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Ghostbusters: False Hope for Nerd Integration?

The concept of “cool” is rather indefinable.  There are no clear guidelines, yet we all dreamed of them while sleeping in our Spaghetti-O stained Math Olympics T-shirts. Right? One quality prevails though: an ego (or swagga if you’re reading this, T.I.). Don’t be fooled, wrapping yourself in a blanket of confidence does not lead to popularity. My high school experience was a clear counterexample. At some point we ended up on the other end of the spectrum as nerds. I don’t mean this as defamation of course. This is

Typically, nerds in films are depicted as complete buffoons when it comes to social situations. Take “Revenge of the Nerds” as an example. They are nervous around women, snorting and stuttering profusely, are hideous dressers, and are even worse at athletics than I am. It should be noted here that I had a career high of three points in two years of middle school basketball. I could differentiate an equation at thirteen though.

Consider yourself busted, generic looking ghost.

I blame the 1984 classic “Ghostbusters” for setting me up to believe I could live my adolescence involved in math and science while belonging to the elite hallway dwellers of athletes and early developers. “Ghostbusters” is a brilliant comedy about three parapsychologists who go into business for themselves ridding New York City of its ectoplasmic entities. Heard of it? Good. Let’s move forward.

While arguably one of the funniest characters in the film, Louis Tully is not the nerd whom people would wish to be. He is a pawn in the chess game of social manipulation. “Ghostbusters” presented a new breed of nerd. This nerd is contained and smooth. He don’t give a damn. (I used improper grammar because I don’t give a damn. I smoke cigarettes. I know I’m cool.) It is Egon Spengler who, while clearly dorking it up, is envied by many growing boys. Egon has an extreme amount of confidence, an attribute no cool person can lack. However, he’s still a brain with a body attached to it. This character remodels the idea of “cool” into a new vision. Furthermore, this new vision could be attainable to those who are picked last for kickball but first for a group science project. Regrettably, at least in my years as a schoolboy, my confidence with fractions and the periodic table of elements got me zero dates or invites to play spin the bottle.


Dr. Peter Venkman is undoubtedly the coolest. Such a promising depiction of nerds can be misleading. Bill Murray’s portrayal of Dr. Venkman targets the largest list of traits any women would desire. He’s a bad boy. He breaks the rules without a hint of guilt (drinking whiskey in front of a Columbia University building, yanking tablecloths out from under expensive dinnerware, disregarding scientific research in the pursuit of sweet, college hanky panky, etc.). Client Dana Barrett is annoyed by his quick-witted remarks at first, but she can’t resist it. Who could? He brings an idealistic novelty to the persona of the nerd. I think any nerd would love to be a smooth talker when in the presence of the object of their affection, but we don’t all have the greatest control over our nervous system. We excite easily. Even more, Venkman talks circles around people. Walter Peck is made his bitch through articulation. This is a superpower to many. Lest we forget he has doctorates in both parapsychology AND psychology. He is a nerd, but I’m no Bill Murray. Five bucks says you aren’t either.

RL nerds may not always be the suave hero, but who cares? While I may never jump sharks on water-skis or date the head cheerleader (that would be illegal and creepy now anyway), I embrace the impact “Ghostbusters” has had on my life. It’s left me with an admiration for knowledge and curiosity. There is nothing wrong with being a nerd.

Hold your heads up high and be proud nerds. The Ghostbusters did.

Got something to say? Comment or tweet me @matthewburnside

Images: Columbia Pictures

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  1. Bill D. says:

    I’ve always had a hard time seeing Venkman as a nerd, at least on the same level as Egon and Ray, anyway. He certainly knows his stuff, and seems like the sort of guy who would be brilliant if he managed to actually apply himself, but knows he can coast on charm. You have to figure that psych doctorate was way more useful to him than the parapsychology one.

    Also, it just kinda dawned on me that Venkman is basically the Steve Ballmer of the Ghostbusters to Egon and Ray’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the guy who knows what to say to people (smarmily or otherwise), and most importantly, the guy who knows how to make money off of this stuff.

  2. Fantastic, Mr. Hardwick,

    I’m a big fan of ‘altered’ trailers and how keenly they can skew the perspective of a movie’s plot. Really well done. I’d see that film.

