On My Dad Harold Ramis and Passing the ‘Ghostbusters’ Torch to a New Generation of Fans
I’ve had mixed feelings about the new Ghostbusters since the project was announced back in October 2014, just a few months after my dad, Harold Ramis, died.
I was seven years old in 1984 when the original Ghostbusters (GB84) was released. It was huge. To say I was the coolest kid in 3rd grade wouldn’t be entirely accurate but I definitely had the coolest dad. All the boys in my elementary school would flock to him at pick-up, “Mr. Ramis, can I have your autograph?” “Egon! Egon! How did they make the Marshmallow Man?” “Hey, Violet’s dad, I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” Always respectful and appreciative of the fans, he would patiently answer every special effects question, sign every lunch box and pose for pictures — his sunny smile and laid back energy so different from the stiff reserve of Egon Spengler, his character in the movie. Egon, described by my dad as a “New Wave Dr. Spock,” may not have been the hero of the movie, but he was a hero to nerdy kids everywhere who saw themselves reflected in his glasses and big nose, in his awkwardness, intelligence and subtle magnetism. Because I was so close to it, I had a hard time understanding what the fuss was all about. “You’re not really Egon,” I told my dad after yet another encounter with ecstatic fans, “Don’t they know that?” “Yeah, baby, they know,” he said “but when people get really excited about something, we don’t care if it’s ‘real’ or not. We just want to get as close to it as we can.”
GB84 was wildly successful at the box office and went on to impact popular culture on every level. You couldn’t turn on the radio during the summer and fall of 1984 without hearing Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy theme song. Halloween that year was dominated by boys in homemade and store-bought costumes screaming to each other across the Santa Monica streets where I trick-or-treated: “Back off man, I’m a Ghostbuster!” “Don’t cross the streams (asshole)!” “Who you gonna call?” and the sadly underquoted, “Mother pus-bucket!” Of course, my dad offered to get me a jumpsuit and proton pack, but I opted for Cyndi Lauper that year –- sprayed orange hair, lacy petticoat and jelly sandals. My dad, always a good sport, escorted me around the neighborhood carrying a small boom-box blasting “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Of course, I could kick myself now for the missed opportunity of a father-daughter Ghostbusters dress-up moment but it’s ok. I stand by my Cyndi Lauper and look at it as an early display of feminist non-conformity.
A few years later, The Real Ghostbusters (RGB) cartoon came out and Egon, the brains of the ‘busters, was now the main character. Only, it wasn’t my father’s Egon, it was some blonde guy in Sally Jesse Raphael glasses. I was so disappointed that they had taken the character away from my dad and so offended that people who liked the cartoon just accepted this new Egon without question. “Don’t you feel bad that you’re not in the cartoon?” I asked one Saturday morning as RGB came on and I changed the channel. He laughed. “Umm, no. It’s fine. It’s business, Violet. The cartoon is its own thing. The same way you used to ask if the fans knew I wasn’t really Egon? Well, I’m not. It’s a character. There was a different Superman when I was a kid. Things change. Well, some things… I think we have a ways to go before we get a hunky Jewish cartoon character.” Along with the cartoon came updated action figures and toys, trading cards, video games, and a whole new set of enthusiastic fans.
Ghostbusters II came out in 1989, when I was 12, and the cycle (sort of) started all over again. I was old enough by then to have read several drafts of the script and was happy that the Egon character got a little more love in the sequel than he had in the first film. My dad, as usual, was excited by the ideas behind the film and seemed happy to be back together with Ivan and the rest of the cast. On release, the movie was far less successful than GB84 and the reviews were mixed. Some critics called it lazy and mechanical, others said it was actually better than the original. There was another round of toys and merchandizing but a lot of kids seemed to have moved on to Batman, Ninja Turtles, Game Boys, and the new Sega Genesis. The die-hard fans of GB84 still turned out and in the end, everyone was pleased, but the lightening bolt popularity that characterized the original film just wasn’t there.
My father worked on various ideas and scripts for Ghostbusters III over the years and there were many reasons why none of these ever came to fruition. The well-documented 20-year rift between my dad and Bill was a factor, but not the deciding one. In an interview with GQ, when asked about the rumors of a third Ghostbusters movie, my dad said “It does feel a little like tempting fate. Someone got the idea that Seth Rogen was involved and asked him about it in an interview. He said ‘That would have to be one motherfucking good script.’ And I think he’s kind of correct.” He kept himself busy doing other things but seemed to maintain an open door policy for interest in Ghostbusters III. He accepted that it would never be him, Dan, Bill, and Ernie back together again and enjoyed coming up with various scenarios about how the torch could be passed to a new generation. He liked the idea of a more diverse cast and once, in casual conversation, imagined a team made up of Kal Penn, Chris Rock, Jack Black, and Maya Rudolph. In any event, he got sick in 2010 and any chance he could have had to participate in a new Ghostbusters film was lost.
