8 Scary Horror Movie Imaginary Friends

Anytime someone sees something in a horror film someone else cannot — that’s fodder for fright, whether it’s a chimerical figure, a portal to hell, a creature in the woods, or yes, imaginary friends.

It was once a consensus in psychiatric circles that kids (it’s usually kids) with imaginary friends were mentally disturbed introverts who need some sort of intervention.

University of Oregon developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor has studied the phenomenon for decades and says it’s “fascinating that very young children…can have the capacity to create a friend, that they can derive real comfort and support from, that they love.”

You won’t find such friends on this list, as horror movies (bless ’em) have yet to catch up to the research regarding the prevalence / harmlessness of imaginary friends. So, without further ado (as we’re receiving counsel from a strange figure lurking in the shadows) here are a few Horror Movie Imaginary Friends:

8. The Imaginary Boy in The Conjuring:

In James Wan’s The Conjuring, a Rhode Island couple and their five daughters move into a decrepit farmhouse whose threshold their dog won’t cross, and which also has a creepy boarded up cellar.

Despite having three very obvious strikes against the property, Roger and Carolyn Perron don’t call U-Haul and get the hell out. Then again, if sound judgement were rewarded, the horror genre would cease to exist entirely.

Sure enough, there’s bad Mojo at this abode, and dark bruises begin to appear on mom’s body. Then, one of the daughters strikes up a friendship with an imaginary boy, the house begins to quake, and paranormal investigators are summoned (among other things).

7. Kids in The Orphanage:

In this Spanish horror, Laura, a former orphan, raises her adopted son Simón (with help from husband Carlos) in an old house and former orphanage where she was raised.

Soon, the kid discovers playmates—not the good kind that bring you warmed hors d’œuvres in Hefner’s grotto—but imaginary ones who involve him and his mom in a dangerous game which ambiguously plays itself out when the kid goes missing and psychics are hired to track him down (never a good option, even as a last resort for the very dumbest of the dumb police departments).

6. Ashley’s Invisible Friend in Sinister:

True crime writer Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) walks around in a cardigan. That’s a crime in of itself, if only of the fashion variety.

But he’s great, and Sinister is a mostly commendable supernatural horror. It’s comparable to The Shining in that a writer and his family move out into the wilderness and the scribe lets his psyche get the better of him.

In the bungalow basement Ellison finds some mysterious 70s Super 8 mm film. Unfortunately, it’s not from the Golden Age of Porn; rather, it’s disturbing footage of the deaths of four people by hanging.

Soon, his son is experiencing night terrors and depicting the backyard hanging in his art. Then, a sinister ghost appears as daughter Ashley’s imaginary friend, getting her to scrawl a picture on the wall. The mystery deepens, and we soon find out it involves the puzzling “Mr Boogie,” which sounds like a deep album cut by Bootsy Collins.

Honorable Mention: A little girl has a wooden doll / imaginary friend named “Mr. Punch” in the 1987 Stuart Gordon-directed, Dolls.
Honorable Mention II: There’s an anatomical dummy/imaginary friend in 1988’s Pin: A Plastic Nightmare.

5. Ivan in The Machinist:

The workforce in this Christian Bale film really need to unionize, as this place has occupational health and safety standards south of your average Victorian textile mill.

Bale plays a machinist named ‘Reznik.’ (Incidentally, that’s Czech for “butcher”, a term that you won’t require backpacking through Prague unless you want to lug a rack of lamb up to your hostel.)

Like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Bale altered his appearance considerably for the role, shedding some 60 lbs’ worth of normal acting in favor of the method kind.

Reznik is a sleep-deprived machinist lulled into a state of negligence and complacency by a creepy co-worker, the grinning “Ivan”. Alarm bells go off when it is revealed that the company has no record of any such worker and the viewer begins to wonder if the electricity powering the machines in the film might also be used for shock therapy on our delusional protagonist. Distracted by a grinning digit-deficient Ivan, Reznik unwittingly powers up a saw, which results in another co-worker no longer being able to hail a cab, nor flip anyone the bird.

4. Captain Howdy in The Exorcist:

The Exorcist did more for puking, spinning and hallucinations than untreated alcoholism.

It’s an undeniable possession classic that’s often imitated, never duplicated.

“Captain Howdy” sounds like the world’s second creepiest children’s TV character (Mr McFeely of Mr Rogers being the first) and is conjured up by Regan’s mother on a Ouija board. A psychiatrist asks to speak to Captain Howdy:

Psychiatrist: Is there someone inside you?
Regan MacNeil: Sometimes.
Psychiatrist: Who is it?
Regan MacNeil: I don’t know.
Psychiatrist: Is it Captain Howdy?