  3. Clif says:

    What irks me about the ghostbusters archetypes is that no one thinks of themselves as Ray! Most nerds who get excited about their nerd focus are just as excited as the good Dr. Stantz. When the Ghostbusters trap slimer for the first time, you can hear the excitement of a true nerd! It’s the same tone I hear from @donttrythis after a successful test run, or from @nerdist when he talks about comedy. The excitement and innocence of true nerdism.

  4. Chris Hardwick says:

    Here’s a video I made with my friend that imagines what if Zeddemore were the ONLY Ghostbuster:

  5. Todd R says:

    Haha, I don’t think the nerdiest nerd in the world doesn’t know what basketball is. The hyperlink to wiki definition was very thoughtfull though.

  6. @Matthew B.
    It’s understandable. I once spent three days fretting the loss of a short paragraph on a Chinese guy I met in line at the DMV who was overly enthusiastic about the Cal football team, all because my editor said my piece was “unruly.”

    Meanwhile, you have inspired me to write a Ghostbusters piece of my own, a quiz of sorts, entitled “Which Ghostbuster Are You?” I am guessing you are not a Winston Zeddmore.

  7. Matthew Burnside says:

    Wow! Glad to see all the comments.

    @ModernSophist and everyone – I apologize. This actually started as a ten page paper I wrote a few years ago in college. It was hard to boil everything down to something short enough. I agree with you. Ray is enthusiastic about everything ghostbustin’. Geeking out is something we all have in common. I’ll be doing plenty of it this weekend to and from seeing Toy Story 3. I only cut his stuff for length and pacing issues. Thanks for your input.

  8. giddy girlie says:

    Actually, the Ghostbusters are the prime example of what happens to nerds in any profession: they become marginalized. The Ghostbusters story is actually about how these guys come up with a major scientific breakthrough (to prove the existance of ghosts and then go on to ‘entrap’ ghosts) and what happens? They become Ghost Janitors. The first montage in the movie tells it all — they’re run ragged, all over town day and night busting ghosts and what do they get for it? Nothing. No thanks, no heroics, just exhaustion. That’s why they hire Winston – they need an extra person so that they can rotate shifts and have some down time. They’ve all completely given up their personal lives (none have wives/girlfriends/boyfriends) to succeed in their career – which, ultimately becomes a joke. (Venkman is the only mild exception, in that he is attracted to one of their clients — again, no life outside of work — who reluctantly falls for him) They save New York City and there’s a lot of excitement and then what? They get sued! GB2 starts off with the guys playing a kid’s birthday party because they’re broke from *saving civilization* Even Venkman’s relationship with Dana has fallen apart — and he was the only hope that any of the Ghostbusters had what it takes to have a life outside of work.

    How Ghostbusters influenced me: I believe that nerds need good marketing. I’m the on-the-fence geek who really loves some good nerdishness (go on baby, recite pi to me!) but I also am still average enough to associate with the ‘normals’ so I can act as that bridge between the two. Which is exactly what I do for a profession. I work in high tech marketing where I meet with the guys who develop some incredibly intricate stuff that no layperson could ever understand/appreciate and then I give it a nice polish and translate it to every day terms so that the public can look at it and see: shiny! nice! I like it! I want that!

    So there’s a lesson in Ghostbusters for us all. If you develop something awesomely cool like a ghost entrapment unit, get a good marketing lady to handle your PR. 😉

  9. Squatch says:

    @Matthew Naturally. Besides…it’s hard to pull off bitter without coming across as an elitist hypocrite (especially when we are wearing the same shirt).

  10. I’m amazed that nothing was said of Ray Stantz? First of all, he Was the Ghostbusters. He may not have had the nerd-chic of Spangler, nor the beatnik suave of Venkman, but he had the enthusiasm to get the project going.

    If there is one thing we ought to recognize about our class as nerds it is that our defining quality is not in the intellect, nor in the presentation, but in our enthusiasm for those topics that the ‘mainstream’ don’t find sexy. It is that we are turned on by the science.

    Love Egon for the stoic or Venkmen for the sarcastic, but recognize that most of our success in the world is more along the lines of Stantz’s excitement to slide down the fire-poll.

  11. Tony says:

    Venkman was a con artist, pure and simple.

    Most fans walking around with a pack long to be like him, but instead come off like Louis Tulley. Earmuffs and all.

