Death of a Thousand Pecks

May I PLEASE see the storage facility, Mr. Venkman?

[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!]

There seems to be an increasing awareness of something we Americans have known for some time: that the ten most dangerous words in the English language are, “Hi, I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

—Ronald Reagan, July 28, 1988

In what decade but the 1980s could an EPA inspector be a movie villain?

The Reagan Revolution of the 80s turned pop culture into a battlefield between Capitalism and Communism. Despite the fact that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. practiced a pure version of either – hundreds of thousands were on Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., and Levi’s had already made it past the Berlin Wall – everyone knew which they preferred. America glorified Freedom (see Rocky IV, Rambo II, Iron Eagle, Red Dawn, etc); Russia glorified The State.

Compare this with movies like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, barely two decades later. When the EPA accuses a corporation of environmental wrongdoing, we the audience immediately suspect the corporation. The cultural stage has changed.

Keep this in mind for Walter Peck’s first appearance in Ghostbusters.

Walter Peck: I’m Walter Peck, from the Environmental Protection Agency, the third district.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Great, how’s it going down there?
Walter Peck: Are you Peter Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, I’m Doctor Venkman.
Walter Peck: Exactly what are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Well, I have a PhD in parapsychology and psychology.
Walter Peck: And now, you catch ghosts?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yeah, you could say that.
Walter Peck: And how many ghosts have you caught, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: I’m not at liberty to say.
Walter Peck: And where do you put these ghosts, once you catch them?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Into a storage facility.
Walter Peck: And would this storage facility be located on these premises?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes.
Walter Peck: And may I see this storage facility?
Dr. Peter Venkman: No.
Walter Peck: And why not, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Because you did not use the magic word.
Walter Peck: What is the magic word, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: …Please.
Walter Peck: May I please see the storage facility, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Why do you want to see the storage facility?
Walter Peck: Because I’m curious. I wanna know more about what you do here! Frankly, I’ve heard alot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess any possibility of dangerous and possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement. Now you either show me what is down there, or I come back with a court order.
Dr. Peter Venkman: You go get a court order, and I’ll sue your funny ass for wrongful prosecution.
Walter Peck: You can have it your way, Mr. Venkman.

We can view this scene through two lenses.

What is Seen and What is Unseen: Do the creators of Ghostbusters – Aykroyd, Ramis, Reitman – have a particular bone to pick with the EPA? I would say no. Despite Ivan Reitman’s son Jason adapting Thank You for Smoking to the big screen twenty years later, none of those three have demonstrated any notable arch-libertarian bias.

Let’s not get hung up on Walter Peck’s EPA credentials. Let’s consider him as a type: the officious government bureaucrat, getting in the way of small business. This type would resonate powerfully with an 80s audience – the same audience that cheered Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy’s rags-to-opulence story one year earlier, or tuned in every week to see Michael J. Fox quoting Milton Friedman. America sympathized with the idea that not every regulation made life safer, and that not every official had your best interests at heart. Combine the cynicism of All the President’s Men with the extravagance of Dallas and you have an audience that distrusts the blunt hand of the law.

Ghostbusters only validates this viewpoint, when Peck’s meddling shuts down the storage facility and unleashes a supernatural apocalypse on New York. If the intrusive State had only let the Hard-Working Entrepreneurs do their job, none of this would have happened.

This is the easiest interpretation – partly because it’s the 80s, naturally, but partly because Peck’s an asshole. William Atherton has a long and glorious history of playing assholes – this guy, the nosy reporter in Die Hard, a jerk scientist in Bio-Dome. You have to hate Peck, and the EPA in turn. I imagine that when he’s not shutting down the last line of defense between New York City and the gates of Hell, he’s keeping kids from playing in protected marshland or shutting down bikini car washes for waste-water runoff.

Pfft. Asshole.

But that’s not the only way to view the scene.

If You’ve Done Nothing Wrong, Then …: Why doesn’t Venkman want to let Peck see the storage facility?

Venkman has every right to be cynical of Peck’s motives. He probably feared that Peck would continue asking questions and start inserting himself into the process. He’d ask to see it again later, maybe take some readings, and become a general nuisance. He’d get in the way of their jobs.

And yet – note that Venkman’s tone escalates from amiable to confrontational in a heartbeat. “I’ll sue your funny ass for wrongful prosecution!” Whoa! Okay, Doctor. Or … you could just let him see the storage facility.

(TV edit; “ass” was too strong for television back, um, whenever)

Rights of the private businessman aside, Peck clearly has some legal authority here. He threatens to get a court order and then does, returning with a city engineer in tow. And a cop (technically, since the EPA is a federal agency, that court order should have been enforced by a U.S. Marshall, but whatever). Peck may be an asshole, and we can justifiably question what purpose this investigation serves. But he’s not coming out of the dark here. The law’s on his side.

So why doesn’t Venkman want Peck to see the storage facility?