Incidentally, Captain Howdy is also the name of the most popular Exorcist fan site.

3. Jodie in the Amityville Horror:

Some see a notorious property as a buying opportunity, where you can sweep in, low-ball the agent, give the place a good scrub down and remove all the bad vibes and hanging plants. The more passive approach—leaving things the hell alone — is luckily not the preferred course of action people take in horror films, who also, try as they might, can’t help but trust the guy with an impossibly large collection of pickled insects who runs the gas station.

The Amityville Horror is based on the true story of serial killer Ronald DeFeo and was adapted from a novel by Jay Anson, who did for the town of Amityville what Truman Capote did for Holcomb, Kansas—except without the witticisms.

A couple move into a Long Island home where the murders took place and make the fatal mistake of not calling in an interior decorator and adding, say, a nice peaceful aquarium to the killing room. Their daughter develops a relationship with a sinister imaginary friend “Jodie”, whose eyes glow red, and who recounts tales of the house’s nasty history.

Honorable Mention: Frank in Donnie Darko:

A whacked out teen sleepwalker is tipped off that the world will end in 28 days by a giant rabbit, Frank, who convinces him to commit a serious of increasingly violent acts, the first of which is flooding his school by taking an axe to the water main and also embedding said axe in the bronze statue of a bulldog, the school’s mascot.

When it comes to imaginary giant rabbits (there’s a sentence you don’t get to write everyday) of course there’s the Jimmy Stewart vehicle, the 1950 comedy-drama, Harvey. Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, claims to have not seen it.

2. Imaginary friends in Session 9

The killer who’s escaped from an insane asylum has become a cliche in the slasher world, and his presence is usually announced via some radio dispatch.

However, it’s what’s inside the mental hospital that presents an interesting opportunity to depict an institutionalized horror, the very real frights associated with what in hindsight seem like barbaric practices when it came to treating people with mental illness.

This includes the infamous lobotomies and psychosurgeries popularized in the 1930s, referenced here in flashback, as Session 9 focuses on a five-member Massachusetts asbestos hazmat remediation team hired through a low-ball bid to clean up a shuttered asylum.

The film stands apart as one of the most ruthless and jarring representations of bedlam ever committed to film, shot in Massachusetts at Danvers State Hospital, also known as the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers.

Session 9’s verisimilitude is unmatched.

When the ghosts of Danvers are present, it adds a level of heartbreak and realism to the film. Metaphorical ghosts, that is. The residents of Danvers are very present, in tales the grounds’ security guard tells about de-institutionalized patients returning to the grounds as they had nowhere to go and stories of repressed memory syndromes and sexual abuse. The most affecting moments come from a long-time resident with multiple personality disorder, Mary Hobbes’s voice, heard via a psychiatrist’s old reel-to-reel, in which she tells the doctor about her three friends, which only exist in her mind.

1. Tony and Lloyd the Bartender in The Shining:

Creepy kids with imaginary friends is a horror film cliche up there with the hick sheriff who warns prophylactic-preoccupied Spring Breakers that there are strange doin’s out in the woods other than the doin’s Spring Breakers do to each other.

The top dog when it comes to kiddies with bad, bad made up friends, is The Shining.

“Tony” is Danny Torrance’s imaginary friend who, among other things that no doubt contributed to shunting him off to the child psychologist, makes him spell out words in lipstick.

Hated by Stephen King (who was instrumental in remaking The Shining as his own version—hated by everyone else) The Shining is visually stunning and a frightening isolationist exercise, with poor Scatman Crothers done in just like black folks always are in these types of films …

Another imaginary character from this film is Lloyd the Bartender, who is overall a pretty positive influence as you wouldn’t have to tip a hallucination, or for that matter, need to worry about getting cut off.

[Don’t forget to check out the Really Awful Movies Podcast, and pick up our book, Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons]

Top 10 Horror Movie Themes

BeyondHorror movie themes are essential for driving fear-based responses.

High empathy individuals (who comprise the bulk of horror film audiences, or so we’d like to think) are more likely to feel emotional responses to music. And there are cross-cultural similarities as to what arouses a fear response, whether it’s key or loudness.

According to Current Emotion Research in Music Psychology, a paper by a pair of University of Toronto researchers, by age 11 children can identify music-related emotions as adeptly as adults. And there are physiological responses as well, measured in facial muscle activity or skin conductivity, in response to classic horror motifs, such as harsh timbres or diminished 7th chords. Horror movie themes make frequent use of so-called non-linear sounds as well, to ratchet up the tension, including whispers, screams, examples of which you’ll find below in our list of the Top 10 Horror Movie Themes.

