Ghosts don’t have bodies.
So it seems ironic that most discussions around the new all-female Ghostbusters reboot has been so focused on gender. Whether it’s men fighting ghosts, as in the 1984 original, or women, as in the upcoming remake, why should it matter to the incorporeal?
The answer, at least based on filmed ghost stories, is that it matters a lot. Taking bodies away doesn’t make gendered anxiety disappear; instead, it seems to amp it up. Without bodies of their own, ghosts make humans, onscreen and off, hyper-aware of their own sweaty, heavy, oozing flesh, in all its sexy and repulsive vulnerability.
In Insidious (2010), for example, the boring dad protagonist is taken over by the ghost of an old female witch; the disjunction between gender and body is figured as part of the evil, wrong, terrifying horror. In David Lynch’s 1990s television series, Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) is possessed by a wood spirit, Bob. “He opened me and I invited him and he came into me,” Leland says of the possession. That’s a metaphor for sex and, in context, for possibly incestuous rape, which in turn links Leland to his own daughter, whom he abused. Bob, the ghost without a solid self, cuts gender into bodies like a wound.
The mega-hit Ghost (1990) was even more explicit about the connection between ghosts, gender scrambling, and sex. The romantic high point of the film is when Sam (Patrick Swayze) possesses the body of Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) in order to have one last steamy slow dance with Molly (Demi Moore.) You could see this as love transcending bodies; a tribute to how Sam and Molly love each other on a higher, spiritual level. But the charge of the scene, and the romance, and not a little bit of the queasiness, is in the taboo-pushing gender swap. The white couple’s story serves as the surface pretense to allow an unprecedented interracial lesbian romance to be visible, briefly, in a mainstream film. But it’s also that case that, like many black women in Hollywood before her, Goldberg has to put aside her self (literally in this case) to facilitate a white couple’s story. Gone With the Wind hovers, not insubstantially enough, in the background. Ghosts may have no bodies, but the histories of those bodies are harder to shake.
As a comedy, the original Ghostbusters tweaks the ghostly fascination with gender, but it doesn’t abandon it. The film’s second half is dominated by a snickering exploration of the trusty possession=intercourse equation, as Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) is taken over, and uber-sexualized, by a ghost/demon of indeterminate gender. Since Ray (Bill Murray) has been lusting after Dana for the whole film, her transformation from sedate professional into lust-crazed temptress comes across as a kind of wish fulfillment. It’s as if it’s Ray who’s (in various senses) possessing her, much like Satan forced Regan to masturbate with the crucifix in The Exorcist. If anybody can be in any body, you can’t tell whose desire is doing what in whom – which is both terrifying and titillating.
The most famous scene in Ghostbusters is when Ray confronts a slobbering green ghoul in a hotel hallway. The ghost attacks, leaving Ray writhing on the floor covered in ectoplasmic ick. “He slimed me!” Ray moans, “slimed” here standing in for a more X-rated verb that also connotes a sticky aftermath. Ghosts in Ghostbusters have no bodies, but they have bodily fluids, which they dump, with a homosocial snigger, on their pursuers.
The sliming scene is, inevitably, reworked and reprised in the recently released 2016 Ghostbusters trailer, albeit with the genders shuffled about. Kristen Wiig as Erin Gilbert confronts a female librarian apparition in a library, only to have said apparition vomit buckets and buckets of green goo all over her. The money shot, which is only implied in the original, is here visualized at length, and the intimate nature of the unfortunate encounter is further emphasized after Erin has cleaned up when she tells her horrified colleagues, “That stuff went everywhere, by the way. In every crack. Very hard to wash off.” Jokes about male-male are flipped to jokes about female-female – the same spirit in slightly different bodies.
That spirit appears to live on in other ways as well. The original Ghostbusters famously cut and marginalized the part of Ernie Hudson, the only black actor of the four principals; in the new trailer, Leslie Jones’s character seems to wearisomely reprise sassy black friend stereotypes. Less depressingly, the new Ghostbusters, like the old, promises demonic possessions; the trailer shows Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) slimed and turned into a creepily smiling, head-rotating assassin. Both Sigourney Weaver’s demon and Dan Aykroyd’s nerdy scientist hover over McCarthy’s performance, which – perhaps because it gets to draw on so many genders – looks significantly more entertaining than either of its predecessors. A film in which women possess men’s roles, or in which the men’s roles haunt the women, seems like it’s truer to that disembodied, embodied ghostliness than even the original.
This article was written by Noah Berlatsky, for theguardian.com on Saturday 5th March 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010