The History of the Ghostbusters

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On June 8, 1984, Columbia Pictures released the supernatural comedy Ghostbusters which went on to become one of the most successful film of the year and an indelible part of the pop culture lexicon. But where did it all come from? Who made it happen? What ways could it have gone and who was responsible for all the spinoff media like the toys, cartoons, sequel and comics? With the 30th anniversary release of the film to theaters nationwide this week, it seems like the perfect time to look back on the history of the Ghostbusters franchise.

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1984

The origin of Ghostbusters can be attributed directly to one of its stars, Dan Aykroyd. He’d always been (and continues to be) interested in the paranormal. An article about quantum physics and parapsychology in the American Society of Psychical Research Journal and watching the movie Ghostchasers inspired Aykroyd to begin writing a draft of what would become Ghostbusters. At this point, he’d only been in two hit movies, The Blues Brothers, which he helped write while working at Saturday Night Live, and Trading Places with Eddie Murphy. He’d also been in some duds like 1941. Interested in creating his own opportunity, he wrote Ghostbusters as a huge, ambitious film.

A design for the ECTO-1 that helped get the project greenlit

A design for the ECTO-1 that helped get the project greenlit

The first draft of the movie had the Ghostbusters dressed in tactical gear, like riot cops, and they traveled through time and space battling massive ghosts. When he pitched the idea to director Ivan Reitman, Reitman was instantly drawn to the core concept but told Aykroyd that it would be too expensive to film as is. So Aykroyd enlisted Harold Ramis to help him write a new draft. Ramis was a comedian from Chicago’s famous improv scene, where he befriended John Belushi, among others. Belushi brought him to New York City, along with future Ghostbuster Bill Murray, to work on the National Lampoon Radio Hour. Ramis performed but was most successful as a writer and director, having worked on sketch comedy show SCTV as its head writer for the first three years, writing or co-writing for the films Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, and directing both Caddyshack and Vacation. Together, they shaped the script into something closer to the final version. They specifically wrote roles for their friends: Dr. Peter Venkman was to be played by Belushi, Eddie Murphy would play Winston Zeddemore and John Candy was to play an uptight businessman version of Louis Tully.

Acclaimed illustrator Bernie Wrightson designed some of the ghosts for the movie.

Acclaimed illustrator Bernie Wrightson designed some of the ghosts for the movie.

Belushi passed away before they finished the script and Murphy and Candy were both unable to commit to the film due to other film roles. This led to one final revision and the film went on to cast Bill Murray, whose improvisational performance is frequently cited as a high point, Ernie Hudson as final Ghostbuster Winston and Rick Moranis as a nerdy version of Louis Tully. Gozer was originally intended to appear as Ivo Shandor, an unremarkable man in a suit who had designed a building to act as a supernatural conduit for the evil god Gozer to enter into our world. The role was intended for Pee Wee Herman actor Paul Reubens but was ultimately re-envisioned as an androgynous creature portrayed by Yugoslav model Slavitza Jovan. Writers Aykroyd and Ramis appeared as Drs. Ray Stanz and Egon Spengler, respectively.

A cut scene from the movie showed a newly married couple being scared by Slimer at the hotel.

A cut scene from the movie showed a newly married couple being scared by Slimer at the hotel.

The big hook of the movie is that the scientists who no one takes seriously turn out to be right about ghosts being real. And once they become the titular Ghostbusters, they run their business more like exterminators than fussy scientists. Ultimately, the Ghostbusters are the only ones capable of defending New York City against Gozer, an evil god summoned to destroy our world.

The original script called for Gozer to turn into his true form after the Stay-Puft Marshamallow Man was destroyed.

The original script called for Gozer to turn into his true form after the Stay-Puft Marshamallow Man was destroyed.

The movie was a huge hit, grossing $23 million in its opening weekend, then a studio record. The film stayed at number one for the box office for five weeks, earning nearly $100 million (against its modest $30 million budget) and then coming back to the number one position in week seven and again in week 13. It went on to gross $229 million, second only to Beverly Hills Cop for the year.

Dan Aykroyd filming a scene that was cut from the movie.

Dan Aykroyd filming a scene that was cut from the movie.

