There is No Religious Undertone, Only Zuul

What does Ghostbusters really say about the religious idea of ghosts?

Ghostbusters Week

[Editor’s note: Do you want some more Ghostbusters overthinking? Check out our Ghostbusters Overview Set, with downloadable commentary on the first two movies and Bridesmaids! Get it now!]

[Ghostbusters Week continues with a guest post by Chris Richards.]

Possibly the most important line in Ghostbusters arrives around the one hour and three minute mark, but it rarely receives the notice or affection of other lines in the film.  Riding together, Ray (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson) talk about several topics, leading Winston to ask, “Do you believe in God?”

Rather than playing the line for laughs, the two proceed to have a semi-serious discussion on the Biblical End-of-Days, as well as their own personal beliefs.  In a movie so unapologetically anti-authoritarian, the moment is very much out-of-place; perhaps there simply to reassure the viewers’ minds that, yes, the writers have taken the religious effects of Ghostbusters into account.

What does Ghostbusters really say about the religious idea of ghosts?

But before I continue, there is one thing I would like to put forward.  For the sake of this article, I am going to assume a Judeo-Christian mindset of the afterlife (with one notable exception near the end).  To examine the ramifications of Ghostbusters on other versions of the afterlife would simply take too long. (Sorry, Neo-Pharaohists, you’ve been slighted yet again.)

Now, let’s jump right into the heart of the matter.

Certainly, the question must have crossed someone’s mind, as ghosts and the afterlife are so inherently mixed, and belief in the afterlife is often either influenced or informed by one’s religious convictions.  Watching the movie gives us a few clues.  The first ghost we encounter is a librarian, hovering in the NY Public Library’s stacks.  This ghost makes a mess of things; leaving ectoplasm and, at the end of the encounter, transforming into a frightful beast.  Later, we see the Ghostbusters’ secretary asking about the physical forms of ghosts as she makes appointments.  From these encounters, it seems that the ghosts are those of the recently (one would assume) deceased.

Ray and Winston, Theologians. This theory is backed up further by Ray and Winston’s theological banter, in which they ponder the theological connection to what is going on.  As the “End-of-Days” come nigh, Winston suggests, their business is going up.  And, through the rest of the movie, this association is left to stand, as the Ghostbusters collectively tie in more biblical imagery into what they are fighting.  Further, if we look into Ghostbusters 2 (which we very seldom should), we can see further evidence of the ghosts being tied to the dead.  Near that film’s climax, two men at the NYC docks call in to report that the Titanic has finally shown up, about 7 decades late.

So it’s settled, the Ghostbusters are capturing dead people, yes?

Well, perhaps not.  Several of the ghosts we see are not all that human looking.  Example Numero Uno is the ‘Ghostbusters’ first successful case, Slimer.  While he has some human-esque features, Slimer is hardly human-looking.  He more closely resembles a pack of Gak than a person.  Also, the Ghostbusters make several references to “entities,” and no one visibly complains about the Ghostbusters ethical or moral responsibilities other than the EPA.  It seems that the Ghostbusters Carbon Footprint is more important than their metaphysical one.

But if these ghosts aren’t people, than what are they?  Perhaps they are demons, minions of Satan/Lucifer, or maybe they are just soulless hunks of ectoplasm.  Maybe there are some ghosts that don’t come from anywhere.

But the weight of the evidence just doesn’t support that argument.  The majority of the movie implies a connection to the deceased, as well as to God.  Through the movies, more often than not, ghosts display human-like form, and human-like behavior.  Even Slimer, for all his gooey glory, is very human in his wants (food and privacy) and his fears (disruptive ambushes, nuclear proton streams).

But, if that is the case, then it throws the whole Ghostbusters business model into jeopardy.  These guys are not killing cockroaches (as their job is humorously compared), it’s imprisoning souls.  Is that right?  Is that just?  Is what they are doing an affront to God?  Abortion may be murder, but the immortal soul would seem to be a more important deal.  Yet, somehow, the religious seem to be OK with the Ghostbusters.  It’s a priest’s opinion that convinces the Mayor to let them fight Gozer in the first movie, and several clergy are praying for them in the cheering crowd of supporters.  Iin 1984, a time when there were less Athiests and alternative religions in the US, the Ghostbusters seemed to be remarkably popular.

