The Strange Appeal of Christmas Horror

Black Christmas 1974 - Photofest - H 2018
The genre isn't for everyone, but it can be a means to conquer and control some of the less delightful aspects of the holidays.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The lights have been satisfyingly stretched around homes and hedges, casting a Christmassy glow throughout the neighborhood. The stockings are pinned to the mantle, ready to be weighed down by all manner of trinkets. The carolers are warming up their vocal chords. And Santa, that grinning gift giver, has a grudge and an axe to bury.

Christmas horror is not for everyone. In fact, it’s arguably not for most people. While most of the population likes to welcome on the holiday spirit with classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), there those who appreciate the darker side of the season and like a splash of blood across their white Christmas. Alternate Christmas movies are all the rage these days. From Die Hard (1988), Batman Returns (1992), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), film aficionados will find the tales most loosely tethered to the season to make their new holiday favorite. But horror offers an even more obscure appeal, one with titles that tend to be harder to track down and nightmarish plots that beg for controversy. From Black Christmas (1974) to Krampus (2015) there’s just something appealing about the taboo nature of blending unsavory elements with what is, for many, the second best holiday after Halloween.

While Christmas horror is considered a phenomenon that began in the 20th century with the advent of film and television, it goes back even further. Ghost stories were considered an English Christmas tradition, a means to recognize winter as a season of death and decay along with the new life promised by Christmas and the birth of Christ. From Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale (1623), to Andy Williams’ classic song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963), ghost stories are referenced as being a welcomed seasonal tradition. Even our most famous and oft-adapted Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story. And if we’re being honest, it's quite the horror story as well. For many fans of Christmas horror movies, our first induction into that world was eagerly awaiting the appearance of the third spirit, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a specter of death who offers Scrooge a glimpse of hell. Even Dickens knew that Christmas mirth also needed a share of Christmas misery, a means of greater appreciating the former. Films that many of us were introduced to as kids, like A Christmas Story (1983) and Home Alone (1990), weren’t averse to utilizing a creepy mall Santa or a sinister-seeming man next door to drive home the point that horror is simply part of the holidays. It’s a truth we learn at an early age and once we’re a little older we learn just how prevalent that horror can be.

It was the '70s and '80s that really scaled up the horror element of the holidays and gave older viewers an outlet through which to explore a modern appreciation of Christmas ghost stories. Although ghosts had largely been replaced by serial killers, prank callers and yes, Gremlins. The U.K.-produced Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) was the first Christmas-themed horror movie. Utilizing elements of Hansel and Gretel, Auntie Roo featured a witchy Shelley Winters, and while taking place during a Christmas party, the film is more about our fear of elderly women than of the holiday season. Tales From the Crypt (1972) became the first film to feature its killer in a Santa outfit, something that would become a standard of the subgenre, in the segment “…And All Through the House.” While Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) became the first theatrical Christmas horror film made in the U.S., and the first to make a play on holiday lingo within its main title. But it wasn’t until Black Christmas (1974) that Christmas horror really took off and turned heads.

Often cited as one of the earliest slasher movies, preceding the boom that began with Halloween (1978), Bob Clark’s Canadian feature Black Christmas has become the quintessential Christmas horror movie. Most of the Christmas horror that would come afterward would either find itself chasing after Clark’s film or Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), which we’ll get to. Black Christmas is brutal and calculating and a far cry from Bob Clark’s later Christmas film, A Christmas Story. Inspired by the urban legend “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” Black Christmas follows a group of sorority sisters (Olivia Hussey, Lynn Griffin, and Margot Kidder) who receive obscene phone calls and are picked off one by one inside their sorority house. While it’s now become the formula for slasher movies, Black Christmas offered something audiences hadn’t seen before, including a shocking ending that still has the ability to haunt today. While Clark made use of the atmosphere of Christmas, the lights, the decorations, the snow, he didn’t pervert any of the childhood sacredness of the holiday. That would come later.

Christmas horror movies never disappeared after they had made their entrance, but overpopulation of slasher movies in the '80s caused a number of them to fade from view under limited releases, horrid reviews and minuscule box office grosses. Films like To All a Goodnight (1980), Christmas Evil (1980) and Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984) came and went for the most part, though some have acquired a cult hold over the years. But then came the one-two punch of Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Christmas horror was back in a big way.

