The Real Paranormal Science, Parapsychology & Supernatural Beliefs Behind 'Ghostbusters'
This article is more than two years old and was last updated in September 2021.
We've been uncovering some of the real life haunted histories of Hollywood movies, but we thought we'd do something a little different with an absolute paranormal classic.
Many of today's paranormal investigators credit the 1984 movie 'Ghostbusters' as the thing that first got them interested in the paranormal. Although the comedy isn't based on a true story, much of the supernatural jargon is. In fact, this movie popularised many of the little-known terms that feature and brought these concepts to a mass audience.
The movie was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. While Harold was a complete non-believer, Dan is very interested and well-read in the paranormal, and it was his vast knowledge of things that go bump in the night that fleshed out the paranormal elements of the film.
At one point in the movie the Ghostbusters' over-worked and underpaid secretary, Janine Melnitz, asks the new recruit Winston Zeddemore, "do you believe in UFOs, astral projection, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trans-mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?" These are likely to all be topics Aykroyd has researched himself.
Although in the movie Dean Yeager from the university says that the Ghostbusters "regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle", and calls Peter Venkman "a poor scientist," the science and beliefs behind much of their tech and approach to the supernatural is rooted in either proven science or mirrors the current trends within the paranormal community.
Early in the movie we see the gang's original base at the Paranormal Studies Laboratory within the Department of psychology at Weaver Hall, Columbia University. A university is generally the only place you find practicing parapsychologists.
Parapsychologists study a number of paranormal phenomena, including telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation and of course ghosts, but it's not actually possible to get a degree in the subject.
Most professionals who identify as a parapsychologist do so as it is their area of expertise as a brand of psychology, hence why the Ghostbusters formed in the psychology department of Columbia University. In fact Dr. Peter Venkman tells us in the movie, "I have PhDs in parapsychology and psychology."
We first meet Peter when he's conducting an experiment with two student volunteers, the aim is to study "the effect of negative reenforcement on ESP abilities" - of course ESP is extrasensory perception or psychic abilities.
There's some debate over the method of Venkman's experiment and whether it's negative reinforcement or positive punishment, but this doesn't seem to matter as clearly he's only interested in flirting with the female volunteer, Jennifer.
It's pretty common to use student test subjects in experiments of this nature. They're readily available around campus and will pretty much do anything for five bucks, as Venkman proves.
Famously, a Cornell University professor claimed to have found proof of psychic powers after conducting experiments using 1,000 student test subjects. Dr. Daryl Bem conducted nine different experiments, which he said proved that participants were able to gain unconscious influences from future events.
In Dr. Venkman's experiments we see him using a deck of cards depicting five different designs, a hollow circle (one curved line), a Greek cross (two lines), three vertical wavy lines, a hollow square (four lines), and a hollow five-pointed star (five lines). These are Zener cards and have been used in scientific experiments to test for ESP since the early 1930s.
Venkman asked the two test subjects to guess which card he was holding while administering electric shocks when a subject got the card wrong, or at least that was how it was supposed to work.
New York Public Library
The first case we see Pete investigate is a ghost sighting and poltergeist activity at New York Public Library. He's joined by Dr. Egon Spengler and Dr. Ray Stantz. They're called to investigate after a librarian reported seeing books moving and index cards flying around, and a female ghost.
Libraries are classic haunted locations. They are usually housed in old building, some of which have had alternative uses such as courtrooms or stately homes. The initial activity the librarian experiences is also pretty typical poltergeist activity, although it's not normally witnessed in such as sustained and dramatic fashion.
Probably the most similar real-life haunting is that of the Senate House Library in London, where staff have reported seeing floating books and even a full-bodied apparitions of an unknown man wearing a cloak.
Of course, the actual encounter with the ghost breaks from reality, but the movie needed to give 80s cinema-goers a bit of a jump scare. Ray describes this ghost as a "free floating, full torso, vaporous apparition". The term "full-torso" or "full-bodied apparition" is now pretty commonly used within the paranormal field to describe this type of haunting.
