All the Original Ghostbusters

A history of paranormal exterminators in pop culture pre-1984.
Mickey Mouse And Ghosts
By  · Published on July 15th, 2016

Anytime you have a remake or reboot of a popular movie or franchise, fans of the original are going to whine about it. With Ghostbusters, there’s a new level of objection, some of it stemming from the same sort of nostalgic ownership of any beloved property from childhood and some of it arising out of misogyny. The only thing they ought to be concerned with is whether or not fans of the new movie will recognize its roots. And that’s not exclusive to the 1984 movie it’s based on and its 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters II.

The Ghost Busters

Most famously, there was already something titled The Ghost Busters, a live-action TV series for children that ran for 15 episodes in 1975 and featured two men and a gorilla hunting mostly spirits and also sometimes famous monsters like Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein’s Creature. The otherwise obscure show rose in notoriety after Columbia Pictures planned to spin off Ghostbusters into a cartoon and were sued by Filmation because of the confusion over their earlier property. The case was settled, and we got both their animated reboot in 1986, plus the movie-inspired The Real Ghostbusters.

Athenodoros Cananites

The Ghost Busters was hardly the originator of the idea, though. It just had the same name. We can go back to the dawn of time to find the first ghost stories in which there are heroes involved in “professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.” There are parallels to ghost busters in religious traditions like exorcism. And in Ancient Greece, Athenodoros Cananites is credited with solving the first documented haunting by not busting so much as freeing a spirit by properly burying its corporeal body.

The Ghost Hunters

Paranormal investigation became a big deal in the 19th century, most notably by the UK organization The Society of Psychical Research, which still exists. Famous members in its early years included authors Mark Twin and Lewis Carrol and the philosopher William James, who was one of the founders of an American offshoot. Deborah Blum’s 2006 book “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death” makes the US branch sound like the truly real Ghostbusters. It also features the origin story of the term “ectoplasm,” as coined by Nobel Prize-winning physiologist and parapsychologist Charles Riget.

The House of the Devil

Around the same time that was happening, motion pictures were invented, and from the start they included ghost stories. Of course fantasy special-effects master Georges Melies got right on that with the 1896 short The House of the Devil (a.k.a. The Haunted Castle and numerous other aliases), which is also considered to be the first horror film. What also makes it the first ghost busters movie is that it’s not just about a haunting. It features two cavaliers battling the ghosts and other paranormal creatures.

The Ghost Breaker

Almost two decades later brought the first film adaptation of the hit 1909 play The Ghost Breaker. Unfortunately, the 1914 release, jointly directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel, is one of the many pictures lost forever. Another version was made in 1922, and it too is considered lost. Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard then starred in another remake in 1940 titled The Ghost Breakers, where the titular phrase is used by Hope’s character to describe his made up job title to assist Goddard at a haunted castle inhabited by ghosts and a zombie. There was one more remake, a musical version starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin called Scared Stiff, and there’s also a 1923 animated Felix the Cat short titled The Ghost Breakers that seems inspired by the play but the ghost winds up being a fraud, Scooby Doo style.

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder

In 1913, William Hope Hodgson’s book “Carnacki the Ghost-Finder” was published, collecting short stories that previously had debuted in magazines. The Sherlock Holmes-esque character Carnacki is more an early ghost buster than mere paranormal investigator. He uses inventions to protect himself from and even trap ghosts, though sometimes the hauntings are revealed as hoaxes. His only screen depiction to this day is a 1971 episode of the TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes based on the story “The Horse of the Invisible,” one with a fake ghost. Donald Pleasense plays Carnacki.

Lonesome Ghosts

Disney’s Lonesome Ghosts is one of the most cited forebears to Ghostbusters, if for nothing else than the fact that it features the line “I ain’t scared of no ghosts!” It’s said by Goofy, who with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are professional ghostbusters, for the Ajax Ghost Exterminators service. They don’t use any kind of crazy inventions, though; Mickey’s armed with a shotgun, Donald a net, and Goofy a pickaxe. They’re actually hired by the ghosts, who are bored (and lonesome, obviously) and need some humans to prank. And the ending brings even more irony to the classic animated short.

Ghost Catchers

One of the main elements of the Ghostbusters franchise, though not the movies, is the idea of a ghost that had been busted later becoming their sidekick. That’s a trope mostly found in animated series, like The Real Ghostbusters (later titled Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters) but also can be found with the 1944 movie Ghost Catchers. At first the ghost is an adversary of the main characters, but once caught he becomes their ally in going up against some gangsters.

Spook Busters

The fourth installment of the Bowery Boys movie franchise, 1946’s Spook Busters, has the five guys becoming exterminators, and their first job is to rid a house of ghosts. However, it’s another story where the ghosts wind up not being real. But later, in their 22nd movie, 1951’s Ghost Chasers, they encounter a real ghost while exposing a fraudulent medium. Then there’s also their 45th film, 1957’s Spook Chasers, which involves a haunted house but doesn’t have the boys busting them.

Ghost Buster

In the midst of the Bowery Boys movies came the 1952 RKO short Ghost Buster, which is really only significant for the title. It’s a slapstick film starring Gil Lamb as a window washer who tries to impress a girl by pretending to be a reporter on the case of a missing heir. He winds up then in disguise as a nurse exploring the haunted estate that the disappeared guy is to inherit. Once again, the ghosts are fake.

Karate Ghostbuster

Chinese audiences may not be able to see the new Ghostbusters, but many of them have possibly seen the Jackie Chan comedy Karate Ghostbuster, alternatively known as Spiritual Kung Fu. The former title was likely affixed later following the popularity of Ghostbusters. The hero doesn’t actually bust any ghosts. Instead he’s taught a new type of martial arts by his new spirit friends as he helps them defend a Shoalin Temple library. Also worthy of mention is the lesser known Hong Kong martial arts movie The Fake Ghost Catchers, a 1982 feature that does seem to involve battles against phantoms.

Scooby Doo and Goober and the Funky Phantoms, too

Another very famous group of ghost busters is Mystery, Inc., the paranormal investigating team of four teens and the talking dog Scooby Doo. Beginning with the 1969 animated series Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, they’ve seen numerous spinoffs and live-action movie adaptations and more. Sadly, they too didn’t really ever encounter real ghosts. But its two contemporary ripoff series The Funky Phantoms and Goober and the Ghost Chasers did regularly feature actual paranormal entities.


If there’s anything the other Ghostbusters precursors collectively entail, it’s a light tone, much like that of the 1984 blockbuster. They’re either horror comedies or animation or relatively non-scary fantasies. Two years before Ghostbusters, though, came Poltergeist, with its no-joke paranormal exterminators. There had been other serious busters in movies, such as The Exorcist, but this movie dealt more relevantly with ghosts. And the investigators and some of the events of the movie were likely influenced by the work of famed demonologists Earl and Lorraine Warren, now characters in their own franchise, the Conjuring series.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.