In 1933, renowned spiritual medium Eileen Garrett entered the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University where she met with botanist turned clinical parapsychologist J.B. Rhine to participate in his quantitative study of extrasensory perception (ESP).
Rhine brought out a deck of cards, specifically designed with his partner Karl Zener for the experiments. Each of the Zener cards contained one of five simple shapes. Ms. Garrett simply had to identify, without seeing the shape on the card, which one Rhine presented her with. The assumption was that an accuracy rate more than 20% would indicate ESP.
A few years prior, Rhine had gleefully exposed medium Mina Crandon as a fraud, so no one was more surprised than he when Garratt did identify the correct shapes more than 20% of the time. The medium herself, however, was not pleased with the results, claiming that she would have performed better had the cards not lacked a certain psychic energy.
She would have been better off graciously accepting her results because later testing by other researchers failed to find any ability to correctly identify the cards above that of normal chance. Actually Rhine’s methods attracted a lot of criticism, particularly claims that he inadvertently cued his subjects to the proper shapes on the cards. His results were never verifiable in subsequent tests.
But still, Rhine is credited with coining the term “parapsychology” and with being the first to honestly attempt to study it quantitatively. He continued his research at Duke until the university discontinued its support in the early 1960s and he founded the Journal of Parapsychology, the Institute of Parapsychology, and the Parapsychological Association. There’s no question he made himself into the foremost expert in his field, the guy you would call with all of your parapsychological concerns.
And in 1984, his dedication to his field of study brought him a great honor. In one of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, uses Rhine’s Zener card methodology to test two students for ESP, torturing a young male student who fares at least as well as Garratt did, and hitting on a pretty young lady who always seems to guess correctly even though she doesn’t.
Like Rhine, Venkman faces the end of his university funding with grace and increased dedication to his chosen field of study. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, he and his associates move into an old firehouse and establish themselves as the guys you’re gonna call with all of your parapsychological concerns.
Perhaps you think it is a stretch to call this small nod to Rhine a great honor, and, well, of course you’re right. Because it would admittedly be a stretch to call Ghostbusters one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Or of the 1980s. Or of 1984.
But even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, I was a child in the 1980s and Ghostbusters was surely the closest thing to a scary movie my parents ever let me watch. Because of that, it has formed an important part of my childhood. And maybe of yours, too. If so, you’re in luck.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Ghostbusters with (and if you have ESP then you can probably know this already) a theatrical release.
That’s right. Starting today and going through this next week, you can celebrate this momentous anniversary by donning your eighties garb and heading to a theater near you to experience the Stay Puft marshmallow attack on New York City in its full big-screen glory.
I think you’re going to do it. I see parachute pants, teased bangs, and a whole mess of ectoplasm in your future. And there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.