Why Are Americans Fascinated by Ghosts?

Ghosts have long had a presence in American popular culture.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

Why are Americans so fascinated by ghosts? Is it because they represent a form of immortality, making them a reflection of our pervasive fear of death? Or do they serve as a convenient bridge to the afterlife, providing some comfort that our loved ones are not truly gone forever? 

Whatever the answers are to such questions, there is no doubt that ghosts have occupied a prominent place within the cultural zeitgeist. For the past few decades, ghosts have shown up frequently in films, TV shows, and books. Polls have revealed that many Americans believe they are entirely real.

Although much scarier ghosts could be found in other movies in the 1980s (The Shining, Beetlejuice, the three Poltergeist films, and the five (!) Nightmare on Elm Streets), none could arguably match Ghostbusters and its sequel for generating awareness of supernatural phenomena. Released in June 1984, Ghostbusters took America by storm, the #1 movie at the box office for seven consecutive weeks (when it was bumped to second place by Prince’s Purple Rain). 

In the film, Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) are unemployed parapsychology professors who, desperate for work, go into the ghost investigation and removal business. Using a former fire station as their office, the Ghostbusters struggle initially.

After capturing a ghost with their nuclear-powered “proton packs” and advertising on local television, however, the trio hit pay dirt when they learn a demonic creature named Zuul is haunting the Central Park West apartment of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). The Ghostbusters not only have to deal with Zuul but the EPA and the mayor, who think they pose a danger and put them in jail. Soon, however, the much more powerful Gozer the Gozarian enters the scene, and the team (joined by Winston Zeddmore played by Ernie Hudson) engages in a battle with the ancient Sumerian entity and his dog-like beast Gytrash with nothing less than the survival of the world at stake.

Ghostbusters was not just a hit movie but, with its radio-friendly theme song, catchphrase (“Who ya gonna call?”), and “No Ghosts” logo, a cultural phenomenon. Besides being the most lucrative movie Columbia Pictures had ever made, many of the film’s elements were quickly knocked off. The suffix “busters” was applied to a plethora of political candidates and sports teams, for example, and an episode of the television show Different Strokes had Gary Coleman and friend bust a ghost, ectoplasmic slime and all. A Ghostbusters fan club too had been formed by the fall of 1984, each member receiving not just an official identification card and quarterly magazine but an insurance policy protecting him or her against “sliming” and a certificate of “anti-paranormal proficiency.”

Although the movie was of course fictional, Aykroyd, the originator of the Ghostbusters concept, was quite a supernaturalist. Besides collecting ghost stories and knowing the hot spots for spooks in New York City (like St. Mark’s Church and Apartment 77 of the Dakota), Aykroyd was a member of the American Society for Psychical Research and could occasionally be found reading up on the subject at the Society’s library on West 73rd Street. Meeting George Bush at one of his movie screenings, he told the president-elect to “call me if there was any trouble at the White House with the ghost of Mary Todd Lincoln,” another indication he knew his supernatural stuff.

Aykroyd was one of many Americans who believed that ghosts were not just a Hollywood conceit.  According to a national public opinion poll commissioned by Parents magazine in 1989, “Americans are a nation of believers in supernatural phenomena,” the magazine flatly stated. About 65% of those polled subscribed to at least one of nine beliefs regarding the paranormal, ranging from the ability to consistently predict the future (34%) to the notion that quartz and other crystals could increase one’s mental and physical abilities (8%). A full third of Americans believed that there were spirits or ghosts that made their presence known to people, and a one-fourth believed that certain people had mental or psychic powers to bend spoons and make objects move.

Ghosts were also a visible (or invisible) presence in American popular culture in the late 1990s and 2000s, not surprising given that one in three believed they were real (up from one in four in 1990), according to a 2005 Gallup survey. “What is it with the dearly departed?” asked People magazine in 2005, noting that it “seems they’re everywhere lately.” Indeed, hugely popular novelists like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice were going to town with ghosts, their versions a lot scarier than the ones we thought might be in our own attics.

Movies too were infested with spirits, with restless dead boyfriends a genre unto its own. City of Angels, for example, was “a film that wants desperately to outdo Ghost and Titanic in the love-from-beyond-the-grave movie sweepstakes,” wrote Stephen Holden of the New York Times, thinking the 1997 melodrama mined our obsession with the other side for all it was worth. The Sixth Sense of 1999 was a smash hit (“gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch,” wrote the same reviewer), its bigger influence propelling the careers of mediums famous and non-famous alike. In the film, a nine-year-old famously states, “I see dead people,” the twist ending making it the stuff of water-cooler talk for some time.