Pop Culture

The movie proved to have real staying power. It produced pop culture phrases like “Who Ya Gonna Call?” and a hit single by Ray Parker, Jr. called “Ghostbusters.” Parker was approached by the film’s producers after Lindsey Buckingham passed. Parker only had a few days to come up with something and said he was stumped until seeing a late night infomercial and deciding to create a song as though it was a jingle for the fictional team’s business. The song reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August of 1984 and remained for three weeks. Huey Lewis later sued Ray Parker, Jr., alleging he stole the hook from his song “I Want a New Drug.” The case was settled out of court.

Ivan Reitman filmed the music video, grabbing celeb cameos without permits or pay. The girl in the video is Cindy Harell, now married to Disney CEO Alan Horn. Murray improvised this breakdance move.

Ivan Reitman filmed the music video, grabbing celeb cameos without permits or pay. The girl in the video is Cindy Harell, now married to Disney CEO Alan Horn. Murray improvised this breakdance move.

In 1985, Activision released a licensed game based on the film for systems from the Atari 800, Sega Master System, Apple II home computer, Commodore 64 and Nintendo Entertainment System. David Crane coded the game in just six weeks, based on the architecture of an unused game he’d developed called Car Wars which explains why the video game had levels where the Ecto-1 car drives around New York sucking up ghosts – something that didn’t happen in the film. The NES version is infamous for its closing title screen full of mistakes when you beat the game. It read:

End screen from original Ghostbusters game

1986

In 1986, an animated version of Ghostbusters was created by Columbia Pictures Television, DiC Animation, and Coca-Cola Telecommunications. A short, unaired pilot was first created, which differs from the final version in that it kept the main characters in the beige boilersuits they wore in the movie and the character design for Peter Venkman more closely resembled Bill Murray. The show was picked up by ABC and aired there for its entire six season run of 147 episodes except for season 3 which ran in syndication at the same time as season 2. The show’s story editor was J. Michael Straczynski, who went on to create Babylon 5 as well as writing the majority of the episodes.

Story editor J. Michael Straczynski poses with the ECTO-1.

Story editor J. Michael Straczynski poses with the ECTO-1.

While the show was being created, animation studio Filmation also began creating a show called Ghostbusters based on a 1975 live action show they made called The Ghost Busters. They created the animated show to capitalize on the name that they owned. This in turn prompted Columbia and DiC to rename their show The Real Ghostbusters. Some changes were made for the animated show. They didn’t have likeness rights so the characters don’t look exactly like the actors that portrayed them. Also, they were given color-coded jumpsuits to differentiate them more easily. The characters and props were created by illustrator Jim McDermott. When it came time to audition the voice cast, professional voice actor Maurice LaMarche was specifically asked not to do a Harold Ramis impression but he did one anyway and got the role. Ernie Hudson was the only actor from the films who auditioned for the show, but he was actually not selected and the role was given to Arsenio Hall.

Screenshot from the unaired 4-minute pilot.

Screenshot from the unaired 4-minute pilot.

Lorenzo Music was hired to play Peter Venkman but left after season 2. According to LaMarche, Bill Murray complained that the character sounded too much like Garfield (who Music also voiced and who Bill Murray played in the live action films). Full House actor Dave Coulier took over the role in season 3. Season 3 brought a few more changes. Ray Stanz was slimmed down, Slimer the ghost mascot was given a tail. Janine was given longer, straight hair and her voice was changed from Laura Summer to Kath Soucie in an attempt to soften the character. Buster Jones took over the role of Winston from Hall.

Maurice LaMarche (Egon, left) and Frank Welker (Ray and Slimer, right) record an episode of the Real Ghostbusters.

Maurice LaMarche (Egon, left) and Frank Welker (Ray and Slimer, right) record an episode of the Real Ghostbusters.

Slimer was the green ghost that slimes Venkman in the first film, the first ghost that the team captures. It was called Onionhead on the film set (because of a cut scene where he scares hotel guests with his bad breath), unnamed in the actual movie and, according to Aykroyd, was intended to be an homage to Belushi. He was voiced in the film by director Ivan Reitman (who also voiced Zuul). The character was revived on the cartoon as a type of mascot and was a huge hit with the audience. In season 3, the show was renamed Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters and there was a Slimer spinoff cartoon that aired right after the Ghostbusters. He also was emblazoned on the Hi-C juicebox for their new flavor “Ecto Cooler” and remained there long after the cartoon ended, until he was removed in 1997.