Gremlins has become one of the quintessential '80s films, a pure snapshot of the Amblin quality that so many genre films strive for today. While the cute and furry mogwai turning into Gremlins and creating holiday mayhem offer plenty of humor, Gremlins has its moments of pure nightmare fuel. From the Gremlin in the microwave exploding in a glory of guts and goo, to Kate’s (Phoebe Cates) story of her dad dressing up as Santa, breaking his neck and dying inside the chimney, Gremlins made memories that lingered with those of us who discovered it at just the right age. Older viewers were able to see a larger allegory at play, one that went beyond Billy’s (Zach Galligan) lesson in responsibility. Filmmaker John Landis recently said on Eli Roth’s History of Horror that the Gremlins were us, an American society unchecked and driven by consumer habits and insatiable appetites. Alternatively, the film can also be seen as a story of how Americans take things from other cultures, but refuse to care for them. Despite the film’s massive success and its status as a beloved classic, Gremlins generated its share of controversy for its violence and led to the creation of the PG-13 rating by MPAA at Steven Spielberg’s suggestion. But that controversy was nothing compared to that received by Christmas sleaze fest Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t the most competent of films, but a clever marketing strategy and the backlash received over its Santa Claus dressed killer has made the film one of the most important in the Christmas horror canon. Its first tagline, “You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas,” made it seem like a true successor to John Carpenter’s film. While the later tagline, “Shocking…disturbing…The movie they tried to ban,” gave it a countercultural edge that was just baiting audiences to come and see. Unlike most slasher films that followed a group of young protagonists, Silent Night, Deadly Night featured its killer as the protagonist. We follow Billy, who witnessed his parents killed by a robber in a Santa suit, as he’s raised in a strict Catholic orphanage and placed at a job in a toy store when he comes of age. Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) seems perfectly charming, and strives to be a good boy. But haunted by the appearance of Santa everywhere he turns and the sinful behavior of those around him, Billy goes on a killing spree in a Santa suit, shouting “naughty” at his victims before choking them with Christmas lights, beheading them with an axe, and impaling them on the antlers of a deer trophy.

But the greatest knell was for the film itself. The PTA sought to have the film removed from theaters, while parents complained that the TV spots had made their children dread Santa Clause. The film’s distributor TriStar ultimately pulled ads shortly after its release and began removing the film from theaters sometime after that. Film critics Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel condemned the movie, with Siskel famously reading out the names of the production crew on air and repeatedly saying “shame on you,” a moment that has made its way into many a horror documentary. While Silent Night, Deadly Night led to four sequels, two of which were direct-to-video, Christmas horror didn’t gain the same popularity again. Even as well-received as Gremlins had been, most of the Christmas horror that followed went to video stores and have since become nigh impossible to find, even if you wanted to take a chance on them. Sellier Jr.’s film had largely been dismissed, and even with its cult-appeal today, it’s regarded a film so bad it’s good, but there is a deeper point of interest.

There’s a weird psychosexual subtext to Silent Night, Deadly Night, as virginial protagonist Billy fights against his impulses and is driven by a childlike view of naughty and nice. This prevision of Santa’s list into a brutal morality lesson also served as the basis of Christmas Evil and later P2 (2007). These killers, clean-cut, emasculated and lonely, look upon their work as good deeds, favors that place them on a moral high-ground. These films provide winking nods at the Christian crusade taken too far. They aren’t taking the Christ out of Christmas, but rather considering what if it was taken to the extreme by men whose Santa-Complex becomes a God-Complex. It’s an interesting confluence of ideas stemming from both our pop cultural and spiritual consideration of the holiday — one that seems thematically ripe for a modern update by one of our celebrated modern horror filmmakers.

Looking at the advent of Christmas horror, one that ran parallel to the increase in shopping centers and consumerism, perhaps it’s that feeling of Christmas glee (or is it greed?) that possesses so many of us that created such an avenue for horror. It’s no secret that Christmas isn’t the happiest time of the year for everyone. Beneath the tinsel and evergreen smell are the very real epidemics of homelessness, loneliness and increased robberies and suicides. Not to bum anyone out, but Christmas can drive us a little mad. Perhaps our Christmas horror movies past are a reflection of that, a means to conquer and control some of the less delightful aspects that seep into the holiday. But there’s also the fact that Christmas horror movies tend to be fun, a sublime batter of pleasure and pain. We watch Christmas horror movies to be scared occasionally, but more often than not we watch them because they’re pleasurable, at least more so than anything airing on the Hallmark channel.

So where have horror films of Christmas past taken us in Christmas present? Black Christmas received an update with Black X-Mas (2006), which despite negative reviews and backlash from a number of Christian organizations, is worth a re-watch even if it pales in comparison to the original. New French Extremity got into the holiday spirit with Inside (2007), while the British film The Children (2008) made a bleak impression on quality family time. Finland’s Rare Exports; A Christmas Tale (2010) offered a clever reinvention of the Santa Claus mythos.

But for the most part Christmas horror has continued to adorn the ornaments of the past, which have become more pleasing than subversive in decades since. The aforementioned hidden-gem P2 features Wes Bentley giving his best Billy as he stalks Rachel Nichols through a parking garage on Christmas Eve. Michael Dougherty made Christmas horror an event again with his delightful Dante-inspired Krampus. And last year’s Better Watch Out updated Home Alone’s lesson that kids can be dangerous, and perhaps budding sociopaths. It’s clear that as much controversy as it can cause, there’s more than enough love to keep Christmas horror alive. With the anthology All the Creatures Were Stirring and musical Anna and the Apocalypse hitting this month, the subgenre is still going strong and welcoming new filmmakers to add their voices to this modern reinvention of the Christmas ghost story. While you’re certain to meet some resistance in asking your family to gather around for a yuletide horror movie, give it a shot. It may be just the gift they didn’t know they needed.