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We won’t talk about the remake starring Russell Brand, I’ve never been more upset about a release in my whole life, I hate that this is happening.

Drop Dead Fred (1991) follows the life of Elizabeth Cronin (Phoebe Cates) who catches her husband in bed with another woman and has to move in with her mother, when she moves back into her childhood room she awakens her old imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall) and her life is turned upside down.

After catching her husband Charles, having sex with another woman, their marriage comes to an end, but not through Elizabeth’s doing. She is still spending her lunch hours going to see him and begging for him back. After being rejected by her husband, her purse and her car get stolen and she’s late back to work, so she gets fired. These are all pretty serious life changing events, and for them to all happen at once are likely to send someone a little overboard, but the manifestation of a destructive imaginary friend does point to Elizabeth Cronin going fucking insane.

The film makes no secret of Elizabeth having a bad childhood. There are constant hints to her mother (Marsha Mason) being a tough parent, and even in the opening scenes, Elizabeth’s childhood friend, Mickey (Ron Eldard), admits: “We were all a little afraid of your mother”.  Mickey reminds Elizabeth that she had an imaginary friend who ‘made her’ shave his cat and throw yellow paint over his grandmother, all of which she had completely forgotten about. The film deals with the issues surrounding Elizabeth’s parents and their divorce, which were all cushioned by Drop Dead Fred. He was there to serve a purpose and that was to help Elizabeth cope with these traumatic events of childhood through fun and mischief, and she eventually repressed these memories, which does allude to a deeper, darker pain that she associates with this time in her life. These playful gags can be seen as comedy, or  as cries for attention, for help, or, a desperate longing to be accepted by her parents – it can easily be viewed in two different ways.

Fred’s return into Elizabeth’s adult life starts by her ripping tape off a jack-in-the-box, which is later explained in a flash back. Elizabeth’s mother did this after one play time with Fred got out of hand, so she taped up the box in which Fred was hiding. In an almost horror movie scene, later that night, now the tape was all off, the box starts playing by itself like a demonic force waking Elizabeth up, then a glowing green ball springs forth and rolls under the bed, it’s pretty scary. One way to look at this scene is that Drop Dead Fred was trapped in the box by Elizabeth’s mother because she was being naughty all the time, so in desperation she pretended to ‘lock’ Fred away.

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Another way to look at it is that, the box is symbolic of her childhood, and the removal of the tape was a ritual unlocking of repressed memories, such as abuse and her parents’ divorce – which would have undoubtedly caused some trauma. This theory would also explain why Elizabeth was shown at the beginning of this scene crying in her sleep, and then it fades to a flashback of her crying as a child, then Fred’s hand comes out from under the pillow and slaps her in the head. That scene in itself is pretty rich in potential meanings, maybe Fred hit her because he wanted to toughen her up and help her develop a thick skin so she could cope with her parent’s separation, or maybe Fred is the abuser and was asserting his dominance, or maybe, he was just hitting her because he’s being a cheeky shit, and there are no hidden meanings? I dunno, welcome to film psychoanalysis.

So once her imaginary friend arrives he proceeds to fuck up her life and the already tense atmosphere with her mother. He destroys her toys and then more importantly wipes dog shit all over her mother’s freshly cleaned carpet – this doesn’t seem like a very fun imaginary friend. He seems hell bent on making her life difficult. So is he trying to get her to remember the fun of being a child with no responsibility or consequence? Or is he just a dick? I don’t think he’s even there, I find this film more entertaining now with this new light cast over it. After he’s gone to hide, or rather after she’s stopped having a psychotic episode with dog crap, Elizabeth asks herself: “What am I doing? What am I doing?” So now the question remains, what is she doing? Playing with her imaginary friend, or did she just go outside, gather up dog poo and smear it on the floor? People do things like that in homes, rub their own faecal matter on the walls, you know, mental homes.

