It's 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Williamsburg, and I'm watching three grown men walk down a quiet side street, sporting Ghostbusters jumpsuits and what appear to be functioning ("functioning") proton packs. They're in good spirits, laughing and striding toward their next destination with a tangible sense of pride. Without missing a beat, one of them gently reaches over to the other's proton pack and flips a tiny switch. "I turned you off," he tells his friend. "Oh, thanks, man," the friend replies. "Appreciate it."
All four of us have just left BBQ Films's Ghostbusters HQ, an "immersive paranormal party" that's recreating the 1984 film's firehouse headquarters inside a massive event space in Brooklyn through Saturday night. I'm attending the opening-night event for two reasons: (1) I'm a sucker for theme parties; (2) I am hoping to troll for trolls. Specifically, I want to find and report on the deranged men of the internet, the hordes of bros who saw to it that the trailer for Paul Feig's upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot was the most disliked trailer in history, the thousands of dudes who applauded Cinemassacre's James Rolfe for posting a nearly seven-minute video explaining why he'd never see the new movie, the parents'-basement-dwellers who posted YouTube comments like, "This movie is pure feminazi propaganda," and "When are people going to learn that women aren’t funny?"
What I actually find is much, much stranger: A wide-ranging, country-spanning group of men (and women, but mostly men) who have designated themselves official Ghostbusters, or "Ghostheads," who spend all of their free time talking about the movies, cosplaying at Ghostbusters-themed events, building functioning Ectomobiles and proton packs, doing related charitable work, and being, from what I could tell, almost unilaterally decent people whose only sin is loving something that is fictional and unfeeling, that can't love them back. These were some humane-ass nerds.
I've only seen both Ghostbusters films a normal-person amount of times. If someone held a proton pack to my head and asked me to name all four Ghostbusters in 30 seconds, I would be inhabiting whatever realm the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was banished to. As such, I'd never heard of the Ghostheads, or the New York City Ghostbusters, or the upcoming Ghostheads documentary on the franchise's rabid fandom; I won't pretend to fully understand what they're up to, nor can I say for certain that none of them have fridges full of human heads. I don't know their lives. This is but one woman's account of a brief but beautiful foray into the Ghostbusters subculture.
My night begins with the aforementioned trolling. I walk the length of the line for the HQ before the event kicks off, asking fans innocuous questions about their love of the Ghostbusters franchise and less-innocuous questions about their feelings on the forthcoming reboot. I am certain that the first men I talk to will say something inflammatory and wildly insane. I am immediately proven wrong. "I'm really excited," says my first subject, a tall dude wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt (almost all of the Ghostheads can be described in this exact manner). "A lot of people were very upset [about the movie], which is weird. Most people have selective memories about Ghostbusters 2. The idea that we have to protect the sanctity of Ghostbusters is dumb, because there've been bad Ghostbusters things before." His friend chimes in: "My girlfriend is a stand-up comedian and she is one of the funniest people I know. Women aren't funny?! I mean, come on."
Subjects 3 and 4 and 5 — two men and one woman wearing Ghostbusters t-shirts — are less enthused, but "cautiously optimistic," which seems to be something of a party line for the Ghostheads. One of them tells me that Ghostbusters is "why I became a firefighter." "You can't really bust ghosts," he says, "but this is the next best thing." My heart explodes. I become a ghost.
Inside, I approach two burly men sporting backward hats and extremely tight clothing. I think I have finally hit the jackpot — these must be the meathead internet demons I've been seeking. It turns out these men are professional wrestlers; I later learn that one of them, Zack Ryder, is WWE-famous, which means nothing to me but perhaps means something in general. Zack and his very kind friend Justin tell me that they bonded when they both realized they were die-hard Ghostheads. "We both wrestle — it was like, 'Oh, you like Ghostbusters? I like Ghostbusters," says Zack, who is distractingly gigantic. "We're 31 years old. We're Ghostbusters fans. What's wrong with us? Ninety-nine percent of our friendship is based on Ghostbusters." Gentle giant Justin proceeds to show me two things: his massive Ghostbusters calf tattoo and a photo of himself as a child in which he is sporting a tiny proton pack. "If it helps, my mom told me that I never took this off as a kid," he says. This does help, in that it is one of thousands of things that occur at the HQ that prove me massively wrong.