For one, we’ve already seen that Venkman has near pathological problems cooperating with authority figures. When he’s kicked out of the only university that’s ever employed him (as Stantz points out, Venkman has “never been in the private sector”), he responds with glib sarcasm: “But the kids love us!” On top of that, he has a casual disregard for others’ property: how much of the destruction in the hotel ballroom was necessary, and how much, for Venkman, was fun?

Maybe Venkman’s a malcontent – a troublemaker first and a ghostbuster second.

On the other hand, maybe he has reason to hide the storage facility from the EPA. Maybe it’s generating toxic levels of waste heat. Spengler and Stantz already know that the grid’s near to capacity:

So Peck could have latched onto something serious.

Whether Peck and the EPA represent the Chinese finger trap tying up the invisible hand of commerce, or whether they’re the well-meaning bureaucracy that exposes the Ghostbusters’ incompetence, the movie leaves for us to decide. Either way you slice it, this movie remains an intriguing cultural artifact of the 80s – a decade when, in a conflict between the EPA and a corporation, the audience might land on the corporation’s side.

16 Comments on “Death of a Thousand Pecks”

  1. Eric Christian Berg #

    Were you living in a different 80s US than I? The evil corporation was a stable of the 80s. Most dystopian futures of that period were ruled by megacorporations and governments had become atrophied and ineffective non-entities. In any film, if a corporation was suspected of wrongdoing, you could bet that it was guilty of that and a lot more. This isn’t anything new.


  2. perich OTI Staff #

    @eberg: I’m sure you can come up with examples, but I can come up with plenty as well where the corporation is at least sympathetic. E.g., the Nakatomi Company in Die Hard. Were Die Hard made today, Nakatomi would have somehow brought the mercenaries on themselves, whereas in the movie as made they’re helpless bystanders.


  3. Sheely #

    @perich Off of the top of my head, I think the best example of eberg’s “Evil Dystopian Corporation”are the Robocop films (especially the original by Verhoeven). But maybe the backlash had already started by then?


  4. Gab #

    My first instinct is to defend Venkmen because really, Peck has no right to go in there without permission UNTIL he has a court order. It isn’t whether or not Venkman et. al. have done anything wrong, it’s the principle of the issue and a violation of their rights under the Fourth Amendment if Peck doesn’t have the appropriate legal documentation. But the argument loses some strength/legitimacy when Venkmen gets so rude about it. Innocent or not, being a jerk doesn’t help him, and while no, it’s not illegal to treat someone rudely, his rudeness along with his refusal fuels Peck’s drive to get into the facility, and perhaps pushes the EPA man over the edge. If Venkman had been more gracious, even while refusing to let Peck in, maybe the events would have played out differently. And then there’d be no more more movie. So never mind.


  5. Darin #

    @perich great OTI, love the pickup on Atherton as annoying bad guy doing his job

    @all re: evil corporations – perich even says small business entreprenuers. I think we can all agree that the megacorporation was a part of 80s lore (Blade Runner being my fav)

    All this Ghostbusters talk makes me want to set up a 25th anniversary viewing


  6. Matthew Wrather #

    I think there’s an argument to be made that the ur-Evil Corporation is the Empire in Star Wars, which established the tone of the battle, which has to do with an aristocracy trying to operate within a democracy.

    (Though, FWIW, the “Republic” is actually ruled by aristocrats; the Senate seems to bow to the Jedi at most every turn.)

    But I digress.

    I have a feeling that the EPA was here chosen for storytelling convenience, as the most likely federal agency to use. The connection between “EPA” and the then-budding “environmentalism” (now called “green”) movement was not really established in 1984, so the audience probably had a very different set of associations with the EPA (and with environmentalism).

    A few technical points… @gab — though I’m not a lawyer, I think that a regulatory agency may have different responsibilities w/r/t the fourth amendment than a law enforcement agency. @perich — wouldn’t the warrant have been served by the FBI? I thought the US Marshals were the police force of the judicial branch, not the executive.


  7. Joel #

    I can’t believe you left out Real Genius. Shame, Perich.


  8. lauren #

    Wasn’t the head of the EPA a sort of bad guy in The Simpsons Movie?


  9. perich OTI Staff #

    @Wrather: then-budding “environmentalism” (now called “green”) movement … the environmentalism movement was way past budding in 1984.

    wouldn’t the warrant have been served by the FBI? I thought the US Marshals were the police force of the judicial branch, not the executive. Peck clearly says he’s getting a court order. A court order would be enforced by a court officer, i.e. a U.S. Marshall. (Lawyers, am I right?)

    @joel: Gah! I can’t believe I did either! I felt this big gap as I was drafting the list, but couldn’t think of it.


  10. Mike P #

    When I watched this with some friends a few months ago, we were also wondering why Venkman didn’t use a little more finesse in his first meeting with Peck. A charming guy like Peter would probably have had an easy time bringing Peck downstairs, showing him that the facility didn’t really take up THAT much room, and charmed the EPA out of the building. But, taking in to account Peter’s anti-authoritarian tendencies, it seems to make sense why this didn’t happen. Perhaps if Winston was upstairs at that time instead of learning about the Twinkie, he may have been able to mitigate.

