On June 7, 1984, the first Ghostbusters movie was released in theaters. A smash hit — it grossed $229,242,989 on a $30,000,000 budget — the film became one of the cultural touchstones of the 1980s, spawning a sequel (which grossed $112,494,738) and two reboots, the second of which will debut in the autumn of 2021.
The sprawling satire stars three protagonists, the most important of which was Dr Peter Venkman. Played by a characteristically sardonic Bill Murray, Venkman was a self-aware fraud, exploiting his academic credentials in a field — paranormal psychology — that he considered a pseudoscience in order to grift Columbia University, flirt with women, and inflict pain and frustration on gullible study participants for his own amusement.
However, his colleagues, doctors Raymond Stantz and Egon Spengler — played respectively by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who turned the sow’s ear of Aykroyd’s hard sci-fi version of the Ghostbusters screenplay into a silk purse by rewriting it as a comedy) — were true believers and dedicated scientists.
Later, the team hires another ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore, who is not a scientist but a relatable working man, played by Ernie Hudson. Hudson was by far the most accomplished actor of the group, a Yale-trained thespian who was the resident playwright at the oldest black theater company in America. (Aykroyd and Ramis had originally written Zeddemore as an equal of the other three ghostbusters, but the studio wanted Murray to have more screen time, and Hudson’s role was cut back.)
Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler were exiles from Columbia, whose administrators had yanked their funding because they suspected the field of parapsychology to be a con. Reflecting the Reaganite spirit of the age, Ghostbusters portrayed Columbia (and academia generally) as an institution that, in Stantz’s words, “gave us money and facilities” even though he, Venkman, and Spengler “didn’t have to produce anything!” This was in stark contrast to the private sector, which, Stantz lamented, actually “expect[s] results.” Ambivalent toward the idea of public spending and teetering toward the wisdom of the free market and its productive capacities, Ghostbusters was also strikingly anti-regulation. Indeed, the film’s antagonist was an Environmental Protection Agency official named Walter Peck, whose obsession with regulation produced the New York City–wide ghost infestation that initiates the film’s third act.
The ghostbusters, of course, save the filthy but ultimately redeemable city by defeating the Sumerian goddess Gozer the Gozerian (who had previously taken the form of a giant Sloar during the third reconciliation of the Meketrex Supplicants). But this victory was too all-encompassing, and by 1989’s Ghostbusters II, the ghostbusters had been made redundant. To make ends meet, Stantz and Zeddemore worked as low-paid entertainers who played the birthday parties of the scions of New York City’s spoiled elite. Ever the gonif, Venkman became a talk show host and shiller of paranormal books. The ghostbusters, sadly, no longer had any ghosts to bust. They did their job too well, the city decided it didn’t need them anymore, and they were unceremoniously shunted to the side (until, of course, the city needed them again).
Both Ghostbusters and its sequel were a perfect encapsulation of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, and the two movies reflect the ambivalent and inchoate resentments of a rapidly deindustrializing working class. But the most important — and culturally significant — embodiment of the “Me First” decade in Ghostbusters was a small, pudgy green ghost who eventually became known as “Slimer.”
Slimer was the perfect personification of the “greed is good,” cocaine-fueled 1980s: not only was he literally green, the color of both money and envy; he was also a roué who shoveled high-end room-service food in his mouth and who literally left “slime” (a sort of paranormal ejaculate) on those he physically encountered. Slimer was the Greek god Bacchus, Puck from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and Homer Simpson rolled into one hedonistic package, and he was having an amazing time.
Crucially, the primary Ghostbusters scenes featuring Slimer were filmed not at an iconic New York landmark but at the luxurious Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which was built in 1923 and which is where the Academy Awards used to be hosted. Simply put, the Biltmore is a space famous for glamour, glitz, and not a little bit of self-indulgence — three defining characteristics of Slimer himself. Throughout these scenes, Slimer evades and defies his potential captors by wreaking havoc upon the sclerotic structures of long-dead robber barons. In this way, the little green ghost embodies the ghostbusters’ — and, by extension, the baby boomers’ — desire to live a consequence-free lifestyle in which the traditions of the past hold no sway over the present, let alone the future. Slimer, in classic boomer fashion, is pure id.
Slimer quickly emerged as one of Ghostbusters’ most enduring characters. As many millennials no doubt remember, he was the star of the animated The Real Ghostbusters (1986), although on this show he was portrayed more as an innocent child than as a lascivious libertine (though isn’t a libertine just an adult who surrenders to childish impulses?). He also became the spokes-ghost for Ecto Cooler, an orange-tangerine drink released by Hi-C in 1989. Slimer, in short, was one of the most visible cartoon icons of the late 1980s and early 1990s. For millennials and their boomer parents, the ghost symbolized the ultimate triumph of unmitigated consumption in an age when most Americans considered their country to be the world’s indispensable nation, a model for and light to humanity.