  12. Jess Q. says:

    Okay, time to set all the boys right.

    I’m a 26 year old woman. I was a kid in the 80s. I have always thought that Egon Spengler is the sexiest fictional character ever. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve written him into, not one, but two Mary Sue fan fiction stories that no one will ever read. I still can’t watch Ghostbusters without sighing and swooning and watching only Egon in every scene he’s in.

    Venkman’s cute I guess, but stupid guys are a turn-off. He’s not a moron, but Egon, and even Ray, can think circles around him. Smart guys, dedicated to their work, unaware and uncaring of attention, and snazzily dressed, are a hard act to beat.

    I will admit my other fictional crushes include George McFly, the 9th Doctor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker post-ANH, so maybe I like intensity and that’s just something nerds have, but I’m also not the only girl I know who likes those same characters.

    tl;dr Egon Spengler is the sexiest fictional man of ALL TIME.

  13. altgrave says:

    another voice against peter as nerd – one suspects he earned his degrees through bullshitting (or the international mail) – though he IS a loser (he loses his job, he doesn’t get the girl… at first!), which can be forgotten amidst his verbal pyrotechnics. the story is, really, another revenge of the nerds, only they largely have no idea that they are nerds. dan akroyd’s enthusiasm is note perfect, i suspect, ’cause he’s a paranormal nerd irl.

  14. Matthew Burnside says:

    @Anthony, Chris, and Aaron – Eh, opinions. We all have them. That’s what the internet is for. Interesting views, though.

    @Juan – Smoking IS disgusting. Don’t ever start.

    @Briznye – If only life was like NBA Jam. Our Nike paychecks would be amazing.

    @Squatch – My point exactly. Thanks for not being bitter at people for wearing our glasses and pop culture T-shirts.

    Interesting follow-up articles:

  15. G says:

    Hell I was a nerd and a jock at the same time. I usually led the scoring in basketball. I started as a varsity player as a sophmore and never saw the bench as a junior and senior. I still had to fight not to be bullied and was to shy to date. But eventually high school was over and I was able to be me.

  16. Squatch says:

    In this day and age, where the word nerd has transcended stigma and geek has become chic, nothing has really changed…we are still the same people we have always been. The only difference now is that we have somehow found ourselves being granted social validity because the masses are beginning to find similar appreciations to our own…but who cares, really? Ultimately it doesn’t matter.

    Be who you are, be what you love. Don’t worry about being cool…just be happy with being formerly uncool.

  17. Briznye says:

    In SEVEN YEARS of middle school and junior varsity basketball, I scored ZERO POINTS. ZERO! I got you beat.

  18. Juan Reyes says:

    Ew, you smoke?

    wow, that is my comment on this article? is that really all I walk away from this article thinking!?

    no, not really.

  19. Aaron says:

    I’m sorry but as cool as Venkman is, he’s still no Chris Knight from Real Genius, the coolest nerd ever. Knight doesn’t just barely get the girls, he brings them in droves from the local beautician school using lasers.

  20. Deltus says:

    I’m with anthony and Chris on this. Venkman wasn’t a nerd. At the very least, it takes leaving high school before a nerd can be comfortable with themselves, *as* themselves, around other people who aren’t nerds.

  21. Chris says:

    I totally agree, Anthony. As a computer nerd, I’ve noticed a similar example: Peter in Office Space. Your description of Venkman fits Peter pretty closely.

  22. anthony says:

    i would argue that the reason venkman is so cool is because he really isn’t a nerd at all. when you watch the movie, venkman is completely unaware about what his counterparts are talking about, it’s a wonder that he became a doctor at all. beware, venkman is a cool kid disguised in nerd’s coveralls.

  23. Jenn Zuko says:

    I was astonished a few years ago when my students (college freshmen, mainly) kept extolling the sexiness of Legolas. This was when the LOTR films had just come out, and many of them were now reading the books for the first time.

    I remember thinking: I cold have told you Legolas (and other Elves, and Aragorn) were sexy a long, long time ago. But back then I had to hide my Fantasy geekness even from my fellow theatre nerds. Now it’s cool to think Tolkien characters are dreamy? The fact that I can recite Elvish poetry doesn’t cause excruciating schizoxendria in the masses? I’m a cool nerd professor? Living the dream…