1989

While Columbia Pictures was keen on producing a sequel thanks to Ghostbusters becoming one of the biggest hit comedies of all time, Reitman, Ramis and Aykroyd weren’t initially interested. They intended Ghostbusters to tell a complete story with a definitive end. As late as 1987, Reitman claimed they were not seriously considering making another film. But Aykroyd eventually started thinking about it and wrote a first draft. He decided to do something very different, taking the Ghostbusters out of their comfort zone and putting them in an adventure in Scotland. Dana Barrett, Venkman’s love interest in the first film, is kidnapped by fairies and taken underground. Aykroyd says the only idea that remained in the final version was that something bad was going on underground. He reasoned that since the heroes went to the top of New York’s skyscrapers in the first film, they would explore the unseen underbelly of New York in the second movie. Bill Murray told Starlog magazine that the title would be “The Last of the Ghostbusters” because they’d burn in hell if they called it Ghostbusters II and they all wanted to be sure there wasn’t a Ghostbusters III.

Puppeteer Tim Lawrence based the Scolari Brothers ghosts on the Blues Brothers. Visual Development artist Henry Mayo refined the design with producer Michael C. Gross. They were the first ghosts approved for the film.

Puppeteer Tim Lawrence based the Scoleri Brothers ghosts on the Blues Brothers. They were named after real brothers who had robbed Harold Ramis’ father’s store. Visual Development artist Henry Mayo refined the design with producer Michael C. Gross. They were the first ghosts approved for the film.

Ultimately, Columbia Pictures was able to convince the entire original cast and director to return and produce a sequel which was released on June 16, 1989. Produced on a slightly increased budget of $37 million, it went on to earn a fantastic $215 million worldwide but Columbia actually wrote it off as a flop. Released in a crowded summer with big releases like Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a new James Bond film and more, expectations were ridiculously high and it failed to meet those lofty goals. Columbia gave the film a massive marketing push and licensed Ghostbusters 2 products were everywhere. The film received mixed reviews with many claiming it added nothing new and just wasn’t as funny as the first film.

Ramis and Aykroyd brainstormed ghost ideas including this discarded idea of Hindenburg passengers by artist Benton Jew. They also considered graveyards and crashed subway cars before settling on the Titanic returning.

Ramis and Aykroyd brainstormed ghost ideas including this discarded idea of Hindenburg passengers by artist Benton Jew. They also considered graveyards and crashed subway cars before settling on the Titanic returning.

The movie has its share of funny scenes but is also problematic. Bill Murray doesn’t seem very interested and only suits up as a Ghostbuster right at the very end. Sigourney Weaver’s Dana has gone from being a world-class cellist in the first film to a single mother working as a painting restoration expert. A painting of Vigo, an evil Carpathian ruler is found and he summons rivers of slime that release ghosts when exposed to negative emotions. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. After the movie came out, the Real Ghostbusters cartoon added Louis Tully and referenced events from the film.

1997

Following the decent interest in the Ghostbusters sequel, the franchise cooled off for a long time. It was briefly revived in 1997. Sony, who now owned Columbia Pictures, decided to test the waters of the franchise by creating a new cartoon. They hired showrunner Bob Higgins and the decision was made not to reboot the story but to allow for the actual passage of time and introduce a new team of Ghostbusters. Maurice LaMarche returned to voice Egon Spengler, who was the only Ghostbuster still working in the paranormal field. He maintained their firehouse and taught a class at the local college. When ghosts begin to return, he enlists his four students, along with Slimer and Janine, to fight back. The new cast was a diverse group: Eduardo Rivera is a sarcastic slacker, Roland Jackson is a square mechanic, Garrett Miller is a wheelchair-bound former jock, and Kylie Griffin is a goth.

Concept sketch artist Fil Barlow pitched to show producer Richard Raynis, proposing Ego was an emissary trying to stop a coming war between ghosts and demons (later adjusted to ghouls). The idea was scrapped but the long hair became a ponytail on the finished show.

