When I was not quite ten years old, back in early 1988, we bought our first video recorder.
It was a revelation. No more the slaves of the clock. No more did I have to wait until Christmas to watch Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. The VHS collection sat on the top shelf of the cabinet (when we eventually got the cabinet; those first few weeks the recorder sat on the floor) and the chunky plastic boxes were pulled in and out at least twice a day as we explored wildlife documentaries and Gerry Anderson creations and sitcom compilations. My younger brother filled up a three-hour tape with Thomas the Tank Engine episodes and wept for an hour when my mother, in order to punish him for some misdemeanour or other, refused to sanction the recording of the Christmas special, rendering his season two collection incomplete.
Access to a video recorder filled up the hours, but it also aided my sense of recall. I would wake early on Saturday mornings and sit down in front of the television, having already calculated the time I would need to start watching Superman in order to finish before I had to leave for the weekly swimming lesson. Terence Stamp’s beautifully performed monologue permeated my consciousness until I could recall every pause and every cadence of his delivery. I watched the TV edit of Back to the Future so many times I memorised it in its entirety, and took the toned-down language of the kid-friendly version to be gospel until many years later, when I heard Doc Brown swear for the first time. I can’t remember most of what I learned in school, but I can still recite the radio announcer’s Toyota commercial in the opening scene.
But it was Ghostbusters that held a special place, because it was the first tape we bought and I more or less wore it out over the years. My friends at school were crazy about it, and it was a bandwagon I couldn’t wait to ride. I can still recall the sense of disappointment when the technician who installed the VHS (yes, we needed such electrical specialists in our house) told us that we would have to leave it to settle for three or four hours before we could use it, to allow time for the machine’s moving parts to adjust to room temperature. Instead we went out, but I spent most of the time looking at my watch.
My family didn’t do Halloween, and trick-or-treaters were politely but firmly turned away. At no point did I feel deprived or embarrassed by my parents’ religious stance (save once, but that’s for another day) because they were happy about us watching Ghostbusters until the cows came home. They would even watch it with us. My mother would always chuckle when Bill Murray – ever the master of understatement, even then – reacted to the sight of a hundred-foot marshmallow man tearing up Fifth Avenue with the words “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day”. Meanwhile, my father howled with laughter every time Rick Moranis emerged from the wreckage of the destroyed penthouse, gazing at the smouldering rubble around him, before remarking “Boy, the superintendent’s gonna be pissed!”.
Years later it is still my favourite line, and I wonder how much of this is a judgement of quality and how much of it is raw nostalgia. Because when I think about it, Ghostbusters united us as a family in a way that no other film before or since – with the possible exception of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – has managed to do. We watched and experienced it together and in a strange sort of way it brought us closer together. And when I think about it now, that oh-so-laborious afternoon that I had to spend before I got to open up the video case for the first time wasn’t so much about seeing the film again as it was about introducing it to my brother, who was yet to experience it. The ability to watch it took second place to the newfound ability to discuss it and play games that were centred around it, and I can still recall the thrill of seeing his face light up the first time he saw Murray get slimed by the onion ghost.
Lately, I’ve wondered how much of this I may have transferred onto my own children. Because Halloween in our house began early – on Saturday evening, to be precise, when Emily had gone out and I elected to begin our celebrations now. We don’t trick-or-treat, but we have a pumpkin and I allow the boys to watch a (reasonably) scary film. Joshua has been asking about Ghostbusters for years, and until this year I’ve denied him, simply because sometimes the gift of a particular film or book isn’t appreciated before you reach a certain age, but lately I’ve felt he was ready. It was supposed to be just the two of us, but an insomniac Thomas wandered in towards the end of the first act and sat with us for the rest of it, as silent and receptive as he is at his best. Joshua, meanwhile, burst into fits of laughter every time a ghost was seen eating or Murray did something funny.
The next day, without any encouragement or help from me, he was busy. Here’s his Ecto-1.
Here’s a rendition of the onion ghost.
And finally, here’s a Lego self-portrait, wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt.
It also gave me an excuse to play through this again.
I’ve experienced it before – a couple of years back – but it’s better with company. And on this occasion I had Josh sitting with me, watching as we blasted and slammed our way through the Sedgewick and Times Square, drawing in his breath at the fisherman ghost, and then giggling whenever a stray beam touched one of the other players. And, of course, he’s blissfully unaware that – like the film we’ve just watched – this is just an extension of my childhood, a time when I was not much older than he is now, and all those Saturday afternoons round a friend’s house playing the first Ghostbusters game on his Amstrad. It became an excuse for not doing other things, much like many of my gaming habits now. In my bedroom we had a Spectrum, rather than an Amstrad, and the game looked dreadful, but we loved it, and we played it to death.
Times have changed, but I basically haven’t.