And the Ghosts Busted On: Ghostbusters and the AIDS Crisis

It’s 1989, and there is a crisis in New York City. The red goo that flows through the heart of the city is infected with a deadly contagion.

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 André Callot.]

It’s 1989, and there is a crisis in New York City. The red goo that flows through the heart of the city is infected with a deadly contagion. Spreading out from the center of the arts community, this circulating liquid can fill you with life energy, or it can fill you with evil. This plague turns normal people into walking ghosts so hideous that people on the street shriek in terror at the sight. The city, tainted with fear, hatred and prejudice, is divided against itself. Scientists and activists work to stop the spread, but everywhere they turn, they face the resistance of a city that is unwilling to even acknowledge the problem, a city that stigmatizes those brave enough to fight for public safety.

It seems as though this sickness is, at its heart, an expression of the festering anger permeating a dying city.

Meanwhile, in the seats of government, public servants sit on their hands. The mayor of New York refuses to admit the nature of the crisis, for fear of creating a panic. Even though it’s been five years since the spring on 1984, when the source of the menace revealed itself for the first time, the mayor will not act to save his city, for fear of associating himself with the discredited and isolated group that calls for his action.

When he can wait no longer, the mayor calls on the very scientists that he shunned before. They must save the city. But how?

What the city needs is a symbol: a manifestation of the good will that people are capable of sharing. The city needs something powerful, beautiful, strong enough to defeat this evil but resistant to any corruption or malevolence. Some permanent, everlasting beacon that can be mobilized through a communal desire to live. A savior, and a mother. An angel.

What we realize is not that we can defeat this poison, but that we can learn to love one another. Through that love we can, as a city, be healed.

I am not suggesting that Ghostbusters 2 is about the AIDS epidemic. Yes, the first movie did come out only weeks after HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS, and both films are set in NYC in the 80s, when AIDS was killing thousands each year. These appear to be pure coincidence. Neither Ivan Reitman nor Harold Ramis have ever contributed to a serious discourse on public health issues, or gay rights issues, or any kind of socially aware subject in the slightest. We can safely assume that AIDS was not on their minds when they were making either of these big-budget supernatural comedies.

Good comedy, though, usually addresses some kind of latent anxiety surrounding the subject of the work. This subtextual connection gives the comic the permission to deal with issues that are bigger and more permanent than whatever specific context is necessary for the gags to work. We still laugh at the Marx Brothers, not because we know how difficult it is to stow away on an ocean liner, but because we fear and dread poverty. The best comedy, the comedy that is closest to art in my opinion, is the comedy that comes from a place of mutual human experience. To quote Hedwig (of the Angry Inch), “we laugh to keep from crying.”

Who is at the very beginning of the Vigo problem in Ghostbusters 2? The Peter MacNicol’ character of Janosz Poha, a fey art historian with a foreign accent. He hits on Sigourney Weaver’ despite being obviously, offensively, stereotypically gay. He is the ultimate terror in terms of AIDS anxiety in 1980s NYC: a bisexual man with connections to both the art world (which was decimated by AIDS) and the Third World. New York, a city that grew to its magnificence on the contributions of millions of hard-working, creative people from everywhere in the world, a city that denied no one, shrank back in horror at AIDS as the consequence of its openness. Like Marseilles during the Black Death in the 14th Century, NYC became the manifestation of the Artaudian “plague city,” where human society broke down and the theatre of personal cruelty ran freely through the streets.

That’ is the connection between Ghostbusters 2 and AIDS. The problem of AIDS was never a virus. We can defeat a virus. The problem with AIDS was always that people did not love each other. In New York, San Francisco, Miami, the communities that were dying of AIDS (the gay community, IV drug users, Haitian immigrants) were already shunned by the mainstream. There existed in these cities a fundamental failure to extend basic human compassion toward people who represented a frightening and different way of life to “straights” (as Bill Murray calls them in the first clip).

But how was the plague conquered? When the Ghostbusters march through the city, playing a torch song with a literal, twenty-foot torch, they cannot make the red goo disappear any more than you can cure AIDS by getting rid of all the blood in New York. The plague was conquered when the people let love lift them higher.

5 Comments on “And the Ghosts Busted On: Ghostbusters and the AIDS Crisis”

  1. Rock Hudson's Hetero Son #

    I was a little dubious when I started reading your article, but you did a compelling job of highlighting some uncanny parallels between the movie and the 80s AIDS crisis (a time I am still terrified and fascinated by.) Well-written, well done.


  2. Eddie #

    I enjoyed your post! Although, I would submit that the problem of AIDS stems from people loving people a little too much…?


  3. Gab #

    @Eddie: I think the problem of AIDS stems from poverty, resulting in a lack of medical and contraceptive resources, as well as little to no basic information about AIDS. People aren’t loving too much, they are poor and uneducated (and which comes first is indeterminable). I’m about to high-horse, but really, AIDS wouldn’t *be* a problem if companies would stop charging so much for treatments and if the people who think things like having sex with a virgin will cure it were given a better education about it.


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