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WARNING: The following contains mild spoilers for the Ghostbusters franchise. 

Yes, Ghostbusters is a horror movie – gateway horror to be exact. Setting aside the fact that the title literally contains the word “ghost,” a foundational element of the scariest genre, the franchise follows a group of paranormal researchers who battle entities attacking from beyond the grave. After countless rewatches, the classic films and newer sequels may not scare us much anymore, but how many times have we as genre fans asserted that a film does not have to be “scary” to be considered horror?

Genre classification is nebulous and any film that centers on ghosts has a place in the sprawling house of horror. Yes, it’s true that most viewers over the age of thirteen will find more to laugh about than scream while watching a Ghostbusters film, but each entry contains a handful of terrifying moments. With Gil Kenan’s Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire uniting three generations of the parascientific warriors, perhaps it’s time to highlight the most frightening moments from each phase of this legendary franchise. 

A Haunted Library

scariest Ghostbusters movie

Ivan Reitman’s original film begins with a campfire tale come to life. We follow an unsuspecting librarian as she ventures deep into the stacks to reshelve a book. With her hair blowing from a spectral breeze, we watch a hardcover float across the aisle to the opposite shelf. A second book follows, but the librarian remains unaware. She finally notices the disturbance when card catalog drawers open on their own spewing cards into the air like literary geysers. She flees through the maze of narrow stacks only to come face to face with a mysterious force who blows her back with a powerful roar. We won’t see the Library Ghost (Ruth Oliver) until a later scene, but this introduction firmly positions the film that follows in the world of horror. On first watch, we can only speculate as to the ghost’s malevolence and whether or not the librarian has survived the encounter. It’s the perfect introduction to a world in which ghosts are not only real, they will pounce on unsuspecting humans at the drop of a … book. 

Shaky Ground

The original finale may not be the film’s most terrifying moment, but it has become the franchise’s most iconic image. When faced with choosing a form for Gozer (Slavitza Jovan), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) inadvertently conjures up an image from his childhood. Moments later, a set of once-cheery eyes peer through the skyscrapers. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man towers over the city, stomping and destroying everything in its path. While there’s definitely something terrifying about a jovial mascot turned deadly killer, what happens moments before is arguably scarier. 

The Ghostbusters arrive at the luxury apartment building to throngs of adoring fans. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) plays into this hero-worship and promises an easy solution to a supernatural problem. But before they can enter the building, lightning strikes the upper floors sending massive chunks of brick and cement raining down on the barricaded street. The ground begins to shake and a giant fissure swallows the entire team. It’s a destabilizing moment made all the more terrifying by its shocking reality. Speculation about the existence of ghosts may vary from person to person, but there’s no doubt that sinkholes are very real. It’s entirely possible that the ground we’re standing on right now could spontaneously begin to crumble, sucking us down into a seemingly bottomless void beneath the earth. 

Runaway Baby

Ivan Reitman’s sequel begins with a sly update on the life of a beloved character as Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) pushes a baby carriage containing her infant son Oscar (Henry and William Deutschendorf). When last we saw the attractive cellist, she was kissing Venkman in the wreckage of Gozer’s demise and the thought of this loveable lady’s man becoming a father may be more nerve-wracking than anything contained in the first film. We never learn much about Oscar’s real father, but we do discover that fate has a sinister plan for the adorable child. While Dana chats with her landlord, Oscar’s carriage rolls a few feet away. Dana reaches for the handle, but the buggy begins speeding down the sidewalk careening through the busy crowds. As if guided by unseen hands, the carriage twists and turns, then abruptly swerves into oncoming traffic. Cars honk and veer out of the way, but the racing carriage marks a collision course with an approaching bus. The wheels screech to a halt moments before what would surely be a deadly crash and Dana rushes to embrace her vulnerable child. This harrowing scene is likely to terrorize any parent who’s experienced the fear of trying to protect a baby in an unpredictable world.  

Sewer Screams

scariest Ghostbusters scene

While investigating the second film’s primary villain, Vigo the Carpathian (Wilhelm von Homburg), three of the Ghostbusters venture into the sewers hoping to find a growing river of slime. Ray, Winston (Ernie Hudson), and Egon (Harold Ramis) trek down an abandoned subway line while speculating about the hordes of cockroaches and rats they hear scurrying behind the walls. These vermin may be scary, but there are more malevolent monsters lurking in the dark. Ray and Egon both amuse themselves with the tunnel’s echo but Winston’s “hello” goes unanswered. Moments later, a demonic voice bellows his name from the dark end of the corridor. Waiting behind him is a severed head floating in the empty tunnel. As he tries to retreat, the team finds themselves surrounded by dozens of ghoulish heads that disappear faster than they materialized. Moments later, a ghostly train hurtles towards them, swallowing Winston in its spectral glow. Egon theorizes that something is trying to keep them from reaching their destination with effective scares designed to frighten the Ghostbusters and audience alike.  

Haunted Basement

Like its predecessor, Paul Feig’s remake opens with a spooky vignette. Garrett (Zach Woods) gives a tour of the Aldridge Mansion, a 19th century manor preserved in the middle of the busy city, and walks visitors through a troubling history of excess and cruelty. Hoping to inject a bit of excitement, he pauses near the basement door and tells the horrifying story of Gertrude Aldridge (Bess Rous), a wealthy heiress who murdered the house’s many servants. Hoping to avoid a public scandal, her family locked her in the basement and her restless spirit can still be heard trying to escape. Garrett triggers a trick candlestick to fly off the shelf, hinting at the spirit’s presence, but a late night incident shows that the deceased murderess may actually be lurking in her ancestral home. While closing up for the night, Garrett hears ominous noises from behind the barricaded door and watches the knob rattle against the heavy locks. An unseen attacker hurls him through the house and eventually drives him down the basement stairs to a sea of green slime pooling on the floor. The stairs crumble leaving the tour guide hanging on to the door frame for dear life as a spectral figure glides toward him with menacing hands outstretched. Once again, we won’t see the fully revealed ghost of Gertrude Aldridge until later in the film, but this terrifying opening sets the stage for a dangerous showdown with an army of the dead.

