Imaginary: a sufficiently creepy domestic ghost story

The latest horror movie spun out of the ‘imaginary friend’ concept uses an intriguingly monstrous teddy bear as a stand in for suppressed childhood memories.

Pyper Braun as Alice in Imaginary (2024)

‘Meet Chauncey,’ declares the Imaginary poster, which shows a Winnie the Pooh-like teddy bear, in ominous shadows. ‘He’s not imaginary. And he’s not your friend.’

Directed by Jeff Wadlow, whose recent horror credits include Truth or Dare (2018) and Fantasy Island (2020) but who’s been around the genre since Cry Wolf (2005), Imaginary is an expert essay in the domestic ghost story, a form which has recently yielded The Boogeyman (2023), Night Swim (2024), The Piper (2023), Cobweb (2023), Talk to Me (2022) and many others. 

The ingredients are all here: a bad dream prologue which drops hints (a yanked bloody tooth, a scavenger hunt list in crayon) and shows a little girl terrorised by a father turned monstrous or a monster mimicking her father. Then, in the present day, the now grown-up little girl – who writes and illustrates children’s books which tidy her childish terrors into cute stories of Simon Spider and Millie Millipede – returns to the haunted family home with her two contrasting stepdaughters in tow. Vague circumstances (‘a tour’) pack the traditionally useless Dad off out of the way as a crisis goes into overdrive. 

Scripted by Wadlow, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, the film isn’t the first and won’t be the last horror movie spun out of the ‘imaginary friend’ concept – ‘Captain Howdy’ from The Exorcist (1973) was an early instance – but it works out its mythology in some detail. 

The story we come in on in the prologue recurs as grown-up Jessica (DeWanda Wise) finds the imaginary friend – a long suppressed memory – now playing a sinister game with stepdaughter Alice (Pyper Braun), promising that the little girl will be taken away to the ‘Never Ever’ once a ritual has been completed. 

A petulant older sister (Taegen Burns) and a slightly too well-informed neighbour (Betty Buckley) join Jessica when Alice is spirited away and mount a rescue mission to a world which seems less Narnia/Neverland and more David Lynch/M.C. Escher. It plays fair with clues, but has to keep replaying snippets as Jessica realises that Chauncey is specifically targeting her because her particularly vivid imagination makes her a special prize in the Never Ever. She will eventually be put in a position where she has to outwit (or outdream) herself to earn a (temporary?) happy ending.

The low-key haunting returns (as so many domestic ghost stories do) to parental sacrifice in the cause of saving children who – as the script admits – rarely give anything back. The greatest gift the sly tempter can offer Jessica is the illusion of her stroppy teenage stepdaughter being grateful. Chauncey, in various forms which aren’t too overexposed, is an interesting monster, and possibly a promising franchise fiend.

 ► Imaginary is in UK cinemas now.