In another flashback of her childhood, Elizabeth and Fred pretend to burgle their own house, resulting in her father getting arrested. The more I watch this film, the more I think Fred is a really unhealthy manifestation in her childhood, and perhaps, resulted in the parent’s divorce.  This also shows the first evidence of clear mental abuse and neglect from the mother, Elizabeth tries to make amends for her actions and she downheartedly says: “Maybe mommy’s right, I never do anything right.”  That phrase shouldn’t ever leave a child’s mouth, regardless of their behaviour and from this point; the film takes a dark turn. Fred consoles her by saying: “She’s always fighting with your dad; she’s always calling you horrible things.” – That’s also not right. Regardless of whether Fred is a ‘real’ imaginary friend (you get what I’m saying), Elizabeth felt this way as a child, which is textbook abuse.

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In another scene Fred cuts Elizabeth’s hair as a child, when she wakes up as an adult, her hair has been ‘cut’.  If we are going by an imaginary friend, that’s a bit of a shitty thing to do, but whatever. If we are going by Elizabeth doing these things, that’s self harm. Now, usually self harm is seen as cutting yourself etc, but self harm and or mutilation can also be destroying your image, and hair cutting is one of those. That’s a fairly serious sign of mental trauma, especially for a child, let alone a young adult. When I put in ‘hair cutting’ on Google,  it came up with The University of Dundee’s student counselling page, which sites hair cutting as self harm, along with many others, and listed some general reasons for people behaving in this way:

  • “Self-injury almost always begins in response to painful and difficult experiences in the individual’s life. Sometimes these stem from childhood trauma, though it can also be part of distress experienced in adulthood.”

Ok, so that makes sense, Elizabeth was struggling in her childhood. This has been made abundantly clear throughout the film. She is going through particular distress in her adult life – yep, this is starting to make the film’s dark comedy come alive.

  • “Self-injury can be about self-blame and turning anger inwardly. The person may take on all the responsibility for events that they can’t control.”

This completely relates to Elizabeth’s situation, she hasn’t ever had control over her own life. In childhood her parent’s marital problems were completely out of her control, it was an event that she could not change. Her mother makes it clear that she believes Elizabeth’s behaviour as a child resulted in her father leaving, and I feel that in the flashbacks, she constantly regrets her actions, which she also had no control over because of, Fred. Her marriage failing was because she was unable to control Charles, which her mother also blames her for.  At one point she describes Fred as being ‘out of control’ but if we are looking at this as Fred being a part of her psyche that she invented to express herself, she is talking about herself and her behaviour – that’s some deep shit.

And just to reaffirm this point:

  • “Self-injury can be a way that individuals take control over an aspect of their life. This may be the only thing that they feel they have the power to control.”
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Hey presto, we have a solid foundation to conclude that perhaps Drop Dead Fred isn’t as light hearted as we though. (The hair cutting clip literally lasts minutes, again, welcome to psychoanalysis of film).  The page also suggests the following behavioural characteristics are forms of self harm: Staying in abusive or unsatisfactory relationships, excessive risk taking or putting oneself at risk and criminal behaviour. On paper, Elizabeth Cronin is quite the troubled young woman.

Now, I will quickly mention that her best friend Janie (Carrie Fisher) is also affected by Elizabeth’s more criminal actions and dangerous behaviour, when she allows Elizabeth to stay on her houseboat. Needless to say, when Fred shows up, it turns into the fucking Titanic and mental illness is the iceberg.  Again I will say, why would an imaginary friend, designed to help her cope, purposefully leave her with no control over a situation and make her life worse? Because he isn’t real and Elizabeth has gone bat shit crazy, that’s why.

I want to write more, but I guess I should conclude. I think that this film is meant to be a comedy that can be enjoyed by children and adults, the issues of mental health and abuse can be seen as dark comedy, if you like. I do also think that this film has other meanings that can be read into, that does not suggest this film was made to be a real clever little shit and hide its main function under a smoke screen of Rik Mayall humour. It’s a comedy. I will say that it can be seen in two ways, I’ve chosen to suggest that if we rip this film down to the foundation, this is a sad story about a woman experiencing a mental breakdown following the loss of her husband, which has  then resulted in her childhood trauma coming back to bite her on the ass. Coming from a person currently dealing with trauma, I reckon this isn’t a complete stab in the dark, and no, I don’t have an imaginary friend that makes me fling plates of spaghetti, cut my hair and sink my mate’s house boat. Not yet anyway.

