“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” So opens H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” To quibble with Lovecraft about horror is surely a sucker’s game, but I think he’s only half right here. Lovecraft’s own stories all have a central “unknown,” but the best and scariest of them are always the ones where the big reveal comes not as a shock but as a confirmation, not a “WTF?” but an “I knew it!” So I’ll emend his definition: The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of that unknown which we realize, in the moment of unveiling, that we knew all along. Of course, it’s a tricky line to walk, which is why truly successful horror is such a rarity. Telegraph it too much, and the audience will laugh at you. Too little, and you end up with the Double Shyamalan, a twist ending that’s so out-of-left-field that the audience simply rejects it. To get it right, you have to get your audience to realize the secret subconsciously while remaining consciously oblivious. Now, I’m not going out on much of a limb by saying that the subconscious plays a role in horror. Most scholarly analyses of horror claim that the supernatural unknown illustrates a Freudian concept known as “the return of the repressed.” What the rational mind refuses to deal with – sexual desire being the big one, although in Lovecraft’s case it was racism – will bubble back up again as a bug-eyed monster.
Curious what all this has to do with Ghostbusters? Me too! Let’s click through to the next page together, friends.
Like most good horror comedies, Ghostbusters makes a good-faith effort to be an effective horror film, but it’s quite unusual in that the struggle between rational thought and the repressed unconscious is specifically dramatized. Once the repressed has returned, a group of professional rationalists (remember that they start out as academics) show up to actively contain the repressed by using the tools and discourse of science. It’s not completely unique in this – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (as opposed to Bram Stoker’s Dracula) does the same thing, as does a somewhat atypical Lovecraft story called “The Shunned House” – but neither of these are as screamingly obvious as Ghostbusters. Consume enough popular culture, and you can draw up a list of crude binary oppositions related to the subconscious:
In the subtext of any given horror movie, you usually get a couple of elements from column A placed in opposition to a couple of elements from column B. Now check out how it plays in Ghostbusters: you get a bunch of rational modern American (Canadian, but who’s counting) heroes opposed to an ancient irrational supernatural foreign menace. And that’s not the subtext, that’s the freaking plot! Beyond that, note that the ghosts are disgustingly “bodily” (dig that slime!). Note that Gozer the Gozerian first appears as supermodel Slavitza Jovan, while the Ghostbusters are all men who fight the ghosts with their phallic science-sticks. It’s pretty Freud-tastic, in fact, I’d go so far as to say Freud-riffic. But there’s something else going on, too.