The Real Ghostbusters Episode 23: The Old College Spirit (1986)

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A weirdly toned episode, this. For about nineteen minutes of its running time, ‘The Old College Spirit’ is a right jolly lark – all college campus hi-jinks and whatnot. Yet there’s a minute just before and just after the mid-act break that is genuinely, nightmare-inducingly scary, and the remainder of the episode leaves me in suspense because I fear the terror will return. It doesn’t, but I’m an idiot, so I fear it will return. Every time. Overall though, this is mainly one of the more jokey episodes, almost as goofy as ‘Sea Fright’ – but thankfully it doesn’t get bogged down in too much silliness like that instalment did. For those who need a memory-jog, this is the sort-of Animal House episode, where a bunch of long-deceased students refuse to commit to eternal rest until they graduate from college, which is something never got to do during their living years as one hi-jink too many resulted in their expulsion. So they muck about on campus, with the head ghost, a kind of Bluto Blutarsky gone very, very bad (and very green) causing all kind of shenanigans, with the blame for all these larks resting at the steps of Tri Kuppa Bru house, the very same steps that our head ghost kicks the stuffy dean down, right in front of three of the innocent students. What can be done?

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Cut to Ghostbusters HQ, where after some dowagers are given the right anti-snooty shove-off by Peter, the students arrive to plead with the guys to help. Peter, an ex-campus joker himself, can smell a prank a mile off and is all ready to send them home empty-handed until he realises that he and they belong to one and the same house! Lest we forget, Peter ran his underwear up the college flagpole, whilst wearing them, back in the good old days. Convinced that the students are the real deal, the guys back to the scene of the crime, where almost instantly mischief is afoot. For example, the carpet they’re standing on is rolled up and the guys become completely trapped, but since these ghosts are jokers rather than killers (well, at least at this stage), the worst thing that happens is a lot of dizzy spinning and painful landings. Crude, but effective. The team then split up (bad for them, fun for us) and Winston is the first to fall victim to another prank, falling for the whole ‘we surrender’ act and walking his way right above a trap door which leads him way, way, way (seriously, way, way) down to the musty, dusty laundry room, in which a thoughtless comment about the dirtiness of his surroundings angers the very much alive bedsheets, who tower above him and move in for the smothering. The head sheet sounds like a hilariously withered, oh-so campy version of Egon, by the way.

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The guys end up finding Winston being thrown about outside by the spectral bed sheets, much to the delight of the ghosts, who always appreciate a good old-fashioned fraternity blanket-toss. These ghosts are dicks. The sheets are swiftly dispensed with, even though the guys methods could have potentially resulted with Winston suffering from loads of broken bones. Never mind, he seems fine, but what’s this? A cute little goldfish in the local fountain is transmogrified into something huge and even ends up eating the three Tri Kuppa Bru students in a brutal reversal of the traditional goldfish swallowing contest– don’t worry, they’re fine, we even ‘see’ them inside the fish as they sit there, wistfully promising not to eat fish fingers ever again.

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The fish gets zapped, another act of reckless ‘heroism’ by the guys which could have resulted in human casualties, but don’t worry, the students are safe, as is a random female student who was due to be next on the menu,  so we move on to a food fight (I hate food fights – wasteful and messy) inside the main building, which doesn’t last long as the act break is approaching and this episode’s got some serious scaring to deliver.

Seriously.

The ghosts disappear, but the PKE meter is still reading their whereabouts. They suddenly re-appear, nab the guys proton packs and equipment and the head ghost delivers some deeply foreboding promise about an initiation into the fraternity. Peter, remembering his college days, is pretty confident he can hustle his way out of this, but nothing prepares him – or us – for what happens next. That’s right, the ghosts reveal their true form, and it ain’t pretty.

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The head ghost, before our very eyes, transforms into a truly horrific, twisted version of his already not-exactly-glamourous self, where ears turn very pointy, teeth get very sharp, hands turn into claws and the entire, now Goliath-sized body kind of becomes an impressionistic smear, with all edges stretched out for extra impact. The other ghosts don’t look so friendly now either, and just before the fade-out we get this little promise:

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‘WE’RE GOING TO INITIATE YOU INTO THE FRATERNITY OF THE DEAD!’