Mannequin On the Move

The scariest moment of the 2016 remake is arguably the vicious online hatred sparked well before the film’s release. In response to brutal comments posted to the first official trailer, the cast returned to film an additional scene in which they react to dehumanizing negativity. But another sequence may cut closer to the heart of this upsetting experience. The Ghostbusters respond to a call at a concert venue and split up to cover more ground. Patty (Leslie Jones) enters what she calls a “room full of nightmares” and immediately reverses course to avoid a multitude of mannequins stacked haphazardly in the dark. As she walks out the door, one of the faceless creatures turns its head her way. Walking on its own, this sentient prop follows her down the hall, pausing the moment she turns around. Eventually breaking cover, the mannequin chases Patty down the hall to the rest of the team. They unleash their proton packs and make quick work of the gargoyle-like ghost. Though this connection is surely unintentional, it’s a terrifying parallel to a faceless monster sneaking up to attack a woman simply trying to do her job. 

Smoke and Monsters

While Ghostbusters: Afterlife is nowhere near as scary as the horror films playing in the local summer school science class, Jason Reitman’s legacyquel does contain its share of frights. The film opens with a harrowing scene as we join Egon (Oliver Cooper) in the last moments of his life. Racing away from a sinister mountain, Egon’s truck collides with an unseen force and flips upside down in a field of corn. The elderly scientist races back to his crumbling farmhouse with a trap in hand, intent on ensnaring this invisible being. Unfortunately, the power fails and Egon has no choice but to hide the trap under the floorboards and wait. He sits in a comfortable old chair as a horrifying cloud of smoke drifts in behind him, momentarily forming the shape of a fanged beast. Demonic hands grab him from within the chair, likely causing the heart attack that will be listed on his death certificate. But his abandoned PKE meter below the chair activates, reminding us that Egon may be deceased, but he is far from gone.  

The Terror Returns

scariest Ghostbusters moments

Ghostbusters: Afterlife turns out to be a touching tribute to Harold Ramis as his friends and family unite to complete the beloved scientist’s heroic mission. In addition to a tearjerker ending, Reitman also includes a bevy of callbacks to the original film. Not only do the Spenglers square off against the team’s first enemy, Gozer (Emma Portner), the nonbinary entity brings back the Terror Dogs that once possessed Dana Barret and Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). These demonic beasts first rear their ugly heads while Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) stops by Walmart to buy a midnight snack. While the horde of mini marshmallow men are eerie in their gleeful self-destruction, the ghostly canine that chases him through the store is the stuff of nightmares. Early iterations of this fearsome creature are hindered by ’80s-era special effects, but Reitman’s version feels frighteningly real. While Gary frantically tries to find his keys, this Terror Dog snarls at him from atop his car dashboard, leaving the endearing science teacher with no way to escape. 

Frozen Dinner 

After a film set in a small mountain town, the opening of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire takes us back to New York circa 1904. We see the fire station in its early years as a horse-drawn carriage responds to a call. Arriving at the scene, a fireman tests the door for heat and watches in horror as his hand instantly freezes. Inside, they find jagged shards of ice surrounding and piercing a frozen dinner party. Guests are posed in various states of ice-covered surprise while an eerie record skips in the corner. A figure covered in brass armor we will come to know as a Fire Master is crouched in the corner clutching a mysterious orb. When the fireman touches this rippling sphere, the frozen diners’ heads begin to explode, an ominous precursor to the chilling threat awaiting the newest Ghostbusting team. 

Lights Out

If Ghostbusters: Afterlife featured the lo-fi gear of the 80s, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire hurls us into the future. Wealthy financier Winston Zeddemore has been surreptitiously building a new containment unit to relieve pressure on the original model along with a secret lab designed to study ghosts and haunted objects. In addition to fancy new gadgets and gear, this facility contains several captured spirits like a fanged Wraith and a speedy Possessor. Lab techs assure the astonished Spengler team that they are perfectly safe, but it seems they’ve overestimated the facility’s security. Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Lars (James Acaster) are studying the aforementioned orb when the power goes out, leaving them stranded in the dark with a cache of haunted objects. Not only does the ancient sphere hold a deadly spirit, the proton fields containing the captured ghosts have just been disabled. These terrifying creatures begin to drift through the walls toward the defenseless lab techs, perhaps at the bidding of an evil commander. Thankfully the generator kicks on in the nick of time, drawing the ghosts back into their cells. It’s a tense moment reminding us that no matter how charming the Ghostbusters may be, they still spend their days with evil spirits just waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc.  

The Ghostbusters franchise excels at mixing humor and fear, practically setting the blueprint for the modern horror comedy. Moments from the original two films terrified a generation of gen-xers and elder millennials and newer iterations are currently scaring their kids. The fifth franchise installment effectively passes the proton pack torch to a new generation of Ghostbusters and we can only hope additional films will continue to induct future generations of Ghostbusters fans into the horror family as well. 

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is now playing in theaters. Read our review.

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