Religon Ain't Afraid of No Ghosts

Yet it’s not some random blob of goo they’ve captured (and charged thousands of dollars for), it’s your Aunt Flo or Grandma Ingles.  And what’s happening to Grandma?  After passing on, she might have wandered around for a spell.  After all, she’s always talked about visiting New York, and she could never afford to go while she was alive (the nice old lady was good enough to help you with your student loans instead).  But instead of seeing the sights on her way to Paradise, Grandma got ensnared by some overzealous, glorified exterminators on her way back to the hotel.  They zapped her, trapped her, and locked her in their laser-shielded, nuclear-powered limbo that doesn’t hold muster with the Environmental Protection Agency.  That’s some pretty terrifying stuff to contemplate, and would probably make any God-fearing person hesitate before picking up the phone.  Yet, remarkably, Priests, loyal churchgoers, and people of all creeds seem to love the Ghostbusters (again, except for the EPA).

ChristbustersAnd, finally, we do need to touch on one other theological scenario.  One possible reading of Ghostbusters, one that is perhaps far more disturbing, is that it completely rejects God and contemporary religion as we know it.  After all, the most religious-tinged aspects of the movie is a Sumerian god who turns out to be very very real (and delicious).  Since Gozer exists, does that mean that our God doesn’t?  At the very least, it would mean that Yahweh is only one of a Pantheon of Gods, making the first pair of the Ten Commandments total hogwash.

To many, this is perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all.  Perhaps the Sumerians had it right.  Maybe we’re all on a giant disk in a massive floating tin dome and when we die we enter a dark netherworld, left to roam forever as Gidims (Sumerian ghosts).  While this actually fits the themes of the movie more closely than any religious reading, it’s still not much comfort for the poor souls locked up inside the Ghostbusters’ containment grid.  If that’s the case, I’d recommend you start putting together an alter to Enlil soon; there’s a third Ghostbusters movie supposedly in the works, and who knows if we’ll escape the next apocalypse.

18 Comments on “There is No Religious Undertone, Only Zuul”

  1. Adam #

    It could be that the longer that a ghost remains on earth, the further it goes from being human. Slimer could be a very ancient ghost who has forgotten the human form, and now exists as nothing more than a floating mass of ectoplasm and emotion.

    Also, they never destroyed a ghost. The ghosts were shoved into the containment unit. They were keeping the ghosts in the paranormal version of Yucca Mountain. Perhaps they were only doing this until they could destroy them, or maybe until they were able to help them cross over. I am not aware if this was ever addressed in either cartoon or movie.

    And third, finding out that another God exists does not kill the first two commandments. The first commandment states that you shall make no other gods before Him, as in, He’s first, the big cheese, head honcho, all other gods are lesser gods. The second commandment says not to make idols and then worship them. It says this because he is a jealous god, not because they don’t exist.


  2. Wade #

    The Ghostbusters’ containment unit is, for all intents and purposes, a man-made purgatory. Like you said, who knows whether their plan is to destroy their trapped souls, help them cross over, or just leave them until they think of something better to do with them.

    Thanks to the miracle of modern science and Egon Spengler, the Ghostbusters are in the unique position of actually playing God. They’re the only four people in the known world with the power to have a soul condemned for eternity, set free, or held in limbo, all at the flick of a switch.


  3. Gab #

    @Adam: I love the Yucca Mountain comparison, given I grew up in Las Vegas. That’s pretty much what I was going to say, along with a point made by Wade: Because of the nature of the storage units, the Ghostbusters are not only circumventing any previous notions of “god,” but are asserting themselves in the place of those notions.


  4. ill #

    Well, I don’t know about massive floating tin domes… but the galaxy totally looks like a giant disk. A sparkly giant disk, but a giant disk none the less.


  5. Dan #

    Though out of cannon, I would look to the cartoon series for more depth on this. Some ghosts seem to be simply demons and creatures, specifically from other dimensions. The ghosts that have human qualities often get a reprieve. The busters solve their unfinished business and the ghost goes on its way. Even Slimer, the most human ghost in the first film finds freedom by the end.

    They go to good lengths to ensure that we know the ghosts they are busting are evil, dangerous nuisances. By all means, you can be a ghost, just don’t attack people or you go to ghost jail.


  6. Danielle #

    The commandments never state that no other gods exist, they just make a huge deal about not worshiping anyone other than Yahweh. The fact that Yahweh apparently considered the rules stating “I’m the boss of you and don’t you forget it,” more important than the stuff about not murdering people seems to indicate that he was a little insecure, and was perhaps up against some pretty heavy competition.


