Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Double Feature: What's with all the imaginary friends?

There's a menacing whiff of unprocessed nostalgia in the Zeitgeist

Let's see: during a period of heavy stress and existential uncertainty, a girl who is still not done grieving her late mother meets a being from the realm of prerational imagery, one that is invisible to most people. Said being isn't happy about having once been a precious imaginary friend and then discarded. Fortunately, the girl is so lonely, what with her unstructured schedule and her less-than-consistent father figure, that she'll eagerly listen to its problems and stray far from her comfort zone to help it avoid a fate of eternal oblivion. In the process, she'll visit the land where imaginary friends live and learn the importance of balancing her burgeoning maturation with her whimsical creativity. She completes her arc by saying goodbye to her imaginary friend, but some part of it will always linger at the edge of other children's consciousness.

It's very interesting that 2024 has given us not only two separate movies with this same plot, but two radically different ways to do so: the monster horror film Imaginary, directed by Jeff Wadlow, and the family comedy film IF, directed by John Krasinski. In Imaginary, the creature's reaction to having been forgotten is a lifelong scheme of revenge; in IF, former imaginary friends resort instead to sad resignation and the occasional false hope. In both movies, the execution is messy and without impact. There is much a movie about good old memories could say about our volatile cultural moment, but the opportunity is wasted with lamentable laziness.

Interest in nostalgia comes and goes in waves. Just a few years ago, we had the Christopher Robin movie, which basically replayed the Hook formula. But this era is different. Remember the Netflix film Slumberland, which was nominally about another girl taking refuge in fantasy to cope with a parent's death, but ended up being about an adult's need to reconnect with his inner child. Imaginary and IF grapple with the same shared malaise: an overwhelmed generation's yearning to be tucked into bed, preferably with a light left on.

It's hard to blame them. Every day something shows up in the news that makes us recite, as a mutually validating mantra, "I don't like this timeline." This moment in history is laden with the widespread suspicion that at some point the writers of the show lost the plot and sent us down the wrong road. When did it all go to hell? Was it the pandemic? Was it Trumpism? Was it when Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Anton Yelchin and Prince all died in the same year? Was it 9/11? Was it Reagan? Was it Nixon? Every living generation can name a key event when history got derailed and nothing has been right since, and now we've reached a saturation state where you only need to *gesture at everything* to describe the multidimensional trainwreck we're living through. So it's understandable that the art produced in our time is intensely backward-looking. This is not only reflected in the obvious nostalgia of remakes and reboots, but even in original stories, like Imaginary and IF, where the core conflict hinges on resolving our relationship with the soothing fantasies we grew up with.

However, the focus on imaginary friends weakens the message somewhat. As an element of Western culture, imaginary friends are rather recent; not enough generations have gone by to solidify these creatures' place in our collective mythology. The creation of an imaginary friend is a process that emerges in response to a need in the child; it's bizarre to ask us to think about the needs of the imaginary friend. Such an approach resembles the enthusiasm in paranormal circles about tulpas, a notion that the West appropriated from Tibetan Buddhism in a very distorted form. Psychological research has found that Western people involved in tulpa creation do so mostly as a way of coping with loneliness and anxiety. Whether or not self-declared tulpamancers are really producing anything distinct from themselves, what can't be disputed is that the subjective experience of believing that they've created a tulpa gives them forms of emotional and relational wellbeing that the rest of us associate with sustaining a close friendship. We're so fundamentally social animals that we'll resort to the most drastic of survival tactics to resist social atomization.

Depending on what generation you're part of, your introduction to the idea that imaginary friends have inner lives and thus deserve moral consideration may have come from the TV show Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends or from the movie Inside Out. Both stories connect the regrettable tragedy of abandoning an imaginary friend with the universal necessity of growing up. This is in line with prevailing Western attitudes toward childhood as a sort of primordial golden age we're eventually expelled from. We can idealize childhood to such an extent that maturation may feel like a tradeoff, with the privileges of adulthood coming at the cost of losing something equally precious. Much like the collective sense that human history took a wrong turn, we may also personally reach the conclusion that growing up wasn't all that good an idea.

The final step of this cultural evolution is the switch from "adulting is a scam" to "therefore, we should not leave childhood." And that's how we end up with a generation (and a mode of storytelling) that can't let go of nostalgia, because the idea of the future is just too scary. Imaginary warns that our childhood resents the passage of time and may resurface without warning to claim possession of us; IF asks why we should have to pay any heed to time at all. Notably, the unstated longing for a dead mother haunts both stories. (In Imaginary, this symbolic element is reaffirmed through the selection of characters who team up to rescue the little girl: a babysitter, an older sister, and a stepmother—the archetypal mother substitutes).

Our disappointment with adulthood thus creates an expectation of disappointment: since today's adults can't shake the suspicion that they grew up wrong, we're anxious that today's children will grow up wrong, and we don't know how to deal with what seems inevitable. We hurry to awkwardly apologize in advance for the horrible world the next generation will meet, but we're also frantically making work of art after work of art that teaches them to look back and find solace in the way things used to be.

This is the clue that explains this peculiar breed of nostalgia: the certainty that the future will judge us. We tell these oversentimental stories about fantasy creatures who fear being left behind, but we're the ones who fear being left behind. We're the ones who dread that the next adults will move on from us before we could finish figuring out what adulthood was. And the unbearable thought of the irreversible has found a creative escape valve in another trend of today's speculative fiction: the secret time-traveling organization that has to reverse the end of the world a dozen times every day. But that's a topic for another essay.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.