But in 2021, Americans no longer feel confidence in their country or themselves. The manifold crises of the past thirty years — the calamitous foreign interventions; the ever-increasing divide between the rich and the rest; the financial collapses of 1999, 2008–9, and 2020–21; the various failures of governance; the inability to confront a deadly pandemic — have taken the wind out of the United States’ sails. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, Americans were defined by a boisterous if unearned triumphalism, today, we’re defined by an inchoate anger and depression revealed in countless Facebook and Twitter posts.
This melancholic misery is why Slimer can no longer be the primary ghost in the soon-to-be-released Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which attempts to reboot the franchise by focusing on Spengler’s descendants.
Instead of Slimer, Afterlife’s creators have given us Muncher, a blobbish ghost who looks like Gudetama joined the Blue Man Group and became carbuncular with tumors. Where Slimer was joy, Muncher is depression; where Slimer was sex, Muncher is abstinence; where Slimer gave his captors a run for their money, Muncher is snail-like; where Slimer was booze and cocaine, Muncher is ketamine and opioids; and, most important, where Slimer devoured with hedonistic abandon, Muncher merely munches.
If Slimer was the Marquis de Sade, Muncher is a basement-dwelling failson. Sluggish and anhedonic, neutered and soft, the big blue ghost is the perfect embodiment of our era of permanent decline, in which every downwardly mobile middle-class American has become lobotomized by the internet and unsustainable consumption.
And Muncher’s specific appetites are more than just the characteristics of a made-up ghost; they reflect a profound crisis of American meaning.
In a promotional image for Afterlife released by Sony, a plastic avatar of Muncher is shown in front of several stalks of corn — presumably, the objects of his munching. Priced out of Manhattan, where the original Ghostbusters took place, Muncher gorges himself lugubriously on the heat-blistered cornfields of the Midwest.
The symbolism is almost too perfect. Reagan’s promise to America — the promise of unlimited, debt-driven consumption that was embodied by Slimer — has been realized through a subsidized orgy of mass-produced, corn-based foodstuffs that have made Americans obese, irritated, and depressed. How many people who see Afterlife in theaters (if theaters continue to exist, a dubious proposition given the continued failure of the government’s COVID-19 response) will watch Muncher munch his way through ear after ear of Monsanto corn as they themselves munch on bags of popcorn, chow down on corn-based Cheetos, and drink soft drinks filled with corn syrup?
After thirty-seven years of Dionysian excess, the ecstatic Slimer has been transformed into the miserable Muncher, eternally dissatisfied with indulgence but unable to conceive of any other means of self-fulfillment. Without purpose or imagination, Muncher is cursed to long for annihilation. Where Slimer promised a life after death, Muncher promises only death.
One would think that the “creative” team behind Afterlife would have thought twice about promoting their movie — which comes on the heels of the failed Ghostbusters reboot of 2016 — with a gruesome caricature of the film’s own target audience. But in the hyperreal world of entertainment marketing, the thing that matters most is making an impression, no matter how grotesque.
And Muncher, with his anguished rictus and sightless, hooded eyes, baggy with depressive exhaustion, makes quite an impression. Within hours of his unveiling, the big blue ghost became a minor online meme, the grim contrast with ebullient party dude Slimer evident to all. Each Muncher media “hit,” from the ironic Muncher-based content found on Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema to this very article, serves to raise awareness of the character and the film in which he will be featured. No amount of scorn, or laughter, or symbolic critique can “bust” Muncher, because in a land of Munchers, everything tastes the same, and Sony can be confident that some significant percentage of the people who see — and rightly despise — their blue abomination will watch Afterlife, if only to laugh mirthlessly at their own creeping shadow.
Muncher is thus the literal Geist (ghost) of our contemporary Zeitgeist, an era in which there is no escape from consumer capitalism.
But perhaps there is an alternative. It’s obvious that the rapacious hedonism of the Reaganite Slimer is an unsustainable menace to both ordinary people and society itself. But can we not also remember the power and dignity of those marvelous working men and their proton packs, twice before celebrated by all for the meaningful and rewarding work that kept the city safe and clean? We need not resign ourselves to mirthless munching. We don’t have to be dysphoric fail-ghosts.
Comrades, we can bust again. We ain’t afraid of no ghosts. And bustin’ makes us feel good.