  7. Ant2206 #

    The Ghostbusters crew designed Slimer to be the ‘ghost of John Belushi’ (who died not long before the film was made).

    That implies that in their minds, the ghosts in the film are all dead people.


  8. Brian #

    As someone above alluded to, the cartoon covered this. While often overzealous to bust any ghosts, the boys in grey did, occasionally, realize that some ghosts don’t deserve to be busted. In a really weird Christmas special, they go back in time and busted the Christmas ghosts that haunted Ebenezer Scrooge, then had to set them free to make up for screwing up history (yes, in the world of The Real Ghostbusters, Scrooge was real, I guess, and very influential). In a rather touching episode, they almost bust a ghost who doesn’t realize he is a ghost, and eventually help him to remember why he’s still on earth: to tell his niece he loves her one more time (aww). I think Egon referred to his subsequent vanishing as “dispersing peacefully” (this was referred to in a way which implied that it simply didn’t happen often, at least with the ghosts they dealt with).


  9. Gab #

    So if you’re right, Brian, they wouldn’t have busted Casper, but what about Fatso, Stretch, and Stinky?


    • Nick #

      You had to bring “Casper” into it, didn’t you? ;)

      The general rule for bringing out the proton packs is, ghosts have to be causing some kind of a ruckus, like a really maddened poltergeist throwing knives around.

      Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch are more nuisances than anything, BUT they’re also really nasty and quite malevolent.

      They’re also smart. Ray ran out of the house not because they scared him off, but because his nutrona wand got broken. Obviously, they split up and made a strategy to attack the gear directly.

      Of course, Ray broke the cardinal rule of ghostbusting, second only to “don’t cross the streams”: NEVER, EVER GO IN ALONE. He underestimated the Ghostly Trio, and look where it got him.


  10. Jeff #

    If all your Gramma did when she died was to peacefully drift around New York and take in the scenery (“Oooh, the Empire State Building is so very impressive after all!”), then no one would have picked up the phone and called for help.


  11. Lola #

    What does it matter if these “souls” are locked up in a man-made limbo? Clearly they aren’t planning on continuing to the great beyond(whatever that may be). Instead, they’re still hanging out on Earth making mischief.


  12. CNCGB, Boyer #

    Wow, this one is my expertise. But I’ve got to say – you hardly took a Judeo-Christian view above. There’s hardly any reference at all or otherwise to that view point in your argument. A little, but it’s very shaky and non-existent at best. Oh, and I think you should have mentioned the Rabbis in the GB movie, yeah, ha ha ha.

    Moving on, I think I can maybe type up a much closer argument to your original goal (if I am to assume your goal was to have a Judeo-Christian viewpoint). Of course, if your goal is to show that Ghostbusters has no religious purpose, then you’re right on the money and don’t need to spend lots of time “overthinking it” like I do below. Hey, it’s true! I did overthink it.

    Although the script writers don’t like to mention it, obviously at least some of the ghosts that the Ghostbusters bust are human, Slimer being questionable, and the Terror Dogs and Gozer (which includes Staypuft), for example, definitely being inhuman extradimensional beings. As far as humans go, the Ghostbusters are only seen busting the two ghost brothers in GB2, the jogger, and I suppose sending Vigo back inside the painting to sit it out for another 1000 years or something. Slimer has been stated in several sources, including the GB International RP game and the just recently released Video Game, to be nothing more than either a never-living-before visitor from the Ghost World (titled “The Abyss”) or the result of Occult rituals accidentally triggering wandering ectoplasmic particles to gain cohension and form into a semi-intelligent being – a ghost, but never having lived. The Ghostbusters Video Game also presents Slimer as possibly being one of the physical representations of the Seven Deadly Sins – obviously, Slimer is Gluttony.

    The first problem with this conflicting with Judeo-Christian beliefs is that according to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (Hebrews 9:27; 2 Corinthians 5:6) souls or spirits are not allowed to wander after death. They are taken straight up to judgment. So this creates a problem of Ghostbusters being already incompatible with Biblical Judeo-Christianity (as opposed to differing beliefs among alternate sects and denominations or other religions claiming Christ or Abraham such as Islam; I won’t touch up on those either). Or is it? Actually, there is allowance in those verses for some sort of period between death and being with the Lord at the Judgment. Most Christians I know, however, would never allow for such space in their own personal beliefs. This doesn’t mean they’re right and it must also be considered that the Bible has exceptions – for example, the Hebrews verse states that humans only die once, but the Bible states several times before this stories that have humans dying and being brought back to life. These people were not given immortality and it stands to reason that they will die twice. Therefore the NORMAL plan is that humans will die once. This gives room for other exceptions within Scripture.