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Bloody hell, that was unexpected! I found this act-break one of the most frightening moments in the entire series – the intensity of the music, the pretty scary vocals and laughter from the head ghost (in fact this character, even in his more playful guise, has a voice that’s halfway between goofy and pretty threatening) and the full-on close-up of demonic faces – this is scary stuff for kids!

Fade back in and the guys are still trapped in their situation but remarkably it’s one that’s easily averted with Peter declaring there to be some girls in the vicinity. The sex-starved ghosts (I’m presuming it’s been a very long time) are distracted and the guys flee, and even though our antagonists are still in scary looking-mode, the episode has pretty much started to go back to its silly origins, and after this scene we never see them look so frightening again. Yet there’s still always the threat that they could turn back. They never do. But they could….

They don’t.

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We then find out from the dean that the head ghost was an old student named Elwin Spalding, the president of the worst frat house in existence who got expelled when they tried to cheat on their final exams. Spalding and Co. swore they got even, but obviously didn’t get to do so in their lifetime, so are now back as ghosts to get the job done. What’s weird is that they have returned in grotesque versions of their student forms, so what happened, did they die whilst still at college or immediately after? I guess the show’s unwilling to share the potentially gruesome details, and besides, the ghosts have delivered on their promise to raid the girls dormitory, dressing up in togas and creating all kinds of havoc. They even wrap the dean up in a toga and try to make off with him but are thwarted.

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It must be said that the truly scary demons from a few minutes ago have well and truly been forgotten about by now, we’re in complete comedy territory as the plot attempts to have the ghosts complete their graduation by swiftly passing all the courses they originally flunked.

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We start off with economics, which is delivered with ruthless efficiency by Peter. Check this:

‘Here we have the basic truth of economics: supply and demand…er, supply and demand….supply equals demand. You demand to graduate, we supply the diploma. Questions? Good, you all passed, class dismissed.’

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Next: biology, which consists of Egon’s history of the common house fungus, a topic which bores the ghosts (and Ray) rigid, resulting in Elwin mutating the on-display mushroom so that it becomes something monstrous, but luckily Ray cuts in to save the day with another example of swift education:

‘In conclusion, mushrooms grow in damp places, they’re mushroom shaped. Any questions? No? You passed.’

Finally to physics, and more specifically thermodynamics, which as Peter admits is pretty dull – it takes a dropped book landing on Winston’s feet for the focus to switch to the laws of gravity and the end of the course. Er, class dissmised? However, Elwin insists that there’s traditional stuff that’s got to be completed also, like the Senior’s obstacle course. Uh-oh.

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The obstacle course involves the ghosts picking up Ecto-1 in the parking lot and running with it, and then things go beyond the demands of what’s to be expected of a traditional course when the ghosts fly through the college’s sewage system, emerging from the pipes in all manner of oddball places, with a few digs at the science staff and visiting officials (those dowagers again). Digs are made about weight which are always cheap shots, but these ghosts don’t know the meaning of the word class.

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Such is the impatience of these obnoxious ghouls that even start to get bored of mucking about (despite being the ones insisting on this detour in the first place) and demand to graduate immediately. Peter tries to stall them for some reason but Elwin orders his cronies to attack, and I was always worried they’d change back into their demonic guises, but they don’t. Instead the guys lead them directly to the auditorium, where just after Elwin promises them death (it’s always weird to hear such explicit threats as ‘prepare to die’ in a children’s cartoon, but this show has never shied away from that), everybody graduates and gathers for the big photograph session, which really involves a camera linked to a ghost trap that captures those pesky ghouls with total efficiency and then suddenly everything’s over. Yep, it’s just that easy!

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You know, I like a funny episode just like everybody else, but I have to admit that halfway swerve into darker territory offered a more interesting route that the rest of the episode doesn’t take. To end things, the dean is pranked by a cunningly placed bucket of water that gets the poor Tri Kuppa Bru students back in trouble, but we know that this time it was Peter responsible for this one. The scoundrel.

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