Pop Psych: ‘Ghostbusters’, Dreams and Why Bustin’ (Should) Make You Feel Good

(L-R) Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters.
(L-R) Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters. Columbia Pictures

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters.

We all have dreams about what we want to be when we grow up, but so few of us ever end up pursuing them. Which sounds more sad than it is – in Hindu cosmology, the Human realm of existence is distinguished solely by the opportunity to continue to make choices and adapt. But it does make you wonder why it’s so hard to follow those dreams. The Ghostbusters series of films has always focused on this conundrum, with the first two focusing on the issues of red tape and overregulation that get in the way of starting a business and this new one focusing on questions that are more personal, internalized, and historic. Which is all too appropriate for a film about busting ghosts.

The new Ghostbusters starts off by dropping us viewers into the middle of a tour through a haunted house. Specifically, the house is being haunted by the ghost of the original owner’s eldest daughter, who we are taught was homicidally inclined. As a result of her murdering the servants of the household, her family locked her up in a DIY prison and basically tortured her with solitary confinement until she died. For a lighthearted movie, it’s a pretty grim tale! And though the implication seems to be that the filmmakers are simply introducing us to a world where ghosts exist, I think it says a lot about what ghosts are supposed to mean in this reality.

Contrast this ghost with the first ghost in the original movie, a long-dead librarian still shrieking at book lovers to keep it down. The ghost in the original movie has no history, no backstory, and no stated motivation for being so angry as to stick around after death. In the new film, however, the first ghost seems to be the personification of her own historical injustices. Not to say she didn’t have something coming to her for murdering so many people, but that’s not how we do justice in this country. As horrific as her crimes were, no one deserves what she apparently got. Death would have been better, and even that seems to have been denied her.

So how does this tie in with pursuing dreams? Let’s move ahead a bit in the movie, where we meet Dr. Erin Gilbert working as a physics professor at Columbia University. While this is certainly a dream job for some, the first things we learn about her all point to a certain dissatisfaction. The way she greets people around campus seems needy and phony, like she has something to prove. Which we learn she does: she has to hide her passion – researching ghosts – in order to prove her worthiness as a scientist. She is able to achieve on a level of success, but she can’t do so in the pursuit of her real passion.

When we later meet her ex-research partner and now antagonist, Dr. Abby Yates, we learn that she has taken the opposite route. She and her new research partner, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, have sequestered themselves in a lab where they can do pretty much anything they want, because literally no one is paying attention. So while they can perform as much research and invention as they please, it all remains within the cocoon, protected inside and away from prying eyes. These two are able to achieve along the lines of their passion, but worldly success completely evades them.

Once these three meet, they’re able to get something going, although not really in earnest until they’re joined by Patty Tolan. Tolan is introduced working for the MTA, in a position that seems to utterly waste her natural outgoing inquisitiveness. We see her trying in earnest to engage with people who are simply trying to move through the subway as quickly as possible, and while it is a nice fantasy to imagine having an uplifting conversation with a station manager it’s also really sad to see someone so obviously in love with people spend her days stuck behind bulletproof glass. She brings a willing and energetic bravery to the group that propels them to their first big score, the ghost of a man slowly cooked to death in a sub-par electric chair.

Once they’ve all been brought together, the Ghostbusters quickly start to fire on all cylinders. Gilbert looks excited by her work and is able to fit in naturally to the group, Yates and Holtzmann are able to bring their incredible science to the world in a way that it’s actually received, and Tolan finds a job that values her desire for teamwork and bravery. It’s actually pretty magical to watch, and it’s one of the reasons why this reboot ends up being such a joy.

What’s going on is a kind of synergy, a greater capability and energy than any of them would have had on their own. And what’s interesting is that we don’t see each person specializing into their own role, but rather a blending of these roles. The Ghostbusters are able to do more than complement each other, they are able to help each other grow. Now this is really interesting; in each case, we see a person who’s been stifled into a particular role – the uptight researcher, the passionate and ignored inventor, the solitary worker – suddenly able to move out of this proscribed path.

The trick is to work together. Alone, we’re all prone to getting stuck. With no one to bounce the recurring voice in our heads off of, we are prone to believing we’re nothing more than what we’re already doing. We lack other any perspective besides the one already in our head, and that stifles inspiration, drive, and courage. When we work with friends, though, things operate differently. Not only do they offer their own perspective, but we can look at them and see that there are other viable ways to live our lives. Alone, we are trapped inside our own subjective reality; surrounded by the right people, we are able to test our reality against those of the people around us and make adjustments in how we operate within the shared delusion of our world.

This leads to fulfillment, a state beyond simple happiness. Whereas happiness is just having a good time, fulfillment is when you’re living for more than just a good time. Fulfillment happens when we fill a role that has previously only seemed possible in our dreams. And while dreams seem to exist in a reality separate from our own, when we meet people who live there themselves we create a bridge and can see our dreams realized in the other. Seeing what seemed like nothing more than a fantasy so clearly realized and graspable, well, there’s nothing like it – having pursued and fulfilled our dreams, we are able to look back on our life from our death bed and simply release ourselves at the end.

The ghosts, and main villain, in this film seem to be the other option. People who were alone, who were unable to work together with people to accomplish what was beyond their own grasp, end up lingering. Angry and vengeful, they stick around and harm anyone within their reach. In Hindu cosmology, this is known as the Hungry Ghost realm, and it’s characterized by being unable to find satisfaction. Eternally searching from within their own perspective, people without support end up trapped within their reality, working from the false premise that if what they are pursuing does not fulfill them then they simply must pursue more of the same. But as Ghostbusters shows us, what ultimately fulfills is bringing together diverse elements, not homogeneity.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.

Pop Psych: ‘Ghostbusters’, Dreams and Why Bustin’ (Should) Make You Feel Good