Memory works in odd and wonderful ways as the things we see, hear, and smell can trigger thoughts and feelings that bring us back to an earlier time in our lives. Cool Whip and Tabasco-flavored Cheez-Its for example remind me of an ex-girlfriend and two very entertaining evenings. Movies have that power too, and when personal memories come into play a film can shake loose from its obvious context and come to represent something entirely different than was intended.
Christmas, more than any other holiday aside from Arbor Day of course, has an entire library of films associated with it, and everyone has a favorite. Some folks love the traditional classics like Miracle On 34th Street and White Christmas while others have a place in their heart for modern day titles like Christmas Vacation, Love Actually, and A Christmas Story. There are even those wise enough to recognize that the best Christmas film of all time is Die Hard.
I have my favorites too, but the movie that fills me with the most holiday cheer isn’t found on anyone’s list of the best Christmas films. Even so, year after year it’s the one that reminds me most of being a kid at Christmastime in a home filled with love, family, and respect not only for each other but also for the holiday itself. Those three things didn’t last forever for my family, but thanks to the unlikely pairing of a Commodore 64 computer and Home Box Office this flick never fails to flood my heart and head with happy memories.
And that movie is Ghostbusters. Obviously.
I first saw Ivan Reitman’s supernatural comedy alongside my family and millions of strangers in the summer of 1984, and while that probably makes me older than you it does not in fact make me “old as fuck.” I immediately fell in love with its mix of comedy, action, and effects, and if you’re reading this site than there’s no need to tell you how fantastic the movie still is even twenty six years later. The visual effects may not hold the same punch, but the laughs are just as big and frequent as they’ve ever been. “Listen… do you smell something?” never fails to make me bust a gut, as does almost every line of dialogue from Bill Murray. It’s an American classic and remains one of the absolute best films of the 1980’s.
So aside from a brief montage scene captured in the image above, what exactly does Ghostbusters have to do with Christmas? Very little on the surface, but Christmas is a time of surprises and it’s that element that really is the key to Ghostbusters becoming a holiday staple for me. Two surprises, timed almost exactly one year apart, indelibly sealed the movie to the holiday.
The first occurred on Christmas morning, 1984, as my sisters and I finished cleaning up the debris of wrapping paper, ribbon, and packaging. The day had gone according to plan with a pre-dawn stocking raid followed by a return to bed until the parents awoke. As always, we had to finish breakfast before presents could be touched, and one of my dad’s favorite gags was his never-ending cup of coffee. Folgers, naturally. It was part of his breakfast so we waited. And waited. Eventually he gave in to our incessant whining and we moved on to gifts, and while I don’t recall everything I got that day I do remember the microscope and the soccer ball that marked my parents’ dueling attempts to shape my interests. (They both failed.)
My dad had disappeared several minutes prior when suddenly over the sound of crinkling paper and chattering we heard… this!
A digital voice and a familiar tune drew us down to the family room where we found my dad, smiling, and waiting for us at the computer desk. There on the screen of our awesome and not at all uncool Commodore 64 was the brand new Ghostbusters game! Stunning (mid-eighties era) graphics! A karaoke-style title screen! A handful of actual words digitally spoken throughout the game! Frenetic action and repetitive gameplay! It was the one gift that all three of us kids played with together as we competed to catch the most ghosts, make the most money, and squeeze our way between the StayPuft Marshmallow Man’s legs.
The second surprise happened late on Christmas Eve, 1985, as the clock ticked towards twelve a.m. Home Box Office had a sneak “preview” listed in their guide for midnight. No title, no clue what it could be, but we knew it had to be something special. HBO had only been running 24/7 for the past three years, but they were already a destination of choice when it came to boob-tube entertainment. And yes, I say “boob-tube” in both senses of the word. HBO was running The Hitchhiker around this time, and in addition to being a Twilight Zone wannabe the show featured copious amounts of naked lady flesh. It was a show I… enjoyed frequently. This was a world where VHS videos were still things you rented, not bought, because the tapes cost upwards of $100 each. If you “owned” a movie on tape odds are it was something you taped off TV, and HBO was the place to go when you wanted to catch high rotation “classics” like Under the Rainbow, Super Fuzz, and Looker, as well as HBO Originals like Fortress, Fraggle Rock, and Not Necessarily the News.
So the entire family is up late, Christmas Eve, and the clock strikes midnight. HBO’s familiar (at the time) opening plays with the camera cruising down a meticulously modeled city street then up and over buildings, cars, and trees alike before ending in the stars. And then, like magic, we’re watching an old lady in the New York Public Library wheel a cart filled with books into a back room… before being terrified by a mischievous ghost with immense lung power!
The sneak preview was the secret premiere of Ghostbusters several months before it would officially hit HBO’s schedule and even longer before it would be available on VHS. HBO used to do cool shit like this on rare occasions, and yes, it was something this simple that brought us all together again. So there sat the whole family, all five of us, huddled in front of the TV until 2am watching and laughing along with Bill Murray and friends. Did I laugh the loudest at the “dickless” joke even as my mom shook her head in mock shame? Sure did. Made up for the embarrassment of turning red while watching the ghostly blowjob scene as I sat between her and my older sister. And yes, we still woke back up around430am to disembowel our stockings.
Both of these events would probably be innocuous and forgettable sights for most people, but they’re locked in my memory and permanently marked as some of my favorite Christmas experiences. Cheesy? Maybe. But my family wasn’t together for much longer after this, so these two memories are some of the last ones I have of everyone together and happy.