The internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?
The story is part of family lore, so the fine details are buried in the sands of time. But I know this: It was Halloween, I was trick-or-treating with my cousins in their suburban Detroit neighborhood, and my uncle had heard about a house on the block where the homeowner was planning tricks and treats for the kids. The trick: He was wearing a monster mask and hiding behind some object or another waiting to jump out at costumed revelers as they approached his door. I was dressed as either Superman, a pirate, or Detroit Tigers all-star Alan Trammell. I betrayed each and every one of these paragons of bravery and brawn when I ran in terror at the vague, adult-sized shape that had suddenly appeared to disrupt my Halloween fun.
The fallout from the event didn’t keep me from enjoying that Halloween or any Halloweens to come, but it took me years to get comfortable with some elements of the holiday. Any America’s Funniest Home Videos episode depicting similar pranks: Nuh-uh. The massive display of rubber masks at the local Halloween pop-up store? No thank you. Haunted houses? You’re kidding, right? The masked neighbor had accompanied his antics with a “spooky sounds” cassette, spoiling me on an entire genre of novelty recordings. My desire to never be scared like that again ran so deep, I didn’t see my first horror film until my senior year in high school. And even then, my best friends had to trick me into watching the original Nightmare On Elm Street by luring me over with the promise of a Toy Story movie night. (I wound up having a blast with it, but that’s besides the point.)
The mid-to-late-’80s were a tough time to be a skittish little kid falling in love with TV and movies. The decade’s slasher franchises were big business, which made it seem like there was a guy in a mask around every corner, ready to pounce. At the theater, a trailer starts out as an advertisement for a Tom Hanks comedy—then a chainsaw rips through the wall. I’m watching TV with a babysitter, and Chucky shows up during the commercial break. Mom takes me to Toys R Us, and I do an abrupt 180 when I discover an end cap of Matchbox’s talking Freddy Krueger dolls.
But if that display was occupied by the earthly, gooey form of Gozer The Destructor (a.k.a. Gozer The Traveler) I would’ve gone running toward it. Despite my scaredy-cat ways, I couldn’t get enough of ghosts and the paranormal investigators who busted them. Fortunately, Hollywood gamesmanship produced a supply to meet my demand: In 1986, legal wrangling over the Ghostbusters name yielded not one, but two animated TV series about independent contractors specializing in spirit abatement. Debuting in daytime syndication on September 8, Filmation’s Ghostbusters was a sequel to The Ghost Busters, a live-action Saturday-morning series from 1975. Five days later, ABC unveiled an adaptation of the big-screen comedy that had licensed its title from The Ghost Busters two years prior. To make it abundantly clear which was which—and to add a perfectly Peter Venkman “Nyah nyah” in Filmation’s direction—the second series was called The Real Ghostbusters.
But to my pre-school mind, ghostbusters were ghostbusters, whether they palled around with a literal grease monkey (well, grease gorilla) or a class-five free-roaming vapor. I understood the separation—I never expected the guys from Ghost Command to show up at the firehouse (or vice versa)—but it never swayed me toward one camp or the other. If my recollections of Egon, Peter, Ray, and Winston are fonder than those for Jake, Eddie, and Tracy, it’s because I got to spend more time with the former: The Real Ghostbusters ran for seven seasons and 140 episodes, as opposed to the single 65-episode season of Filmation’s Ghostbusters. I held on to my Real Ghostbusters toys, while their Filmation counterparts were purged in a long-ago garage sale. I even kept a VHS cassette of Real Ghostbusters episodes compiled by my parents, which was invaluable when it came time to revisit the series.
If the “real” in Real Ghostbusters was intended to tar its competitor as an inferior product, that intention sinks in nearly three decades later. With its colorful rogues’ gallery (“Fangster! Werewolf of the future!” “Mysteria, darling: Mistress of mists.” “I say: I’m The Haunter, civilized hunter of haunted prey!”) and involved transformation sequences, Filmation’s Ghostbusters often feels like an occult translation of the studio’s big ’80s hit, He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe. The good guys and the bad guys each get their own Orko (little pink bat Belfry for the Ghostbusters, hovering chimera Brat-A-Rat for the ghosts), and mercurial archenemy Prime Evil is basically Skeletor reborn as an organ-key-mashing, robotic sorcerer from beyond the grave.
But I’ll give this to Filmation’s Ghostbusters: In a head-to-head competition between two fantastical premises, Filmation’s efforts top The Real Ghostbusters for sheer zaniness, from the many skeletal appliances that assist Jake and Eddie’s efforts, to the Hieronymus Bosch blacklight poster that serves as the backdrop for the boys’ high-tech changing room. That sharp look just comes with a certain rigidity: in the restricted movements of its characters, and in the unwavering story structure of its scripts. Following the time-hopping five-part story that opens the show, Filmation’s Ghostbusters gives way to rhythms that belie the ’70s Ghost Busters’ debts to Scooby-Doo and his many Hanna-Barbera kin: First act check-ins with the heroes and Prime Evil, the dispatching of Prime Evil’s spectral minion of the day, Jake and Eddie’s minute-long changing sequence, and a climactic face-off between good and evil. The show’s setup and inventive designs pushed the limits of childhood imagination, then reinforced those limits with cookie-cutter plots.
