Drop Dead Fred was released in May of 1991, meaning it’s now been shorthand for “imaginary friend out of control” for three decades. While not all imaginary friends in movies and TV are evil, a fair number of them (including these nine, who range from pesky to psychotic) do take advantage of their positions to make things as creepy and chaotic as possible.
9) Drop Dead Fred, Drop Dead Fred
As mentioned above, Drop Dead Fred celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, but its story remains surprisingly timeless. After she’s jilted by her husband, gets fired from her court-reporter job, and has her car and purse stolen all in the same day, Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) reluctantly moves back in with her controlling mother. That series of circumstances that leads to her reconnecting with her long-lost imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall), who only she can see and whose brand of brutal mischief disrupts Elizabeth’s unsteady life even more.
Not only does he gleefully trash Elizabeth’s childhood home, he sinks her best friend’s houseboat (Carrie Fisher forever) and causes all manner of mayhem as Elizabeth tries to reconnect with her cheating ex. In the end, Fred helps Elizabeth move on from the toxic relationships in her life, including the one they share—but it takes a hell of a lot of cringe-worthy, spaghetti-flinging, mud pie-eating, violin-smashing naughtiness to get to that point.
8) Adolf, Jojo Rabbit
You already know that in this one, the kid’s imaginary friend is a somewhat goofier version of Adolf Hitler. Yeah, he’s played by the adorably unnerving Taika Waititi (who directed and also won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation), but still... Hitler.
7) Z, Z
In this chiller, a young mother named Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) becomes overwhelmed when her formerly mild-mannered son starts acting out with increasing violence—and blaming all his misdeeds on “Z,” his brand-new imaginary friend. But it soon becomes clear that Z is no stranger to the family, and that he’s a more possessive, far more sadistic version of a typical imaginary friend—someone who’s initially conjured to provide companionship to a lonely child but winds up getting way too attached. Z gets dark as hell before it ends, and it’s ultimately a cautionary tale against letting one’s imagination run too wild.
6) Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Fight Club’s not really a genre movie except for the fact that, well, one of the main characters is a complete figment of the other main character’s very troubled subconscious. David Fincher’s stylish adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s exploration of masculinity, consumerism, self-help movements, and violence became a cult classic and remains influential in and out of genre spaces today, and it’s still one of those movies you should watch more than once to fit all of its puzzle pieces together. Like Drop Dead Fred, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) ultimately helps the repressed narrator (Edward Norton) realize his true self... a liberating (albeit extremely bruise-inducing) thing, right up until the moment he/they start blowing up buildings.
5) Tomás, The Orphanage
Does it count if your imaginary friend—say, a little kid you meet after your parents move into a crumbling building that once served as an orphanage and has an ominous past—is actually a ghost? What if your imaginary friend looks just like a boy your own age, except for that creepy mask he never takes off? Gonna generously say yes, that counts—and that goes for all the other ghostly buddies that appear only to one character and have a malevolent and/or just alarming affect on the proceedings; see also Dark Water, The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, The Amityville Horror, The Shining, etc.
4) Daniel, Daniel Isn’t Real
He may not be real, but Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), pal to the traumatized Luke (Miles Robbins), causes dangerous havoc both when he’s a kid and when he returns to Miles’ life to “help” him as an adult. Eventually Daniel Isn’t Real introduces the idea that Daniel is actually more of a malevolent supernatural presence that’s sunk its hooks into Miles, taking the imaginary friend plot to a conclusion that’s both more mysterious and tragic than you’d normally expect.
3) Mr. Robot, Mr. Robot
There’s kind of a Fight Club situation going on here, in that the imaginary friend (Christian Slater) that appears to Elliot (Rami Malek) is actually a manifestation of his own mind who even takes over his body from time to time. But in this case, Mr. Robot isn’t a Tyler Durden-type stranger who bursts into Elliot’s life with radical, overthrow-the-world computer-hacking plots; it’s Elliot’s own father, who died years before but whose influence has yet to release its grip on his son’s increasingly foggy brain.
2) Frank, Donnie Darko
A terrifying rabbit creature who gets right down to business with a doomsday prophecy for the titular protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Frank (James Duval) is either a waking nightmare, or a hallucination, or more likely both. He’s a bad influence on Donnie, sorta—while he encourages the teen to do things like axe-chop a water main at his school and torch the home of a local motivational speaker, the latter act exposes the man’s secret child-pornography addiction. Frank also pushes Donnie toward investigating time travel, which sets the movie’s key plot twist in motion. Still, every time Frank pops up, things get downright eerie—and that end-of-the-world prediction turns out very bad for Donnie in the end.
1) Pretzel Jack, Channel Zero
Yet another childhood companion who suddenly reappears when adult life gets rough, Pretzel Jack—played to eerie, bendy perfection by contortionist Troy James on season four of Channel Zero, The Dream Door—thinks he’s protecting Jillian (Maria Sten) by cheerfully slaughtering anyone who makes her angry. While she struggles to control this most unwanted gift, things take an even scarier turn when she realizes she’s not the only one with an “imaginary” bodyguard. Even worse, Pretzel Jack is actually one of the gentler examples of his kind, and things only get weirder and gorier from there.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.