    Also, while some Big Corpo’s were portrayed as evil in the 80s, I remember watching this as a kid and being like, “yeah, stupid EPA, what’s their problem?” I think a good visual that runs side-by-side with how Hollywood (and by extension, we?) viewed things like the EPA back then is that throughout the movie, just about everyone is smoking at one point or another.


  11. Matt #

    @lauren: The EPA was THE villain of the Simpsons movie. You could blame Homer for polluting the town to the point where the EPA’s intervention was necessary, but the EPA guy was definitely the villain.


  12. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Matt: I disagree that the EPA was meant to be the villain of the Simpsons movie. Russ Cargill, the head of the EPA, was the main villain. It was mentioned several times that he wasn’t all that interested in the environment, just having unlimited power. Plus he was a wealthy, Harvard-educated businessman by background, not an environmentalist.

    And you have to consider the fact that the movie’s message was quite environmentalist. Besides the not-so-subtle commentary in the forms of Springfield Lake filled with pig poop, the giant sinkhole, and the oil drilling in Alaska, you have to consider Homer’s epiphany that he needs to save the world in order to save himself. Sounds to me like something the real EPA would say, doesn’t it?

    Also, can you tell that I watched the Simpsons Movie last night? Now back to your regularly scheduled Ghostbusters.


  13. Leonard Pierce #

    This reminds me of a sort of dramatic convention that drives me crazy: the Idiot Skeptic.

    I love it when skeptics show up in pop culture; if anything, there’s generally too few of them. But every so often, a skeptical character is placed in a fictional milieu in which their existence makes no sense whatsoever, and results in a dramatically unsatisfying situation. Walter Peck is a perfect example of this.

    Look at the Ghostbusters world: although there’s an element of charlatanry in what he does, Venkman is clearly a man involved in legitimate work. Ghosts are clearly, demonstrably real in his world: millions of people see them in repeatable, observable ways; functional technology exists to control them; and there seem to be attacks by them or sightings of them on a near-weekly basis.

    Now, in that milieu, you could still write Walter Peck as an interesting character who, while obviously a schmuck, at least is capable of operating in good faith. He could be a genuinely concerned environmentalist, or at least a dedicated bureaucrat, who legitimately cares about enforcing the law; after all, if that stuff was real, obviously some kind of regulation would arise around it. Or he could just be a petty, bullying shitheel who wants to use his rinky-dink authority to gain control of a profitable enterprise. Those would be worthwhile motivations, at least, and leave him an enjoyable villain.

    But for him, in an environment where the assumption is that ghosts are clearly real, to just have this inexplicable grudge against Venkman, and accuse him of using hallucinatory chemicals to prop up a sham operation, makes no sense in the context of the fictional world. A skeptical position makes complete sense in our world, but it makes no sense whatsoever in the Ghostbusters world. Therefore, Peck is reduced to the least dramatically satisfying character imaginable, your Position #1, where he is just a detestable asshole for no particular reason.

    The Idiot Skeptic shows up elsewhere: Dana Scully in The X-Files was a perfect example, where she kept saying things like “Come on, Mulder! You don’t really believe that [insert supernatural menace of the week] is responsible for this, do you?”, well after the point where the series had established that paranormal activity was real. Her dramatic role thus shifts from counterbalance to pointless contrarianism. Likewise, comics frequently have situations where the public doesn’t believe in this or that weird event (for a long time at DC, it was claimed that people in Gotham thought Batman was an urban myth, and in the Marvel universe, the public is said to not believe that Thor is the actual Norse god of thunder). You also see situations where some scientist is laughed at because his ideas are thought to be too fantastic, and he returns for a horrible revenge, etc. But this is another Idiot Skeptic situation: in a world where Spider-Man, Superman, Galactus and the Green Lantern Corps are all known to exist and accepted as perfectly normal phenomena by the general public, why on Earth would people not believe in Norse gods or Batman? What possible scientific idea could be laughed off as too absurd in a world with Dr. Doom, Brainiac, and the High Evolutionary in it?

    I still love the shit out of Ghostbusters, but man, Peck is such a prime example of the Idiot Skeptic, it drives me to distraction.


  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @mlawski – Plus, Arnuld was the President in the Simpsons movie. So maybe that depiction of the EPA is making fun of Republicans, and their militaristic approach to everything.

    “I was elected to LEAD, not READ!”


  15. Jeff #

    Walter Peck is an Idiot Skeptic, but more importantly, he’s the Comic Antagonist. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen as a result of the Ghostbusters keeping all the ghosts in the containment unit?” Letting them out, of course. So you need some comic bureaucrat to do it. He’s “The Man” and he’s obviously wrong.

    Remember, there are two main themes in the movie: “Going into business” and “Saving the world.” Mixing the two was the fresh approach, and the whole saving the world theme is done as a parody, which by the 80’s has already been overdone.


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