As we chat, actors — some of whom are actors by trade, others of whom are moonlighting with day jobs in fields like PR and marketing, but all of whom are volunteers and all of whom have begun the evening by joyfully chugging Ecto Cooler cocktails — are roaming the space around us, playing everyone from Dana-possessed-by-Zuul to Louis-possessed-by-the-Keymaster to the fabulously Bowie-esque Gozer. Over the course of the evening, I interact with some of them, asking them to step out of character and explain why they've volunteered their time and energy for something like this. The resounding sentiment is that they, too, love theme parties, and find significant joy in helping die-hard fans escape from the soul-crushing real world into the cinematic stories of their choosing for a few hours. Past "stories" have included the rave from Blade, Beetlejuice's wedding, and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho's 27th birthday. The "story" of the world of the Ghostbusters HQ is as follows: Each visitor is supposed to either report a ghost to a Ghostbuster, or train to become a Ghostbuster, at the new Brooklyn headquarters, which has "relocated" from the too-expensive Tribeca and is now overseen by Venkman's equally sleazy stepson Oscar (Dana Barrett's demon-plagued baby from the second movie).
I head upstairs to test myself for ESP when I encounter Oscar Venkman himself, who tips me off to the fact that actual Ghostbusters are afoot. "Actual Ghostbusters?" I ask, confused. "Yes. There are different chapters," he explains. "You'll see them wearing different logos based on their sect. It's like a motorcycle gang. Half the people you see in uniform here, this is what they do. They make their own proton packs. It's like a more intense cosplay."
"They pretend to be Ghostbusters?" I ask. "They are," he says. "They are Ghostbusters. When this show is over, they'll still be going around—" "Busting ghosts?" I finish. He nods at me a bit sadly, like I am a very small child who cannot yet fully grasp the concept of death, and directs me outside, to where two of the New Jersey Ghostbusters — Ron and Bill — are standing in front of a giant Ectomobile.
This, I think. This is it. I introduce myself, casually bring up the new movie, share with Ron and Bill that I've just learned of the ghostbusting "club or clan" that they're in, and bravely brace myself for a deluge of misogynistic vitriol. "It's a franchise," explains Bill patiently. "We're based all over the country. Ghostbusters New Jersey has members all over the Garden State, and we built this car. We're just a group of guys and girls looking to have a good time with a proton pack on." Perturbed, I ask Bill what he does that he considers "ghostbusting." "We go to conventions, we do charity events," he says. "We meet new people, we build equipment, we keep awareness out there for the movie." Ron chimes in: "And we connect with people of all ages. Old, young. We drive the car around and it's amazing. The smiles that you get pulling up somewhere and hanging out for a half an hour — they're grinning from ear to ear."
Still slightly lost, I ask if this franchise is, in any way, financially beneficial for the two of them. "No," says Bill. "In fact, it's the opposite of financially beneficial." Bill explains that the Ghostbusters spend most of their own money on stickers, coloring books, and buttons, which they pass out at events (some of which take place at children's hospitals) to gleeful kids, whom they both hope will fall just as madly in love with the films as they have. And while he does admit that there's been some dissension within the Ghostbusters internet ranks about the reboot, he's personally pumped, and just asks that the members "avoid profanity" when discussing it on the Ghostbusters New Jersey Facebook page. Ron, who is vocally less pumped but ultimately onboard, adds, "At the end of the night, it's still, 'Who ya gonna call?'"
It has become abundantly clear that the only dick at the Ghostbusters HQ is me, Rachel Handler, human woman. Wherever the internet demons are, it certainly isn't here. Perhaps they're too afraid to attend events like these, where they will be appropriately identified, busted, and trapped.
I thank Bill and Ron for their time and head back inside, where the 1984 Ghostbusters screening is about to begin. I'm settling into my seat with a bag full of popcorn and a brain full of shame when I notice a significantly older man lurking off to the side of the screening, dressed in full Ghostbusters regalia and leaning on a cane. Something about him — his air of sweet disgruntlement, the fact that he looks vaguely like Dan Aykroyd — tells me I need to know him. I stand up and walk over to him; once we begin speaking, I realize that I've accidentally stumbled upon Peter Mosen, the OG Ghosthead.
