In Defense of Imaginary Friends (or: “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!“)


I’ve always found this ad campaign offensive, though it’s taken me years to figure out why. I guess the long and short of it is: yes, God absolutely fills the role of imaginary friend for me. And I absolutely still need an imaginary friend at my age, and have no idea why anyone would mock me for this. 

Invisible friends are damn near sacred in America, from the likes of Calvin & Hobbes to the moment Bing Bong sacrificed his life in Inside Out. There’s even fan fictions going around right now — very popular ones — that describe invisible friends coming back from childhood to comfort us at the time of our death. 

When I was young, there was a cartoon, Beetlejuice, a highly sanitized version of the Tim Burton film. The cartoon lasted four seasons. The appeal to young kids was obvious: Beetlejuice, wisecracking and fond of the middle-school-aged Lydia, would freely travel back and forth from the afterlife to visit her. He could appear in small ways until summoned (Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, BEETLEJUICE!). When he grew bored, he would appear as a sketch on her notebook paper and beg her to ditch school, or in a mirror and ask her to travel to the “Neitherworld” (I guess the censors didn’t allow “netherworld”?). Often, daily life would intervene, and Beetlejuice was left with hands in pockets, still talking but waiting impatiently as Lydia finished chores, went babysitting, went to school, etc. Eventually he took a part-time job as a handyman for her parents so he could visit her more. 

As a child, I always thought how amazing Lydia had it. In the middle of the night, in the middle of school, any time she needed companionship, she could summon Beetlejuice. He didn’t even appear to sleep! (And yes, I have to shut off my adult mind that now questions the motives of a grown man who wants to spend all his time with a 12-year-old girl.)

I don’t remember having an invisible friend as a child. Statistically, many kids never do. But I remember very well being older when Cartoon Network bought Beetlejuice in syndication, and celebrated with an uninterrupted run of the entire series. And I remember watching it (I always watched far too many cartoons) and realizing I was lonely in a way that no number of friends, boyfriends, or family members could ever fill. Becoming aware of this hurt like Hell, and I remember having this feeling like there was a gaping hole in my soul that desperately needed to be filled, and I had absolutely no idea how or with what to fill it. When I turned the TV off, I went walking in the forest… and walked, and walked…  3 hours at least… and at the end decided to connect with God. It was the only thing I could do.

It didn’t all come to me at once, but after that, the hole went away. And I cannot even describe how happy the next entire year of my life was, after that day. I had finally found my middle-of-the-night, anywhere or anytime, unceasing, eager companion. And we could talk! I never knew that before, I always thought that process was reserved for prophets and crazy people. 

“But,” as Michael Ende says in every chapter of The Neverending Story, “that is another story, and shall be told at another time.”

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