The Brilliance of the Ghostbusters Logo

Your first clue this is not The Exorcist.

Ghostbusters is one of those movies that makes moviemaking look easy. The jokes are funny, the scary parts are scary, the special effects hold up surprisingly well, and the pop single is timeless. But let’s not forget about the classic logo, which tells you everything you need to know. Ghosts are supposed to be terrifying, inexplicable, and powerful beyond measure. The logo promises that not only will they be defeated, they will be neutered and mocked. We’d all seen plenty of movies about people fighting ghosts (for example, Poltergeist was only two years before Ghostbusters). The genius of this movie is that although the ghosts are often portrayed as legitimately terrifying (think about the scene when the black hands burst out of the sofa to grab Sigourney Weaver), the main characters quixotically try to bring them down to the level of a cockroach or other household pest. The movie is all about taking something unbelievable and treating it like something mundane. That’s right there in the cartoony, cheeseball logo.

Consider the opening scene, set in the New York Public Library. If you saw that on its own, you would have no idea you were watching a comedy. The menace builds slowly as books float through the air when her back is turned. Finally, she sees the index cards. She flees just as they begin to flurry down, the drawers springing open inches behind her. The camera moves with her as she runs desperately through the stacks. She turns the corner, gets hit with a blinding light, screams in horror, and… cue the logo.

The scene isn’t funny at all. But by capping it with the logo and the jingle, the whole thing is reframed as a commercial. A moment of nail-biting suspense becomes a pitch: “Who ya gonna call?” That’s what the Ghostbusters do—they take horrifying situations and turn them into a profitable small business.

Of course, this is not just the logo of the movie, it’s the logo of the business in the movie. It’s one of the few diagetic logos I can think of. (“Diagesis,” for those of you who didn’t take Intro to Film Studies, refers to something within the world of the movie. When John Cussack holds up a boombox in Say Anything, Peter Gabriel is diagetic.) The only other diagetic movie logo I can think of is Jurassic Park. The logo is slapped on all the trucks at Richard Attenborough’s dino resort. So both these logos are doing more than selling the movie; they are attempts by the characters to sell us something they probably shouldn’t be selling us. In other words, they’re both dangerous lies.

The ghosts in Ghostbusters are a world away from the Casperish cartoon we see in that red circle. They are scary things that can potentially destroy the world, and it’s not entirely clear whether our heroes can stop them. When they are summoned to the Sedgewick Hotel, the Ghostbusters try and act like this is a routine walk in the park. In fact, they nearly destroy the place and light a cleaning woman on fire. “Why worry?” says Ray. “Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.” The whole thing is insane, and they know it, and the cutesy logo is overcompensating. Similarly, the Jurassic Park logo presents the T-Rex as a skeleton, not as an animal with instincts and volition. It encourages us to think of the Park’s dinosaurs as exhibits in a fancy museum. But the actual dinosaurs are incredibly fast and powerful, and refuse to behave like exhibits. Those sharp teeth on the logo become horrible premonitions. So while in Ghostbusters, the boys eventually live up to the promise of their logo, in Jurassic Park it becomes a ironic mark of hubris.

The Ghostbusters logo tells you about the movie and about the characters who supposedly created it. It’s an incredibly clever symbol. I’m sorry to say, however, that the Ghostbusters 2 logo is a complete mess. It’s no longer diagetic–instead, it’s a parody of the logo of a fictional business, which is a lot of abstraction for a comedy. And why is the ghost happy? Hasn’t he been busted? Then again, it looks like he’s breaking out of the circle, with one foot already on the ground. Is that the movie’s way of building the stakes–presenting us with a ghost who is fighting back against his own busting? In any case, this ghost still looks harmless, even friendly, so I can’t say I’m worried about whether the red circle can hold it. Honestly, I’m really not sure what we’re supposed to learn from this logo, besides that it’s the second Ghostbusters movie. At least that much is clear. From the two fingers.

If I were redesigning the Ghostbusters 2 logo, I’d keep the scared/surprised-looking ghost from the first movie with one of these variations:

  1. Put a second crossbar on the circle, sloping the other way, so there’s a big X over the ghost.
  2. Put two crossbars running straight up and down, like bars on a jail cell. The ghost can be clinging to them pitifully.
  3. Keep the same solo crossbar, but this time the ghost has two heads.

In all three of these cases, you lose the diagetic aspect of the logo (the logo the Ghostbusters actually use doesn’t change between movies). But you’d at least keep the messaging of the logo consistent, while tweaking it to give the second film its own visual identity. If they ever do Ghostbusters 3, hopefully they’ll wipe the smile right off that thing’s face. Busting makes me feel good. Not ghosts.

UPDATE, 11:30 am: So as Erik points out in the comments, I made an error in the previous paragraph. The Ghostbuster 2 logo DOES appear diagetically, as a sort of triumphant “we’re back” logo. But this just confuses me more. The Ghostbusters are equating THEMSELVES with the ghost in the logo! You know what this reminds me of? All those bbq restaurants that have smiling pigs or cows out front. It’s always seemed weird and morbid to me. I mean, an exterminator would never have a friendly smiling rat on its truck. Maybe a malevolent, leering rat, but not a cutesy one.