Upon meeting the terrified librarian, Peter asked her a few standard questions, "have you or any of your family ever been diagnosed schizophrenic, mentally incompetent?" Even if not directly asked to the victim of a haunting, these questions are among the questions that a real-life paranormal investigator might attempt to answer.
Paranormal investigator, Carrie Poppy, says that there is almost always a scientific explanation for paranormal phenomenon and this should be ruled out first. Speaking at a TED talk in Vienna Carrie, who has taken part in over 70 investigations, said that "100% of the time, science can explain away any paranormal claims".
Moments later the team are investigating the haunted basement and they find a pile of books that appear to be stacked in a way that no human being would stack books. Ray calls it "symmetrical book stacking, just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947."
Sadly, a mass turbulence in Philadelphia in the 1940s was not a real thing that actually happened and the closest thing to symmetrical book stacking we know about is at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. Its former owner William Windham III was obsessed with books, so when a fire broke out at a friend's library in London in 1809, William risked his life to save as many of the books as he could. This resulted in him being badly injured by the flames and he died a few weeks later.
It's said that ever since he has haunted his beloved library at Felbrigg Hall, perhaps returning to read the books he didn't have a chance to whilst he was alive. Some say that his ghost will only appear when a particular combination of books is placed on the library table. So in the case of William, it's stacking books that encourages him to show himself.
Although the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947 wasn't real, something else Ray references is. At the end of the movie Ray tells Louis Tully, "you are a most fortunate individual. You have been a participant in the biggest interdimensional crossrip since the Tunguska blast of 1909."
The Tunguska blast was an unusual explosion that occurred in Russia, it flattened 2,000 square kilometres of forest and caused at least three human casualties. The reason the explosion is so unusual is because it was an asteroid, but there's no impact crater. Instead the object from space burnt up in the atmosphere pushing super-heated hot air down onto the surface of the Earth with a force 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
However, Ray did get the year wrong, the event actually happened a year earlier in June 1908, but we'll let him off as he was clearly very excited at the time over the stack of books.
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The Ghostbusters next stumble across a part of the library which is dripping with ectoplasmic residue as a result of, what Ray calls, all the "telekinetic activity" that took place there.
For most of us growing up in the 1980s, the first time we ever heard of ectoplasm was in 'Ghostbusters', but the gloopy, slimy, ghost residue actually dates back to séances in the Victorian era. Mediums of the time would spew up reams of ectoplasm as part of their elaborate shows. The name ectoplasm was coined by Nobel Prize winning French physiologist, Charles Richet in 1894. It derives from the Greek words ektos and plasma, meaning an "exteriorised substance". Ektos meaning outside or exterior and plasma meaning "something formed or moulded".
Then the Ghostbusters encounter the full torso apparition for themselves. "It's real," Ray remarks. This seems to be the first time they witnessed such a complete ghost, something they've always dreamt of. Despite this, when they come face to face with the ghost in the library they have no plan of action.
This also mirrors real-life paranormal investigation. Amateur ghost hunters often spend hour after hour sat in the dark waiting for something to happen, and if it finally does, they often get scared and run off. They have no idea what to actually do. Neither did Ray, his suggestion was, "get her!" The team lunged for the ghost and actually touched the etheric plane.
"Etheric plane" is another piece of real paranormal jargon. The term was coined by occult author Charles Webster Leadbeater and Annie Besant. The etheric plane is said to be another level of consciousness that we can pass into, either through our dreams, astral projection and out of body experiences, or when we die.
In the library we also get our first glimpse of a PKE meter, which Egon has used to detect high PKE valances, that "went right off the top of the scale, buried the needle". A PKE meter, or Psychokinetic Energy meter, detects the psi-energy associated with haunting phenomenon.
Unfortunately no such device exists and psychokinetic energy is purely fictional, but the tool is very similar to one very popular ghost hunting gadget used by investigators, the EMF meter - the most common of which is called a K-II Meter.
Just like the PKE meter, an EMF meter also detects invisible energy. In this case electromagnetic fields. The connection between spirits and EMF is based on the fact that the human brain uses tiny electronic impulses to send signals around our bodies. Ghost hunters think that this synaptic energy can live on as a disembodied consciousness after death and it is this that EMF meters can detect.
