Paranormal Activity: Arizona Ghostbusters Go to Extremes for Good Causes

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The corner of Cave Creek Road and Cheryl Street in Sunnyslope isn't usually a roadside attraction. Occupied by dilapidated wingding-style apartments and auto body shops with barbed-wire fences, the area is especially dark at night, where a single streetlight beams down uselessly on one spot of asphalt.

It's easy to drive right by this corner without even noticing it — except when there are a dozen people wearing Ghostbusters uniforms and giant proton packs, pushing a hulking, white-and-red 1972 ambulance across the street.

They're literally stopping traffic on a recent Sunday night, as curious passersby park their vehicles along the street and get out, marveling at the car and asking for photos with the group, which patterns itself after the paranormal investigators in the 1983 comedy Ghostbusters. "Ghostbusters!" exclaims a young guy walking past. "I love that movie!"


Niki D'Andrea Feature story

A Mexican couple gets out of their car and approaches the group. They don't speak English, and it's doubtful they've seen the movie. Every other word they say seems to be "Qué?" ("What?"). But even if they don't know the film with which this group is obsessed, they're getting quite a kick out of the scene. They're all smiles as they bust out their cell phones and gesture for photos in the middle of the street.

Once the ogle-fest is over, the group pushes the giant ambulance back into the Haynes Rod and Custom shop, where Rich Haynes has been restoring it. Rich is the cousin of Matt Haynes, the leader of this group, which is called the Arizona Ghostbusters. Matt's the proud owner of the ambulance — the group's version of the Ecto-1 vehicle from the film. It needs an engine and new wiring, but it looks road-ready.

Haynes and several of his fellow Ghostbusters were in the shop past midnight a few days ago, applying the Ghostbusters logo to the doors and affixing a replica Ecto Trap called the "Super Slammer," which looks like a couple of power boxes joined by pipes and high-tech gadgets, to the top.

"What do you think of our girl?" Haynes asks, referring to the car. "Isn't the paint job beautiful?"

He runs his fingers down the length of a red pinstripe and smiles. "Look at these custom accents," he fawns, before pointing at the blue lights atop the ambulance. "We had her lights flashing earlier."

Some men drool over monster trucks and Italian sports cars; these men are in love with an old Pontiac Bonneville ambulance.

Two disheveled women in miniskirts start to approach the garage, curiously, from across the street. Haynes jokes that they're looking for dates, but after craning their necks and giggling, the women walk away. Their puzzled expressions seem to ask the question this group always gets: Are these guys for real?

Arizona Ghostbusters are for real. Sort of. They're a real "costuming fan group," and their self-created car, props, and costumes are all real and made to be as identical to those in the Ghostbusters movies as possible. But they don't role-play or pretend to be particular characters from the film; the names on their Ghostbusters uniforms are their own. And they don't really investigate paranormal activity or bust ghosts, either.

They're just people who love the Ghostbusters franchise and use their costumes and car to raise money for charities. People notice them, and everybody seems to want photos with the team and their props. If people are willing to toss a donation into the group's charity fundraiser box, the Arizona Ghostbusters are happy to mug it up with them.

One of dozens of Ghostbusters fan groups worldwide, Arizona Ghostbusters are a small fraction of an international, nostalgia-driven costuming phenomenon that includes more than a quarter of a million people who regularly dress up like everything from Star Wars heroes and villains to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But Arizona Ghostbusters have taken their fandom further than most costuming groups. The 16 or so active members have spent nearly six figures among them re-creating the uniforms, props, and car from the Ghostbusters franchise. That's way more than they've raised for charities, but it gives them a reason to put the costumes on every weekend.

Ghostbusters is just one piece of pop culture past that won't die. There's also the immortal and ever-morphing Star Trek. The original '60s TV series has become one of the biggest franchises in the world over the past five decades. Fans known as "Trekkies" have formed international costuming and role-playing groups like Star-Trek-One and the United Space Federation, each with global memberships around 3,000.

