The real-life science-based religion that inspired Ghostbusters

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Jul 12, 2016, 5:31 PM EDT

We can classify Ghostbusters as a horror-comedy, or a comedy with horror elements, even a comedy with horror and science fiction elements, and the science is certainly undeniable. But I'd be willing to bet that no one would classify Ghostbusters as a religiously inspired comedy, because no one would consider a religion that is rooted in science a real religion.

That's right -- the Ghostbusters aren't just scientists; they're men and women of a little-known faith (don't worry, I'm not talking about Scientology).

"No One Steps on a Church in My Town!"

It's well-documented that original Ghostbuster and screenwriter Dan Aykroyd doesn't just enjoy the paranormal, but is a full-fledged believer in parapsychology and comes from a long line of followers of spiritualism. His father, Peter H. Aykroyd, wrote a book all about it. Modern American Spiritualism is the formal way to describe followers of the Spiritualist Church, and it goes back to the mid-19th century, when a small group of people began the spiritualist movement and, with it, paranormal investigation.

At its core, the spiritualist church -- an established religious organization since 1893 -- believes in a few things that may not sound new, but you probably didn't think it qualified as a religion. Indeed, the word "spiritual" has become a common refrain for people who tag their Instagram posts with "namaste," practice yoga at Equinox and think Ghost Whisperer is pretty legit. The spiritualist church is a real organized religion with a caveat -- there is no dogma, "God" is not some omnipotent father figure that lives in Heaven, it accepts the existence and beliefs of other organized religions, and, most importantly, it exists on the basis of scientific proof. Even more than that, it thrives on progress and openness to change as more proof is found (and might even debunk a previous belief). One of its objectives is:

"To encourage every person in holding present beliefs always open to restatement as growing thought and investigation reveal understanding of new truths thereby, leaving every individual free to follow the dictates of reason and conscience in spiritual as in secular affairs."

The words "science," "investigation," and "evidence" show up numerous times on the site for the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. At its core, however, is the belief that humans do not die. At least our souls don't:

"Through mediumship, communication with mortals who have experienced transition from earth has been established, thus proving, THERE IS NO DEATH

We are all souls now, each clothed in a material body through which our mental and spiritual faculties function. Within this material body is the spiritual or etheric body which serves as the vehicle for soul expression the moment transition occurs…"

Surrounding this core belief is a commitment to treating all humans well, treating one's self well, and acting as if all of your actions while "clothed in a material body" will affect all other lives and your eternal existence (in a nutshell: karma or the Golden Rule, all versions of which are accepted in spiritualism). You give what you get. You reap what you sow. There is also a commitment to the Law of Attraction (among other laws, but not "commandments" like in the Judeo-Christian Bible), so yes, this is a "good vibes" religion.

Where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with Ghostbusters? Well, if our souls exist for all time, even after our physical bodies die, spiritualism dictates that we're going to need some proof that this is even true. We're going to have to prove that these souls are still sticking around after physical death. This is where the Ghostbusters come in.

"Back off, man. I'm a scientist."



To begin at the beginning, communication is key, and mediums are the people in charge of doing that. Spiritualists believe that mediums are people equipped with an extra sense or ability to communicate with souls that have "transitioned." Their philosophy plainly states: "We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism."  This is why we meet the Ghostbusters at Columbia University, conducting scientific experiments on ESP. Peter Venkman explicitly states that he has Ph.D.s in parapsychology and psychology. These guys are not messing around: they are spiritualists. They believe that something exists beyond life on Earth and they are out to prove it.

While Venkman comes off as more of a skeptic than his colleagues, it would be wrong to call him a non-believer. Why would anyone bother to get a Ph.D. in parapsychology if they weren’t trying to prove (or disprove) the existence of ghosts? Think of Venkman as a “glass half empty, non-card-carrying” spiritualist. He’s agnostic, he hasn’t seen this for himself… but he hasn’t proved that the paranormal doesn’t exist.

Of course, they're called crackpots and end up stripped of their funding for their experiments, but once ghosts start showing up, they're proven right, aren't they?

"We've Got the Tools, We've Got the Talent!"



Maybe it took the almost-end-of-the-world to prove to everyone that there was an existence after death, but the Ghostbusters -- guided by Aykroyd -- knew this way ahead of time and had amassed a trove of equipment. All of those weird-looking toys served a specific purpose even if it looked like they weren't being used correctly.

One of the most fascinating things for me when I became a young fan of this movie was how much thought went into the science designed to detect and catch ghosts. I couldn't have known as a kid (before the Internet) that these were real tools that spiritualists used to prove the existence of paranormal phenomena. PK (psychokinesis), for example, is what PKE meters are trying to detect (Like when Twinkies become a metaphor for serious supernatural danger). This is something that mediums believe they possess that helps them communicate with the dead. Aykroyd's heart and soul were truly part of the Ghostbusters DNA, and it made for a painstakingly thought-out movie that was funny with the smarts to back it up.

"We're Ready to Believe You!"

But even beyond the technology, the entire spirit of Ghostbusters is based on spiritualism. The Ghostbusters exist to serve their fellow man and woman and that means making the world a safer place for the living from souls who seek to destroy everything that's good. While Ghostbusters 2 has its detractors (for perfectly sound reasons), the church's philosophy of our interrelatedness as people is on full display in the form of slime: ectoplasm.

Spiritualism believes that souls of the "transitioned" manifest themselves in a variety of ways including as ectoplasm, usually coming out of a medium communicating with said soul. That looks just as disgusting as it sounds and it was a major part of spirit photography, one of the earliest ways that spiritualists tried to prove the existence of the paranormal. Obviously, things have become more sophisticated since then, mostly because most spirit photography was proven to be fraudulent. That progress lives in Ghostbusters as does the old-school ectoplasm in the form of the river of slime underneath the city. The evil soul of Vigo the Carpathian was manifesting itself in that slime and causing all kinds of bad vibes throughout the city, causing anyone who came in contact with it to become angry and violent. Eventually, it was meant to fuel the resurrection of Vigo, but with a little positively-charged slime and a city full of New Yorkers celebrating the New Year, Vigo wasn't going to win.

While the new Ghostbusters movie obviously has Dan Aykroyd's blessing and endorsement, as well as a cameo, it wasn't written by him nor by any other spiritualist. That's not something that I, a devoted fan of the movies, feel will make or break the movie, but it did add something special to it and gave the original movie heart. We do know that it will feature several elements of spiritualism just from the trailer, especially ectoplasm.


I'm sure a little club soda will get that out.

Spiritualism is, however, a very fun lens through which to view the Ghostbusters movies knowing that every scientific aspect of the story was meant to explain paranormal phenomena in real life. It makes Ghostbusters feel almost real.

So, are you afraid?

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