This makes the K-II similar but not exactly the same as a PKE meter. In one scene of the movie we see Egon using a PKE meter. He picks up on a guest in a hotel and pokes the man to see if he's real or a ghost. So clearly the PKE meter can detect living humans - something an EMF meter can't do.
After leaving the library, the Ghostbusters discuss the fact they lacked a plan, but Egon tells them the that based on measurements he collected with his PKE meter the experience wasn't a total waste. He says "according to these new readings, I think we have an excellent chance of actually catching a ghost and holding it indefinitely."
Ray agrees and tells the gang, "if this ionisation rate is constant for all ectoplasmic entities, we could really bust some heads." The science seems to have gotten away from them a little bit in this sentence, there's no known link between ghosts and ionisation.
Ionisation is a sub-atomic process where an atom or a molecule acquires a negative or positive charge by gaining or losing electrons. For this to occur in an ectoplasmic entity, it would mean that entity must be made of regular physical matter. This goes against everything we believe about the nature of ghosts, specifically their ability to appear semi-transparent and pass through solid objects.
Now with receptionist, Janine Melnitz, on their staff the team get their first proper call. Janine answers the phone and we hear her side of the conversation, "hello, Ghostbusters. Yes, of course they're serious". This reflects the real-life criticism that paranormal investigators receive and how they are spoken to. Non-believers often assume they must be joking, "you don't really believe in all that do you?"
Once Janine confirms the call is real, she sends the team off to the very exclusive Sedgewick Hotel where we see the boys in grey fully tooled up for the first time, and of course, they're each wearing a proton pack.
It's during a scene in the elevator up to the 12th floor that the team discuss the fact they haven't fully tested the proton packs. Peter says, "each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back," hinting at some of the science behind the ghost hunting device.
The proton pack is basically a wearable particle accelerator that kicks out a proton beam. Believe it or not, this technology already exists and could just about be small enough to wear on your back, but it wouldn't have any effect if you encountered a ghost.
The nuclear accelerator element of the proton pack that the gang refer to is the cyclotron at the heart of the device. A cyclotron is a circular particle accelerator and was invented in 1932 by nuclear scientist Ernest O Lawrence. It accelerates particles, in this case protons, up to high speeds before releasing them, smashing them together or forcing them to collide with a detector. In real life the beam of protons that is emitted turns the air a faint blue - it's way less dramatic and destructive than the proton beams in the movie.
Later we learn that the Ghostbusters should never cross their proton streams. Egon warns them, "try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light". As any true Ghostbusters fan will know, this is "total protonic reversal".
Luckily, a total protonic reversal isn't something you risk experiencing on a ghost hunt. Presumably this fictional catastrophic event would involve the creation of antiprotons. When these collide with protons it would cause both particles to be annihilated in a burst of energy, possibly even create a catastrophic chain reaction and causing all life as we know it to be instantaneously ripped apart at a molecular level.
It may sound silly and like nothing more than science fiction, but many people believed something similar and as severe as this might have happened when scientists turned on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for the first time in 2009.
The LHC is a huge, much more complex version of a proton pack. It's a particle accelerator 17 miles in circumference built underground on the border of France and Switzerland at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research).
Before scientists began experimenting with the accelerator it was widely reported that it could produce a doomsday scenario. Many people feared that the experiment could open up a stable microscopic black hole that could grow exponentially and swallow up the planet.
Of course, the Ghostbusters eventually save the day by crossing their steams and reversing the particle flow through the gate that's been opened up at "Spook Central" and causing the cascade annihilation of the encroaching plane of existence, thus permanently closing the gate.
While at the Sedgewick Hotel the team encounter a real nasty "focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm," also known as a "class five full-roaming vapour". He's also a greedy little ghost who later picks up the nickname Slimer.
Venkman is the first to make contact with him, he finds the ghoul eating the leftover food from a room service cart in a 12th floor corridor, but surely ghosts don't need to eat? It might seem like an obvious question and that ghosts don't require food, but there are some links between food and the afterlife.