George Lucas' 1977 film Star Wars is another big throwback franchise, with costuming fan groups that include militia imitations of the Fighting 501st Legion and Rebel Legion (the "bad guys" and "good guys" in the movies, respectively). More recent franchises like the Harry Potter books and films, with their appeal of magic and juvenile nostalgia, have inspired costuming groups, too, most notably the Massachusetts-based Harry Potter Alliance, a national non-profit organization that claims 4,500 members dedicated to social activism.

The Ghostbusters franchise has grown many arms since the film's release in 1983. Writers/co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis' colorful yarn about a group of New York City parapsychologists turned proton pack-toting ghost hunters spawned a sequel in 1989 (Ghostbusters II), numerous action figures, two animated TV series, a video game, and a confirmed second sequel (Ghostbusters III), currently in the works. And it's captured the imaginations of Ghostbusters geeks everywhere.

There are Ghostbusters costuming groups in 20 states and six countries. One of the first GB groups was the New York chapter, founded in 1997, the same year a blanket group called "Ghostbusters International" sprang up to provide a cyber-rendezvous point for GB fans everywhere. GB International now has more than 3,500 members.

But the genesis of Arizona Ghostbusters predates the New York club and Ghostbusters International. It started in 1989, when Matt Haynes and some friends were trying to figure out what to be for Halloween. Ghostbusters II had just come out, and one of his friends suggested they dress as Ghostbusters. Haynes initially laughed at the idea, but "I got to thinking about it, and I happen to have access to flight suits. I took some old automotive parts and some two-by-fours and made some proton packs," he says.

They showed up at some Halloween parties and were an instant hit. People wanted to talk about the movie, marvel at the makeshift props, and take photos with the group.

"And it was that Halloween weekend that told me that Ghostbusters are just universally loved, whether you look like you stepped off the film or not," Haynes says. "Everybody loves the idea of a Ghostbuster and hanging out with them. And I thought, 'I'd love to get a group of guys together and do some charity work with this costume.'"

So Haynes — a tall, lean, bald fellow who resembles Superman villain Lex Luthor — started attending comic conventions in his Ghostbusters costume and handing out candy at malls around Halloween. But it would be many years before he would meet a group of people who shared his Ghostbusters vision. In the meantime, he tried to get involved with another costuming fan group.

The Fighting 501st Legion, better known as simply "the 501st," is arguably the biggest fan costuming group in the world. Patterned after the malevolent stormtrooper army in the Star Wars films, the 501st was established in 1997 and now has 4,200 active members in 40 countries. They show up at numerous charity events and conventions and have a strict membership policy. Costumes must pass the group's "admission standards" (i.e., entirely movie-accurate). There's an Arizona chapter, too, and if they hadn't rejected Matt Haynes' membership application in the late '90s, he might have never started the Arizona Ghostbusters group.

Haynes was 14 when Ghostbusters came out, and he's seen it countless times since. But he says he's not so much a Ghostbusters fanatic as a movie fanatic in general. His home in Goodyear is filled with memorabilia from a variety of films — a nine-foot painting of Vigo, the villain from Ghostbusters II, hangs on the wall in the foyer, but there are also crates and treasure props made to resemble those in the Indiana Jones films, some Superman statues, two walls of replica weapons featured in films such as Blade Runner and Robocop, and a massive wooden airplane, with Snoopy in the pilot's seat, hanging from the vaulted ceiling in the entry room.

But the biggest part of Haynes' geek dream collection consists of Star Wars stuff. The married father of two, who has worked as a manager at the Hobby Bench for nearly 20 years, has a whole room in his house dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia, from a foosball table to multiple lightsabers.

He really wanted to become a member of the 501st Legion in Phoenix, but he says the group never seemed interested in working with him.

"I really wanted to be a part of the 501st, but they snubbed me. A lot of people complain about their elitist attitude," he says. "I think they thought I wasn't good enough, or cool enough or whatever, to join them. But their rejection of me really provided the springboard for Arizona Ghostbusters. I almost want to thank them. If they had accepted me, I would be a stormtrooper right now instead of a Ghostbuster."

