Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim, left) fire a proton pack for the first time in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

This is about someone who didn’t exist and something that didn’t happen.

Nevertheless, one of the most famous University of Virginia alumni is dead.

He passed away recently on his farm in Oklahoma, apparently of natural causes.

Egon Spengler is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren.

If you’re attuned to pop culture – dude, you lived through the ’80s, right? – you should know the name, although it may take some prodding.

Who you gonna call?

Spengler was one of the four brave men who saved New York City during its outbreak of ghosts, demons and other supernatural manifestations. At least that’s how the movie “Ghostbusters” told the story. Spengler – played by Harold Ramis – was the nerdy academic who collected “spores, molds and fungus” and was generally the brains behind the whole Ghostbusters outfit.

Harold Ramis in the original. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

If you don’t remember that, you’d better have a good excuse – like having been born sometime after 1984.

Anyway, what you may not know is that the fictional Spengler was a graduate of the University of Virginia. That was never mentioned in the original movies – they referenced how Spengler held two doctorates, one in microbiology and one in parapsychology, but didn’t exactly go into his full curriculum vitae.

Spengler’s Charlottesville connection came to light – a very brief light – in the franchise reboot, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which opened Nov. 19 and is now playing at the proverbial theater near you.

YouTube video

This isn’t giving anything away because it’s all in the trailer: Spengler has died (conveniently, since the actor who played him passed away in 2014). His estranged family inherits his place in Oklahoma, and apparently lots of ghosts with it. Action and adventure ensue, along with a possible reboot of the whole franchise with a new generation of actors. The movie stars mostly kids, led by McKenna Grace as Spengler’s science-obsessed 12-year-old granddaughter, although the hunky Paul Rudd as a small-town science teacher somehow gets more prominent billing in many of the posters. There’s a scene in which the cast is exploring Spengler’s basement lab. Someone asks how Spengler knew so much when all the locals thought he was a crazy old man. A light flicks on, illuminating a wall full of diplomas. For a brief moment, the camera focuses on one in particular – which says the University of Virginia.

The movie goes on from there – chase scenes, explosions, computer-generated creatures, the usual. But for certain fans (and we won’t say who), the mind freezes on that UVa diploma. So little said, and so many questions. Which degree did Spengler get from UVa? Bachelor’s? Master’s? One of his two doctorates? Did he ever live on the Lawn? Was he ever in a secret society?

Or, for those of a more practical bent, how did that University of Virginia diploma make it into the movie?

Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim) in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE.

Clearly, this was no accident. The purpose of that brief scene was to emphasize how educated Spengler was, and a University of Virginia diploma certainly does that – but let’s face it, so would lots of other diplomas, as well. This fleeting shot must have been intentional, right?

Although this is clearly the most important pop culture news of the moment, the public information staff at the University of Virginia professed never to have heard of this. But they almost instantly knew who was likely responsible. They suggested Chris Cortner. He’s a 2017 graduate in architecture who is now a set designer in Hollywood. His credits, on the movie website IMDb, list him as assistant set designer for “Ford vs. Ferrari” and set designer for two upcoming films of note, “The Batman” and “The Matrix Resurrections.” More to the point, he’s also listed as set designer for, yes, you guessed it, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”


This is clearly the guy, right?

So, who you gonna call?

The movie poster.

Well, Cortner, obviously. Of course, this being 2021, nobody actually calls anyone on the phone anymore, except for spammers trying to sell extended auto warranties. Using all the journalistic resources at our disposal, Cardinal News tracked Cortner down through social media – OK, we messaged him on Facebook. To our astonishment, he messaged back. To our further astonishment, he said he didn’t know anything about the University of Virginia diploma on the wall: “I actually wrapped before we got close to shooting that set, so this is actually news to me. I didn’t even notice it in the lab. I’m not sure if this is a choice the production designer (who was my boss) made or if it came from someone else.”

And, so, just like that, our investigation comes to a halt. Someone somewhere put a University of Virginia diploma on the wall of a major movie, a cinematic Easter egg for sharp-eyed viewers. We just don’t know who or why.

What we do know, though, is that in the Ghostbusters world, the University of Virginia shouldn’t be counting on any bequests from Spengler’s estate.

He died broke, so there probably won’t be an Egon Spengler Chair of Parapsychology. Maybe in the sequel?

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at