VHS Revival’s Chris Chaka scrawls his Christmas list with blood and guts.
Ah, Christmas, a wondrous season of love, peace, and harmony. A celebration of joy and kindness. Why then, cinematically speaking, are we so fascinated by yuletide carnage?
With the exception of Halloween, no other holiday has racked up such a body count. And I’m not only talking about horror movies here. If we add in the death toll from all the action movies set during Christmas like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon (or any Shane Black film), All Hallows Eve would be left behind in the pumpkin patch.
Action movies only use Xmas as a background element, though. Horror makes it the main focus. So how do we make sense of our paradoxical passion for Christmas themed horror? After hours of the scantest research, I have developed a few completely unsubstantiated—yet thoroughly correct—theories.
Part of the reason boils down to simple brand recognition. John Carpenter’s Halloween began an obsession with holiday-focused horror. Every annotated date on the calendar was fair marketing game, from Valentine’s Day (My Bloody Valentine), to Thanksgiving (Blood Rage), to April Fool’s Day (um, April Fool’s Day). There’s probably an Arbor Day Massacre out there somewhere. The big boy for all holidays, of course, is Christmas. Even if you don’t celebrate the festive season, you know about it, and chances are you can’t avoid being inundated by it. Christmas is an obvious target for holiday themed horror simply by the numbers.
There’s more to it, though. For all its cheer and wonder, there is something ever so slightly off-kilter about the holiday. For one thing, it’s been celebrated for over 1,700 years, and super old things tend to be very creepy like your great uncle Carl. As with Halloween, there is a lot of the supernatural associated with it. Halloween, though, is straight forward. Behind all the candy and costumes, it’s all pagan. The entire point of Halloween is to be spooky (or if you are in college, to be a sexy cat and get drunk).
Christmas is more complex. It is a huge amalgam, Christianity sprinkled with ancient folklore and a big dollop of crass commercialism. Virgin births mixed with elves and flying reindeer makes for a confusing narrative, giving Christmas a certain “anything can happen” feel. What better time for Joe Dante to set the story of a cute little fur ball that unwittingly gives rise to a hoard of mischievous, murdering Gremlins? If a kind-hearted snowman can come to life thanks to a magic top hat, what’s to stop a cold-blooded killer snowman from rising out the genetic ooze in Michael Cooney’s Jack Frost? And are dancing sugarplums really so different from a deranged, giant gingerbread man with the voice of Gary Busey, from Charles Band’s Ginderdead Man? Yes, they are, but you get my point. It’s the most magical time of the year, and all bets are off.
Then there is the figure at the very heart of Christmas, Santa (sorry Baby Jesus). There are a metric ton of killer Santa movies around, starting back in ’72 with the red-suited escaped mental patient terrorizing Joan Collins in the All Through the House chapter of Tales from the Crypt. A parade of maniacs have donned the fur-lined suit since then, from the surprisingly sympathetic Christmas Evil, to the David Hess(!) directed To All a Good Night, all the way up to recent Santa slashers like All Through the House (an unforgivably unoriginal title, since there are still so many lines from ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas left to use). There have been the odd variants, like the killer who only targets Santa Clauses’ in Don’t Open til Christmas, or the gnarled badass St. Nick kicking zombie elf ass in A Christmas Horror Story, but most often it’s the jolly old fat man that should be feared, and with good reason.
The tale of Kris Kringle is kind of terrifying when you deconstruct it. Somewhere—in an undisclosed, isolated factory—an immortal, cookie-loving shut-in forces a bunch of child-sized servants to slave away all year making obsolete toys while he keeps every kid in the world under constant surveillance. He keeps records of your every action, judging you according to his own standards. One night a year, he breaks into your house while you are asleep and stuffs candy into your socks. If you are lucky enough to be on the nice list, that is. Does this sound like rational behavior? As if that wasn’t bad enough, throw in the trauma-inducing tradition of parents hoisting their precious tykes onto the laps of ill-fitted, strange smelling mall Santas. “Don’t talk to strangers, Billy, but hop on the knee of this random, disguised gentleman of questionable sobriety and tell him your heart’s desires. Remember, he knows where you live.” When you think about it, Santa Claus is one degree removed from clowns as childhood nightmare fuel.
Perhaps the main reason Christmas is so suited for scary movies is that it allows horror to do what it is best at, subverting the wholesome. It explores those pestering fears tickling the back of our brains. What if all those happy, safe encounters we take for granted aren’t really as happy and safe as we think? What if, unseen behind the smiles and sweet voices, sinister motives lurk. Christmas horror knocks over all those shiny, festive traditions to reveal the dark, scuttling things underneath.
A Nightmare Before Christmas is a perfect, family-friendly example. While the cheeky stop motion musical lacks the blood and body count of a straight up horror movie, its black heart is certainly in the right place, wrapped up under the tree. There are more than a few legitimately disturbing images—not to mention Lock, Shock, & Barrel’s increasingly grizzly song about what they plan to do to a kidnapped “Sandy Claws”—to provide developing young minds an appropriate taste for the strange and unusual.
For slightly edgier inversions, the recent Krampus does a fine job twisting the traditionally charming mascots of Christmas into vicious little beasts that only want to drag you to hell. Gingerbread cookies, teddy bears, and the Christmas tree angel all get a ghoulish makeover. The jack-in-the-box clown with the toothy, bisectional jaw was particularly inspired. I like that the tone gradually darkens, shifting from a quaint family comedy into kid’s horror into seriously grim fairy tale. Even the seemingly happy ending is given a sinister and satisfying tweak in the closing scene.
Not everyone was always so accepting of Christmas horror, of course. The 800-lb. gorilla of yuletide slashers, Silent Night, Deadly Night caused such an uproar when it was released in 1984 that mobs of outraged parents were practically marching with torches. Film critics/cinematic gatekeepers Siskel & Ebert argued furiously over who was more offended by the movie. Siskel even called out the director, producers, and writer by name, stopping just short of giving out their address and phone numbers. All the protest caused the movie to be yanked from theaters after only a short, but highly successful run. The moral vanguard couldn’t sway the sicko masses from wanting more, though, and the film went on to produce five sequels (or four and a half, since Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2’s first forty minutes is almost entirely a flashback of footage from Part 1, just in case you missed it the first time).
Ultimately, the inescapable decorations, adorable TV specials, and endless loops of holiday songs can make Christmas time feel aggressively cheery. A person can only be smacked in the face with all those good tidings for so long before needing a little mayhem to balance things out. Nothing to be ashamed of, that’s just how things go. Old traditions give way to new ones, be they solemn, scary, or cathartic – you choose what works best for you. Personally, when I watch Silent Night, Deadly Night, seeing the puzzled expression on that nice little girl’s face when the psycho Santa gifts her a bloody boxcutter instead of a dolly fills me with more joy than all the miracles on 34th Street.
So, until all the classic caroling tunes are replaced by the Christmas zombie-slaying anthems from Anna and the Apocalypse, I wish you the goriest of holidays.