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“I should never have let my mother know how much she could hurt me, once she knew how, she knew that she could do it all the time. And she did.” – Elizabeth Cronin, Drop Dead Fred

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7 thoughts on “Drop Dead Fred: Imaginary Friend Or Mental Breakdown?

  1. Drop Dead Fred is a film I haven’t seen since the 90’s. Back then I found the film hard to get into and just weird. I only watched it because it had the beautiful Phoebe Cates in it from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gremlins.I believe this was one of the last films Phoebe Cates did before leaving the spotlight of Hollywood. I think i’m going to watch it again.

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  2. Great analysis! If I may elaborate: Fred represents the part of Lizzy that she had to always repress around her mother (the part of her that was a child, curious, fun, alive). Fred became more and more destructive because she used Fred as a way to act out the anger she felt inside for being afraid all of the time. When he reappears and smacks her on the head it’s not because he is cruel. It is because Lizzy has been living as a quiet doormat and she has finally had a mental breakdown from recent circumstances. She calls on Fred for help and that part of her brain reactivates to come to her rescue. She does in fact smear dog feces on her mother’s carpet because she is weak and can’t stand up to her (passive aggressive). When she cuts her hair it is an act of rebellion towards her controlling mother. If you remember her mother takes her to get a makeover earlier that day and has Lizzy’s hair cut just like hers. Lizzy is trying desperately to get away from her mom but doesn’t know how because she has been mentally beaten down into pulp by her all of her life. Fred isn’t a bad guy (metaphorically speaking), he’s trying to wake her up and get her to stand up for herself, but he is a angry child so he comes off as destructive. I love Drop Dead Fred, he is the part of me that is Me that She can never reach.

    • Hi Jess! This is so true – thank you for elaborating. This blog post was the infancy of what went on to be a dissertation studying the same trends in Labyrinth, The Neverending Story and Where The Wild Things Are! So glad that people are still reading it and appreciating it after what seems like a very long time. I can see the whole Fred as another side to Lizzie now, and I can also see that he is the tormented part of her that lashes out and retaliates like a child to her mothers insane demands and overbearing nature. It’s something I want to study for my Masters, but I am returning to this blog soon to write about childhood and mental health issues in film, with a lot less swearing and a lot more film theory! Hope you watch this space and so glad you took something away from my post :)

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  5. Hello. Was nice to find your analysis online… I just feel to share my thoughts about this film too. I´m 29 now and loved to watch this film about 100 times overall in like 20 yrs ago or so. Now I watched it again and cried how much it helped me to cope with my personal traumas in my own childhood… When I was an only child as well and my mom was VERY controlling, like Lizzys mom, specially about her appearance and her too clean home, which she was always cleaning. At the end my parents divorced and I felt just like Lizzy to “the only one” to be my mom´s friend and to be controlled by her. And almost in the end of the movie, where Lizzy went to her imagination and shouts to her mom: “I´m not afraid of you!” I remember that was soooo relieving to me and I watched that part so many times because it is just I wanted to say into my moms face!
    This film helped me A LOT! Especially to make distance with my narcissistic-mother who never lived actually her own life, but by controlling me she wanted to make herself visible. Now I realize how lonely I was with my feelings and I so needed someone like Drop Dead Fred to rescue me and feel safe. I also remember how pity I felt towards little 5-year old Lizzie, and the moment when adult Lizzie and little.Lizzie hugs after little-Lizzie was trapped in a bed – brakes my heart, it is just how I felt that I was trapped and couldn´t move at all.
    I am overall so thankful that this film was ever made! I don´t want to be controlling mother like Lizzys mom and in future I want to my future children aloud them to have their own imaginary friends !!!!!! :)

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