After my dad’s funeral, Ivan Reitman came out and said that, given my father’s death, he could not imagine directing another Ghostbusters movie and handed it back to the studio. At that time, emotionally raw and actively grieving, I thought Damn right! There can be no Ghostbusters without my dad! They blew it by waiting too long and now it can never happen. At the moment, that felt right. Now, it seems I might as well have thought No one should ever make another movie again if my dad can’t make movies anymore. Alas, my father and his amazing intelligence and humor were gone but the world, as it should, went on. So, when Sony announced that Paul Feig had signed on to direct a new Ghostbusters movie, I felt so torn. I had been a big fan of Paul’s television work and of Bridesmaids — watching my dad, in his hospital bed, shaking with laughter at Kristen and Melissa was one of the happier memories from the years of his illness. Still, even though I knew Paul was a smart and capable filmmaker, not to mention a fan of my dad’s, it felt somehow like a betrayal. Then, when they announced the cast, I went back and forth between Hmmm, that actually sounds kind of awesome and NO! I still can’t support it. Harold, Harold, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, no one can! Then I started reading comments. O-M-G.
As much as I wanted to stomp my foot and align myself with the opposition, there was no way I could stand behind the viciousness and ugliness that seemed to fuel these fundamentalists. From flat-out rejection of women as funny, to remarks about the actors’ looks, to the invocation of GB84 as ‘untouchable’ and disgust with ‘reboot culture’ generally, I was shocked by the anger and outrage. Are these people for real? I wondered. Sure, the timing sucks, but damn! I mourn my dad’s absence in this world as much, if not more, than anyone, but for people to say that he is “rolling in his grave” or would never have let a female-centered cast happen is INSANE. In his personal life, Harold Ramis was a kind, generous, and gracious person. Professionally, he was always about sharing the spotlight and making the other guy look good. Please, stop using my dad as an excuse to hate the new Ghostbusters. It degrades his memory to spew bile in his name.
In truth, it has been the other kind of crazy fans — the people who adore and obsess over all things Ghostbusters — that have really turned me around. Since my dad’s death, I have gone on many late night missions down the rabbit hole of #HaroldRamis and #Ghostbusters fandom. What a world! People have generated amazing, hilarious, and sometimes bizarre artwork depicting the Ghostbusters in hieroglyphics, needlepoint, graffiti, massive tattoos, digital renderings, caricature, and collage. Self-described “Ghostheads” have created groups all over the country (I see you, South New Jersey Ghostbusters!) who get together in full regalia, deck their cars out like the Ecto 1, and bring their love for the movie to Halloween parades, science fairs, paranormal conventions, children’s hospitals, and ComicCons worldwide. These groups are not just about re-enacting scenes from the movies or dressing up like the original characters. They have made their own stories, their own gear and their own identities as Ghostbusters. This community grew out of the seed of the original films but has taken on a life of its own far beyond anything the creators could have imagined, and it’s beautiful.
So let’s take a page out of the Ghostheads’ book and not restrict the Ghostbusters universe from extending as far and wide as it possibly can. Let’s be generous and make room for all of the visions and interpretations of what Ghostbusters can be. I still get annoyed when I see blond cartoon Egon, but who cares?! It’s a 20-year-old cartoon! The new movie is not the original and it’s not trying to be. Give it a chance and go see it! Or don’t, that’s fine. But resist the urge to hold on so tightly to the past that you choke off new life. I reserve my right as an almost 40-year-old to mutter about how everything was better when I was young, but let’s let this generation have their own Ghostbusters. Let’s give my nine-year-old daughter a chance to put on a proton pack and feel like a badass. In the spirit of my dad and his love for movies and comedy above all, I’ll be there for Ghostbusters 2016 opening weekend with my kids, eating popcorn, wearing my Egon Spengler tribute pin, cheering on the new crew, and laughing loudly, from the heart.
Violet Ramis Stiel lives in New York with her family. She is currently writing a book, Ghostbuster’s Daughter about life with her dad, the late, great Harold Ramis. Follow her on Twitter or visit her Facebook.