The ancient Greeks believed that after death most spirits would wander meadows of asphodel, a flowering plant which grew in abundance. It's said the poor ate parts of the plant as it was free and readily available. They believed the spirits roaming the meadows would eat the plant for eternity.
In Mexico it seems many people believe that ghosts enjoy a snack, in November each year they celebrate the Day Of The Dead, a day to honour the memory of friends and family members who have died and help support their spiritual journey. Part of the celebrations involve leaving the deceased gifts of their favourite foods and drinks. The gifts are left on graves or in homemade alters.
Asians have a similar celebration, the Ghost Festival. It takes place during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the 15th day is known as Ghost Day and as in Mexico, part of the celebration involves preparing ritualistic food offerings.
The Ghostbusters eventually corner Slimer in the hotel ballroom and we get to see for the first time how the team dispose of spooks. While Pete and Egon use their neutrona wands to hold the entity in confinement streams, Ray throws out a trap into the middle of the dance floor. When Ray pushes the foot peddle, Slimer is sucked into the trap.
Believed by some to entrap the ghost with a laser containment field, exactly how the trap works was never fully explained in the films and there's no real-life science that makes a ghost trap possible. However, there are some spiritual methods of spirit entrapment, such as enticing it into a jar using a candle and closing the lid, or by sealing it in a box and burying it.
The problem is, if there's one thing we know about ghosts it's that they can pass through solid objects, which seems to conflict with the idea of using a glass jar, wooden box or any other kind of trap.
Another thing we know about ghosts is that they walk on the floor and that disembodied footsteps are very commonly reported during hauntings. So, logic would dictate that if ghosts can't pass through the floor, then the best way to catch one would be by building a box out of flooring.
Catching a ghost is one thing, but holding it indefinitely is another thing all together. This is done in the basement of the Ghostbusters' headquarters, the old firehouse.
Ray describes the containment unit as a "custom-made storage facility," Egon later expands on this by telling a city official that it is a "high voltage laser containment system". Again, we don't know the science of how this works, but we do know that an uncontrolled shutdown is like dropping a bomb on the city.
In reality a ghost hunters aim isn't to trap, remove and detain a ghost. After all, that shows little respect for the lost souls that have become trapped in our realm. Ghost hunters will actually try to communicate with spirits in order to help them move on, or perform spiritual cleansing rituals to free them from the property.
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Ivo Shandor Building
The Ivo Shandor building, located at 55 Central Park West, is the location where most of the action takes place in the movie, hence why it's given the nickname "Spook Central" by Ray. The first person to witness something odd is Dana Barrett. While unpacking her shopping, a box of eggs popped open, they began to shake before leaping out of their shells and cooking on the counter.
The incident isn't too dissimilar from a real life case which took place in Glasgow in 1958. A group of American students fled from the flat in Gibson Street after they witnessed eggs dancing on a shelf in the kitchen.
Next Dana heard growling noises coming from her fridge and opened it up to find it leads to a different plane of existence inhabited by a vicious dog-like creature that speaks the word "zuul" to her.
Having previously seen their commercial on television, Dana goes to the Ghostbusters for help. During their initial meeting Ray and Egon brainstorm some of the possible causes for Dana's experience, all of which are commonly believed paranormal phenomenon.
Ray suggests that it could be "past-life experience intruding on present time," Egon agrees and adds that it could also be "erased memories stored in the collective unconscious," and states that he "wouldn't rule out clairvoyance or telepathic contact."
Egon then says, "I could look for the name Zuul in the usual literature" and 'Spates Catalog' and 'Tobin's Spirit Guide' are suggested. Sadly, neither of these spirit compendiums actually exist outside the 'Ghostbusters' universe, although there are similar books like Judika Illes' 'Encyclopedia of Spirits' and Rosemary Ellen Guiley and John Zaffis' 'Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology'.
Later there's another passing reference to another of the Ghostbusters' reference books, 'The Roylance Guide to Secret Societies and Sects'. This is where Peter gets the details about Zuul that he tells Dana outside the orchestra rehearsal, but this book doesn't really exist either outside of the movie.
Peter tells Dana, "the name Zuul refers to a demi-god worshipped around 6,000 BC by the [...] Hittites, the Mesopotamians and the Sumerians". According to Peter's notes, Zuul was the minion of Gozer.