Mosen's story is, simultaneously, the most lovely and heartbreaking story I hear all night. As he tells it, he "started Ghostbusters stuff back in 1984," when he won tickets to an early screening. "I looked at the poster and I said, 'Dan Aykroyd! Bill Murray! This is gonna be pretty funny,'" he says. "Don't you know that a friend of mine had given me a jumpsuit he found in a dumpster at the airport just a few week before, and it was the same suit they were wearing in the poster. So I put my name on the jumpsuit, and here I am two weeks before the movie is released, standing in line to see a screening. Everyone is like, 'Who is this guy? He looks like Aykroyd! Where the hell did he get that suit?'" Thusly, the Ghostheads were born.
Mosen went on to nab a cameo in Ghostbusters 2 — he gets "slimed at the restaurant with my dinner date" — and build a career creating props for that film and others while promoting the Ghostbusters franchise around the world in an official capacity, making appearances at theme parks and hospitals and trade shows and press events. Along the way, Mosen formed a lifelong friendship with Aykroyd, whom he says he just "checked on because he was having some stomach thing. I wrote him a little thing, said, 'Hey! Hope it was only gas.' That's probably what it was. My wife once had something to drink, one of those frozen colada things, and she had a stomach thing for two hours! So I can understand how he felt."
Unlike most of the other Ghostheads, though, Mosen's tone changes when I ask him what he thinks of the new movie. "I was supposed to build the car for the third movie and maybe have something in the movie, but that's gone now," he says sadly. I ask why. "Because they made this one," he says, explaining that the concept of the film changed from a third installment written by Aykroyd to a reboot from Feig & Co., who didn't end up hiring him. "I wasn't doing anything, I had to find work, I was on my way to work, and I had a head-on collision. I was this close from death. I should've been dead." He gestures at his cane. "I'm not working now. I'm waiting till I can walk around without a cane or a walker. But I've been ruled permanently disabled."
Fortunately, Mosen has the Ghostbusters community to fall back on, which he credits with keeping him sane. "I'm doing what I can here [at the event]. I've been doing this for 32 years, and if I didn't do something connected with this, there'd be something wrong." I note that everyone seems thrilled to see him, which they do, and I ask him why that is — why the community is so meaningful to him, why he thinks it's resonated for so long and for so many people. Mosen looks thoughtful for a moment. "You really can't be a superhero unless you're from another planet, have been bitten by some kind of arachnid, or [are] independently wealthy to build all the stuff you need to be a crime fighter," he says. "Ghostbusters, you just have the inclination to go investigate. Everybody has their own name on their uniform. Because we're all Ghostbusters. If you wanted to be a Ghostbuster, you could be a Ghostbuster."
"And what does 'being a Ghostbuster' mean, exactly?" I ask, still not fully grasping why these men and women (a handful of whom are at the event but I don't have a chance to speak to) are spending all of their free time and money on this particular lark, because I am clearly a monster. "That's hard to say," says Mosen. "Me, I've been doing it for so long, I wake up in the morning and I have Ghostbusters toothpaste. What a lot of these groups have done is come together for charity — they go out and raise money for charity. Some of 'em really look up to me, trying to follow in my footsteps. If I had anything at all to do with that, to go out and instill that in them, I'm proud."
The screening is about to start. One of Mosen's prodigies, Tom Gebhardt, takes the stage for a panel Q&A about Ghostheads, the upcoming documentary in which he stars. As we watch a brief clip of him taking his adorable young daughter to school in his Ectomobile, both clad in Ghostbusters gear, Tom looks jittery and sweaty. The panel's moderator (Alex Dunbar, who's also playing Oscar) quickly identifies why: Tom's wife is in labor, about to have a baby on what I only now learn is National Ghostbusters Day.
The audience goes apeshit for this total stranger but fellow Ghosthead, offering shrieking congratulations. Tom appears overwhelmed and leans toward the microphone. "I've got three kids now," he says, dazed. "I only need one more, and then I can make my own movie."