Containment unit

With a ghost ensconced in a trap, the next step in ghostbusting is to transfer the trap to a containment unit.  Let’s look at the interaction.

The containment unit is a large device built into a wall of the old firehouse that serves as the Ghostbusters headquarters. It’s painted a fire-truck red and has two colored bulbs above it. As they approach, the green bulb is lit. It’s got a number of buttons, levers, and cables extending into it. Fortunately for purposes of discussion, Stantz has to explain it to their new employee Winston Zeddmore, and I can just quote him.


“This is where we store all the vapors, entities, and slimers that we trap. Very simple, really. Loaded trap here. Unlock the system…” He grabs the red door lever and cranks it counterclockwise 90 degrees and lowers the door to reveal a slot for the trap.

“Insert the trap,” he continues, and a sucking sound is heard and the green lightbulb goes off and the red lightbulb turns on.

Then Stanz pulls the trap out of the slot and is able to, as he explains, “Release. Close. Lock the system.” (Which he does with the lever handle.)


Next, he presses the buttons on the front of the device, starting with the top red one and continuing with the second below yellow, explaining, “Set your entry grid. Neutronize your field…” Then he grabs the red lever on the right-hand size and pushes it down. In response, the lowest push button lights up green, the red bulb above turns off, and the green bulb illuminates once again.

Stantz concludes, “When the light is green, the trap is clean. The ghost is incarcerated here in our custom-made storage facility.”


The interaction here is all based on the unkonwn ghostbusting technology, but it certainly feels very 1.0, very made-by-engineers, which is completely appropriate to the film. There’s also that nice rhyming mnemonic to remember the meaning of the colored bulbs, which helps Zeddmore immediately remember it. And course with the red paint and thick plates, it feels really secure and conveys a sense of pith and importance. Still, if they had a designer consulting, that designer would most likely tell them talk about a few aspects of the workflow.


First, why, if there’s no breakpoint between the entry grid and the field neutronizer, can’t those two be consolidated into a single button? A gridtronizer? While we’re on the buttons, why is that third one looks like a button but acts just like a light? If it’s not meant to be pressed, let’s make it an indicator light, like we see on the trap.

Similarly, why do they have to press that last lever and wait for the green light? I get that a variety of controls feels better to convey a complicated technology that’s been hacked together, and that would be appropriate for a user to understand as well, but it seems error-prone and unnecessary. Better would be another pushbutton that would stay depressed until the unit was doing whatever it was doing behind the scenes, and then release when it was done. It could even be consolidated with the gridtronizer.


But while we’re including automation in the process, why would the ghostbuster have to press anything at all? If the unit can detect when a ghost has been sucked in (which it does) then why can’t it do all the other steps automatically? I know, it would be less juicy for the audience’s sense of ghostbusting technological complexity, but for the “real world,” such things should be fully assistive:

  1. Insert trap (which gets locked in place)
  2. Watch the machine’s lights indicating its four steps
  3. Remove unlocked trap.

You might think for efficiency to have the trap removed immediately, but you really want the Ghostbuster’s attention on the system in case something goes wrong. Similar to the way ATMs/bancomats hold on to your card through a transaction.

Lastly, there should be some sense of what’s contained. In this scene there’s just Slimer in there, but as business picks up, it gets so jammed full that when EPA representative Peck recklessly shuts it down, it…you know…explodes with ghosts. Would a sense of the contents have helped provide him with a sense of the contents, and therefore the danger? A counter, a gauge, a window into the space, a “virtual window” of closed-circuit television showing inside the unit*, or a playback showing helmet-cam video of the ghosts as they’re being captured—would all help to convey that, Mr. Peck, you do not want to eff with this machine.


*IMDB trivia for the movie says this was originally included in the script but was too depressing to visualize so it was cut. But hey, if it’s depressing, maybe that would help its users consider the ethics of the situation. (Once again, thank you, @cracked, and RIP.)

11 thoughts on “Containment unit

  1. Some points to keep in mind:
    1) You’re thinking like someone from the 20-teens and how they would design it (full automation, etc). Think about it from the perspective of the 1980s. These guys barely had enough working capital to get it build (presumably by themselves out of custom made parts). The necessary computerization hardware and programming would have been prohibitively expensive at the time.
    2) Big, “clunky”, hard-to-actuate levers and such are a lot less susceptible to accidental activation. Having a distributed system of controls as shown emphasizes the necessity of fully completing the sequence properly.
    3) Side note, the “viewer” did get added to the ECU in the Real Ghostbusters animated series.

    • Seeing it constrained to the 1980s is not as useful to us today, so I adopt a New Criticism stance of strictly trying to review it from a useful today perspective. Re: the viewer. Was it a terrifying landscape of ghostly purgatory?

      • I would submit that even today the setup using 80s tech would be desirable. It’s very robust and not as prone to system glitching as our overly-teched stuff is today.

        Re, the Viewer: IIRC (been awhile) it was a swirling, multi-colored void that the individual entities floated around in.

      • You’d recommend to a stakeholder that a series of steps that could be automated actually be turned into a series of steps that could introduce error?

      • I would recommend a more robust technology from which error recovery is possible before the error negatively affects the system, yes. By the time an automated system lets you know the error occurs, the damage has been done.

        The transfer process is a low-complexity operation with easy to memorize steps, as it’s the same every time regardless of the type of ghost interred.

      • True, but the steps are unnecessary, will become as habituated as a one-touch system would anyway, and if the only argument for keeping them is as a failsafe, then a recovery mechanism is much more fit to task. Maybe an “airlock” that holds the payload for 11 seconds (just past the average limit of human attention) and if not recalled, pushed through to the main containment. That way normal use is made one-step efficient and you have a recovery mechanism. Imagine a tough day of busting with 10 traps. The Rube Goldberg mechanism would hold you there for 5 times longer, to little gain.

      • I do see your point. I guess I simply have a fundamental distrust of excessive computerization/automation. Both for it’s immediate issues (system fragility) as well as the broader knock-on effects (seemingly uncontrollable social/economic changes). In the case of a containment unit like this (or any similar situation, like power plants, etc), I’m just not convinced that the advantages of “going digital” are sufficient to offset the risks. The people in charge of our power network are learning this the hard way as they are continuously under cyber-attack and have been since the late 00s.

  2. I see your point (as does the whole power industry), though we shouldn’t conflate automation with computerization (plenty of mechanical and electronic automation before the digital revolution) nor should we conflate computerization with attaching it to a network. This could be automated and mechanical, or computerized and unnetworked, still get the efficiencies, and none (?) of the risk.

    • Fair points.

      On an only slightly related note, I am amazed at the level of technophillia in science fiction today. Everyone is rushing to embrace the shiny new tech this and tech that. No one wants to remember the great cautionary tales about the dangers of technology that come with the wonders.

  3. I know I’m a few years behind still, but you keep referring to LEDs, when it the 80s wouldn’t it have been much more likely to be incandescent bulbs?

    • Good note! Yes, it would be much more likely in the movie to be incandescent.

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