Peter Aykroyd, father of the famed comic actor Dan, isn’t afraid of ghosts.
Even when the long-deceased spirits of Ming Dynasty Chinese, ancient Egyptian princes, and the family’s 18th-century patriarch, Samuel Aykroyd I, called out to him as a young boy in Ontario, Peter says he felt no fear.
And why should he have? Ever since he was 8 years old, purported communication with the dead was a regular occurrence, part of a long series of séances conducted by his grandfather, Dr. Samuel A. Aykroyd, a dentist with a side career as a psychic investigator, and the family medium, Walter Ashurst, who would channel the spirits’ voices through his body.
Once while sitting in a family farmhouse Dan had planned to tear down, he says he felt a massive jolt of electricity and witnessed pops and sparks all around him. “It was just like I had been struck by lightning,” he recalled.
“Even extraordinary things in life, experienced enough, become commonplace,” Peter, now 87, told me as we sat together with Dan in Manhattan’s Essex House. “If you see a ghost 10 times—”
“—it’s like the family pet,” the younger Aykroyd interrupted, completing his father’s sentence.
Dr. Aykroyd’s research into the paranormal continued with his son, who sought to create the first device capable of capturing ghostly voices only to be told by the ghosts themselves that such a contraption was impossible to build. Peter participated in the family’s rituals, and Dan continued the legacy by creating Ghostbusters, a movie rich in the details and vocabulary of the family’s paranormal trade and filled with gadgets and gizmos of the type his ancestors tried to invent. The tale of the Aykroyds’ four-generation obsession with the occult, as well as the psychic investigators who inspired them, is detailed in Peter’s newly released book, A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters.
It’s a subject dear to Dan, who grew up listening to tales of his great-grandfather’s experiments and reading journals from the American Society for Psychical Research, the premier organization for supernatural studies since 1885. The academic approach employed by his ancestors and by figures such as author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and “ghost hunter” Hans Holzer led him to develop the core concept for Ghostbusters: a group of bookish researchers fighting ghosts using modern science.
“It was around the time I had just finished Saturday Night Live, and I read an article on quantum physics and parapsychology in the ASPR and said, ‘Why not marry the actual scientific discipline of psychic research to an old-style comedy?’” he said.
Dan, a wholehearted believer in the world of spirits, found a perfect writing partner in Harold Ramis, who believed in nothing of the sort but had a detailed if skeptical knowledge of the occult. Ramis’ interest in early civilizations also helped round out the main plot of the 1984 film, in which an ancient Sumerian cult tries to summon an evil god.
“Even though he wasn’t a believer, we were definitely speaking the same language as Ghostbusters,” Aykroyd said. “He knows all about parapsychology, he had all the references, all the terms, all without me giving them to him.”
Peter said he was “elated” with early drafts of the script, especially the opening scene, in which a ghost wreaks havoc in the New York Public Library.
“It was a pure poltergeist phenomenon and absolutely true to form” he said. “Let’s face it, he was writing this thing from conviction. There was truth in that, even though it seemed fantastic.”
He did, however, have problems with the film’s now iconic ending, which featured the King Kong-size Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rampaging about a block away from where our interview took place.
“I thought it wouldn’t play,” he said, “but that was a mistake on my part.”
“I knew it would work,” Dan said, breaking a satisfied grin.
Powered by Aykroyd and Ramis’ high-concept premise, memorable performances by romantic leads Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, and astounding special effects, the film became the most successful comedy in history and spawned a cult of worshippers who still shadow Aykroyd to this day. He and Peter recalled how at a recent reading, they were confronted with fans in full Ghostbusters regalia, including uniforms and proton packs. Some fans have even been known to trick out their cars to mimic the Ghostbusters’ famous ride, a converted Cadillac nicknamed Ecto-1. The original cast is at work on a third movie and has already lent their voices to a videogame released this year, ensuring that future generations will be introduced to Aykroyd and Ramis’ spooky world as well.
But it should be easy enough for the Aykroyds to relate to the movie’s worshippers, given their enthusiasm for all things ghostly. Both Dan and Peter are true believers, all too happy to discuss the many technical details and historical figures associated with the world beyond, many of which are described in A History of Ghosts. Dan himself is no stranger to purported paranormal activity: Once while sitting in a family farmhouse he had planned to tear down, he says he felt a massive jolt of electricity and witnessed pops and sparks all around him.
“It was just like I had been struck by lightning,” he recalled. He later identified the occurrence in psychic literature as supernatural “arcing.” Whatever the cause, it was enough to convince him to renovate the farmhouse rather than knock it down.
Like Dr. Aykroyd before them, the pair hopes one day to see documented proof of the Holy Grail of ghost-hunting: materialization, a phenomena described by spiritualists in which ghostly forms composed of ectoplasm—the slimy substance made famous by Ghostbusters—emerge from mediums.
“He so wanted to have that happen,” Peter said of his grandfather, who never experienced such an event. He blamed negative energy from skeptical séance-goers and a lack of proper materials to focus their medium’s powers for the failure to bring about a physical ghost. Dan said he thinks further research on materializations and apparitions is needed to complete his great-grandfather’s legacy.
“I would like to see more hard physicists come in and start to analyze what’s going on,” the younger Aykroyd said. “Are oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen molecules coalescing to produce these visions in front of people? I’d love it if some research were done on materialization, which is the most exciting part of this, where full-formed limbs come out of a medium’s mouth and even a full-formed body. It would be nice to get some DNA and see if it’s the DNA of the person exuding this mass of ectoplasm or the DNA of another being.”
Listening to Dan excitedly rattle off a flurry of technical jargon and individual case studies, it’s impossible not to think of his Ghostbusters character, Ray Stantz, who giddily delivers dense lines about whether the “ionization rate is constant for all ectoplasmic entities” and congratulates Louis Tully (played by Rick Moranis) for surviving the “the biggest interdimensional cross rip since the Tunguska blast of 1909.”
While noting that Stantz is a scientist and he is an entertainer, Aykroyd acknowledges that the two share “a passionate fascination and enthusiasm for the activities of beings and entities that are beyond our plane of existence.”
He added: “And what red-blooded North American boy wouldn’t embrace a good ghost story, right?”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.