You may be surprised to learn the Gozer the Destructor did exist before the movie. The supernatural being first made its presence known in London in the 1970s as part of the famous Enfield Poltergeist case.
Over a 14 month period the Hodgson family were tormented by a poltergeist, it gained worldwide press attention and the house was visited by countless mediums, journalists and paranormal researchers.
At one point a medium named Annie Shaw came to the house with her husband, George. During a séance in the council house, Annie suddenly let out a cry, "go away!" George tried to tell the spirit to leave and before long Annie started to moan "Gozer, Gozer, help me." Later George said "this Gozer is a nasty piece of work, a sort of black magic chap."
The Enfield case was so well publicised around the world that it didn't take long for Dan Aykroyd to hear about Gozer at around the time he was writing 'Ghostbusters'. He went on to incorporate the dark demon's name into the script.
When we return to the Ivo Shandor building later in the movie, we seen lightning striking the tip of the building. This could just be shown for dramatic effect, but there are many within the paranormal community who say that hauntings occur as a result of psychic or spiritual energy and the massive amounts of energy generated by a lightning strike causes a spike in paranormal activity.
Although lightning occurs due to a massive electrical charge, most of this energy is lost as it travels through the air from the cloud to the ground. The energy is converted into the bright flash of light that we see and a lot of infrared energy including heat which superheats the air around it. This means all the energy is converted into other forms of energy before a ghost could get its ethereal hands on it.
However, Ray does state that "the whole building is a huge super-conductive antenna that was designed and built expressly for the purpose of pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence." So perhaps this building is able to harness the energy of lightning strikes, something scientists have been trying to do in real life as a single lightning strike delivers enough energy to power a 60 watt lightbulb for six months.
Zuul emerges as a dog-like creature from a statue in its own likeness on the roof of the Shandor building and possesses Dana. When Venkman later visits Dana the first thing she asks him is, "are you the key master?" Peter tries to talk to Dana but eventually a gruff voice emanates from Dana without her moving her lips, the voice says "there is no Dana, there is only Zuul". Moments later, to Venkman's astonishment, Dana is seen to rise above the bed and float in mid-air.
This moment of the film could have well been inspired by Aykroyd's interest in the Enfield poltergeist case. The case is perhaps best known for levitation and voices from beyond the grave.
One of the case's investigators challenged the entity that was allegedly haunting the house to speak and witnessed a gruff, male voice coming from the youngest daughter, Janet. The voice sounded like that of an elderly man and the researches were convinced it was not the voice of a 12-year-old girl. Just like Dana in 'Ghostbusters', the girl's lips did not move when the voice was heard.
Later in the case, Janet was witnessed levitating by a member of the public who saw the action through a window. The woman watched as Janet appeared to levitate inside the bedroom window, she described the occurrence as though Janet was "going up and down as though someone was just tossing her up and down bodily, in a horizontal position, like as if someone had got hold of her legs and back and throwing her up and down."
At this point of course, Dana is possessed by Zuul. Demonic possession is something which is said to be real and genuinely terrifies some paranormal investigators.
The idea of possession was forced into the mainstream in 1973 by the chilling movie 'The Exorcist', based on a novel by William Peter Blatty. This book was inspired by a real case of possession, which is said to have taken place in 1949 and involved the exorcism of a young boy from Cottage City, Maryland.
We don't know where the inspiration for Dana's possession came from, but as Aykroyd was well read in the field of the paranormal, it could have been reports of cases like the 1949 possession that inspired him.
Walter "Dickless" Peck has the Ghostbusters arrested and they're locked in a jail cell, until a guard tells them the mayor wants to see them. "The whole island's going crazy," he tells them.
Police escort the Ghostbusters to City Hall where they meet with the mayor in his office and discuss the paranormal events taking place in New York.
The police commissioner is the first to talk about something he'd witnessed, "the walls in the 53rd precinct were bleeding. How do you explain that?"
This is said to be common in haunting involving demons. Some believe demons are able to materialise substances, often in the form of liquids oozing from walls, flowing from taps or appearing in puddles on the floor. This can be anything from water, through to dark tar-like substances and even blood.