    On the Gozerian problem: The first of the 10 commandments states that there are other gods, at least in a sense that others believe there are. Exodus 12:12 has YHWH passing judgment on other gods: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night…and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.” The Biblical Plagues of Egypt each correlated to a specific god so this seems to be more of YHWH mocking the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, if not judging actual gods. There are many verses claiming YHWH to be the ruler of all of the gods: Psalm 86:8, Psalm 95:3. There’s even a verse that commands the other gods to worship YHWH: Psalm 97:7. The rest of the Bible is very clear that there are no other “actual gods” other than YHWH. However there are verses that suggest that demons are mistaken by humans as being gods: Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Corinthians 10:20, etc.

    It is because of this last set of verses, and others like it, that it is entirely possible that Gozer is not literally a god but is instead a demon or at any rate some sort of created supernatural spirit being that rebelled against YHWH, its creator. The Bible mentions Cherubim, Seraphim, and other angelic beings. Some of them varied in wing and eye count and all were originally good but some chose to rebel and become evil. The Bible also mentions strange supernatural creatures with mismatched animal parts (Revelation 4:6-8) – it was probably the only way the human observers could relate to others as to what they saw. These were definitely not humanoid spirit creatures. Other Old and New Testament passages claim that angels, perhaps evil angels also, have the ability to shape-shift and pass themselves off as human in order to live or walk among us. I present this as to why Gozer was a female humanoid as well as addressing ghosts and monsters that are not humanoid. It is entirely possible that there are other spirit creatures in existence that are not mentioned within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

    The Bible also mentions far more dimensional plains than just Heaven and Hell – it also mentions Paradise (possibly an Old Testament word for Heaven), the Bottomless Pit, the Abyss, and the Lake of Fire (separate from Hell). In Luke 8:31 demons plead to Jesus that He will not send them to the Abyss. Romans 10:7 also references the Abyss. It is possible that this is another name for Hell but it is unclear. In Revelations 9:1-12 the Bottomless Pit is said to be a holding place for evil angels – demons – which will be released unto this plain during the Tribulation period, otherwise known as the End of the World [as we know it]. This may also be another name for Hell but it is yet again not stated as such. But the Judeo-Christian Scriptures explicitly state in Revelation 20:14 that Hell (Hades) and The Lake of Fire are two separate dimensions or plains of existence. It is entirely possible that there are other dimensional plains inhabited by creatures such as Gozer, or perhaps plains created or otherwise used to imprison highly powerful spirit creatures with malevolent such desires. Gozer could not come into the human world of his (or her) own accord in the movie but had to have that door opened for him from the other side – in this case, ours.

    But, I digress. Most Christians, and probably Jewish although I am not one and cannot claim I know their beliefs, will most likely tell you that Ghostbusters can in no way agree with the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. However, if you don’t read differently between the lines from what traditional Christians believe, it is almost entirely possible. But obviously the conclusion is that Ghostbusters is merely fiction so it in no way matters.

    As an ending note, the Bible even claims that men are gods in one sense or another in Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34: “I said, ‘You are gods.'” I suppose Zeddemore was right to tell Ray to say, “Yes!”


  13. CNCGB, Boyer #

    I also forgot to mention, although others did, that yes – the Ecto Containment Unit is in theory a man-made purgatory or hell. This, I believe however, does not concern the topic this time around.


  14. CNCGB, Boyer #

    As a mentioning of the abortion thing, at least souls are permanent as compared to life. Life can be cut off, but souls can only be imprisoned. They can also be released, but a murder cannot be released.

    Also, I hate that black and white photoshopped picture, lol.


  15. Ed #

    There was a Ghostbusters comic that suggested that Slimer was the ghost of King Henry VIII.


  16. Dom #

    Slimer was explained through the Ghostbusters video game (if you’ll accept that as cannon) to be a physical embodiment of gluttony much like another ghost that, admittedly, looks much more human but is said to have shown up as a manifestation of sloth


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