In 2007, Haynes met four people who would form the core of Arizona Ghostbusters with him — Jeff Lewis, Matt Sremaniak, Neal Tracey, and Esther Groves. (Disclosure: Groves is a close friend of the author of this story.) "We all kind of hooked up at the same time, at the Phoenix Comic-Con," Haynes says. "And three months later, we started doing charity events."

After forming, the group quickly acquired a Web site (www.arizonaghostbusters.com), business cards, fliers, and costumes and props so movie-accurate (including a replica of the Ecto-1 car) that other Ghostbuster fan groups expressed jealousy on Internet message boards and pleaded for the AZ GB's trade secrets and prop specs.

Everyone in the group will tell you their costumes and props are not toys. This is because they cost a lot of money to make. AZ Ghostbuster Mark Worley, a machinist at Patriot Ordnance Factory Inc., made the molds for the group's proton packs and fabricates the parts in his spare time. Each proton pack consists of more than a hundred components and has a base price of $350. Such effects as flashing lights, sound, or hoses that shoot small streams of clear slime cost extra. "A proton pack is like a hot rod — it's never done," Lewis says.

"We try to make the costumes and props as affordable as possible for new members," Haynes says (the group, by the way, does not charge membership dues). "If you look on eBay for a good Ghostbusters costume, it's in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, easily. It was one of our goals to make it at least half that for club members, because they're using it for charity."

People sometimes try to grab the Arizona Ghostbusters' proton packs, even pulling on them while the members are out in public. The AZ GB's hate it when people do this, and it's one of the reasons they try to avoid appearing at events where people are drinking. They also avoid drinking at events themselves. In fact, the group has a new "code of conduct" that forbids members from drinking at group meetings even when they aren't in costume.

The code of conduct came about after the group's membership grew to about 16 active members, aged anywhere from 20 to 40. Some minor drama went down, as generally happens with that many players. Some members complained about the way other members dressed at events after they'd finished Ghostbusters duty; others griped about members' girlfriends hanging around the group but not helping; still others protested that their proton packs weren't being finished quickly enough.

Nobody's ever been kicked out of the group, but there have been tense moments. Most of the tension arises from stress — the group members often spend their entire weekends doing Ghostbusters stuff. When they participate in charity walks, they do so in long-sleeved uniforms with 30-pound proton packs on their backs.

Sometimes, they'll man a donation booth at a comic convention or on a First Friday in downtown Phoenix for up to eight hours at a time. They rarely get breaks on such shifts, as there's a constant flow of people wanting photos.

Not that they could grab a beer to take the edge off on a break, anyway, per the new "no drinking at events" policy. That's been another point of contention.

But prior to the code's existence this past summer, members did sometimes go to bars in costume. In fact, that's where they recruited their two female Ghostbusters. Esther Groves, who estimates she's seen Ghostbusters at least a hundred times, met Jeff Lewis at Club Mardi Gras Bar & Grill in 2007.

The Arizona Ghostbusters met Christina Glover at Club Palazzo on Central Avenue one Friday night last year, when they made an appearance in costume at Tranz, the club's weekly goth event. "I went out to the car to get something, and there were these guys in jumpsuits and proton packs getting out of Matt [Haynes'] truck," says the blonde, blue-eyed Glover. "I was like, 'No freaking way!'"

"The best part about that night was, the bar next to Tranz [Amsterdam] thought we were serious," Matt Sremaniak says.

"They thought we were male strippers or something," Lewis adds.

None of the members will admit to being "obsessed" with Ghostbusters, even though Sremaniak, a stout auto-parts salesman with a full beard, says he doesn't think his mother has a picture of him as a child when he wasn't wearing some kind of Ghostbusters shirt. "Does not taking the movie out of my DVD player count?" he asks.

Being a Ghostbuster looks like a lot of fun, but there's a serious side to the group, too.

