Today is National Ghostbusters Day, as decreed by whatever invisible marketing forces have banded together to honor the movie's 30th anniversary tomorrow. The film gets a new, updated treatment and theater release this weekend, six months after the death of actor Harold Ramis, who played the nerdy Ghostbuster Egon Spengler in the original movie.
Thirty years on, it’s Egon's character— and the rise of nerd culture, with all its nostalgia for the sci-fi and fantasy franchises from the 1980s and 1990s—that deserves credit for making the film popular again. Ghostbusters’ revival started back in 2009 with the release of a video game that brought back all the original actors; the game essentially became the third installment of the film—something fans had wanted for years.
Characters like Egon were forerunners of nerd culture; they showed impressionable youngsters of those decades that you could be bookish and brainy and still be the hero who saves the day. In the intervening 30 years, the concept of what it means to be a “nerd” has evolved, and not all for the better.
So it would do us nerds well to reflect on what makes Egon Spengler such a great character, and how we can revive his nerd ideal.
1. He’s completely unashamed of his interests.
One of the main ideas behind modern nerd culture is that you should be unashamed of the things you like, no matter how intellectual or niche they can be. Egon unapologetically let his geek flag fly, no matter who he was talking to, as shown early in the film when he first meets the Ghostbusters’ new secretary, Janine.
Janine, trying to chat up Egon, rattles off a list of hobbies: reading, racquetball. What does Egon respond with?
“I collect spores, molds, and fungus.”
Not a hint of shame or apology. If this film had been done today, where we think of the “nerd” archetype as being mealy-mouthed and painfully awkward (looking at you, Michael Cera) this line would have been followed by a long, uncomfortable stare-down and then a clumsy attempt at recovery. Not Egon, though. He has no time for shame, he’s got spores to collect. If he had been holding a mic, he would have dropped it.
2. He kicks ass when necessary.
While Egon was the quietest and most reserved of the Ghostbusters (Venkman did enough of the talking for all four of them), he was not a pushover in the Napoleon Dynamite/Michael Cera vein. The latter would just let the inferior intellects run wild because they’re more confident and assertive.
But Egon knew he was smarter than everyone else, and dropped knowledge when it mattered without a single damn given for how dorky he sounded. See the ever important “don’t cross the streams” conversation:
No hesitation. Dead serious. Even the swaggering Venkman knew to listen, even if he was “fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing.” See also the infamous “Twinkie monologue:”
I dare you to sound that bad-ass while holding a cream-filled snack cake.
Late in the film, EPA agent Walter Peck is less inclined to listen when Egon gives a similarly impactful lecture about the danger of shutting down the containment grid:
The final straw for Egon comes after the resulting explosion, when Peck tries to blame it on the Ghostbusters. Do you know what the fed-up Egon does when he sees some EPA pencil-pusher try to pass the blame for not listening? He THROWS DOWN!
He grabs Peck by the lapels and is ready to smack the ginger out of him. The only thing “awkward” about Egon is his choice of battle cry: “YOUR MOTHER!” Even though this movie is 30 years old, it seems refreshing and novel to see an assertive nerd take control.
3. He gets the girl, but isn’t girl-crazy.
Throughout the film there is a tenuous romance between Egon and Janine, mostly initiated by the later. While Egon seems to coldly shrug off Janine in their first encounter with the spores line, there’s a scene near the end of the film when the spirit of Vinz Clortho, in the body of Lewis Tully, announces how Gozer intends to wreak destruction.
Janine, full of fear, tells Egon, “I’m afraid you’re going to die.” They share an embrace, and Egon is more accepting and appreciative.
What’s really important about Egon’s interaction with Janine is that we never see him mope about not being able to get with the girl he wants, like many “nerd” characters do. We also never see him sputter in disbelief, milking the “I’m so awkward” angle, unable to handle Janine’s advances.
He just treats her as another person in his life that he may see at times as annoying and at other times as a welcome friend. Come to think of it, the way Egon treats Janine isn’t terribly different from the way he treats the other Ghostbusters.
Let’s compare that to another movie that came out in 1984, “Revenge of the Nerds.” Let’s face it, guys, no matter how funny you think that movie is, it’s really problematic. The main characters’ whole sense of self worth and accomplishment seem to be based on whether or not they can get to bang the hot chicks. In fact, the protagonist impersonates someone else to get to have sex with the object of his desire. That’s really gross if you think about it.
In the intervening years, more cerebral comedies like Ghostbusters have been outnumbered by Revenge-like teen sex comedies where the essential conflict of the plot is “screw or die.” "American Pie" and "Superbad" are a couple of examples. (CERA, FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE).
There’s a nerdy, socially unsuccessful main character who somehow manages to prove to a seemingly unattainable woman that he deserves sex simply by virtue of not being a jerk. Those kinds of movies created a really toxic idea within modern “nerd culture” that makes young men believe that somehow being a “nice guy” means you’ll be bestowed with sex as a prize. It’s the kind of mentality that leads to women being harassed on message boards, groped at conventions, and generally being made to feel unwelcome in nerddom.
But in “Ghostbusters,” Egon didn’t bully Janine, nor did he place her on an annoying pedestal, because his “nerdiness” did not center on an obsession with women. Heck, even Harold Ramis disliked the idea of Egon even being romantic, to the point that in the second film they tried to hook up Janine and Lewis instead.
Egon is a guy who is okay being by himself. Pop culture, and especially nerd culture, need more Egons —characters who present intellect and assertiveness as two things that are not mutually exclusive. They show that you can be smart without being whiny and self-pitying, and that maybe you get the girl, maybe you don’t, but it doesn’t matter because you are awesome just for being your nerdy self.