The Hero's Journey
Ghostbusters works as a comedy because it doesn't try to work as a comedy.
Sure, there's laughs, even elements of parody, but it's unfair to categorize the film as a spoof in the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker or Mel Brooks way, or to write it off as a Saturday Night Live version of anything. The basic plot outline (heroes battle ghosts, save world) is treated as the perfectly suitable big-budget material that it is, an engaging, imaginative adventure on its own merits. Indeed, the success of The Real Ghostbusters bears out the viability of the ghost-catching business as an opportunity for traditional action and escapades. The film's genius is that's hysterically funny on top of all that. The plot is serious. It's the characters that are funny.
It is, in short, a comedy writ large; as blogger Timothy Brayton points out, "the very reason for its longevity has everything to do with its 'bigness', its costly high-concept ambition which lends the film a kind of grandeur and impressiveness that sets off its resolutely intimate, human-sized comedy and makes it seem all the funnier for the contrast." In understanding that 'bigness', we understand the heart of the movie.
Academic tradition requires that every cinematic narrative released after Star Wars be dissected in terms of the Hero's Journey, the archetypal structure of storytelling as documented in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Certainly it seems odd to discuss a comedy on the same terms as one would The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or any other mythic yarns from Homer to homogenized Hollywood. But Ghostbusters uses Campbell without tipping its hand; it reaps all the emotional resonance of this timeless and evergreen trope without ringing generic. Indeed, the audience is hardly aware that the classic cycle of trials, quests and rebirths is sneaking right under their noses.
(I mean, were you?)
In the first phase of the monomyth, Departure, the hero's mundane life is interrupted by information or incident inviting him to the unknown. Departure covers his debate of the issue and his preparation to tackle it, up to the point he actually gets out the door. Screenwriters know this phase as 'the first act'. It begins with a call to adventure, which Ghostbusters neatly presages with the seemingly innocent catchphrase: "Who ya gonna call?" The classic tales are always with us…
The Call to Adventure: Stantz barges in on Venkman's research. "You're coming with us on this one," he insists.
Refusal of the Call: Comically, Venkman actually refuses the call in advance, before Stantz has a chance to formally issue it. Even once pestered into physically attending the presumed haunting, his attitude reinforces his refusal the whole way through.
Supernatural Aid: Where the hero's spirit guide or magical companion steps in, to aid said hero along the way. (You know. The Obi-Wan Kenobi role.) This step can be covered only so literally in a film making the supernatural the enemy, though the reveal of an actual ghost in the library certainly helps get the Ghostbusters' journey going.
The Crossing of the First Threshold: The commitment to the adventure is made; the hero leaves home, the world of the known, and enters the new realm. The protagonists are cast out of Columbia; Venkman faces the private sector for the first time.
Belly of the Whale: The transition between the hero's old self and new. "Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma," says Venkman, as he announces the new plan: "To go into business for ourselves." And in the very next shot, they're off the university grounds and out in the big city.
The second phase, Initiation, is the bulk of the quest, wherein the dragon is slain, the Holy Grail or golden fleece finally seized.
The Road of Trials: Or the hotel of trials, as Ghostbusters does it. After a failed investigation of Dana's apartment and a few missteps in capturing Slimer, the Ghostbusters pass their first test.
The Meeting with the Goddess: The hero experiences love in both an awe-inspiring and self-unifying sense. This certainly describes Dana's ability to impress Venkman, and even to get him to change his ways, as we'll discuss later.
Woman as Temptress: Zuul. Moving on.
Atonement with the Father: The center point of the journey, wherein the hero confronts the ultimate power in his life, and becomes his best self to move forward. Jesus Christ struggled with His Father in Gesthename; Luke Skywalker confronted his in Cloud City. But Campbell stresses that this need not necessarily be a literal father, a father figure, or even a male entity. The point is a transcendence of ordinary understanding, a new perception, new faith: as Campbell puts it, "The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source." Venkman achieves this by putting his faith in Spengler's plan, leading the Ghostbusters to take that desperate leap, and cross the streams.
Apotheosis: A state of peace, of spiritual grace. Ghostbusters treats this prosaically, simply allowing the men a quiet moment on the roof, the calm after the storm, with Venkman spared the trial of the marshmallow baptism. (The more spiritual sequel would tackle this step explicitly, incorporating a joyful chorus, two very blessed-out people and a cod-Renaissance image of spiritual nirvana.)
The Ultimate Boon: What the quest was about; what film buffs like to call the McGuffin. In Ghostbusters' case, the world is saved. Another easy one.
The third phase of the journey, the Return, is largely absent from Ghostbusters; it is, after all, an origin story rather than a sprawling saga, and the journey ends at the destination. Not all myths cover all of Campbell's points, and once the Ghostbusters complete their quest, the world they knew before is just twenty-two floors away.
Its sole phase worth considering here is the penultimate step, Master of Two Worlds. The Ghostbusters bring balance between their world and the dimension beyond, winning victory in the material plane and over the spiritual; they have resolved the tension between yin and yang, known and unknown, and found that, at least atop 550 Central Park West, the separation is but a construct of the mind.
It's appropriate that the film doesn't cover the Return, because the tenets of Campbell's Return don't quite line up with Ghostbusters anyway. It requires a re-integration into the community that the characters never take aboard. The last stage, Freedom to Live, marks the hero's attainment of psychological freedom; his return to his world is marked by service, social responsibility and helping humanity, often as a teacher or mentor. It's a spiritual transfiguration. The Ghostbusters, by contrast, speed off into the proverbial sunset and wait for their check.
Scholars Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue for a variant on Campbell's classical monomyth that better suits American culture. In The American Monomyth and The Myth of the American Superhero, they outline their vision of Campbell's structure revised for a newer nation: "A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity."
There are comic inversions here. Venkman is hardly selfless, and New Yorkers will guffaw at the notion of the town as a "harmonious" anything, but the rest fits in beautifully. What's important is the question of "normal institutions". As we'll explore more fully in the 'Politics' chapter, the Ghostbusters transcend the limited competencies of government. They violate a few laws here and there, from the keeping of unlicensed nuclear accelerators to the running of red lights—but they get the job done when the authorities can't, in the manner of the outlaw cowboy riding in to save the village. As for the dénouement, Ghostbusters II indicates that their recession into obscurity was a brutal one. Jewett and Lawrence show what happens when Campbellian archetypes meet American storytelling; a few of the values have changed, but the structure lives on.
The mythic underpinnings of Ghostbusters, as in any successful story, function on an unconscious level; we laugh at bad action movies that too easily telegraph their Refusal of the Call or the Crossing of the First Threshold. Lesser films use Campbell as a crutch; great films never need to apologize. So skillfully executed is Ghostbusters that Bill Murray's face stands in for a thousand without anyone ever the wiser.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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