Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
CC2K’s Pat King takes a close look at the heroism of Dr. Peter Venkman.
The Internet Movie Database says that Ghostbusters came out in 1984 and I ain’t gonna argue with them, but I swear that my mother took me to see the movie when it first played the theaters. I would have been three, maybe four years old at the time. At first, it seems like a strange thing to take such a young boy to see. But the movie was marketed as a comedy, so my mom probably didn’t think it would be all that bad. Thing is, I was too young to know it was a comedy. To me, the movie was a serious affair.
And maybe that’s why I watched it so many times after my parents bought a VHS copy. The stakes were high. The four Ghostbusters were literally saving the world from destruction.
Now, I’m not someone who believes that the behavior of an adult can be traced directly back to their childhood pop culture consumption. There are just too many other variables to consider. Still, I can’t help but see the first signs of the proud anti-authoritarian that I would become in the child who watched his Ghostbusters tape so much that he wore it out.
Because for me there was no greater hero than Dr. Peter Venkman.
When we first see Venkman, he’s leading an experiment that measures the correlation between negative reinforcement and increased psychic abilities. But Venkman isn’t even interested in his own study. What he’s interested in is bedding the hot blonde test subject. Rather than deliver an electric shock when she is unable to guess what’s on the other side of a playing card he’s holding, Venkman tells her that she’s gotten every guess right. Meanwhile the nerdy guy with a huge head of hair, the other test subject, actually makes a correct guess after repeatedly getting shocked. Even though this confirms the study’s hypothesis, Venkman not only doesn’t tell him he’s guessed right, but shocks him again. This leads to the guy, quite rightly, leaving the room in a huff. For his part, Venkman is happy to see him go. He’s now alone with the hot blonde, a woman who now thinks that she’s extremely psychic.
Just as Venkman is about to sweet talk the girl into bed, the bumbling Dr. Raymond Stantz bursts into the room and announces that there’s been a “full torso apparition” spotted at the library and he wants Venkman to accompany him to gather evidence. How does Venkman treat this interruption? Like any sane scientist would: he accuses Stantz of cock blocking him. Now, we all understand that cock blocking is a severe breach of etiquette, but one might think that Venkman could make an exception under such extraordinary circumstances.
Venkman does finally go with Ray to the library, but probably only because he realizes that a major discovery like this could lead to fame. Which would in turn lead to the bedding of more hot women. Sometimes we have to tear ourselves away from a momentary pleasure, however great it might be, for the promise of even greater pleasure in the future.
After seeing firsthand evidence of a ghost haunting and, conveniently, being fired from his university job on the same day (the Establishment never recognizes geniuses while they’re still alive) Venkman convinces Stantz that the best next step is to go into business for themselves. And how do they get the startup money? Yep. Venkman convinces Stantz to take a third mortgage on the home where he grew up. Must have been quite the house, considering that they’re able to use the money to buy and rebuild an old fire station and build proton packs and a ghost containment unit. Why the hell does Stantz agree to such a foolish deal where he takes all the financial risks? He’s the classic follower type. Stantz probably suffers from low self-esteem and is so uncool that he’s easily manipulated by the charming and outgoing Peter Venkman. Venkman could be a dictator if that’s what he was really into. Luckily, he’s only interested in money and women.
In fact, Venkman seems to believe that money and sex are the only real things in this world. Everything else is simply a means to those ends. In fact, we might even eliminate money from the formula. From the perspective of someone who’s only interested in sex, money is really only good for power and prestige, which are only good if they lead to sex.
Well, the dude’s basically right. It’s all about biological programming. We look for people to mate with so that our genes survive another generation. I’m not making this shit up. This is the latest science from the new field of evolutionary psychology, which is really just a fancy way to describe people who try to find the biological basis for human behavior.
The best book on evolutionary psychology is How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker. He explains that while a woman is interested in finding the best single candidate for reproduction, a man is simply interested in mating as much as possible. The reasoning goes like this: the gestation period for a human is so long that it only makes sense that the female would look for just one person who is the best candidate for ensuring that the offspring survives to maturity. Thus, women look for a man who has good social standing. Social standing indicates someone who is strong and, therefore, healthy. In modern terms, that would translate to finding someone who has plenty of money. That’s why you’re likely to see a beautiful woman shack up with a butt-ugly rich dude. But the inverse is also true. Men seek money because they can get hot women. And plenty of them, too. Since the male doesn’t have to bear the young, he doesn’t have to worry about gestation time. All he has to worry about is impregnating as many women as possible, making the successful passing of genes a matter of numbers. The more women you’re able to mate with, the greater the possibility that your offspring will survive to maturity.
In a way, this makes Peter Venkman a more charming version of Gene Simmons. Ouch. Sorry. But it’s true. Gene Simmons doesn’t keep it a secret that, artistic integrity be damned, everything he’s done has been directed toward getting as much money and bedding as many women as possible.
And as much as I hate the parallel between these two men, it’s definitely there. Think about the scene where Venkman goes to investigate Dana Barrett’s apartment. Dana has apparently just been haunted by the Sumerian god Zuul, who’s taken temporary residence in her refrigerator. Venkman walks around the apartment, spraying some stuff that gives him readings on a little box that he has strapped around his shoulders. When Dana asks what exactly the machine does, Peter says, “It’s technical.” He doesn’t even know how his equipment works! Does he know anything about what he’s doing? It’s hard to tell. Stantz remarks at one point that Venkman “never studied” and it might be true. I could imagine him charming his way through college while networking with hot coeds. The bottom line is that Venkman has once again charmed his way into a beautiful woman’s home.
When confronted by the raw data, especially when it seems to tell us that animal instincts motivate even our most intimate actions, it’s easy to justify a life of hedonism. But, as Pinker points out, it’s not like that at all. If we were driven purely by instinct we’d be no better than automatons. And you don’t need an asshole such as myself to point out that we’re much more than that. We have minds that can reflect back onto themselves. We are instinct-algorithms combined with self-awareness. Our instincts point us in certain directions, but they don’t have to control us (take note Gene Simmons!) though it might be hard to resist.
Well, this is something I definitely couldn’t have picked up as a child. What I saw in Peter Venkman was a man who did what the fuck he wanted, simply because he wanted to do it. How could I have realized that this supposedly free person was actually a slave to his own biology? Indeed.
But at the end of the movie, Venkman does change, and in a big way. After the Ghostbusters have defeated a host of Sumerian Gods and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on top of a haunted high-rise apartment building, Stanz says something about smelling burning dog hair. It smells like this because the two demon-dogs that Dana Barrett and Louis Tulley had turned into have indeed been roasted. The demon-dog corpses are stiff on their backs, by the looks of it, completely dead. Venkman is distraught. The look on his face is that of a man who’s just lost something he never knew he had. But then Dana’s hand bursts through the demon-dog and Peter realizes that she’s still alive. All four Ghostbusters rush to break her out of her stinky prison. When she’s finally out, Peter and Dana embrace and kiss passionately.
With this redemptive act, Venkman doesn’t necessarily cease to be a rebel. He does, however, become something he’s never been before: a man who believes in something greater than himself.
Had I realized this when I was I kid, I might have gotten into a lot less pointless trouble when I was a teenager. But, like Venkman, I had to learn my lessons through painful revelations.