The Real Ghostbusters may have been another toy-driven 80s cartoon, but it was a good toy-driven 80s cartoon.
I say this without any irony: The Real Ghostbusters is quite possibly the second best movie-to-TV spin-off after M*A*S*H. (I don’t count Buffy the Vampire Slayer because Whedon was openly looking to override the existence of the original film, rather than jump-off from its continuity like other spin-offs did.)
It had all the same problems that other 80s cartoons created mainly to move a line of toys did, certainly. But it also had substantial up-sides like a nifty pop-art visual sensibility featuring warped grotesques representing all manner of the supernatural recalling the iconic art-style of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, with abstract/surrealist dreamscapes split somewhere between Bosch and Dali used to depict alternate-dimensions and a night-time color scheme that spread Times Square neon across the whole of the city.
But really, it’s fondly remembered today because some put actual intellectual effort into a good number of the series’ screenplays. Episodic toy-toons of the era were often written by a who’s-who of established and up-and-coming genre writers, and the central premise of Ghostbusters — that it’s not just “ghosts” that are real and making trouble, but the entire pantheon of mythic/ancient demons, gods, etc — was basically an unattended candy-shop for its staff of reliably-geeky writers. These are five of the best — just in time for Halloween…
WHEN HALLOWEEN WAS FOREVER
Even as kid, I could always tell (from the exposition dump) when TRGB was using important creatures/concepts of mythology (or movie references, like that time they met the ghost of Citizen Kane) as a heavy rather than something they’d made up — and I usually made a note to find out more about it later (there was no Google then, kiddies — so you really did have to remember to look stuff up the next time you found yourself at either a library or the home of someone who actually owned an encyclopedia).
The heavy in this one is no less than the (para)physical incarnation of Samhain (pronounced “Sahm Hane” here), depicted as a cloaked figure with a Jack O’ Lantern head who rallies all the ghosts of New York to his aid — including Ghostbusters sidekick Slimer, who has to choose sides. It’s one of the more visually “big” episodes of the first season, with tons of ghosts on-screen at a time, and Samhain would go on to be a recurring villain in the franchise.
Yes, this one got a lot of social-media heat upon the tragic passing of original Egon actor Harold Ramis. But it’s still one of the better “big idea” episodes, the idea in this case being “what if one of the Ghostbusters got killed and became a ghost themselves??”
To be fair, Egon doesn’t so much “die” as get blasted with energy that causes him to gradual lose corporeality. You could probably have done a whole movie on this premise, but the episode packs just about every place you could go with it into roughly 22 minutes plus commercials: Ghost Egon helping the team with his new spectral-abilities in the field? Check. The Ghostbusters going on a marathon of work to raise money to construct a “cure” for Egon? Check. Following Egon’s spirit to The Netherworld (actually setting an episode in Heaven or Hell would’ve been right out for this series) to confront demonic entities on their own turf? Check.
THE HALLOWEEN DOOR
Definitely one of the strangest episodes, “The Halloween Door” was originally a prime-time Halloween Special that was subsequently incorporated back into the series.
Weirdly, it melds elements from the “darker” early seasons with certain details of the later, more comedy-focused episodes, which is interesting considering that the shift in tone was believed to be (in part) a reaction to concerns about the show being too scary for its target audience. The plot of this episode involves the world being nearly-destroyed by a fussy do-gooder who wants to “protect” children from Halloween.
Said do-gooder, Mr. Crowley (heh!), steals Egon’s PKA meter as the final component for a machine that lets him zap scary stories, Halloween costumes, pumpkins, etc, out of existence for the good of the young ones. Unfortunately, it turns out that he’s being used by a cabal of powerful demons to do quite the opposite of what he intended. Apparently, Halloween was created as part of a deal between Ancient Druids and demons whereby the most powerful monsters would leave the human plane if we agreed to memorialize their legacy once a year — having now “deleted” the holiday, Crowley has invited the minions of a Godzilla-sized horror named Mr. Boogaloo — who’s sort of a “gestalt” combiner-robot but made out of slimy ghouls. Oh, and there’s also two big rock-musical numbers, one performed by Boogaloo as he stomps (and moonwalks!!!) through the city, the other by The Ghostbusters as a presentation for schoolchildren.
The whole thing is a singularly oddball attempt to marry a Halloween version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Boogaloo is ultimately turned back by the True Spirit of Halloween thanks to a single child who’s still going to Trick-or-Treat even though all the trappings of the holiday are gone) to a Real Ghostbusters episode, but it’s a lot of fun — plus, Mr. Stay-Puft cameo!
XMAS MARKS THE SPOT
Consider: How psyched do you suppose J. Michael Straczynski (story-editor of the series and credited writer of many, many episodes) was when the idea for this one popped up? The ‘Busters travel back in time (though they don’t realize they’ve done so until later) on Christmas Eve and witness a chain-covered ghost existing a home. Inside, they find an elderly man being “menaced” by three ghosts, whom they promptly trap.
Returning to their own time, they discover a world where Christmas no longer exists… because the man they “saved” was Ebeneezer Scrooge, and instead of learning his lesson like he was supposed to he took credit for “beating” the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and led a campaign to eliminate the holiday forever! Now, the heroes have to both extract the Ghosts themselves from the Containment Unit and in the meantime return to Dickensian days and use science to present themselves to Scrooge as ghosts so he can learn the appropriate lessons.
That’s just brilliant.
THE COLLECT CALL OF CATHULHU
Yes, this is real (and yes, they spell it wrong in the episode): There’s an H.P. Lovecraft-fanservice episode of The Real Ghostbusters, featuring not only Cthulhu and The Necronomicon but also some Shuggoths and characters with names like “Ted Clarke” and “Alice Derleth.”
Ray even namechecks the author, albeit obliquely as one of many authors who’ve written about the cursed spellbook at the heart of the plot: The Necronomicon is stolen from an exhibition, so The Ghostbusters head off to Miskatonic University to check in with experts. Ultimately, they battle Cthulhu himself — at Coney Island. Because why not?
THE BOOGIEMAN COMETH
This is the best episode of the entire series, hand’s down, no question. It’s got the scariest monster, one of the most visually-arresting “Other Side” depictions and it expands the mythology in interesting ways (we find out why Egon Spengler was so interested in finding a way to combat the supernatural). But most of all, it’s the one that finds the perfect “sweet spot” of a premise for being both a proper continuation of the adult-targeted Ghostbusters movie and a Ghostbusters cartoon aimed specifically at kids via the best “inciting incident” the writers ever came up with: Two young children walk into The Firehouse and offer up their piggy-bank to hire The Ghostbusters. Why? They want them to get The Boogieman out of their closet.
How genius is that? More importantly: How come that never came up in any of the movies? You have to figure 90% of their call-volume in real life would actually be little kids reporting nightmares or scary noises in their homes, right?
But it’s what happens after that takes this one from “great idea” to “great episode.” Obviously, a “real” incarnation of The Boogieman is going to show up, but the monster they dreamed up for this is one of scariest looking things ever conceived for kids’ animation: A giant-headed pale-skinned satyr voiced by Frank Welker in full Megatron-mode but sans the “robotic” effect (the damn thing is always hoarse and always screaming). Finally, the moment where “it” unexpectedly zeroes-in on Egon and screeches “I… REMEMBER… YOU!!!” blew my mind as a kid — in no small part because it’s the first time I remember “figuring out” a plot-point like that (“Oh! The Boogieman scared Egon as a kid — that’s why he invented Ghostbusters!!!”) before it was explained later.