"We're more organized, more disciplined, more professional in how we conduct ourselves in public than other costuming groups," says Neal Tracey, who bears a startling resemblance to Ghostbusters actor Bill Murray, minus the pockmarks. "We don't have helmets or masks or anything obscuring our faces, so we have to be a lot more interactive with the public and let our personalities really shine in these costumes."

The members of Arizona Ghostbusters are meeting (out of costume) on a recent Friday night at the Macayo's at 19th Avenue and Thunderbird. A giant pink-and-green wooden parrot perches above their table as they munch on chips and salsa while discussing upcoming charity events.

Although active year-round, the Arizona Ghostbusters stay particularly busy from the beginning of September through the end of November. Every weekend, they attend events to either raise money for or promote awareness of particular charities.

On the third weekend in October, the group participated in multiple events, including three in one day: two charity walks in Prescott (one for the American Diabetes Association, the other for a multiple sclerosis group) and the Light the Night Walk for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that night at Tempe Town Beach Park. Other charity groups the AZ GB's have worked with include the American Cancer Society, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Salvation Army, and the Phoenix Children's Hospital, where they sometimes appear in costume to cheer up patients.

After raising $2,000 on its first multiple sclerosis walk in 2007, the group says it's participated in more than a dozen walks since, and raised an average of about $500 per event. They recently raised $350 at the zombie walk during October's First Friday art walk, doing people's zombie makeup for donations.

For some Ghostbusters, the volunteer work is all that matters. When asked why he dresses up like a Ghostbuster and does this, Jeff Lewis starts crying.

"It's about putting smiles on people's faces," he says, wiping away tears. "Because if you, for a second, can take someone's mind off the pain they have or their problems, it's all worth it. It seems so unlikely that a costume would make a difference in this world, but it can. It gives us a reason. That's what a lot of people don't have."

When they're at an event, the Arizona Ghostbusters usually hand out candy, often treats from the films, like marshmallows (made to look like the Stay-Puft brand from the movie) and Twinkies. Sometimes, they give out buttons and stickers. They pose for photos in exchange for donations, which are given to various charities.

The group members frequently reiterate that they make no profit whatsoever by being Ghostbusters. Every dollar they raise goes to charities. Money for costumes, props, and the goodies they give away comes out of members' pockets. They had custom Arizona Ghostbusters T-shirts and hats made for the group, but they don't sell them. And they don't sell costumes or props. Like other Ghostbusters fan groups, they operate without an official blessing from or affiliation with Columbia Pictures (acquired by Sony Pictures in 1991), which owns the Ghostbusters brand.

But they've been well received by two members of the original Ghostbusters movie cast. Ernie Hudson, who played Winston Zeddemore, has met members of AZ Ghostbusters at a few conventions, and they say he's always been courteous and happy to sign Ghostbusters merchandise and take photos. But a bigger moment for the group was meeting Dan Aykroyd in May. (Aykroyd declined an interview for this story.)

Aykroyd was at Sportsman's in Scottsdale, signing bottles of his signature wine and Crystal Head Vodka. The Arizona Ghostbusters showed up in full regalia and waited for three hours while everybody else went through the line because they wanted to have some time with Aykroyd, who was not posing for photos with people or making time for small talk.

Their patience paid off, because Aykroyd was clearly impressed with the group's enthusiasm. They presented him with an Arizona Ghostbusters baseball cap, which Aykroyd said was "really cool," and then he insisted on standing up to get a picture with them while wearing the hat.

Unfortunately, the group didn't have their version of the Ecto-1 at Sportsman's. If they had, Aykroyd might've been even more impressed.

In the Ghostbusters films, the Ecto-1 car is actually a 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance. The Arizona Ghostbusters didn't find one of those, but Matt Haynes did find a 1972 Pontiac Bonneville Ambulance Superior that bore an uncanny resemblance. The body of the car's been completely redone to mimic the movie version; now Haynes Rod and Custom is working on the engine. They hope to have the car up and running by Halloween so they can drive it to events.

Lewis would like to have the car at events for the kids. "It's great to see kids, because you look at them and go, 'That was me,'" he says. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster. Now I am. There's not too many people that can say they are."

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