At Samlesbury Hall in Preston a mysterious blood stain is said to appear on the floor in a room where a priest was killed in 1384.
Venkman then tells the office that "this city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions." Ray clarifies that this means "Old Testament biblical. Real wrath-of-God-type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming from the sky. Rivers and seas boiling."
Egon chips in and adds, "forty years of darkness. Earthquakes. Volcanoes." Winston takes over, "the dead rising from the grave!"
This is the second time a biblical doomsday-like scenario has been mentioned in the film. Earlier in the movie Winston asks Ray, "do you remember something in the Bible about the last days, when the dead would rise from the grave?"
Ray quotes from memory, "Revelation 7:12. And I looked, as he opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the Sun became as black as sackcloth. And the Moon became as blood."
It's not just religion that talks about the end of the world, there's countless prophecies that speak of an impending end to life as we know it. It seems every few years someone comes forward with a new date for the end of civilisation, citing the threats as anything from nuclear war or civil unrest through to a natural disaster or alien invasion, but the most common theme when it comes to Earth's destruction is threats from space.
We've not yet had anyone predict an interdimensional crossrip.
Jumping ahead slightly, in 'Ghostbusters II' a guest of Dr. Venkman's television show informs viewers that "the end of the world will be on February 14th in the year 2016."
As Ray says in the film, every ancient religion has its own myth about the end of the world. Ray and Winston agree this is called "judgment day". The concept of a final judgement of all people is not unique to the bible or Christianity. The much older religion of Zoroastrianism and Islam both believe in a judgment day before a final destruction of the Earth. This concept also features in some ancient Greek and African religions, and there's examples of similar beliefs from India and China.
Temple Of Gozer
The finale of the movie takes place on the roof of Dana's building at Central Park West, where a gateway has opened up between our world and the domain of Gozer the Gozerian.
In paranormal circles, this is known as a portal or a vortex. They are believed to be points at which our physical realm and the spirit realm meet and allows spirits and other supernatural entities to pass through into our world.
Probably the most common belief is that mirrors can act as portals or windows to the spirit realm. The notion was popular in Victorian times and played upon in the séances of the time. Stories of mirrors attracting and containing spirits or even demons dates back even further, with countless tales being told for generations.
Probably the best known of these stories is the legend of Bloody Mary, a medieval witch by the name of Mary Worth. Her haggard face is said to appear in a mirror to those who call her name three times.
The final showdown in the movie features the "destructor" which has taken an unusual form. Gozer allows the Ghostbusters to choose the form of the destructor. They all try not to pick anything and empty their minds, but Ray accidentally thought of something he loved from his childhood, "something that could never, ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft."
We're not about to tell you that a 30 meter high marshmallow man once terrorised a small village in Germany. Every supernatural movie needs some kind of showdown with a seemingly unstoppable monster of some kind and it's always at this point that realism goes totally out of the window.
But, there is still a bit of science we can do here. Have you ever wondered how many calories were in the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?
Luckily, Kyle from the Nerdist series 'Because Science' has done the maths based on a figure given by the 'Ghostbusters' model makers that tells us that Stay Puft is 34.5 metres tall.
Based on this Kyle is able to estimate the volume of the cylinders that make up his body. This gives us a massive 1.6 million gallons of marshmallow, which equates to 3.6 million kilograms.
We know that marshmallows contains 120 calories per 100 grams, which means that in total the Marshmallow Man contains over 7 billion calories. Based on a recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories, that's enough marshmallow to keep a family of four well fed for over 2,000 years.
On a side note. The 1984 movie averages one product placement every ten minutes. Brands shown on screen include Coca Cola and Hostess Twinkie, plus the publications The Atlantic, Globe, New York Post and Time.
However, Stay Puft Marshmallow aren't actually a real confectionary brand, which is a missed opportunity as a towering, 35 metre high billboard strolling through downtown Manhattan would be the ultimate advertisement.
With the new movie, 'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' coming to cinemas in 2021, let's hope that this iconic franchise will continue to inspire new generations of ghost hunters.
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