10. THE BURNING / PSYCHO (tie)

Perhaps the best summer camp horror movie of all time, cheesy Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman breaks out an electric piano for a Fulci-esque score to The Burning which goes full-Bach at 2:35 before returning to ethereal outer space at 3:30. Ironically, it’s the frequent spaces without music that makes The Burning so scary, where the campground forest (and its whispering leaves) become an integral character unto itself. Still, Wakeman brings the goods to one of the underrated horror slashers of all time.

Psycho’s theme, like the shower where Marion Crane met her maker, is practically inescapable. The most famous, parodied, imitated and talked about scene in movie history, the Psycho shower scene was intended to be rendered in silence. Good thing composer Bernard Herrmann ignored Hitch’s directive. The “eek-eek-eek” of the violins provides the perfect accompaniment to the frenetic stabbing.

9. CHILDREN OF THE CORN

It’s a genre we dubbed “Pennsylvania Dutchsploitation” in our book, DEATH BY UMBRELLA! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons. In Children of the Corn, a med school grad and his girlfriend, run afoul of a group of sociopathic Amish-looking kids in a seemingly abandoned Nebraska town.

When you have a creepy children movie, best to have a dissonant children’s choir accompaniment. That’s what writer Jonathan Elias gave us here. Elias is an admirer of Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, both of whom featured prominently in our list of scary classical music pieces for The Shining and Alfred Hitchcock Presents respectively.

[And please check out our Children of the Corn podcast]

8. PHENOMENA

A soaring operatic soprano melts over the listener, hitting a powerful high C at 1:22. This stone-cold Argento classic (the guy who also brought us the exemplary Opera) then offers up a simple piano motif and then what sounds like a harpsichord and rocking guitar.  This one’s courtesy of Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli and is as prog-rock as a horror soundtrack can get. Things get downright funky at the 2:50 mark, with driving drums.

7. PHANTASM

Drumroll please…A nifty drumroll segues into that unmistakable E minor dirge that everyone’s come to associate with the towering presence of The Tall Man. Phantasm gives us those infamous spare notes and a few evocative symbol crashes for the demonic ride. Malcolm Seagrave and co-composer Fred Myrow (Soylent Green) met at USC in 1957, and began a lengthy collaboration that includes this for the low budget iconic hit of 1979.

6. TENEBRE

One of the best “daylight” horror movies (along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is Argento’s Tenebre. Here, a distorted keyboard sounds like it’s saying “follow it up…” Dario Argento supposedly put in a call to the members of Goblin, who at that point had gone their separate ways, urging them to reunite for this movie. And the horror family is lucky they did.

5. THE BEYOND

A bunch of awww’s and then some sliding bass…then dissonant piano overlaid with a pretty flute, before crushing drums kick your behind. The Beyond soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to accommodations nobody wants, the Bates Motel of Italian cinema known as the Seven Doors Hotel.  That’s the Louisiana locale where artist Schweick was lynched, but not before opening A PORTAL TO HELL!

JAWS_THEME4. JAWS / THE EXORCIST (Tie)

Two themes so ubiquitous, we decided not to include them here but link to them instead.

John Williams’ Jaws theme (above) is relentless, pounding and repetitive. It’s the perfect musical accompaniment for the mechanical attacks of “Bruce” the shark, and for sharks generally, dead-eyed killing machines.

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells for The Exorcist is absolutely unmistakable. It’s weird to think this theme cracked the Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 chart. It’s definitely a far better one-hit horror wonder than Monster Mash.

3. HALLOWEEN

Penned by John Carpenter with a simple keyboard riff in a complex time signature, (much like the theme from Mission Impossible), you won’t be able to dance to this. 5/4 time signatures are a bit odd. The prog rock band Rush renders their concert hit “Y-Y-Z” in Morse Code, YYZ being the airport code for Pearson International in Toronto. And also, try dancing to Soundgarden’s My Wave, where the beat always seems to be ahead of itself.

2. THE THING

Best known for Fistful of Dollars and of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone makes hearts race here with a sinister bass riff, bleak and unsettling. The five-time Oscar nominee was called into action, when John Carpenter was too under the gun to get his first studio film done on time.

1. SUSPIRIA

Like a nursery from hell, Suspiria launches with some dissonant bell chimes before some Satanic whispers and reverb drums. At 2:20 we’re taken into deep space with galloping drums. Director Dario Argento said, “I need the audience to feel that the witches are still there, even if they’re not actually on the screen.” And “witch” is whispered throughout here, adding an extra layer of creepiness.

 

Christopher Lombardo and Jeff Kirschner are authors of DEATH BY UMBRELLA! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons.