As a child, Egon Spengler was my hero.
It’s funny to think that in a decade populated by such brawny cartoon characters as the steroided-out He-Man gang, the all-powerful Transformers, and the bicep-flexing GI Joe’s, a skinny, awkward, glasses-wearing scientist could somehow stand out from the crowd.
But Egon was my favorite. I wore out about ten different action figures, I had a little jumpsuit with his name on it, and even though my eyesight was fine, I would often put on a pair of lensless glasses because I thought it’d make me more like Egon (smart!).
As many Scouting NY readers probably know, Ghostbusters is my favorite movie. This is partly because I think the film is one of the great comedies of all-time, the perfect blend of horror and humor, realism and fantasy. But of course, a favorite movie is never a rational choice, nor should it be (I am always highly suspect of people who say that Citizen Kane is their favorite movie; greatest, OK, but favorite?). As with any favorite film, the time, place and circumstances of that first viewing is often as important as the movie itself, and for me, Ghostbusters arrived right about the time I started to learn about the unknown.
I was a pretty neurotic kid, which I suspect was due in large part to my early Catholic school education. I remember being at Friday mass one day in first grade and listening to the priest going on about death and heaven and hell. All of a sudden, it occurred to me for the first time that death was a very real thing; someday, all the people around me would be gone. My friends, my brothers, my parents. Would they go to Heaven? Would some wind up in Purgatory, or the unthinkable, Hell? The implications became overwhelming, and I began to cry.
My teacher, Sister Frances, saw me and quickly took me out in the hall. She asked what was wrong, and I told her that the priest had made me think of my parents dying. I’ll never forget the look on her face as it clouded over with irritation. “You made me miss the service for this?” she snapped. “Your parents are fine. Now get back inside.” Oh, parochial school, where would I be without your warm embrace?
More frightening unknowns began to steadily reveal themselves, as they do for all children. I recall reading a second grade Weekly Reader article (remember that four page newsletter for kids?) on the Chernobyl disaster and becoming deeply concerned about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. The Seabrook, NH nuclear power plant was just 25 miles away from where I grew up, and I’ll never forget the large sign put up by activists on the highway, which we would frequently drive by: “Mr. President,” it read, “In the event of a nuclear meltdown at Seabrook, there would be no chance of escape.” Just what a seven year old wants to think about.
And of course, there were the usual childhood boogeymen. Most kids were afraid of monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet, but after reading a book on aliens (courtesy of the Scholastic Book Club), I realized that the real threat came from outer space – and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Death, illness, nuclear holocausts, alien abduction…The more I grew up, the more the world became a very scary place.
What made Ghostbusters so special? I certainly loved He-Man, Transformers, the Smurfs, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe, and all the rest. But Ghostbusters was my favorite, the fantasy land that I most often drifted off into when playing. And after some reflection, I think I’ve figured out why.
Superman fought Lex Luthor. GI Joe fought Cobra. He-Man fought Skeletor. The Ninja Turtles fought Shredder. The Smurfs fought Gargamel. Each series featured a recurring villain as the antagonist, a bully-substitute who would attempt a new fiendish plot each week, only to be thwarted at the last minute by the smarter, stronger heroes.
The Ghostbusters fought the unknown.
I can’t remember how young I was when I first watched the original movie, but I’ve never forgotten my reaction to one scene in particular: the four Ghostbusters, having narrowly survived a supernatural earthquake, head into Dana Barrett’s apartment building to try and save the day. “They don’t have a plan,” I remember thinking in horror. “They don’t know what to do.”
And it’s true. Now knowing what happens, it’s easy to forget that at this point, our heroes have absolutely no idea of what they’re going to do once they get to the roof. Sure, they’ve got four nuclear accelerators on their backs, but their firepower quickly proves useless against Gozer. Soon, Dana Barrett is a terror dog, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is tearing up Central Park West, and it looks like the end is near.
And then, as they crouch in an alcove for safety, Egon speaks up. “I have a radical idea. The [dimensional] door swings both ways. We could reverse the particle flow through the gate.” “How?” asks Venkman. “We’ll cross the streams,” he replies.
“Excuse me Egon? You said crossing the streams was bad,” says Venkman, as Ray and Winston both look reluctant. “You’re going to endanger us. You’re going to endanger our client. The nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog…”
“Not necessarily,” says Egon. “There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”
This is when Egon became my hero.
Sure, it’s Venkman who leads the charge (“I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! Let’s do it!”), but it was Egon who, on the verge of a paranormal apocalypse, was able to keep his wits and turn to science for a solution. And despite the grim odds, he shows absolutely no hesitation in suggesting they risk their lives to stand up to the gates of Hell.
Egon made it cool to be smart.
Each week on the tie-in Real Ghostbusters cartoon show, which I watched religiously, saving the day would come down to some kind of scientific know-how, or knowledge of history or arcane literature, and more often than not, it was the brilliant scientist Egon who provided the necessary answers. When bullies at school would make fun of me for being a nerd or getting good grades, the insults never made any sense. Of course I wanted to be smart. Just like my hero.
What’s more, Egon would always confront the weekly cadre of spooks, specters and demons with a cool, scientific detachment. He wasn’t afraid of the unknown.
Looking back, I now see that as I got older, I began gravitating closer to the things that scared me. In third grade, though I was very much afraid of spiders, I strangely chose to do a science report on tarantulas. I learned all about them, and even went to the pet store to take photos of a live one. Doing the report didn’t exactly make me 100% comfortable hanging around enormous arachnids, but I did find that embracing my fears and looking at them logically greatly helped to diminish them.
The unknown became a little less scary.
On Monday, Harold Ramis, co-writer of Ghostbusters and the actor who brought Egon Spengler to life, passed away at the age of 69. An incredibly gifted writer, director, actor, and producer, countless obituaries have heralded his landmark contributions to cinema and comedy.
For me, his death made me reflect on the importance of childhood heroes, and the immense effect they can have on one’s growth. I once read that in the 1960s and 70s, approximately 50% of the applicants to Rockefeller University’s PHD program cited TV’s Mr. Wizard as the reason they first became interested in science. How many would today cite Dr. Egon Spengler?
In an interview, Ramis talks about the first time he showed the Ghostbusters films to his young children. After the movies ended, he recalls, “my four year old turned to me and said, ‘Dad – you’re a really good scientist.’”
“I thought that was the highest compliment of all,” he says, clearly overjoyed by the memory.
You were a great scientist, Mr. Ramis. Thank you for teaching me that wanting to be smart was OK, and that you didn’t have to be afraid of those strange things that go bump in the night.
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