. Egon Spengler’s old workshop overflows with stuff. Ecto-1 is top heavy with racks, hoses, antennae, and other things. Proton packs, goggles, scopes, sensors, containment units, gauges, switches, pedals, buttons, and other bits of equipment surround the characters when they do science. There is no method. There are no hypotheses, no failed assumptions, no notebooks. Characters see a problem; they deploy a tool. The problem is solved. If academia is full of uncertainty, science in Summerville truly is the safety pin in its nipple. There is no uncertainty in the haunted mansion of science.

We do not pierce the veil of science in Summerville, but we are encouraged to see its moral shadow. This, too, is not what the characters claim. Grooberson says: “Science is pure. It’s an absolute. It’s an answer to all the madness.” It was “science,” however, which flowed from Summerville’s vein of selenium through the twisted hypotheses of Ivo Shandor to shape Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building in New York. “Science”—the sciences of mining, smelting, electrical engineering, et cetera—enabled the construction of the building. Science, too, brought the original Ghostbusters together and informed their work. In the Ghostbusters universe, as in real life, science is yin and yang, promise and peril.  Afterlife buries the peril in the promise. Where have we seen that before?

A “pure” world without uncertainty was a key promise of the American heyday, too. The brutal efficiency of the marketplace, the genius of its innovators, the inherent righteousness of its existence: these forces had triumphed over fascism, the story went, as surely as they would triumph over communism, cancer, hunger, the colonization of space. Along the way maybe history itself—that incessant dialectic of class warfare—would come to an end. It is an idea worth mourning, perhaps, if you can believe it. 

Try as they might, however, the filmmakers cannot separate the ghost of America from the ghost of science. My schoolbooks from the 1900s maintained that these two were symbiotically linked. American greatness flowed from the font of science, they argued, which flowed from the font of greatness, and so on. American power was transcendent, airborne, contemptuous of limits, devastating in its mastery of the natural world. The comfort it enabled was highly engineered.

The ectoplasm of American scientific power paints a different picture. The chronicles of nuclear devastation on Planet Earth, the inexorable decline which renders the memory of the American century in Summerville through a darkening glass, and the persistence of an ancient Sumerian demigod in a mountain just outside of town suggest that history is unsafe, and science is impure. We should not mourn them, but we cannot escape them. Like intrusive thoughts, they color our experience of the world. They refract our understanding, twist our nostalgia in subtle ways. They haunt even our blockbuster film franchises. Our only hope to overcome their decrepit influence is to leave them in the past.

Let us create new things.