ST. PETERSBURG — Stefanie Wittmaak is so accustomed to her husband’s unique vehicle that she sometimes forgets why people are staring.
“They’ll beep and I will wonder if we are in their way. They’ll wave and I’ll wonder if we know them,” she said. “Then I remember, ‘Oh yeah, we’re in an Ecto-1.’”
Her husband, Stephen, leader of a St. Petersburg-based Ghostbusters fan group, turned the family’s Kia Soul into an Ecto-1, the ghost catchers’ vehicle from the movie franchise.
“It’s hard to miss,” he said.
That’s the point.
Due to the pandemic, the premiere of the Ghostbusters: Afterlife movie has been postponed again, this time from June to November. The film was originally to be released in July 2020.
But that hasn’t stopped Ghostbusters fan groups like Wittmaak’s Lost Spirits Division from doing their thing.
They don’t really bust ghosts, but Wittmaak said they can prevent the type of mass hysteria that could bring about “human sacrifice” and “dogs and cats living together,” a joke borrowed from the first movie.
They do so, he said, by “helping people smile.”
His group and similar groups in Florida dress in full costume and support charity events, march in parades, help schools and Scout troops, and attend screenings of movies that attract the type of fans who enjoy Ghostbusters. With the theater’s permission, they ask for donations for causes.
“We’ve done Trunk or Treats for both schools and Scouts,” Wittmaak said. “We did the Largo Halloween Parade last year. Gulfport Elementary had a career day, so I went in talking about community, citizenship and creativity.”
And, of course, they attend comic conventions, where they welcome all types of fan interactions, Wittmaak said, from discussing the Ghostbusters movies, cartoon television shows, comics and video games to posing for photographs.
During the pandemic, when such events were scarce, the Lost Spirits Division found another way to help people grin. They just drove around.
“When someone spots us,” Wittmaak said, “they always have a smile.”
He estimates there are more than 500 Ghostbusters fan groups like his around the world.
The Lost Spirits Division is among the smaller groups, Wittmaak said, with six members, including his 8-year-old son, Sebastian, and 2-year-old daughter, Selby. His wife is supportive but not a member.
“We’re kind of a pick-me-up group,” he said. “When another group’s car isn’t available for a fundraiser or when they need more people for an event, we come to help.”
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Other Florida-based Ghostbusters fan groups include the Spring Hill Florida Ghostbusters, the Orlando Ghostbusters and the Suncoast Ghostbusters, with members throughout the Tampa Bay area.
“We probably have 30 members,” Suncoast’s Jason Rawley said. “Most of our appearances at events are to fundraise via holding a raffle, running games and taking photos while encouraging donations. We also visit kids in the hospital like Johns Hopkins All Children’s and Tampa General.”
Wittmaak’s group assists Suncoast with its larger charity ventures.
“A lot for the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society,” Wittmaak said
Rawley turned his Chevy HHR into an Ecto-1.
“It’s become very popular around Largo,” he said. “It’s my primary source of transportation.”
So is Wittmaak’s, making his son into an elementary school celebrity.
“All my friends think it is really cool,” Sebastian said. “They wonder if my dad is a real Ghostbuster.”
The Lost Spirits Division was founded in 2017 and the Suncoast Ghostbusters in 2010, but Wittmaak said these types of fan clubs have existed since the first movie was released in 1984.
Still, for much of that time, they existed separate from one another.
Then, in 2015, the Ghost Corps production company was created to oversee the franchise.
A year later, Ghost Corps announced that fan groups could register with the production company. In return, the groups received a certificate signed by franchise creator Ivan Reitman.
“It’s a half-joke, half-serious thing,” Wittmaak said. “It makes us unofficially official. But what it has done is allowed us to all connect on Facebook,” mostly through the Ghostbusters Fans Worldwide page, which has more nearly 12,000 members.
There are no rules stipulating how the groups spend their time, promote their fandom or equip their Ecto-1.
Wittmaak’s vehicle has a “ghost sniffer” made from PVC pipes, a “PKE Detection Array” from a TV antenna and a “ghost containment unit” made from an ammunition box.
As for Wittmaak’s personal fandom:
- His favorite movie remains the original, which the 44-year-old saw at the West Erie Plaza in his native Erie, Pennsylvania.
- How many times has he seen it? “Way too many to count,” he laughed.
- His favorite character? Egon Spengler.
- His favorite quote? “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” from Peter Venkman in the first movie.
And what should someone say when asked if they are a god?
“When someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes,” said Wittmaak, quoting Winston Zeddemore from the original movie. “Even my kids know that.”