When the stories falter, Filmation’s Ghostbusters doesn’t have a beloved comedic ensemble to fall back on. That’s less of a problem for The Real Ghostbusters, which distills the essence of Bill Murray et al. into personality types that seemingly inspired the next decade-plus of kids’ TV teams. (You can map each of the Ghostbusters onto a Ninja Turtle without much fudging—though Egon and Winston are each half-Leonardo, half-Donatello.) Even when an episode’s concept is half-baked (like the one where a guy conjures a demon to rid the world of chickens) or the adversary’s a little so-so (like the werechicken of “Poultrygeist”—somebody in the writers’ room really had it in for fowl), the Ghostbusters themselves are always fun to watch. But occasionally hard to look at, due to the inconsistent quality of the outsourced animation.
In an interview included with The Real Ghostbusters: Complete Collection DVD set, J. Michael Straczynski—who was a Ghostbusters story editor prior to creating Babylon 5—describes the high standard the show’s scripts were held to: “For every writer that came in with 10 premises, I’d pick up one.” That fussiness shows through in the wide range of supernatural threats faced by the Ghostbusters across seven seasons, from Halloween spirit Samhain to automobile-wrecking gremlins to the Great Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. At least through the 65 episodes produced for syndication, Straczynski and his colleagues introduced their young viewers to topics they’d later explore as adult consumers of horror, science fiction, and ancient mythology.
Not that the art of The Real Ghostbusters sugarcoated the writers’ darker creative impulses. The Ghostbusters’ proportions and facial features have a nasty habit of changing from scene to scene, but the ghosts and ghoulies they trap follow a rigorous creepy-as-fuck standard. The Real Ghostbusters takes place in a reality where Slimer and The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man have been neutralized and domesticated, but almost anything else that passes through the containment unit is toothy, slobbery, and/or ready to seer its glowing red eyes into your nightmares. The title character of “Drool, The Dog Faced Goblin” turns out to be a mild-mannered spud, but the shapeshifter whose destructive antics are blamed on Drool is something straight out of One Hundred Ghost Stories woodblock print.
Some of the freakier Real Ghostbusters installments have me at a loss as to how my younger self summoned the courage to watch the show. For most of my childhood, I slept with the bedroom door open and the hallway light on, yet I have no traumatic memories of the Citizen Kane-riffing specter from “Ghostbuster Of The Year” (voiced by Maurice LaMarche, Orson Welles impressionist non pareil and the show’s Egon). Maybe it was the idea that fears could be conquered: The goblin filed away in the containment unit, the ghost blasted back to Hauntquarters, the hot-dog-munching blob reformed and adopted as a mascot.
And even though both teams of ghostbusters face the unknown for a living, that doesn’t mean they’re completely fearless. “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” could be a bold declaration, or it could be the type of thing Lou Costello repeats under his breath as he inches down a darkened corridor. Eddie Spenser Jr. is clearly descended from the Costello line of comedic cowardice; the Real Ghostbusters animators took such joy in twisting their characters’ faces in terror, multiple lines of Kenner action figures followed their lead.
I don’t mean to imbue disposable consumer goods with such meaning, but I also can’t talk about Filmation’s Ghostbusters and The Real Ghostbusters without also mentioning the merchandise. Action figures and playsets became the characters and settings for new Ghostbusters stories; thanks to Kenner accessories such as the Proton Pack and the Ghost Trap, I could star in those stories, too. Now I was the one blasting back the creatures of the night. I was the one with witty retorts for interdimensional foes. It felt like anybody could be a Ghostbuster. Powerful stuff for a bunch of molded plastic.
There’s another story from this era that my family likes to tell, this one involving the first time we saw Ghostbusters II. At the end of the movie, after the Ghostbusters have rescued Oscar and defeated Vigo and made the Statue Of Liberty walk with the help of Jackie Wilson, I could no longer contain my excitement. I jumped out of my seat and started dancing, moving up and down the aisle as Bobby Brown rapped about children’s parties and subterranean slime. The story’s been told and re-told so many times, I half-expect my mom and dad to demand a repeat performance if we wind up seeing Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters together.
It was a moment of pure, unadulterated joy, prompted by characters who helped me feel just a little less scared all of the time. Re-watching the Ghostbusters cartoons, I was never moved to dance—but I never wanted to run away, either.