Concept sketch artist Fil Barlow pitched to show producer Richard Raynis, proposing Ego was an emissary trying to stop a coming war between ghosts and demons (later adjusted to ghouls). The idea was scrapped but the long hair became a ponytail on the finished show.

The show was not the hit the studio hoped for and was canceled after its first season of 40 episodes. The show ended with a 2-parter that brought the original Ghostbusters back to team up with the new generation. Voice actors Dave Coulier, Buster Jones and Frank Welker all returned to reprise their roles. The cartoon spawned an action figure line by Trendmasters but it did not sell well.

2003

Despite only having 2 movies and a cartoon that ended in ’91, followed by the blip in ’97, Ghostbusters remained a well-known property. Sony continued to test the waters by licensing toys, comic books and video games to keep the characters in the public’s eye. In 2003, Sony licensed the rights to a Ghostbusters comic book to new comic book publisher 88MPH Studios. At the time, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had all made popular returns in comics and new cartoons. With big plans for an ongoing title, only four issues were actually released. 88MPH Studios released a four-part mini-series that updated the events of the movie to having occurred in 2004 and following the Ghostbusters as their fame faded and they returned to the day-to-day business of capturing ghosts. It sold well but the studio failed to capitalize on the attention. Critically, it was panned for being too serious as well as constantly shipping late.

Drab and overly serious, Ghostbusters: Legion failed to generate much interest.

Drab and overly serious, Ghostbusters: Legion failed to generate much interest.

The next time the comic showed up was in 2008 when IDW obtained the license. They publish between 4 to 12 issues a year, broken into mini-series and 2 parters, with one 16-issue run from September 2011 through December 2012. The issues have been put out by a number of different creative teams with respectable but not blockbuster results.

A Third Film?

The comics, toys and even cartoons have been appreciated by fans but of course the thing people want most is a third movie. Obviously Columbia Pictures would love to have a third film. So why hasn’t it happened yet? The biggest obstacle for many years after the second film was that none of the cast wanted to do another sequel. Bill Murray still says in interviews that he has no real interest in doing a third film. The one person that keeps stoking the flames of it being any sort of possibility is Dan Aykroyd.

In the 1990s, Aykroyd wrote a script where the Ghostbusters are transported to hell, which is an alternate reality version of Manhattan and they ultimately face the devil. The script featured Egon, Ray and Winston struggling to keep the business afloat after Venkman left to be with Dana. They ultimately take on a team of new recruits. The script has been criticized for not being very funny and the new characters come across as bland and interchangeable. In 2005 and 2009, Ramis mentioned ideas for the film but that it had stalled due to a lack of interest. Aykroyd continued to tout the idea of a new band of teammembers.

Bill Murray stoked the fires of Ghostbusters 3 interest when he appeared as himself in the 2009 Zombieland movie and in a bit of meta-storytelling, then pretended to reenact Ghostbusters with the characters of Zombieland.

Bill Murray stoked the fires of Ghostbusters 3 interest when he appeared as himself in the 2009 Zombieland movie and in a bit of meta-storytelling, then pretended to reenact Ghostbusters with the characters of Zombieland.

In January of 2010, Reitman announced he would direct a third film. In March, Bill Murray was a guest on David Letterman’s show and said he’d only do the movie if he was killed off in the first reel. That same month, he told Coming Soon that maybe he should do it and it would be fun. In May, Aykroyd told the press that the film was happening and would be out Christmas of 2012. This point in time is important and we’ll loop back to why there was a burst of interest in 2010.

In 2010, Bill Murray presented an award in full Ghostbuster attire at Spike TV's Scream Awards.

In 2010, Bill Murray presented an award in full Ghostbuster attire at Spike TV’s Scream Awards.

Throughout 2011, Aykroyd continued to tell anyone that would listen that the movie would happen whether Murray was involved or not. He kept mentioning how the original Ghostbusters would now be old and not up to do the work, needing a new generation to help. He specifically said his character of Ray would be blind in one eye and have a bad knee and that Egon would be too fat to put on his proton pack. News reports in late 2011 claimed that Murray saw the script and shredded it, returning it to Ramis and Aykroyd with a note that said no one wanted to see fat old men chasing ghosts. Ayrkoyd denied that report and said they were considering casting someone else as Venkman.

Dan Aykroyd promotes his Crystal Skull vodka while also mentioning the possibility of Ghostbusters 3 to Larry King.

Dan Aykroyd promotes his Crystal Skull vodka while also mentioning the possibility of Ghostbusters 3 to Larry King.

By 2012, Aykroyd finally began admitting the movie was stalled. In a June interview with Letterman, Murray again said that maybe they could get a good script after all. You can probably see a pattern. Aykroyd again began telling media that a third movie would probably happen with the new generation of Ghostbusters. He continued mentioning this idea throughout 2013. Even the retired Rick Moranis gave a rare interview mid-2013 where he said he wasn’t definitely saying no and that he thought the second film was a disappointment but if the script was great, he might be interested.

In February of 2014, Harold Ramis passed away. With one Ghostbuster dead and another not very interested, you’d think the third film was completely dead. However, in the beginning of August, industry trades reported that Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) was in talks to direct a new Ghostbusters movie with an all-female team. Only time will tell if this comes to fruition.

So why was there such a flurry of interest in 2010? Probably because fans got the closest thing they will get to a third movie in the form of the video game Ghostbusters: The Video Game. The game featured the voice work and likenesses of all four original Ghostbusters as well as Annie Potts returning as Janine Melnitz and William Atherton returning as the foil in the first film, EPA agent Walter Peck. Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s brother) appeared as the Mayor and Alyssa Milano voiced Dr. Illysa Selwyn, a new love interest for Venkman. Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd did some script doctoring to work in ideas from one of their previous scripts and polish the dialog for the characters.

Annie Potts records dialog for Janine Melnitz.

Annie Potts records dialog for Janine Melnitz.

The game received generally positive reviews and sold over 1 million copies. The gameplay is 3rd person perspective from an unnamed Ghostbuster rookie working with the original team, who you control. The game has frequent animated cutscenes with the cast, telling the new story. The story begins around Thanksgiving of 1991, 2 years after the second movie. The Ghostbusters are city contractors working to clean up ghost problems. A massive PKE wave hits the city, releasing many ghosts which sends the team throughout the city. This includes a battle against the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, among other new ghosts. Walter Peck is now the head of the Paranormal Contracts Oversight Commission and harasses the team and was appointed by new mayor Jock Mulligan. He wants to be sure the Ghostbusters don’t cause too much damage. 

Concept art for the video game, originally shared by IGN.

Concept art for the video game, originally shared by IGN.

In the course of their adventures, they meet museum curator Dr. Selwyn and learn that Ivo Shandor, the architect who built the building that summoned Gozer in the first film, had a second plan. He built a network of tunnels beneath Manhattan that carry ectoplasmic slime and act as a mandala which merges our world with the ghost world. Ultimately, it will summon another Great Destructor, like Gozer. Ultimately, they learn that the Mayor is possessed by Ivo Shandor himself and has been orchestrating the events. The team is able to stop Shandor from sacrificing his descendent, Selwyn, but are pulled into the ghost dimension where they must battle Shandor who has attained the power of a Supreme Destructor.

All four main cast members lent their voices and likenesses to the game.

All four main cast members lent their voices and likenesses to the game.

It will probably be the closest thing any of us get to a third film starring the original heroes now that Harold Ramis has passed away. As to whether a reboot or sequel could work, only time will tell.

 

  • ThreeOranges

    One of the things that fascinates me about Ghostbusters is how much rewrites, recasting, extensive cuts and editing, etc. all came together to make what is pretty close to a perfect movie.

  • Totally. It should have been a complete disaster.

  • T16skyhopp

    Think the comics section should be a bit added to. After the lackluster minis and one shots, the IDW ongoing is still running (finishing up in a few issues) and has had the same core creative team throughout. It got retitled after that 16 issue-run as “New Ghostbusters” (reflecting the story at the time), but after 4 issues of that it reverted to Ghostbusters and is up to issue 19 of that second numbering. Despite the mid run renumbering it’s one complete story. It is pretty fantastic and at least worth a separate mention. I would recommend it to any comic fan and not just Ghostbusters fans. Continuity it follows is movies, game and the initial IDW comics.

  • Chris Piers

    Reminds me of Casablanca. Should have been a disaster but it came out fantastic.